I don't think we will have a civil war,' says acting Thai PM

Cautious but steady, Mr Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan struck a confident note for an acting prime minister of a caretaker Cabinet that had just lost 10 members.

The government, he said, was open to dialogue with protesters trying to oust his team, but the talks had to include all of the country's "stakeholders".

"It's not you and me. It's Thailand, the whole country. There are a lot of stakeholders," he said in his first interview with the foreign media since he was appointed last Wednesday. "Are you going to leave them out?"

Whatever ideas emerge from the talks are welcome as long as they do not violate the Constitution, he added.

"We should talk," he said, "but let's talk realistically."

Mr Niwatthamrong, 66, was picked to replace Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, who was expelled by the Constitutional Court for abuse of power. Nine other ministers also had to step down, 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 efforts to push for an interim administration of their choice. But Mr Niwatthamrong does not foresee any big legal challenges.

Thailand has been limping on without a Lower House since snap elections were called on Dec 9. The Feb 2 election was sabotaged and subsequently annulled.

A tentative plan to hold another election on July 20 looks increasingly unlikely as anti-government protesters have vowed to sabotage the vote again.

Still, Mr Niwatthamrong remains optimistic about the chances of a successful election in July, as he said the country would have learnt important lessons from what happened on Feb 2.

He is similarly upbeat about the chances that Thailand's political crisis would end peacefully, given how supporters from opposing parties had taken care to keep a distance from each other.

Tension on the streets had been reduced 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.

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

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 all been returned to power in elections held over the past decade.

Anti-government groups backed by the royalist elite and urban middle class blame him for the spiralling corruption in the country and demand an end to the "Thaksin regime".

They want the caretaker government to make way for an appointed administration to enact reforms before any election is held.

Mr Niwatthamrong, a former top executive in many Thaksin- linked businesses like Shin Corp and ITV, was made commerce minister in June last year. He oversaw the implementation of the government's controversial rice subsidy scheme, which critics allege was financially ruinous and plagued by corruption.

Asked how his close links to Thaksin would affect reconciliation efforts, he said: "I come to this office to work for the country… If you do things professionally, you don't worry about who you know."

This article was published on May 13 in The Straits Times.

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