Sunday, December 21, 2008

New Thai leader surveys damage at PM's office

BANGKOK, Thailand: 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."

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.

"I intend to have the renovation finished as soon as possible because this is the country's face," Abhisit told reporters outside after orange-robed Buddhist monks blessed the building with holy water.

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 Dec. 3, a day after Somchai was ordered out of office.

Abhisit's appointment has brought calm to Thai politics, but critics say his upper-class origins — from a wealthy family, born in England and educated at Eton and Oxford — could hinder his attempts to end the turmoil.

Standing on the steps of Government House, Abhisit showed he's a quick study. He awkwardly gripped his broom as he smiled for cameras but corrected himself when an aide whispered, "Push your hands closer together."

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