INTERIM PRIME MINISTER:
I'll give justice for all
Surayud vows to heal a divided nation and promises to return power after a year
Retired General Surayud Chulanont takes part in a ceremony officially appointing him as the country’s 24th prime minister at Government House yesterday. Right: Photos of Surayud at various stages in his life.
A subdued ceremony and an uptight press conference. No dizzying promises and no smiling family photo session afterwards. With the international community frowning heavily upon him and local expectations becoming so strong they were almost palpable, retired Army commander Surayud Chulanont yesterday became Thailand's 24th prime minister, assuming the most delicate and daunting task a national chief executive has ever faced in modern history.
In a manner that seemed to reflect a mix of his military background and brief spiritual soul-searching in the monkhood, Surayud vowed to rehabilitate a badly wounded nation, divided by unprecedented political conflicts and rocked by growing insurgency in the deep South. He pledged to bring about national happiness through HM the King's advocated sufficiency economy and political reform that hopefully could see a return to full democracy after one year.
No boasting about mega projects or quick modernisation or "poverty will be no more". Yesterday's events were as "un-Thaksin" as they could be. Intentional or not, a clear message was sent that Surayud will be overseeing a transition from roller-coaster, eye-catching politics, marked by some industrial booms and marred by massive corruption, to something more practical and less divisive.
The simplicity ends here. From now on, the likes of the question posed at the press conference yesterday by a foreign correspondent - "What makes you think you deserve the job more than Thaksin?" - will always threaten to hound Surayud's leadership.
"I don't know," was his reply, in English. "It depends on the situation, and at this time I think that I receive the mandate from His Majesty the King, so I have to take the responsibility. Let me tell you, I didn't involve in anything at the moment. I just take charge of the administration just an hour ago."
Arguably it could have been better. Many viewed this as coming from a man who was caught off guard, yet the absence of protests when the press conference was then cut short suggested Surayud would be accorded some sort of honeymoon with the Thai public.
But hopes and expectations will soon turn into relentless pressure, not least because Surayud has replaced a maverick politician who has been immensely popular with the poor and has the international community on his side following the September 19 coup. At yesterday's press conference, it appeared Surayud refused to be drawn into a popularity contest and, for all his rigid posture, was admirably consistent with his proclaimed agenda.
Surayud, who had to quit the Privy Council to take the interim government's helm, stated that the two key issues facing him are the resolution of political conflict and the unrest in the southernmost provinces. "Both problems have their roots in injustice in the society," he said in a relatively polite swipe at Thaksin Shinawatra.
But if corruption, abuse of power and mishandling of situations in the deep South were Thaksin's weak spots, Surayud has a different image problem already. The coup-makers, who called themselves Council for Democratic Reform and will become the National Security Council for the interim government from now, are his international liability. But international image should be the least cause for concern, and Surayud must know full well that he should be focused on the "local spirit of democracy" that seems to have distinguished itself from the Western norm.
He will have to walk a tightrope - with what Thailand's poor want on one hand and the clamouring for non-corrupt and accountable leadership among the middle class on the other. The upcoming political reform process will need to take those two aspects into account, with the 63-year-old retired commander respected for professional achievement, modesty and integrity getting the unenviable job of guiding the nation to find the right balance.
"I will do my best within the timeframe fixed by the interim charter, which is about one year. After that, it will be the duty of my compatriots to go to the poll and select a suitable democratic administration as they have longed for," he said.
Surayud will need about a week to name his cabinet, which he said would focus its energy on the nation's happiness rather than its GDP. "I will take about one week to select the people to be cabinet ministers, and after that I will explain the government's policies. After that I will explain the government policies to create more confidence for investors. What I'm looking for in my ministers are people who are politically neutral, knowledgeable, competent, and willing to work," he said.
"I will not focus on GDP, but I will adhere to the sufficiency economy advocated by the King."
As much will depend on the military council as on Surayud, although his appointment gave some sort of guarantee that the interim government will have considerable clout to flex against the former if need be. It appears that the two will have separate responsibilities, with the military council overlooking national security and Surayud fully in charge of other administrative affairs.
"I urged him twice to accept the post," said Army Commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin. "We have gone through a list of many candidates. Some are good and some are bad and some even volunteered to serve. We chose him simply because it's hard to find good men like him."
For Surayud to succeed, it requires more than his decent qualities and it's here that the military council has a big and complex role to play, against a backdrop of international scepticism and concern among local democracy advocates. Surayud will be judged when his government hands the country back to the Thai electorate. Only then can he and the military council proclaim to have redefined "democracy", or else the international community can cast Thailand a pitying look and say "we told you so".