International criticism and skepticism over Thailand's post-coup prime minister

The international community voiced concern over Thailand's new military-appointed prime minister, urging a swift restoration of democracy and civil rights in the Southeast Asian nation that had been widely regarded as a democratic role model for the region.
Asian governments denounced the coup leaders' apparent intention of maintaining a role in Thai politics until elections promised for October 2007, while newspaper opinion pages suggested the new prime minister _ former army commander Surayud Chulanont _ was a puppet for the military.
The military council that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup Sept. 19 appointed Surayud on Sunday to serve as his temporary replacement. The appointment came hours after the announcement of an interim constitution that gives coup leaders significant powers over the new administration and maintains bans on public assembly, press freedoms, and sidelines political parties.
New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark said her government took "a very dim view" of the military crackdown and remained "very concerned."
"We ... urge those who have seized control of the Thai government to proceed expeditiously to restore a constitution and hold free and fair elections," she said, welcoming the prime minister's appointment, but urging a restoration of civil liberties. "Quite basic civil and political rights and freedom of expression have been curtailed."
The interim constitution makes clear that coup leaders, who have renamed themselves the Council for National Security, do not plan to fade into the background. It empowers them to remove the prime minister and Cabinet members and gives them the authority to select the drafting committee that will write a permanent constitution. It maintains martial law and restrictions the military imposed after seizing power, including curbs on free press and bans on public gatherings of more than five people.
Japan was watching the developments with "grave concern" and urged the establishment of a democratic administration "promptly," said a Foreign Ministry official in Japan, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce was the first foreign diplomat to meet Surayud on Monday, his first day in office.
"I think it's very well known that the United States urges a speedy return to a democratically elected government and protection of civil liberties during the interim," Boyce told reporters. "The prime minister assured me this would be the case."
Thailand had been widely considered a beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia, where neighbors include military-ruled Myanmar, Communist-led Vietnam and Laos, and Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has been assailed for ignoring human rights and free speech, and for jailing critics.
Cambodia's government spokesman, Khieu Kanharith, said his government does "not welcome this affair" and "we wish for Thailand to return to democracy as soon as possible and without bloodshed."
"The government (of Cambodia) is closely monitoring the development of the situation in Thailand and would like to hope that the process of choosing (a permanent) prime minister will be exercised under democratic principles," he said.
Philippine Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, the most senior Cabinet member, said the government has no comment on the new prime minister. "That's Thailand's affair ... they have their own process to choose their new leader," he said, but added "We wish Thailand would go back to normal."
Opinion pages around the region criticized the choice of prime minister and the coup leaders' curtailment of civil rights.
"The new prime minister they have chosen and the new constitution they have drawn up point squarely to a military dictatorship," said Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. "This does not restore international confidence in the nation or the rights of Thais. Instead, it guarantees suspicion until full democracy is restored."