Yingluck picks sensibly, but her true challenge lies ahead

Yingluck picks sensibly, but her true challenge lies ahead

A YEAR ago, gunfire echoed across Bangkok and my own street was barricaded at one end by Thai troops and at the other by protesting Red Shirts.

Yet today tranquility reigns and people express unbounded optimism for the future.

Who can blame them? There is now a legitimate government in place that was elected by a majority of citizens across the country.

The buoyant glow is reflected in the business community and the stock market, which, despite economic doom and gloom across most of the outside world, has risen onward and upward here.

Renewed political and social stability has resulted in consumer confidence hitting a 64-month high and such is the strengthening of the Thai baht that it has started to worry exporters.

Last week, the Thai Chamber of Commerce University noted that its indexes tracking business sentiment and job opportunities both shot up over the past month.

As well, its monthly assessment of future income growth rose to 102.8 points – the first time it has ever breached the 100-point mark.

Much of this bullishness is due to favourable impressions of the new government under Thailand’s first female leader, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, who was sworn in earlier this month.

Last Tuesday, she announced a list of cabinet ministers that was astonishingly balanced, meritocratic and devoid of controversial choices.

With 29 of the 35 appointees coming from her own Pheu Thai Party, Yingluck’s team should be more cohesive and less fractious than the outgoing Democrat Party-led government.

It is expected to work quickly to honour its campaign pledges and to heal diseased relations with neighbouring Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar.

Intriguingly, despite scaremongering by elements in the pro-Democrat media, Yingluck’s cabinet does not include a single Red Shirt leader.

That is in sharp contrast to the last government, which named Yellow Shirt leader Kasit Piromya as foreign minister in return for the way his protest movement enabled the Democrats to take power.

Thankfully, Yingluck has not sunk to that level, as shown by her picks for the heavyweight ministeries.

Her choice of Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala as finance minister, for instance, could hardly have been bettered.

Thirachai, 59, a former central bank governor, was most recently the secretary-general of Thailand’s financial watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Likewise, her commerce minister Kittirat Na Ranong, 53, is an astute pick and one of only two non-party members in the new cabinet.

Formerly, as the youngest president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, he had a track record of rewarding meritocracy.

Much of the spurt in investor confidence is due to the appointment of Thirachai and Kittirat.

The new defence minister, General Yuthasak Sasiprapha, 74, is a canny selection who has close ties with Yingluck’s brother, former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, and with anti-Thaksin factions in the military.

Another veteran is Yongyuth Wichaidit, 69, the incoming interior minister who has served in several previous governments and is a former top bureaucrat in the interior ministry.

Replacing the lugubrious Kasit as foreign minister is Surapong Towijakchaikul, 58, who is a former chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee.

With his engineering background and solid support in Pheu Thai’s northern heartland, Surapong may well be able to resolve the long-festering dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Already, Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has said he wants to meet Yingluck to discuss helping Thailand resurrect its proactive regional role.

Of course, it’s not going to be a bed of roses for Yingluck and her team.

The key challenge will be how to finesse Thaksin’s desire to return without him having to serve a two-year prison term for corruption and abuse of power.

If she can do that, and demonstrate independence from him without upsetting his supporters, then her government may really be able to move Thailand towards true national reconciliation.

That would be some achievement.

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