September 4, 2008 / 11:46 AM / 11 years ago

Thailand's grumpy, food-loving PM defies critics

BANGKOK (Reuters) - In seven months of turbulent rule, the only thing that has floored Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej so far has been dodgy Lao cooking.

The pugnacious 73-year-old politician has resisted months of street protests, a slew of probes against his party and government, a hostile media, disobedient generals and sniping from the country’s revered king.

“I will not quit,” Samak vowed in a nationwide radio address on Thursday, defying thousands of protesters barricaded inside his official compound for 10 days in a bid to force him out.

Nobody knows how the crisis will end but Samak insists that, as Thailand’s democratically elected leader, he will not bow to a “mob”, as he calls the People’s Alliance for Democracy

(PAD).

“He’s a grumpy old man and he does what he likes,” said Graham Catterwell, a retired analyst who has followed the country’s fractious politics for three decades.

“His view is — I’m the prime minister and I want to stay prime minister, and bugger off to anyone else.”

The combative right-winger has followed a controversial path to power.

Born into an aristocratic family, Samak earned a law degree from Bangkok’s prestigious Thammasat University and worked in various jobs as a clerk, tour guide and journalist.

Democracy campaigners regard him with distrust, recalling his vitriolic radio campaign against student activists and support for a bloody crackdown in October 1976 that led to a coup.

This year, Samak outraged survivors of 1976, some of them members of his own cabinet, when he said only one person died. The official death toll was 46.

Opponents feared a repeat when Samak supporters clashed with the PAD this week. One man died and 45 were hurt in the clashes.

“This is the same tactic Samak has used before, inciting violence,” PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila told TPBS TV.

Given this reputation, Samak had shown considerable restraint until he imposed emergency rule in Bangkok this week, although the army has refused to evict the PAD protesters by force.

LOVES FOOD, NOT REPORTERS

Samak is loathed by local media. His bulbous nose is a gift to cartoonists who depict him as a foul-mouthed pig after he asked a female journalist if she had had “sinful sex”.

Foreign journalists have felt his wrath, too. He recently berated a CNN correspondent for asking insolent questions.

After a less-than-glorious four-year stint as Bangkok governor — he still faces graft probes — Samak was elected to the Senate in 2006.

He lost his job after the 2006 coup but stayed in the public eye by hosting a TV show on his true passion — cooking.

But his show, the aptly named “Tasting, Grumbling”, has put Samak under investigation for conflict of interest, one of many probes against his government and party.

While the protests have failed to bring him down, Samak’s taste for sampling local delicacies on foreign trips laid him low this year after visiting a wet market in neighboring Laos.

Few pundits expected him to last this long after he agreed to campaign in December elections as a front man for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

But Thaksin made a shrewd choice in Samak, whose palace credentials allowed him to criticize the royalist elite accused of masterminding the coup — especially the king’s top adviser, Prem Tinsulanonda.

Shortly after taking power, Samak accused a “dirty invisible hand” of meddling as his People Power Party faced an unusually high number of vote fraud complaints. His comments were widely interpreted as a reference to Prem.

Most Thais were keen to see civilian rule succeed an inept post-coup interim government, but Samak has never enjoyed high popularity ratings as his government struggled to revive an economy hobbled by slowing growth and soaring inflation.

When he moved to amend the post-coup constitution in May, blaming it for the country’s political problems, the PAD saw a naked attempt to quash graft investigations against Thaksin.

Thousands of protesters hit the streets on May 25. Samak dismissed them as an illegal rabble.

“I don’t understand why people think I’m the bad guy here,” he said.

Editing by Paul Tait

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