New acting Thai caretaker PM open to dialogue, optimistic about peace

Thailand's acting caretaker prime minister Niwattrumrong Boonsongpaisan speaking to reporters in Monday's press conference. -- PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE 
Thailand's acting caretaker prime minister Niwattrumrong Boonsongpaisan speaking to reporters in Monday's press conference. -- PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE 

Thailand's acting caretaker  prime minister Niwattrumrong Boonsongpaisan said on Monday that he was open to dialogue with protesters trying to oust his team, but stressed that it had to include all "stakeholders".

"It's not you and me. It's Thailand, it's the country," he said in his first group interview with the foreign media since he was appointed.

Mr Niwattumrong was picked to head the country's Cabinet last week after caretaker premier Yingluck Shinawatra was expelled by the Constitutional Court for abuse of power. Nine other caretaker ministers were deposed alongside her, leaving 25 members in the Puea Thai party-led Cabinet.

The remaining ministers are expected to come under more pressure as opponents press on with their six-month long efforts to engineer a political vacuum and appoint an interim administration of their choice.

The kingdom has been limping on without a Lower House since snap elections were called on Dec 9 and the Feb 2 poll was sabotaged and later annulled by the Constitutional Court. A tentative plan to hold another election on July 20 looks increasingly unlikely as anti-government protesters have vowed to sabotage the poll again.

Still, Mr Niwattrumrong was upbeat about the chances that the country would be able to hold an election on July 20, having learnt important lessons from what happened on Feb 2.

He stressed that the government was trying to reduce tension on the streets by, among other things, letting the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee use a section of the now vacated Government House. The caretaker Cabinet is working from a government building on the outskirts of Bangkok.

"The government wants to manage this situation peacefully. We do not want violence to happen," he said.

Contrary to warnings that serious confrontation may ensue if a resolution was not achieved soon, he said: "I don't think we will have a civil war".

Pro- and anti-government supporters have been careful to maintain their distance, he pointed out.

The conflict is the latest flare-up of an eight-year-old tussle for power between groups aligned with or against former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He is accused of exercising undue control over Thailand from overseas through his political allies and parties - including his sister Yingluck - who have been consistently returned to power in elections held over the past decade.

Anti-government groups, backed by royalist elite and urban middle class, say Thaksin is responsible for the spiralling corruption in the country and demand that the caretaker government make way for an appointed administration to enact reforms before any election is held.

Mr Niwattumrong,  a former top executive in many Thaksin-linked businesses, was made commerce minister in June 2013 and oversaw the implementation of the government's controversial rice subsidy scheme, which critics allege was financially ruinous and plagued by corruption.

Meantime on Monday, anti-government protesters moved from Lumpini Park to a site in front of the United Nations regional headquarters to prepare for what they see as imminent victory.

"For those joining our final offensive be prepared to stay until we prevail," Mr Suthep told his supporters on Sunday night.

Where the Yellow Shirts are gathered