BANGKOK, Sep 26 (Reuters) Thai Interior Minister Aree Wongsearaya today said he would resign next month over a conflict of interest, paving the way for retiring coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin to replace him.
Sonthi, due to retire as the army chief at the end of this month, has not hidden his desire for a ministry but says it is up to Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont to decide.
Sonthi, who ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup last September, shrugged off threats by Thaksin supporters to hold mass protests if he chose to cling on to power by taking a cabinet post.
''While we're determined to strengthen the nation, trying to take the country back to democracy, we should not be distracted by anything,'' Sonthi told reporters today.
Surayud -- who was asked by Sonthi to become the prime minister -- has said it was possible Sonthi will be in the cabinet after his retirement this month.
Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas said this week he was ready to step down for Sonthi to succeed him and concurrently hold the post of deputy prime minister in charge of national security if Sonthi wanted him to.
But The Nation newspaper today quoted an unnamed Government House source as saying Sonthi was likely to double as deputy prime minister and interior minister if Aree quit.
Aree, one of the three cabinet ministers found by the anti-graft agency to hold more than five percent of shares in private companies -- above the limit set for ministers, had refused to quit -- unlike two colleagues in the same position.
But today, a tearful Aree decided to throw the towel after the anti-corruption agency found that one of the firms in which he owned shares had business deals with his ministry.
''Although the transactions were made without my consent, they were illegal,'' Aree told reporters.
''Therefore, I offer to quit as the Interior Minister and will tender my resignation to the prime minister on October 1.'' Surayud, attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, told reporters he would have to reshuffle his cabinet, due to expire after a December 23 general election, after he return home this weekend.
Analysts said the powerful interior ministry was perfect for Sonthi to fulfil his political ambitions and to exert power during the election campaign to keep Thaksin supporters from returning to power.
''This is a survival game for Sonthi, who has to remain in power to prevent the return of the Thaksin regime, otherwise he will be vulnerable,'' political scientist Somjai Phagapasvivat of Bangkok's Thammasat University said.
Thaksin, who won two landslide election victories and now lives in exile in London, remains widely popular with the poor although he has been banned from politics for five years and his party dissolved for breaking election laws.
A new party Thaksin supporters took over looks set to win a substantial number of the 480 lower house seats in the general election.
REUTERS SG BD1210