Thailand’s new Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is the first to be democratically elected since the nation’s bloodless coup in 2006. A veteran politician and former governor of Bangkok, Samak is accused of being a nominee of friend and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.As he prepares to take office, he joins Talk Asia’s Dan Rivers to discuss his allegiance to his ousted predecessor, corruption, and his alleged role in the Thammasat massacre of 1976.
The following are portions of a recent interview of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej by CNN Talk Asia correspondent Dan Rivers.
BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) — Thailand’s new Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is the first to be democratically elected since the nation’s bloodless coup in 2006. A veteran politician and former governor of Bangkok, Samak is accused of being a nominee of friend and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. As he prepares to take office, he joins Talk Asia’s Dan Rivers to discuss his allegiance to his ousted predecessor, corruption, and his alleged role in the Thammasat massacre of 1976.
Taking power at a special ceremony, Thailand’s new prime minister receives an endorsement from the King. He gives thanks to the monarch, then issues a firm message to critics: “I want to tell those who have held me in contempt, saying in writing and in vilifying speech that I am inept and I don’t know anything, to give me time to do this job.”
His election as prime minister comes at a pivotal time for democracy in Thailand. In 2006, the military launched a bloodless coup against the government of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. The junta accused Thaksin of corruption, and dissolved Thailand’s parliament. Samak, a Thaksin loyalist, lost his senate seat. The outspoken veteran politician continued a second career as a celebrity chef. But Samak soon returned to politics. His People’s Power Party made a strong showing in December’s elections. It was formed after Thaksin’s own Thai Rak Thai party was banned, but it shares many of the same policies and people. Samak has vowed to turn the clock back to before the last coup. We meet at his residence in Bangkok.
DR: Prime Minister Kun Samak, thank you very much for talking to Talk Asia. You came to power really on the back, many would say, of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister, who was exiled in the coup a year and a half ago. You made no… 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?
SS: He ran the country for five years very successfully, and then there is a coup. It’s ok. They say, a coup is a coup. And then they want to destroy Thaksin, it’s ok, it’s up to them. But he says that the party is killed. He just asked me, is it possible if you set up a party and bring the leftover MPs to enroll in the party? And then…
DR: So Thaksin asked you to set up your People’s Power Party?
SS: He said, is it possible or not? I say I can do because I lost my opportunity too. I ran as a senate, five months, so the coup d’etat group, they just kicked me out.
DR: What kind of role will Thaksin play now that you are in power?
SS: Oh, he’s the owner of the former party. And then he might get some support by giving ideas to this or that. Five years such a success, so why not if he gives some advice?
DR: So you will take advice from Thaksin?
SS: Not I myself, but the one who do the, especially on the economic group, so they might consult, so I think there’s nothing wrong with this.
DR: Because people say you’re merely a puppet, some people have said, of Thaksin.
SS: You may say, anybody is a puppet of anybody.
DR: So you deny that you’re a puppet?
SS: No, I am myself. I’m the leader of the party. I run this country, it’s me, I have my own thinking.
DR: Not Thaksin?
SS: Not Thaksin.
DR: Let’s talk about the cabinet lineup. One of the key posts in the cabinet is defense minister. Obviously with the history of so many coups in Thailand, whoever has the defense minister portfolio effectively controls the army. There’s been speculation you will have the defense minister post as well as being prime minister. Is that going to be the case?
SS: Yeah, well, I intend to do that because in the olden days, there’s an argument always between the military and the government. And the military serves the monarch, we serve the monarch. An argument that happen will not, the King will not feel quite so good if any argument always occur. So we need a neutral by this time. So now we have a good, a good commander-in-chief of the army.
DR: How can you guarantee there’s going to be no more coups in Thailand?
SS: I cannot guarantee. Last time, when they staged a coup, there’s no reason. Rebel without a cause.
DR: Well, the reason they gave was that Thaksin was hugely corrupt.
SS: Sixteen months, it doesn’t prove. Not a single case. They set up a committee and see to it, and until now, just two cases go to the prosecutor, not to the court yet.
DR: Central to the charges against Thaksin, his tax-free sale of a controlling stake in telecommunications giant Shin Corporation to a Singaporean company. Thaksin changed financial rules just days before the sale, allowing foreign entities to own up to 49 percent in telecoms firms, from 25 percent previously. Critics accused him of forgoing national interests to reap personal benefits. His wife Pojamarn Shinawatra also faces a series of graft charges and is accused of concealing millions of dollars in stock market shares. She returned to Thailand earlier this month to appear at court for the first charge. At the heart of the case is this plot of land — it may look like a wildlife sanctuary, but this is in fact prime real estate on the edge of Bangkok. Pojamarn Shinawatra bought this from a government institution in 2003, while her husband was prime minister. Her critics say she got a huge discount, paying only one third of the initial evaluation. If convicted, the Shinawatras could face more than 10 years in prison. They both deny the charges.
