[PHOTO AT LEFT - HAI VISITOR: President Arroyo welcomes Thailand’s new Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont upon his arrival at Malacañang yesterday. Photo by WILLY PEREZ]

MANILA, OCTOBER 24, 2006 (STAR) Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said yesterday he will speed up the restoration of democracy in his country, more than a month after the military seized power in Thailand.

His statement was welcomed by President Arroyo.

During a dinner hosted by Mrs. Arroyo at Malacañang yesterday, the visiting Thai leader said, "Let me take this opportunity to reiterate that with your support, the Royal Thai government is determined to expedite Thailand’s path to the full restoration and revitalization of democracy."

Surayud also discussed with Mrs. Arroyo the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"At this significant juncture in ASEAN history, the Philippines chairmanship of ASEAN assumed even greater importance," he said.

"I have full confidence Madame President that you will lead us to more successes. I look forward to your active leadership, bringing concrete benefits to our member countries and the peoples of our region on the basis of shared interest and mutual respect,."

Surayud said he was pleased with the cordial discussions he had with Mrs. Arroyo and assured her of full support for the ASEAN summit in Cebu in December.

They talked about political, security, and economic development issues involving their respective countries and the region during their meeting, Surayud said.

Mrs. Arroyo said the Philippines was honored to have Surayud, "an accomplished and preeminent leader, undoubtedly a dedicated public servant who has given all his years to serve his country and turn it into a key player on the world stage."

"Having distinguished himself as a valiant soldier on the battlefield, His Excellency, now presides over a wider and more challenging arena - one which calls for his deep experience and wisdom in all fronts of statesmanship," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said the visit came at a time when relations between the two countries were gaining much headway and substance.

"Economic cooperation between our countries remains in the pink of health," she said. "Last year, bilateral trade reached a record high of $2.89 billion."

The military-installed premier arrived on board a Thai Air Force Airbus A319 aircraft at the presidential hangar of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City yesterday afternoon.

Chulanont, who was accompanied by a 32-man delegation, was welcomed by government officials led by Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap.

Upon stepping off the plane, Chulanont boarded a waiting black stretch Mercedes Benz limousine and headed for Malacañang for talks with Mrs. Arroyo.

The visit came toward the end of Surayud Chulanont’s diplomatic tour of Southeast Asian nations, during which he sought to reassure his counterparts of Thailand’s return to normalcy following last month’s putsch.

Surayud, who was installed by the coup leaders who ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept. 19, met with President Arroyo at Malacañang.

"The visit to the Philippines is traditionally done by any new Asean leader," Thai foreign ministry spokesman Kitti Wasinond said, referring to the Philippines’ role as chair of Asean.

"They will discuss the upcoming Asean-China meeting late this month," he said. "The other topics will include regional security."

Surayud’s visit follows similar trips to Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

He will visit Vietnam on Thursday, but has no plans to visit Singapore, Brunei or the military-run Myanmar. – Aurea Calica, Rainier Allan Ronda, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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