Just when Thailand needs to get back the respect of the world, we get Samak as Prime Minister. When will this curse on Thailand be lifted?
INTERVIEW / SAMAK SUNDARAVEJ
New prime minister speaks his mind
Tells CNN only one person died in 1976 student uprising at Thammasat University
The following are portions of a recent interview of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej by CNN Talk Asia correspondent Dan Rivers.
The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
The two met at Mr Samak’s residence in Bangkok.
Dan Rivers: Prime Minister Khun Samak… you came to power really on the back, many would say, of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, who was exiled in the coup a year and a half ago. You haven’t really hidden your allegiance to him. Explain now how you intend to go forward. Will Thaksin play a role in your government?
Samak Sundaravej: He ran the country for five years very successfully and then there was a coup. It’s okay. They say a coup is a coup. And then they want to destroy Thaksin. It’s okay, it’s up to them. But he says that the party is killed. He just asked me if it was possible to set up a party and bring leftover MPs to enroll in the party.
Rivers: So Thaksin asked you to set up your People Power party?
Samak: He said is it possible or not? I said I can do it because I lost my opportunity, too. I was in the senate, five months, and the coup d’etat group kicked me out.
Rivers: What kind of role will Thaksin play now that you are in power?
Samak: Oh, he’s the owner of the former party. He might give some support by giving ideas to this or that. Five years, such a success, so why not give some advice?
Rivers: So you will take advice from Thaksin?
Samak: Not myself, but others, especially the economic group. They might consult, and I think there’s nothing wrong with this.
Rivers: Because people say you’re merely a puppet of Thaksin.
Samak: You can say anybody is a puppet of anybody.
Rivers: So you deny that you’re a puppet?
Samak: I am myself. I’m the leader of the party. I run this country; it’s me, I have my own thinking.
Rivers: Not Thaksin?
Samak: Not Thaksin.
Rivers: (As defence minister) how can you guarantee there’s going to be no more coups in Thailand?
Samak: I cannot guarantee. Last time when they staged a coup, there was no reason. Rebel without a cause.
Rivers: Well, the reason they gave was that Thaksin was hugely corrupt.
Samak: Sixteen months, there is no proof. Not a single case. They set up a committee to see to it, and until now just two cases have gone to the prosecutor, not to the court yet.
Rivers: Do you think he’s guilty?
Samak: Oh, anyone can be guilty of something if it can be proved.
Rivers: You don’t think he’s guilty?
Samak: I don’t think anyone can do something wrong if they don’t think it is wrong… So ask Thaksin, or ask his wife; they don’t think they ever committed anything wrong.
Rivers: But should prime ministers be allowed to make money? Shouldn’t they be concentrating on the job of prime minister?
Samak: It’s his business. He did the business and got rid of the shares he held. To be or not to be right or wrong is up to him.
Rivers: Well, is it right or wrong?
Samak: I think it’s right because it draws investors to come, that you can own 49%… so you can run the company.
Rivers: Will Thaksin come back and, if so, when?
Samak: It’s up to him. His wife just mentioned in court that he will come in May. He will come or not, it’s up to him. But one thing is that he must come back to face the charges. It’s not dangerous for him.
Rivers: How much damage was done do you think to Thailand by the coup?
Samak: Oh, I cannot say. It can’t be measured by figures. It comes through the feelings of the people. I’m not an economic expert, but from the grassroots to the top, they have problems. Restaurants say business is down by 50%.
Rivers: If the country was so damaged by the coup, what will you do to those who led the coup? Should they not be punished?
Samak: No, no, no.
Rivers: Why not?
Samak: Do believe me. We can call for revenge, for reprisals. We have no need to do that. They must feel ashamed of themselves, that is enough.
In October 1976, soldiers killed dozens of left-wing students during a frenzy of anti-communist fervor. Mr Samak was at the scene, as deputy interior minister. His enemies accused him of playing a role to provoke the violence.
Rivers: Some people are very critical of your past in Thailand.
Some people have even said you’ve got blood on your hands. What would you say to that?
Samak: Oh, I deny the whole thing. I had nothing to do with that at all. I was an outsider at that time.
Rivers: Would you like to take the opportunity now to condemn what happened in 1976?
Samak: Actually it was a movement of some students. They didn’t like the government.
Rivers: But dozens of people, maybe hundreds of people, died.
Samak: No, just one died. There are 3,000 students in the Thammasat University.
Rivers: The official death toll was 46, and many people say it was much higher than that.
Samak: No. For me, no deaths; one unlucky guy being beaten and being burned in Sanam Luang. Only one guy died that day.
Rivers: So there was no massacre?
Samak: No, not at all, but taking pictures, 3,000 students, boys and girls lined up, they say that is the death toll: 3,000.
Rivers: People say that your very right-wing rhetoric inflamed the situation.
Samak: What’s wrong to be right wing? The right wing is with the King. The left wing is communist.
Rivers: So do you think Thailand was in danger of falling to communism in 1976?
