Thai King Bhumibol Swears In Post-Coup Cabinet

Thailand's king swore in post-coup Cabinet ministers on Monday, urging them to work honestly as the country tries to move beyond its recent political crisis.

The top jobs of the interim government — announced early Monday in a television broadcast while most Thais slept — were given to economists, high-profile civil servants and two retired military officers, all of whom are expected to govern until elections in October 2007.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who was appointed by the military after the Sept. 19 coup that ousted former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, led his Cabinet at the ceremony. Donning white official uniforms, they stood in rows before King Bhumibol Adulyadej as he delivered a speech Monday evening at Chitlada Palace in Bangkok.

Bhumibol urged the ministers to "act honestly as you have sworn to do," and to work hard with good intentions "because the country has just passed a moment of crisis."

The Cabinet includes 28 portfolios, with two ministers holding two posts.

CountryWatch: Thailand

Surayud, a former army commander, selected Thailand's central bank chief, Pridiyathorn Devakula, to serve as finance minister and deputy prime minister for economic matters.

Pridiyathorn, a highly regarded economist with an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, helped steer Thailand's economy out of the devastating Asian financial crisis. His selection was an apparent effort to ease investors rattled by the coup and won praise from politicians and political analysts.

"He is the right man for the current situation," said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose party was in opposition during Thaksin's five years in power. "In the economic area, (Pridiyathorn) has experience and expertise."

Western nations and human rights groups have called the coup a setback to democracy, and have urged the current government to quickly lift restrictions imposed by the military, including curbs on press freedoms and limits on public gatherings and political assembly.

Surayud's choice for foreign minister, Nitya Pibulsongkram, will be particularly familiar to the United States, among the most vocal critics of the coup.

Nitya served as ambassador to the United States and the United Nations and was Thailand's chief negotiator for a Thai-U.S. free trade agreement that stalled during the country's political turmoil.

Retired army General Bunrod Somtad, a longtime friend of Surayud, was named defense minister. The two went to military school together and Bunrod rose to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both served in the special warfare unit of the army.

In Thailand, few observers seemed bothered by the presence of ex-military officers in the interim Cabinet, saying what mattered in the post-Thaksin era was that ministers be trustworthy, honest and corruption-free.

Thaksin was widely accused of corruption and abuse of power, and the military council that ousted his government is investigating the allegations.

Abhisit of the Democrat Party called Bunrod "a trusted man."

Aree Wong-araya, a Muslim, will head the Interior Ministry. Aree briefly served as deputy education minister under Thaksin's administration and was assigned to improve and regulate Islamic schools in southern Thailand, which had been accused of being breeding grounds for insurgents. After that, he continued his work in the south for a foundation led by Gen. Prem Tinsulanond — the king's top adviser.

"The prime minister has chosen a person who understands and is appropriate" for helping solve the problems in the south, said Waedueramae Mamingchi, chairman of the Islamic council of the border province of Pattani.

Surayud has pledged to tackle a violent Muslim insurgency that has claimed more than 1,700 lives since January 2004.

According to the roadmap set out by the coup makers, Surayud's government will rule for about a year, until a new constitution is written and elections can be held.

The military council that led the coup installed Surayud as prime minister on Oct. 1, and he pledged to have his government in place in about a week. He appeared intent on keeping his promise to quiet mounting criticism of the coup from the international community.

The military ousted Thaksin while he was on an official trip to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Last week, in a letter sent from London, he resigned as leader of the ruling Thai Rak Thai party, which he founded, funded and led to three election victories.