By Ambika Ahuja
The Associated Press
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Thailand’s new prime minister faces the difficult task of unifying a country torn apart by months of violent anti-government protests — demonstrations that battered the key tourism industry just as the global economy was slipping into its worst crisis in decades.
The selection on Monday, Dec. 15, of Abhisit Vejjajiva — the 44-year-old, Oxford-educated opposition leader — marks the first time in eight years that a civilian government will be led by an opponent of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has loomed over Thai politics since he was ousted by a military coup in 2006.
Abhisit began Tuesday to put together his Cabinet, which will struggle to heal the rift 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.
“It will be more difficult for the Democrats to achieve fast results in tackling the economic problems now than in 1997,” when most of Asia sunk economic recession, said Ekamol Khiriwat, former head of Thailand’s stock exchange. “Now everything is kind of slowing down.”
Abhisit must still be officially endorsed as prime minister by the constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej — likely within several days.
His appointment is expected to bring at least a brief period of calm, although the move unleashed new protests by supporters of the previous government. Abhisit’s image as an upper-class elitist also could hinder his attempts to end the turmoil.
From a wealthy family of Thai-Chinese origin, Abhisit was born in England and educated at Eton and Oxford, where he earned an honors degree in philosophy, politics and economics. His first name means “privilege” in Thai, and his friends call him by his foreign nickname, Mark.
He joined the country’s oldest party, the Democrats, in 1992 and became one of the youngest ever members of parliament. He rose in the party ranks and in popularity, especially among the educated in Bangkok who took to his clean record, polite demeanor, articulate if somewhat bland speeches and movie-star looks.
Military leaders ousted Thaksin in September 2006, accusing him of corruption, keeping him in exile and controlling the country for an interim period until elections in December 2007 brought Thaksin’s allies back into power. He returned to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges but later fled into exile again, and was convicted in absentia.
However, Thaksin, whose whereabouts are unknown, still enjoys significant support among Thailand’s rural masses Monday’s vote ended six months of instability caused by anti-government demonstrations that began with a takeover of Thailand’s government house and culminated with last month’s airports takeover. ♦