Thailand swears in new prime minister

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Retired army commander Gen. Surayud Chulanont was sworn in Sunday as Thailand's interim prime minister, saying he wanted to settle a bloody Muslim insurgency and heal a country divided by the policies of his predecessor.

The ruling military council running Thailand since a Sept. 19 coup appointed Surayud after ousting Thaksin Shinawatra.

"It was injustice that caused problems in politics and the south," Surayud said referring to divisions over Thaksin's rule and to a Muslim insurgency in south Thailand. "I urge everybody to help solve the two problems and unity is needed to deal with them."

While Surayud endorsed elections scheduled for next year, a temporary constitution announced Sunday still reserved considerable powers for Thailand's coup leaders which is expected to unnerve rights activists.

Under the new interim constitution, approved by the king, the military council gave itself the power to remove Surayud and his Cabinet, approve the selection of a National Assembly speaker, and have final say on a 100-member committee that will write the next constitution.

The interim document, which replaces the 1997 charter abolished when military officers seized power from Thaksin last month, also gives "complete immunity" to the coup leaders for overthrowing the government.

Surayud, who became the country's 24th prime minister, tried to set himself apart from the brash, pro-business Thaksin by saying he would strive to balance the needs for a growing economy with the happiness of the people.

"I will focus on self-sufficiency, more than focusing on the GDP numbers," Surayud said. "I will focus on the happiness of the people, more than the GDP."

Thaksin was in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly at the time of the bloodless coup, and is currently living in London.

Surayud's swearing in followed his endorsement by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and was widely expected. The Cabinet was expected to be announced later this week.

The 63-year-old career soldier who fought homegrown communist rebels and was sent into Cambodia on secret missions, was seen as someone who could help stabilize Thailand's political situation. He has a reputation for incorruptibility, quiet diplomacy and modest demeanor and will lead the country until fresh elections are held in October next year.

Surayud's appointment was generally well received by academics and politicians.

"Surayud is a highly respected figure. He's known for his integrity," said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose party was in opposition during Thaksin's five years in power.

Pimuk Simaroj, a spokesman for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, said party members would "give our moral support so that he can lead our country back to normalcy."

"We believe he is someone with knowledge and ability," Pimuk said. "In our role as (a party) that has worked closely with the people, we ask him to look after the country. We expect that he will be able to do it."

However, some critics have raised concerns about Surayud being too close to the palace since he has served on the king's Privy Council, a hand-picked body of advisers to the constitutional monarch.

Others said the choice of a former general to lead the country reaffirmed that the government was "illegitimate."

"The military junta has appointed one of its own -- a military prime minister to head a military dictatorship. The government is illegitimate," said Ji Ungpakorn, a Marxist professor at Chulalongkorn University, who has led protests against the military coup.

"It is a ghastly shadow of the military junta itself," he said. "It has no democratic mandate, and it can't be trusted to carry out political reforms."

During his military career, Surayud earned praise for his deft handling of the sensitive border with Cambodia during the 1980s and upon his appointment as army commander implemented reforms in the military, increasing professionalism and keeping officers out of politics.

In 2002, Surayud was kicked upstairs to the largely ceremonial position of supreme commander, and a year later retired from the military. He was appointed to the Privy Council shortly afterward.

At that time, he urgently warned Thaksin that his hard-line approach to a bloody Muslim insurgency in the country's south was a recipe for failure. More than 1,700 people have been killed since violence flared in January 2004.

Four top members of Thaksin's government have been released from detention. Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit, Environment Minister Yongyut Tiyapairat, Prime Minister's Office Minister Newin Chidchob and Thaksin's top aide, Prommin Lertsuridej were held since shortly after the coup

Thaksin has been accused of corruption, abuse of power, attempting to destroy press freedom and mishandling a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand. The corruption under Thaksin's administration was given as one reason for the coup.