New Thai minister pledges to follow familiar policy path
From BARRY PORTER in Bangkok
NEWLY-APPOINTED Thai Finance Minister Thanong Bidaya has pledged to stick closely to the economic and financial reform policies of his predecessor Amnuay Viravan, but has refused to be drawn on his policy towards the baht.
'I don't want to comment on such a delicate matter,' he said, after being sworn in by the King as the country's fifth finance minister in a year.
The uncertainty could encourage continued pressure on the baht when financial markets re-open today.
When Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh accepted Mr Amnuay's sudden resignation last week he made it one of his first priorities to come out and say that he intended to maintain the New Aspiration-led government's strong baht policy and rebuff market pressure to devalue the national currency.
Mr Thanong has kept silent.
While the Thai stock market cautiously welcomed Mr Thanong's appointment on Friday, the baht remained under pressure.
The 49-year-old former president of the Thai Military Bank is a newcomer to politics with no known party affiliations.
He says he intends to come up with a non-partisan national economic agenda to quickly resolve the country's financial crisis.
Mr Thanong hopes to seek the co-operation of all parties including the opposition to work on a national agenda.
'I must be able to answer the questions of everybody to win support for [the agenda],' he said.
Mr Ammuay, who was widely respected by industry, quit on Wednesday largely because he did not think he was getting the necessary support from the six-member government coalition, let alone from the opposition.
Unlike Mr Amnuay, Mr Thanong would appear to have no personal ambitions for high office and may be seen as less of a threat.
Mr Thanong said he may introduce some economic measures, but promised to press on with his predecessor's method of revitalising the sagging financial sector through mergers.
He said he wanted to see an executive decree seeking to encourage failing finance companies to merge passed to the 49-member cabinet for approval as soon as possible.
He pledged to uphold the principle of maintaining the Bank of Thailand's independence on monetary action, adding that he planned to consult the central bank on the question of interest rates immediately.
Mr Thanong said he had decided to accept the post because he wanted to help his country and realised that solving the problems would not be an easy task. He said his first mission would be to restore investor confidence and would announce policy details in a few days.
His other priority will be to defend the 1998 budget bill drawn up by his predecessor, which should draw a lot of fire when proposed controversial expenditure cuts are debated in parliament on Wednesday.
Mr Thanong, a humble and articulate man, said: 'I am ready to co-operate with every party. I think I can explain to all that at this moment we need unity more than anything else.' He expressed a particular desire for the Chat Pattana party, a coalition partner, to co-operate with him, explaining that economics was a unified issue unlike politics which is factionalised.
Commerce Minister Narongchai Akrasenee might not be so lucky.
Having quit last week alongside his mentor, Mr Amnuay, last week, then persuaded by the Prime Minister to stay on, he has been branded a 'criminal suspect' by Chat Pattana.
'The Prime Minister should not have picked a criminal suspect as a cabinet member again. That's going to be the government's weak point which will become the opposition's ammunition,' a Chat Pattana spokesman said.