Former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej dies

AP News
Posted: Nov 24, 2009 9:46 AM

Samak Sundaravej, a firebrand right-wing politician and TV cooking show host who served a brief and tumultuous term last year as Thailand's prime minister, died of cancer Tuesday. He was 74.

Samak died at Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok after a long battle with liver cancer, hospital official Navachamol Sangkaew said. Samak had sought treatment for cancer late last year in the United States and kept a low profile after returning to Thailand.

Known as a straight-talker with a penchant for the profane, Samak's political career spanned four decades during which he was associated with military-backed, authoritarian regimes.

Critics accused him of helping to stir up the bloody lynching of students by anti-communist vigilantes and police at Bangkok's Thammasat University in 1976, an infamous incident which led to a military coup.

His colorful vocabulary earned him the nickname "Dog Mouth" among critics. He was a belligerent debater in and outside of parliament. When a female Thai reporter last year inquired about rumors of infighting within his party, he snapped back: "Did you have sinful sex last night?"

Generally, however, his belligerence gave way over the years to a sort of grandfatherly grumpiness, and many supporters remembered him best for his TV show called "Tasting and Complaining," a mix of traditional Thai cooking and rants on pet subjects.

Early on, Samak established his trademarks _ a right-wing ideology, a common touch which endeared him to some and a bias against freewheeling democracy and the press _ a "burden on development" he once called reporters whom he periodically berated for asking "lousy" questions.

With Bangkok as his power base, he held eight Cabinet posts and served more than 20 years as a member of parliament. But it was only by agreeing to act as a stand-in for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra _ who was ousted by a 2006 military coup and barred from politics _ that he attained the nation's highest political office.

A Bangkok native with aristocratic lineage, Samak began his political career in Bangkok in 1968 with the middle-of-the-road Democrat Party, aligning himself with its conservative faction. He gravitated toward the extreme right after the country's 1973 student revolution toppled a military dictatorship, serving in a Democrat-led Cabinet while at the same time undermining its power.

His vitriolic rhetoric on radio and at rallies helped stoke anti-communist sentiment in 1976, prompting mobs to kill and brutalize scores of leftist student activists at Thammasat University. The official death toll was 46, but some estimates put it in the hundreds.

The massacre came after Indochina had fallen under communist rule and Thailand was deeply polarized between right and left.

Appointed interior minister after the army forced out the elected government, he oversaw the arrests of many dissidents and shuttered newspapers critical of his ways.

When Samak served in a short-lived military-backed government in 1992 as deputy prime minister, he publicly justified the use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok's streets that left dozens dead.

Samak branded the demonstrators troublemakers, arguing the government had the right to use force as long as the United States could send troops to kill people in other countries.

After serving as Bangkok's mayor in 2000-2004, Samak emerged as a strong supporter of Thaksin, with whom he had many enemies in common. When Thaksin was ousted and his Thai Rak Thai party dissolved, Samak agreed to step in as leader of its People's Power Party replacement, which he led to victory in a December 2007 election.

Samak's tenure as prime minister coincided with one of the worst political crises in Thailand's history. As the proxy for Thaksin, who was living in exile, Samak became the focus of street rallies by anti-Thaksin protesters who demanded his resignation.

Tens of thousands of protesters stormed the prime minister's compound in August 2008, but it wasn't the protesters who led to his ouster.

A court ruled in September 2008 that Samak's acceptance of payments for appearing on his TV cooking show while prime minister constituted a conflict of interest, and kicked him out of office.

Among the first Thai politicians to express their condolences was former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was forced out in a 2006 coup and posted a Twitter message on the Internet about Samak's death from exile. He also expressed regret that he could not return to the country to attend the Buddhist funeral ceremony that starts Wednesday.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters the death of Samak "was a great loss to Thai politics."