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Thailand's respected Central Bank chief agreed to join the interim prime minister's Cabinet on Monday, as the international community called for a swift return to democratic rule some two weeks after a military coup.
US Ambassador Ralph Boyce was the first foreign diplomat to meet interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont since he was appointed by the military council and took office on Sunday.
"We had a very good discussion," Boyce said. "I think it's very well known that the United States urges a speedy return to a democratically elected government and protection of civil liberties during the interim, and the prime minister assured me this would be the case."
The appointment of Bank of Thailand Governor Pridiyathorn Devakula to the Cabinet was likely aimed at showing the business community the post-coup regime can handle the economy. He told reporters he expects a key position in the finance-economic sector, but didn't elaborate.
The coup leaders have assured investors the interim government will support local and foreign investment and give the private sector a leading economic role.
Pridiyathorn, 59, who helped steer Thailand's economy out of the devastating 1997 Asian financial crisis, took over the helm of the Bank of Thailand in 2001. He has been praised for policies that promoted financial stability.
"I am very confident of Pridiyathorn's grasp of the Thai economy and his unique ability to steer the new government's economic policies successfully," said William Heinecke, chairman of the Minor Group which has several food and hotel businesses in Thailand.
The military ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was abroad last month and chose Surayud to serve as prime minister until elections are held in October 2007. Surayud, a former army commander, has a reputation for incorruptibility and quiet diplomacy.
Surayud said during his swearing-in ceremony Sunday that he wanted to heal a country divided by his predecessor and settle a Muslim insurgency in Thailand's south. He said Monday he would travel to the restive region after the formation of a 35-member Cabinet, expected in about a week.
Western nations and human rights groups have criticized the coup as a setback for democracy, and the appointment of Surayud has done little to appease international concern.
An interim constitution to replace the 1997 document scrapped by the military makes clear that coup leaders do not plan to fade into the background, although the tanks and troops used to support the bloodless takeover have been withdrawn from the streets of the Thai capital.
The new document empowers the coup leaders to remove the prime minister and Cabinet members and to select a committee to draft a permanent constitution. It maintains martial law and other restrictions the military imposed after seizing power, including curbs on press freedoms and limits on public gatherings.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said she welcomed Surayud's appointment, but called for civil liberties to be restored. "We ... urge those who have seized control of the Thai government to proceed expeditiously to restore a constitution and hold free and fair elections," she said.
Japan's Foreign Ministry said it was watching the developments with "grave concern" and that a democratic administration should be established "promptly."
China, however, said it was "happy to see the stabilization of the situation in Thailand," according to a Foreign Ministry statement that congratulated Surayud and stressed Beijing's desire to deepen bilateral ties.
Meanwhile, Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party appeared to be collapsing, as dozens of prominent members have submitted their resignations since the coup.
Former Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand's candidate to become the next UN secretary-general, is among those who have abandoned the party, according to by Samarn Lertwongrat, Thai Rak Thai's registrar.
Thaksin is currently in London and has not announced any plans to return to Thailand.