DR: Do you think he’s guilty?
SS: Oh, anyone can do something guilty if anyone can prove, but for me, not a friend, not the one who know each other…
DR: You don’t think he’s guilty?
SS: I don’t think that anyone may do something wrong, that doesn’t think that that is wrong. Such is the first case, he let his wife to buy in the bidding, so they say this is wrong, so this case must go to the court. This is a good example. So ask Thaksin, or ask his wife, they never think that they committed anything wrong.
DR: Well, I’m asking you. Do you think Thaksin was corrupt?
SS: Oh. For me, why must he? But if he do something and the business that he has done for his friend, for his colleague, and it create some better income than others. Put it this way, corrupt or not corrupt, huh, in the olden days, when anyone invests in this country, you can hold the share only 25 percent, for the rest must be nominee, or any kind of thing. But he decide to change from 25 to 49 percent. Now when he made a change of this from 25 to 49 and then he can sell his share, it costs 73 billion, and then pay no tax because by law pay no tax. This is corrupt or not?
DR: Well, I’m asking you. Do you think he’s corrupt?
SS: Somebody say it’s corrupt, but for me I say no, this is by law. This is, he might take this opportunity. It must be his wisdom that he can do the trade.
DR: But should prime ministers be allowed to make money? Shouldn’t they be concentrating on the job of prime minister?
SS: For me, for me, I have nothing kind of that. But for him, it’s his business. He do the business and he want to get rid of the share that he hold. To be or not be right or wrong is up to him.
DR: Well is it right or wrong?
SS: I think it’s right, because it draw intention for the investor to come, that you can have 49 percent, you have a proxy only 2, so you can run the company.
DR: Will Thaksin come back? And if so, when?
SS: It’s up to him, up to the case. His wife just mentioned to the court that he will come in May. So the court do agree. He will come or not, it’s up to him. But one thing I must say is that he must come back to face the charge. It’s not dangerous.
DR: How much damage was done do you think to Thailand by the coup?
SS: Oh, I cannot. It doesn’t come by figures. It comes by the feeling of the people. The damage that come… I’m not an expert in economy, but they say that just from the grassroots to the top, they also have problems. Restaurants say the business 100 percent is going down to 50 percent. They’re buying and selling everything.
DR: If the country was so damaged by the coup, what will you do to those who led the coup? Should they not be punished?
SS: No, no, no.
DR: Why not?
SS: Do believe me. That we call a revenge, a reprisal, a retortion. We have no need to do that. They must feel ashamed by themselves, that is much enough.
DR: October 1976, this grainy footage shows one of Thailand’s darkest episodes — the Thammasat massacre. Soldiers killed dozens of left-wing students during a frenzy of anti-communist fervor, and Samak was at the scene. He was Deputy Interior Minister — his enemies accused him of goading the lynch-mobs. The massacre triggered a military coup and remains an emotionally-charged subject in Thailand.
DR: 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?
SS: Oh, I deny the whole thing. I have no concern on that business. And I have nothing to do, to deal with that at all. I’m an outsider by that time. And then the Governor of Bangkok, he is the Secretary General of the Democratic Party and the Deputy. So, the chief of the group asked him to see, so I go along with him. That evening, he talk to the chief of the group, I talk to the military. The guy asked me, what do you think Kun Samak, we close all the newspaper? I said, it’s impossible. Next morning who will know who is the one who is a reform group, who are they. So next morning, they make the first committee, five. One military, four civilians just to open, to back to normal for all the newspaper. That was what I do.
DR: Would you like to take the opportunity now to condemn what happened in 1976?
SS: Actually it’s a movement of some students. They don’t like the government.
DR: But dozens of people, maybe hundreds of people died.
SS: No, just only one died. There are 3,000 students in the Thammasat University.
DR: The official death toll was 46, and many people say it was much higher than that.
SS: No. For me, no deaths, one unlucky guy being beaten and being burned in Sanam Luang. Only one guy by that day.
DR: So there was no massacre?
SS: No not at all, but taking pictures, 3,000 students, boys and girls lined up, they say that is the death toll. 3,000.
DR: People say that your very right-wing rhetoric inflamed the situation.
SS: What’s wrong to be the right-wing if it is? The right-wing is with the King. The left-wing is communist.
DR: So do you think Thailand was in danger of falling to communism in 1976?
SS: Well, a guy called Lomax, he write a book, the book is called, “Thailand: The War that is, the War that will be.” And he says that this is a domino theory. He says that there will be 10 dominoes around this area. So if Cambodia will be, Vietnam will be, Laos will be, and Thailand will be the 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.
DR: Do you think it’s excusable to kill innocent students in the name of defending the country from communism?
