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Thai Interim Prime Minister Faces Challenge in Restoring Democracy


The new Thai prime minister, retired Army General Surayud Chulanont, is highly respected within his country. But Mr. Surayud faces enormous challenges in getting Thailand's democracy back on track following last month's military coup.

Thailand's newly appointed prime minister, 63-year-old General Surayud Chulanont, took the oath of office Sunday.

The retired army commander replaces Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless military coup on September 19, following months of unrest sparked by allegations of corruption.

Analysts say Mr. Surayud has long believed the military should stay out of politics, but coup leader General Sondhi Boonyaratglin convinced him to take the top job as a service to the country.

Thitinand Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, believes that, by taking up the post of interim prime minister, Mr. Surayud is laying his credibility on the line.

"It's a big risk on his part to take this job. If it doesn't end well it could tarnish his solid prominent reputation," he noted. "It's also a big gamble on the military council. General Surayud is the military's best choice. They come from the same mold; they speak the same language. So the next year ahead - 12 - 18 months - will be a tall order for General Surayud."

A graduate of the Royal Thai Military Academy, Mr. Surayud later studied at the Army Command and General Staff College in the United States and completed the Defense Resources Management Course there.

His father, a lieutenant colonel, left the army and joined the defunct Communist Party of Thailand. Mr. Surayud has said his father had taught him "how to be a good officer. He taught me how to be a good citizen of this country."

During the Vietnam War, Mr. Surayud served on the front line in Laos and later helped defeat a communist insurgency in northeast Thailand.

Mr. Surayud became an aide to army commander General Prem Tinsulanonda during the 1970s and 1980s. These were turbulent years because of communist and Islamist insurgencies and military interventions in politics.

When General Prem retired in 1988, Mr. Surayud returned to active duty. His responsibilities included commanding special warfare units.

In 1998, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai selected Mr. Surayud as army commander in a move aimed at reducing corruption and promoting professionalism within the armed services.

After Mr. Thaksin won office in 2001, he and Mr. Surayud reportedly clashed over issues such as political interference in the armed forces. Mr. Surayud was moved to the mostly honorary post of commander-in-chief in 2002. He retired the following year and joined the Privy Council, an advisory body to Thailand's king.

Thitinand says Mr. Surayud now has new battles to fight, including promoting reconciliation with Thaksin supporters as well as reaching out to democracy advocates.

Above all, Thitinand says, Mr. Surayud will have to balance these issues while keeping the support of the military.

"General Surayud has to keep the military in line, because the military want to maintain control," he explained. " They want to maintain influence over the performance of the government. But if General Surayud give too much leeway to the military he will look like a puppet."

Mr. Surayud has said he will focus on solving Thailand's political problems and dealing with the insurgency in the largely Muslim southern provinces.

Mr. Surayud said Thais should try to jointly solve their problems and in doing so "it will be like we have passed the moment of crisis."

Some governments and rights organizations have voiced concern over Thailand's new prime minister, urging a quick return to democracy and the full restoration of civil rights, such as media freedom and the right to form political parties.

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