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Former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej died yesterday. He succumbed to liver cancer in Bangkok’s Bumrungrad Hospital, aged 74.
Samak was PM when I moved to Thailand in April last year. He was quite a character and his presence – along with the movements of his rivals and his interactions with the press – could at times be quite comic, if not downright farcical. Before Thai politics turned sour with mob protests, airports seiges and coups, it could even be quite fun to read about Samak’s exploits.
He was the first of three PMs in my time here (three leaders in 19 months in itself is an indictment of the state of Thai politics) and by far the most memorable. He was nowhere near as photogenic as current PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, nor was he anything like as polite as his successor, Somchai Wongsawat, but that is precisely why he made his mark. He behaved aggressively, he was beligerent to the media, he sulked in public, he was unafraid to belittle people if he felt they deserved it, he was stoic in the face of political pressure – and his hardened appearance matched these, ahem, qualities.
In deeply-divided Thailand, he certainly had his critics and enemies. It was his very presence as PM – and the fact that he was an open supporter of Thaksin Shinawatra and his ideology – that sparked the “yellow shirt” protests of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who laid seige to the grounds of Government House for weeks while Samak was in charge, and which ultimately – under Somchai’s premiership – led to deaths and the one-week closure of Bangkok’s two airports, causing untold damage to the nation’s economy and reputation.
But I respected Samak’s single-mindedness in the face of such pressure, with not only the PAD but also significant political commentators calling for his head. Not for him the weak attempts to appease all of successor Somchai, whose two and a half months in office were among the more forgettable even in a country known for the transciency of its leaders. Nor for him the squeaky clean, ever-smiling PR profile of Abhisit, who was surely appointed (notice I didn’t say elected) more for his appearance and undoubted charisma than for any heavyweight political credentials.
No, Samak told it the way he saw it, and while that of course didn’t mean he was always right, it did at least show he had the courage of his convictions, and to express himself publicly without first needing a spin doctor to polish his words.
Now, as stated before, I’m not a political analyst. This is not my area of strength, although like most people I have my own political opinions. But the news of Samak’s passing gave me cause to remember some of his more colourful moments.
First of all, before the squabbling erupted into violent demonstrations, there was the usual tit-for-tat name-calling in Government House, with one opposition politician (I forget her name) bringing Samak to task for his choice of cafeteria food. As a man in his seventies, she said it was inappropriate for him to choose a piece of cake for lunch, washed down with a glass of bright red soft drink. She suggested Samak seek psychological help, because Adolf Hitler was known to have similarly immature tastes.
Now, even within the realms of political cat-calling, which often amounts to no more than childish spats, this was adorably convoluted. Never mind education, employment and crime – “Prime Minister, would you care to justify buying that cake? Because I’m rather worried it is a sign you may be a tyrant in the making, capable of ordering the slaughter of millions.”
Samak, as was his wont, barely dignified the comment, choosing instead to fix her with a customary silent staredown.
But Samak’s finest hour would not have looked out of place in an episode of Fawlty Towers, such was the level of high farce.
Pursued on motorbikes by a press pack from Government House to Chatuchak Market, Samak sought refuge in a public toilet. Not wishing to speak to the media, he remained in a cubicle, but unfortunately for him the journalists proved even more stubborn than he. More than an hour later, Samak could no longer stand the heat, moisture, smell and mosquitoes (I have been to the toilets at Chatuchak Market and they’re no place for a dignitary, let me tell you), and emerged, furious and doused with sweat.
He ignored the reporters’ questions (surely the fact he spent an hour inside a toilet cubicle would have told them he was in no mood to speak?), instead bearing down on them with a fuming glare of which Charles Bronson would have been proud. After staring them into silence, he set about berating them and their conduct, and labelling them “disgusting” no less than a dozen times.
Reaction to this incident depended, of course, on which side you were on – either Samak was rightly defending himself against media intrusion, or he showed an arrogant disrespect towards the free press, who were just doing their job in the public interest.
There’s a bit of truth to both sides, but the bigger picture for me at the time was the fun factor of living in a country where the PM is forced to flee halfway across a city as hungry hacks literally chase him into a stinking, mosquito-blown long-drop. Add to that the picture of the nation’s leader stewing there for over an hour, followed by his ultimate outburst, and clearly you can see Samak Sundaravej was not your average politican.
And his eventual dismissal from office in September 2008, after just eight and a half months, was also unorthodox, if not comic for its irony. While the country’s leading industries of tourism, exports and foreign investment were taking near-death blows from the effects of the protracted demonstrations, and while the spectre of corruption hung over everything Thaksin and his allies did, it was none of these concerns which spelled the end for Samak. No, he was booted out because he had twice appeared on a TV cooking show. Innocent enough, except politicians are not allowed to accept money for working with private enterprises. Samak’s fee was nominal and his appearance of no bearing whatsoever to his political standing, but this was a conflict of interest. Not quite along the lines of Thaksin using his position to allow his then-wife Potjaman na Pombejra to purchase multi-million-baht swathes of land, but still, rules are rules…
Ultimately, it may have been a face-saving move. As pathetic a reason it may have seemed for removing a democratically elected PM, Thailand was at the time being virtually held hostage by protesters, with the international news coverage doing the country no favours. There were far bigger concerns than the PM’s appearance on a cookery show, but Samak was steadfast in his refusal to stand down or dissolve the cabinet, the two main demands of the PAD, despite the presence of 30,000 protesters camping out on the lawns of his workplace.
So while the cookery show controversy was of negligible importance, by following the law to the letter, the courts could remove him from office legitimately. And with that removal came a lull – as temporary was it was – in the tensions. The PAD had not been placated, as the Thaksin-backed People Power Party was still in charge, but tempers were nevertheless calmed, and at a critical time.
It also proved timely for Samak himself. Despite being disqualified from the premiership, he had the opportunity to return to power if voted back in, but instead he accepted the judgement and retreated from politics. It seemed strange for such a combative man to slip away from the spotlight so quickly and readily.
But then news came less than a month later that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and it all made sense. It’s unknown how long he’d been sick. Indeed, it’s likely he was running the country while ill. Considering how stressful a task that must have been in the late summer of 2008, that shows either remarkable devotion or unwavering stubborness. In Samak’s case, it was probably a bit of both.
He flew to the US for treatment in the new year, returning to Bangkok and continuing to be treated at Bumrungrad, one of the country’s best hospitals. After roughly a year battling the disease, he passed away at 8:48am yesterday morning.
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