SS: Oh, who kill the students? If the fighting between the military, the military is to defend for the country. Somebody tried to bring communism into our country, it’s up to them. The casualty, you must go to check what had happened.
DR: In 1992, more bloodshed. 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. 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.”
DR: Again protest against the military government, again your name is linked to the bloodshed that followed. What would you say to that?
SS: I was deputy prime minister for three times, nobody mentioned anything. When I resigned and I run as a governor of Bangkok, oh, it’s a murder with blood in hand, you cannot be governor. So I bring the case to the court. And when the vote come, nobody kept over 1 million, I got 1 million something, why?
DR: But that doesn’t answer the question. Were you involved in 1992?
SS: No. Even any time, I have no involvement. At any time. At any time of…
DR: Your conscience is clear?
SS: If I do something wrong, I cannot come this far. I think my hand is clean and then I can live with it. The people of this country know me, who I am, so I am not afraid. But why 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, they talk good to them. When they put something slash out to me, I just slash back to them. When you punch me, I punch back. There is no written document that says by human feeling that the prime minister should be a good guy, should talk soft…
DR: I mean, are you a good guy? How would you describe yourself?
SS: Somebody must describe me, I cannot describe myself. But for me, if I have something wrong, I cannot come this far. But the hatred of some people, yes, but for me yeah, I don’t hate them, I just feel pity that they have an ill feeling to me.
DR: Indulging in a lifelong passion, cooking. 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 during the 2006 coup, but it’s currently off-air since its broadcaster was taken over by Thailand’s previous military-appointed government.
DR: You have a lot of passions in life, not only politics. Cooking is one of your great passions, interests.
SS: Actually I have a normal life. I started with a little bit difficulty family. We cannot say poor, we can manage to earn, but father, mother have nine children, I’m number seven.
DR: So your poor background to start with?
SS: Yeah, poor background, and by this way, I have to select everyone — This one do the cleaning, this one do the washing, I do the cooking at 7 years old. That’s why I cook from that time on, and I think it’s right. And I think cooking is an art, and I have done this until now. So for the family first, and then for my own family afterwards, and then now. Ten years ago, when I was an MP, they give one hour on Saturday evening 5-6, just to talk politics. So I spend about two years, it’s a bore, politics is a bore. I said, politics is a bore, why not we talk about some cooking? So I just start talking about cooking from that time on. I have a book called “Tasting while Grumbling.”
DR: Tasting while grumbling?
SS: It’s about 28 good things to eat. So it’s a good book.
DR: And you’ve had a TV series…
SS: “Cooking While Grumbling,” no “Tasting While Grumbling.”
DR: And will that program come back on air?
SS: Somebody says that as a prime minister, I have time, but you should not do such a thing like that. I said, No. I checked the constitution already, there’s no obstruction with that. But I’ll do something like this, now with my house, the camera would come and talk. So I will talk about any kind of food of thing, and you’re going to do cooking.
DR: 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?
SS: I always say that a man who speaks from the mind, you can go along with him.
DR: I want to ask you one last question, because we’re running out of time. What about 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, Kun 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?
SS: No. No. Why the ambassador came to see me? Ten ambassadors came to see me, I have no position then. Ten came already, now the American ambassador, why? The American embassy here must report who I am. He can come to talk to me.
DR: And would you say that the people like you?
SS: The people, one million vote for me. Why? Because they know who I am. Until now, why when I was the leader of PPP, they say it’s because of Thaksin, it might be for some reason, but you can bring anyone to be the leader, not me. What will happen to the PPP? So it’s a combination, the best of everything that I have done. What they have performed five years ago. But it must be the quality of the leader, like I, who lead the party, so who come this far? So I was accepted by the people everywhere but not the media. This is ok, it’s up to you. You do your duty, I will do mine.
DR: So the country is safe with you?
SS: 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 are the one just to drive the engine. Now we know how to do that. But one good thing is that, no corrupt. For me, if I corrupt, I cannot come this far. If Thaksin did it, he must go to the court, and you must prove.
DR: What will you say will be your top priority in government?
SS: Just bring the country back to normal. When they staged the coup, United States turned back to us, EC turned back to us, China turned by the side, Japan turned by the side. So now, when we have a government from election, so they must turn back and then everything will come back to normal.
DR: Let’s finish, I know you want to talk about your interest in the naval ships. Tell us about that before…
SS: America has 130 ships like this, 129 sank in the world war. Only one left over to Thailand. United States asked this for 10 years, but my colleagues, he says that it’s better to give back, so the procession have done two months ago, we brought it down to Hong Kong and put it in a dry dock and pull to San Francisco. So you’re returning this ship… to America. Returning the ship and then they will keep the name, Nakha, keep the name. Keep the garuda, it’s a good omen.
DR: On that good omen, I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it. Thank you very much for talking to us here on Talk Asia. You’re watching CNN. Join us next time.