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December 20, 2008

Thailand Politics:
New PM moves to restore confidence

Thailand's new prime minister picked up a broom and posed for cameras Friday on the steps of Government House, vowing to clean up the mess from a three-month sit-in and show the country is "back to normal", reported the Associated Press.

About 100 painters and maintenance workers accompanied Abhisit Vejjajiva on his first trip to the prime minister's office compound, which was left in shambles after a three-month siege by protesters demanding the departure of allies of deposed ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Parliament voted Abhisit in on Monday as the country's third prime minister in four months. He and his Democrat Party are the first opponents of Thaksin to lead a civilian government in the past seven years.

Abhisit, 44, faces an enormous challenge trying to unite the country - largely split between the middle class that is his base and the rural poor who backed Thaksin - and manage an economy buffeted by Thailand's political turmoil and a global slowdown. But first, he needs to get into his office.

The once lush lawns and manicured gardens at Government House were ripped up by the protesters who set up a tent community with free food and outdoor showers. The crowd swelled to tens of thousands of people and caused damage estimated at $3.6 million.

Abhisit's predecessor, Somchai Wongsawat, never got the chance to enter Government House. During most of Somchai's 10-week tenure he worked out of the VIP lounge of Bangkok's old airport, until protesters evicted him from that space, too.

Abhisit said he plans to move into his new office once his Cabinet is sworn in, as early as next week.

"It will be a symbol that Thailand has come back to normal and it will bring confidence back," Abhisit said.

Protesters stormed Government House on Aug. 26 - and later Bangkok's two main airports - vowing to stay until Thaksin's allies were gone. Thaksin was deposed by a 2006 military coup and is currently in exile but retains a strong influence over Thai politics.

For a year after the coup, Thailand was ruled by a military-appointed government. The two subsequent leaders were perceived as puppets of Thaksin, notably Somchai who is his brother-in-law. Both were ousted by court rulings. Protesters vacated the Government House and airports December 3, a day after Somchai was ordered out of office.

On Thursday, Abhisit called Thursday for fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return home to face justice and bring closure to months of political turmoil that has revolved around him.

Abhisit made the comments a day after being sworn in as Thailand's third prime minister in four months.

Abhisit, a 44-year-old graduate of Oxford, is the first opponent of Thaksin to lead a civilian government in the past seven years. Thaksin, who took power in 2001, was ousted by a coup in 2006 but has nevertheless loomed over Thai politics since then.

A Thai court in October convicted Thaksin in absentia of violating a conflict of interest law while in office and sentenced him to two years in prison. There are several pending corruption cases against Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon.

"I want to see him back," Abhisit told Channel 7 news. "If he comes back and fights in court and shows that all Thai people are equal, there will be a closure."

"Thai society is merciful and forgiving, but first he has to show acceptance in the judicial process," said Abhisit, who was scrambling to assemble a Cabinet capable of tackling the country's economic and social problems.

Thaksin has lived in self-imposed exile ever since his ouster, surfacing in Britain, Hong Kong, China, Dubai and most recently Bali.

Six months of political tumult have centered on Thaksin, with protesters taking to the streets to demand the government be purged of his allies. The unrest came to a head with an eight-day siege of Bangkok's airports that ended earlier this month.

Critics had accused Thaksin of operating behind the scenes to assure his allies stayed in power long enough to clear him of corruption charges and help get his remaining riches out of the country.

The airport siege ended only after a court dissolved the former ruling party, which was packed with Thaksin's allies. The People's Power Party and two members of the ruling coalition were found guilty of committing electoral fraud in the December 2007 elections.

In his inaugural address Wednesday evening, Abhisit vowed to reunite the deeply divided nation and to restore Thailand's tourist-friendly image. The airport shutdown battered the country's essential tourism industry and stranded more than 300,000 travelers.

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