Samak: Well, a guy called Lomax, he wrote a book called Thailand: The War That Is, The War That Will Be. And he said that this is a domino theory. He said that there will be 10 dominoes in this area. So if Cambodia will be, Vietnam will be, Laos will be and Thailand will be number four domino. And from Thailand, it will be Burma, it will be Malaysia, Singapore. Small islands like Singapore. So many islands like Indonesia and later big islands like Australia and even two tiny islands down under. Ten countries will be communist. We are domino number four.
Rivers: Do you think it’s excusable to kill innocent students in the name of defending the country from communism?
Samak: Oh, who kill the students? If the fighting is between the military, the military is to defend for the country. Somebody tried to bring communism into our country, it’s up to (the military). The casualties… you must go to check what happened.
In 1992, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets of Bangkok to protest against the appointment of a military coup leader as prime minister. Unrest escalated - a state of emergency was declared and troops opened fire on crowds.
Dozens of people were killed, and thousands arrested. Mr Samak was deputy prime minister at the time. The army eventually retreated, ushering in a period of civilian rule, but the event is forever known as “Black May”.
Rivers: Again protest against the military government, again your name is linked to the bloodshed that followed. What would you say to that?
Samak: I was deputy prime minister three times. When I resigned, I ran as governor of Bangkok. (People say) “oh, it’s a murderer with blood on his hands. You cannot be governor.” So I brought the case to court. And when the vote come, I got one million-something votes. Why?
Rivers: But that doesn’t answer the question. Were you involved in 1992?
Samak: No. Not at any time. I had no involvement.
Rivers: Your conscience is clear?
Samak: If I do something wrong, I cannot come this far. I think my hands are clean and I can live with it. The people of this country know me, who I am, so I am not afraid. But why do they put a stamp on me? Because I don’t like the press. I don’t like the media. I think actually when they talk good to me, I talk good to them. When they slash out at me, I just slash back at them. When you punch me, I punch back. There is no written document that says the prime minister should be a good guy, should talk soft.
Rivers: I mean, are you a good guy? How would you describe yourself?
Samak: Somebody must describe me, I cannot describe myself. But for me, if I have done something wrong, I cannot come this far. But some people hate me, yes, but I don’t hate them. I just feel pity that they have ill feeling for me.
Indulging in a lifelong passion, cooking, Mr Samak became a celebrity chef with his show Tasting While Grumbling in 2000, extolling the virtues of Thai cuisine and trips to the local market. He immersed himself in the show after losing office in the 2006 coup but it’s currently off-air after its broadcaster was taken over by the previous military-appointed government.
Rivers: You have a lot of passions in life, not only politics. Cooking is one of your great passions, interests.
Samak: Actually I have a normal life. I started with a little bit of difficulty. I cannot say we were poor. We managed, but my father and mother had nine children. I’m number seven.
Rivers: So you had a poor background to start with?
Samak: I did the cooking at seven years old. That’s why I cook, from that time on, and I think it’s right. And I think cooking is an art. So for the family first, and then for my own family afterward, and then now. Ten years ago, when I was an MP, they gave one hour on Saturday evening just to talk politics. I did that for two years. It’s a bore, politics is a bore. I said politics is a bore, why not talk about cooking? So I just start talking about cooking.
Rivers: Your image is very much a man of the people, very down-to-earth, very outspoken, some would say acerbic. Would you agree with that?
Samak: I always say that a man who speaks his mind, you can go along with him.
Rivers: I want to ask you one last question because we’re running out of time. The kind of central theme of much of the criticism against you is simply that you are not statesman material, that there would be better leaders of Thailand than you. For example, Khun Abhisit, the leader of the Democrat party here. How would you respond to people who say you’re simply not diplomatic enough to be prime minister?
Samak: No. No. Why did the ambassador come to see me? Ten ambassadors came to see me - I had no position then. Ten came already, then the American ambassador. Why? The American embassy here must report who I am. He can come to talk to me.
Rivers: And would you say that the people like you?
Samak: The people, one million voted for me. Why? Because they know who I am. When I became leader of PPP, they said it was because of Thaksin. It might be for some reason, but you cannot make anyone the leader. What would happen to the PPP? So it’s a combination, the best of everything that I have done and how they performed five years ago. But it must be a quality leader, like myself, who can lead the party, who can come this far. So I was accepted by the people everywhere, but not the media. This is okay, it’s up to you. You do your duty, I will do mine.
Rivers: So the country is safe with you?
Samak: It must be and this is my opportunity. Actually, to run the country there are all the permanent secretaries of all the military. They have done their job. We (the government) just to drive the engine. Now we know how to do that. But one good thing is there is no corruption. For me, if I am corrupt, I cannot come this far. If Thaksin did it, he must go to the court, and you must prove.
Rivers: What will you say will be your top priority in government?
Samak: Just bring the country back to normal. When they staged the coup, the United States turned their back to us, the EC turned its back to us, China turned by the side, Japan turned by the side. So now, when we have an elected government, so they must turn back and then everything will come back to normal.
(Bangkok Post, 11 February 2008)