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Thai minister resigns amid cabinet disarray

Pridiyathorn had finance portfolio

BANGKOK: Pridiyathorn Devakula, the second-ranking member of Thailand's military-appointed government, abruptly resigned Wednesday, laying bare bitter disputes between cabinet ministers and further shaking confidence in the country's ability to make a smooth return to democracy.

Pridiyathorn, who was appointed deputy prime minister and finance minister after the Sept. 19 coup, told reporters that he would leave office on Thursday.

"After the resignation takes effect, I will stay home," Pridiyathorn said after reading a brief statement.

To some in Thailand, Pridiyathorn was the cornerstone of respectability and experience in a government handpicked by generals. To others, he was responsible for flip-flops and was the mastermind of measures that restricted foreign ownership and inward flows of foreign capital.

Either way, Pridiyathorn's surprise departure is a setback for the interim government at a crucial period for Thailand, with a new constitution being drafted and fresh elections planned for later this year.

The government is "in the middle of the ocean," said Bhichit Rattakul, a former governor of Bangkok. "The government should act immediately, not only on the appointment of the new finance minister. They need to indicate clearly what the direction of the economy will be."

Thai news media speculated that Virabongsa Ramangkura, a former finance minister, would step in. Virabongsa reportedly resigned from his position as the chairman of a prominent Thai bank on Wednesday.

Although Thailand has been accustomed to sudden changes of government and rancorous politics, rarely has a government been so indecisive and, some analysts say, clumsy.

Proposed laws and measures on subjects as diverse as alcohol advertising and capital controls have been proposed only to be retracted or scaled back days later. Two weeks ago the government announced the appointment of Somkid Jatusripitak, a former minister in the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in the coup. Somkid resigned less than a week later.

"From the 19th of September onward the good news is that we lost a dictator," said Ammar Siamwalla, an economist at the Thailand Development Research Institute, referring to Thaksin. "The bad news is that we've had confused policy- making."

Others voiced greater optimism about Thailand's prospects for the coming months.

"I'd be buying the market right now," said Keith Neruda, head of research for UBS Securities in Bangkok. "We're not at the no-hope-left point. That was six weeks ago."

The stock market, which has been battered by the political crisis, is cheap compared with other markets, Neruda said, and the prospect of Thailand's return to democracy — and political normalcy — increased the attractiveness of investing in the country.

In brief but cryptic comments to reporters on Wednesday, Pridiyathorn offered a picture of a government beset by squabbling.

"Some ministers in this government have done certain things that benefit certain members of the press at the risk of breaking the law," Pridiyathorn said. "There have also been many incidents that make it appear as if the government is operating under the influence of these media organizations."

The comments were widely interpreted by analysts to refer to Sondhi Limthongkul, the publisher of a business newspaper who was instrumental in bringing the downfall of Thaksin. Both Pridiyathorn and Sondhi have made little effort to hide their distaste for each other. Recently, Sondhi has used his newspaper and a television show to criticize Pridiyathorn's economic management.

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