POSTED: 5:15 a.m. HST, Dec 24, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 5:21 a.m. HST, Dec 24, 2010
BANGKOK— Thailand's prime minister pledged Friday to give the country a New Year's gift of peace and long-term stability — a monumental task after a year marked by blood and violence on the streets of the capital.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has faced protests since taking office in 2008, and many Thais believe he rose to power illegitimately. The dispute between the government and its opponents came to a head this year, culminating in two months of sporadic clashes earlier this year that left more than 90 people dead.
On Friday, Abhisit touted a raft of policies his government has implemented to appease his opponents — largely rural Thais who benefited from former leader Thaksin Shinawatra's social welfare policies and want to see his allies back in power. Abhisit noted a program to extend free education to 12 million students and a loan refinancing program that he said is helping lift 1 million people out of debt.
But a much-touted national reconciliation plan has not healed the political problems, with protesters holding peaceful rallies almost weekly to demand Abhisit call fresh elections, which he must do by the end of 2011. A protest earlier this month drew a crowd of over 10,000 in Bangkok.
Still, Abhisit promised to heal the rift.
"People can have different opinions but they can still live together," Abhisit said, noting that it remains "unclear" when new elections will be held. "The government intends to make all sides understand each other better."
"For the New Year, the present that I and the government will give to the people is to create sustainable stability and to return peace to Thai society," he said.
Despite the political divisions, Thailand's economy may expand almost 8 percent this year, Abhisit said, helped by government spending and subsidies.
The country's main stock index, the SET, has risen to a 14-year high, and unemployment is down to 0.9 percent, he said.
Abhisit promised more measures to reduce the cost of living, electricity, cooking gas and food early next year.