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Thursday, October 12, 2006

New Thai PM launches diplomatic charm offensive

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's army-appointed prime minister launched a charm offensive on Thursday to persuade foreign diplomats that all was well after last month's coup but was urged to hasten a return to democratic rule.

urayud Chulanont invited about 100 envoys to Government House to reassure them that it was business as usual in post-coup Thailand, and that the big infrastructure projects initiated by deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra would go ahead.

"I've assured the diplomatic corps that what has been committed to under the Thaksin government will be carried on according to its priority and with absolute transparency," Surayud told reporters in a break between meetings.

But his comments failed to satisfy the European Union's representative who called on the interim government to end martial law and draw up a faster timetable for elections.

"Lift martial law without delay," Finnish Ambassador Lars Backstrom, representing the EU, told reporters of what he had said to the Thai prime minister.

Backstrom, who also called for a lifting of the ban on activities of political parties, urged Surayud to hold a general election sooner than the one-year target the military has set.

Revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej swore in Surayud and his new cabinet on Monday, and told them to make repairing Thailand's international image a priority after the September 19 coup.

Investors had been rattled by Surayud's early pledge to focus on "people's happiness" rather than economic numbers, but his officials have tried to assure investors that projects launched by Thaksin to stimulate the economy would go ahead.

"We won't revoke mega-projects," government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp quoted Surayud as telling the envoys.

He said projects already started, such as Bangkok's three new rail routes worth $4.3 billion, would continue and those on the drawing board would be implemented in due course.


Two questions kept cropping up at the meeting, said Yongyuth: how long would Thailand be under martial law, and what would the new government do to calm the separatist insurgency in the Muslim south, which has killed more than 1,700 since 2004.

Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtas said on Wednesday Thailand would remain under martial law for about another month.

Surayud promised a new "hearts and minds" approach to win over the mainly Malay-speaking population in the rebellious south, through reconciliation and education projects.

"I believe everything in your country is getting back to normal," Iranian ambassador Mohsen Pakaein told reporters after being assured by Surayud that cooperation with Islamic countries would continue unchanged.

But the Japanese ambassador, Hideaki Kobayashi, said Thailand could improve its international standing by lifting martial law.

"If martial law is lifted, it would be good for the image of the country," said Kobayashi, whose government did not join China and southeast Asian nations in sending a congratulatory note to the new government.

Chinese ambassador Zhang Jiuhuan said Beijing was happy to support a government that had the support of Thai citizens.

U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce, who met Surayud separately, avoided talking to reporters.

($1=37.41 baht)

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