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Thai PM Replaces Key Cabinet Ministers - 2004-03-10

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has replaced his defense, interior and finance ministers in a major cabinet re-shuffle. The shake-up appears related in part to unrest in southern Thailand, but also appears to have been made with an eye to national elections due in one year.

In the cabinet re-shuffle, former army chief Chettha Thanajaro has been named defense minister, replacing General Thamarak Isarangura na Ayuthaya.

And former Deputy Prime Minister Bhokin Bhalakula has replaced Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, the cabinet's only Muslim, as Interior Minister. The two outgoing security ministers were moved to deputy prime minister posts.

The Thai military and police have been struggling to contain low-level violence in three predominantly Muslim southern provinces, where there are fears of a revival of an old separatist movement. Fifty people have been murdered since gunmen raided an army base in early January, stealing 400 weapons and killing four soldiers.

Martial law has been declared and investigations continue. But few arrests have been made and local residents are unhappy about what they call heavy-handed investigations.

On the financial side, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak has recovered the portfolio of finance minister, which he held during the first two years of the Thaksin government. Mr. Somkid is credited with launching an economic recovery last year by stimulating domestic spending through low interest rates.

The Thai government is also facing union protests as it tries to privatize the electrical power company and other state-owned enterprises.

In addition, Thailand is due to hold elections early next year. Mr. Thaksin's popularity remains high, but in recent months has slipped.

A professor at Chulalongkorn University, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, says he would not be surprised to see the prime minister re-shuffle his cabinet again as the election approaches. "He [Thaksin] needs to ensure his reelection and every now and then if he needs to placate conflicts within his party, he can re-shuffle," he says. "If his administration is seen as ineffective or stale, then he will re-shuffle again. He wants to maintain a sense of dynamism."

In all, 12 ministers were affected and the shake-up brought in two new faces, both of them members of Mr. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party.