Prime minister steps down

By Rungrawee C. Pinyorat The Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand – In a stunning about-face, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced yesterday he would step down, bowing to a mounting opposition campaign seeking his ouster over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

Thaksin made the announcement in a televised speech shortly after meeting with Thailand’s greatly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej at his seaside palace in Hua Hin.

“I am sorry that I will not accept the premier post,” said Thaksin, who stood stiffly behind a lectern as cameras flashed, his voice coming close to breaking several times.

The 56-year-old telecommunications magnate, who swept to power in a landslide in 2001, said he would remain in a caretaker role until a successor is chosen, adding that his replacement would be selected once Parliament resumes within the next 30 days.

“We have no time to quarrel. I want to see Thai people unite and forget what has happened,” Thaksin said. When he finished, he backed away and, with a small smile, clasped his hands together in prayer-like gesture, a traditional Thai sign of respect.

His abrupt announcement came just two days after his party won parliamentary elections and a day after he said he intended to remain in power.

King Bhumibol has intervened to resolve several political crises in his six decades on the throne, but it was unclear exactly what role he played this time. However, Thaksin mentioned in his televised speech that scores of world leaders would be coming to Thailand in two months for the 60th anniversary of the monarch’s accession.

Some analysts have noted that the movement to oust Thaksin gained steam after a speech by the king in December that took sharp jabs at the prime minister’s conduct.

Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University described the development as “a call for unity. This is a royal involvement without intervention.”

“Everyone wants to come to the June diamond jubilee celebration with grace and dignity. We don’t want to have protests in the streets,” Pongsudhirak said.

The political opposition gained even more support in January when Thaksin’s family said it had sold its controlling stake in the telecommunications company Shin Corp. to Singapore’s state-owned Temasek Holdings for a tax-free $1.9 billion.

Critics allege the sale involved insider trading and complained that a key national asset was now in a foreign government’s hands. Thaksin is also accused of stifling the media and mishandling a Muslim insurgency.

Thaksin’s announcement came as election results showed that while he enjoyed strong rural support, his popularity plummeted overall, and as opposition forces were gearing to resume protests. Opponents commended Thaksin for stepping aside but said he needed to do more to close divisions within the country.

“I think it shows good intentions on the part of the prime minister to resolve the conflict right,” said Sanan Kachornprasat, whose party was one of three that boycotted the election. “Apart from making his announcement, he has to show that he is willing to work with everyone right away.”

Protest leaders said anti-government groups would meet before abandoning their demonstrations. They want to determine what role Thaksin will play in the new parliament and whether his party would lead reforms efforts, leaders said.