BANGKOK // Thailand's new prime minister picked up a broom and posed for cameras today on the steps of Government House, vowing to quickly clean the mess from a three-month sit-in and show the country is "back to normal." About 100 painters, cleaners and maintenance workers accompanied Abhisit Vejjajiva on his first trip to the prime minister's office compound. It was left in shambles by protesters who barricaded the building on Aug 26 then took over Bangkok's two airports in an eight-day siege ending Dec 3 to demand the departure of allies of the deposed ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Parliament voted Mr Abhisit in on Monday as the country's third prime minister in four months. He and his Democrat Party are the first opponents of Mr Thaksin to lead a civilian government in the past seven years. The 44-year-old Oxford graduate faces an enormous challenge trying to unite the country - largely split between the middle class that is his base and the rural poor who backed Mr Thaksin - and manage an economy buffeted by Thailand's political turmoil and a global slowdown.
But first, he needs to get into his office. "I intend to have the renovation finished as soon as possible because this is the country's face," Mr Abhisit told reporters outside after orange-robed Buddhist monks blessed the building with holy water. The once lush lawns and manicured gardens at Government House were ripped up by the protesters who set up a tent community with free food, outdoor showers and a sound stage for entertainment and political speeches.
The crowd size swelled to tens of thousands and caused damages of about 125 million baht (US$3.6 million), according to an initial appraisal by the previous administration. Mr Abhisit said he plans to move into his new office once his Cabinet is sworn-in, as early as next week. "It will be a symbol that Thailand has come back to normal and it will bring confidence back," Mr Abhisit said. "When we have visitors, this will show that Thailand has recovered from its crisis."
Protesters stormed Government House on Aug 26 and vowed to stay until Mr Thaksin's allies were gone. Mr Thaksin was deposed by a 2006 military coup and is in exile to avoid a corruption conviction but retains a strong influence over Thai politics. In September, then-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was removed from office after a court ruled that he had violated a conflict of interest law by accepting money to appear on a TV cooking show.
His successor was Mr Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, who was also ordered out by the courts. A court ruled Dec 2 that the then-ruling People's Power Party and two members of the ruling coalition were guilty of committing electoral fraud in the December 2007 elections. Protesters vacated the Government House and airports a day after the ruling. Mr Abhisit's appointment has at least temporarily brought calm to Thai politics. But many say his image as an upper-class elitist - from a wealthy family, born in England and educated at Eton and Oxford - could hinder his attempts to end the turmoil.
Standing on the steps of Government House, Mr Abhisit showed he is a quick study. He awkwardly gripped his broom as he smiled for cameras but corrected himself when an aide whispered "push your hands closer together". *AP