01/30/2008, 00.00
THAILAND
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Upbeat, Sundaravej announces his new cabinet

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej expects to present his new cabinet to the king. Meanwhile he is getting best wishes and congratulations from everybody. After 16 months of military rule problems have become more urgent. Burmese refugees in Thailand are hopeful but also apprehensive.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Samak Sundaravej, leader of the People Power Party, is upbeat. Prime minister of Thailand since Monday he announced today that “we should have the new cabinet by tomorrow.” In the meantime he is finalising the allocation of seats between his and the five other smaller parties that make up his coalition government.

Thailand's parliament elected Mr Sundaravej to the top government post by a margin of 310 votes to 163, choosing him over Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. But the new prime minister has been active in Thai politics since the sixties as a lawmaker, several times as a minister as well as governor of Bangkok.

Those who know him describe the veteran politician as belligerent, aggressive and uncompromising. Bur for many he is trustworthy.

He is also said to be a close ally of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown in a military coup in September 2006 and who might come back from his self-imposed exile.

Many ministers in the new cabinet come from the ranks of Thaksin’s dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party, people like his brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat, who is the frontrunner in the race to get the post of deputy prime minister and minister of culture.

In an apparent atmosphere of détente, the former caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Sonthi Boonyaratglin said that he had a “fraternal phone call” with Thaksin, insisting that the military will respect the new government.

Army commander-in-chief, Gen Anupong Paochinda also offered his full backing to the new prime minister.

By contrast the average Thai is more concerned about the impact of 16 months of military rule on the country’s deteriorating economic situation and on its social problems.

Phrakru Palad Sopit Chotikul, a senior monk in the Wat Arun Rajavararam (Temple of Dawn), extended his best wishes to the Mr Samak, giving him a Buddha statue.

The estimated one million refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, where 45 years of military rule have crippled a once-promising economy, might for their part hope that the new government might tackle their problems as well.

In the heart of Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum, Than Maung, an illegal migrant worker from Myanmar, said that he “heard the new government will be stricter on us.” As a carpenter he earns just 2,500 baht (US$ 75) a month, a third of Bangkok’s legal minimum wage. Like other migrants he would like to have access to basic rights such as education, medical care and freedom of movement.

In several provinces with high migrant populations like Phuket, Phang Nga and Samut Sakhon, migrants are subject to curfews and barred from owning mobile phones.

But for Ko Htwe, general secretary of International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF), the “Thai government should recognise the Burmese migrant workforce” and “no longer ignore their rights.”

The presence of Thaksin’s allies in the government has been received favourably in Thailand’s Burmese community. Many of them remember that the exiled former prime minister did pay attention to their problems insofar as they did not affect economic ties with Myanmar.

Still European Union Special Envoy to Myanmar Piero Fassino reiterated the need for “close co-operation” with Asian governments to pressure the Burmese military junta to respect human rights.

This is important for Thailand because it remains a key ally of Myanmar.

The two countries have important trade links and many experts believe that the new government will stay the course and pursue the same policies towards Myanmar.

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