BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's interim prime minister said Tuesday his government will lift martial law "as soon as we can," adding that repairing the country's image was a priority after last month's coup drew widespread international condemnation.
"We will lift martial law as soon as we can and when the situation is suitable," said Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who was appointed by the military after the Sept. 19 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra.
"I stress it will not be long."
Surayud made the comments to reporters during a break from his first Cabinet meeting, a day after the team was sworn in by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The country's revered monarch urged the Cabinet Monday to work with honesty as the country tries to move beyond a political crisis that led to the overthrow of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and to help restore Thailand's international reputation.
During the Cabinet meeting, ministers agreed to consult the Council for National Security, as the coup leaders call themselves, about lifting martial law, Surayud said.
"We value the freedom of people and civil liberties," he said.
Western nations and human rights groups denounced the coup as 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. Martial law was imposed immediately after the coup.
The king acknowledged the criticism for the first time as he swore in the Cabinet Monday.
"Many people are saying bad things about Thai people," the king said. "Foreigners say that Thailand is not good. So we have to correct that. If we don't correct it, the reputation of our country will be bad."
The king also noted that many Thais were suffering from flooding that started with the rainy season in August and intensified recently in the aftermath of Typhoon Xangsane. At least 39 people have died from flood-related causes since August and 138,000 others have been sickened by waterborne diseases.
Surayud said the Cabinet will focus on both matters.
"The ministers will take the king's advice on correcting the image of the country in the eyes of foreigners," Surayud said, without elaborating.
He has a busy schedule of foreign visits planned for the coming months to attend regional summit meetings in China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Surayud also said he was dispatching his new interior minister, Aree Wong-araya, to one of the hardest-hit areas by the flooding.
"The most urgent task is to help people suffering from flooding," he said, noting the provinces of Ang Thong and Singburi in central Thailand, where streets remained submerged under water.
Surayud's government is expected to stay in place for about a year until a new constitution is written and elections can be held.
The military ousted Thaksin while he was on an official trip to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Thaksin was widely accused of corruption and abuse of power, and the military council that ousted him is investigating the allegations. He has not returned to Thailand since the coup, opting instead to stay at an apartment he owns in London.