The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Bangkok this week gave the region a new voice on an international stage - Thail Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He has stepped into a void seemingly vacant since the downfall of former Indonesian president Suharto five years ago. Mr Suharto's stature and forceful style of leadership put him naturally at the helm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which makes up the core of Apec. His presence gave impetus to issues Asean tackled and provided a face for the rest of the world to recognise. Since his fall in a popular revolt, the region has struggled to find a replacement. Through economic decline and stagnation following the 1997 financial crisis, Southeast Asia has lost global prominence to its northern neighbours, China, Japan and South Korea. During that time, Asean has also been struggling with two levels of development, prompted by the joining in the late 1990s of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The dynamic economies of Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have fought out of the slump, leaving fellow Asean members behind. The ever-present threat of terrorism since the Bali bombings a year ago has further dampened international enthusiasm for the region. By contrast, the steady growth of China has meant stable investment potential for foreign investors. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has attempted to fill the breach left by Mr Suharto, but developed nations have not given him the same measure of respect because of his frequent outbursts against western values and attitudes. His resignation at the end of the month to make way for his deputy, Abdullah Badawi, makes the need for a regional voice more pressing. Mr Thaksin is the best person for that role. He capably hosted the Apec meetings and his succinct concluding remarks in presenting the communique on Tuesday were stamped with authority. The billionaire telecommunications tycoon is not popular with human rights groups for his tough stand on drug trafficking and political and ethnic refugees from Myanmar. Opponents accuse him of using his media empire to silence critics and push his own political and social agenda. But Mr Thaksin also has massive support among Thais and was clearly among friends when rubbing shoulders with Apec leaders. Efforts to broker a free-trade agreement with China and bring democracy to Myanmar show he is interested in regionalism as much as Thailand's national concerns. Southeast Asia needs a strong representative to further its interests. In the past week, Mr Thaksin has capably shown he can project the region internationally in a forceful, yet diplomatic, manner.