x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Thai chef who brought his country to the boil

Had Samak Sundaravej, former prime minister of Thailand, kept his cooking skills to himself, he might have lasted longer in office.

Had Samak Sundaravej, the acid-tongued former prime minister of Thailand, kept his cooking skills to himself, rather than demonstrating them on his popular Tasting and Complaining programme on prime-time television, he might have lasted for longer than nine months in office. The host of the popular show for seven years prior to becoming prime minister, Sundaravej entertained audiences with his recipe for pigs' legs in Coca-Cola, among other mouth-watering dishes, while issuing an incessant stream of invective directed against his myriad detractors during the show's weekly airing.

Resigning from his regular slot to fulfil his political duties in 2008, Sundaravej made several guest appearances on the show. It was his acceptance of payment for such appearances that brought him before the Thai court, where he was charged with violating his political position and removed from power. A close associate of the former prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in September 2006, Sundaravej came to power in December 2007. His tenure coincided with one of the most turbulent periods of Thailand's recent history. An ultra-conservative ex-governor of Bangkok, he positioned himself as Thaksin's natural successor and promised not only to bring back the disgraced former prime minister from exile, but also to revive his policies, such as cheap credit and debt moratoriums.

His People Power Party was effectively a reconstituted Thai Rak Thai, the dissolved party that Thaksin had led before his fall from favour. Its target audience was the poor rural communities where promises of better education and economic incentives won many votes. His straight-talking, abrasive manner evidently appealed to many who thought this was the sort of man who would effect change. Born in 1935 to an aristocratic family in Bangkok, Sundaravej graduated with a law degree from the prestigious Thammasat University. He went into politics in his 30s, initially as a member of the Democrat Party. For a short while, he served as interior minister in a military government before founding his own party, Prachakorn Thai, which he led until 2000.

His four years as governor in Bangkok were dogged with rumours of corruption linked to city contracts: an investigation into the procurement of a fleet of surprisingly expensive fire lorries from an Austrian company was ongoing. But Sundaravej dealt with his critics bluntly, often punctuating his responses with profanities, which earned him the moniker "Dog Mouth". Two particularly bloody episodes marked his career. In 1976, in the wake of communism in Indochina and the deep polarisation between left and right, his anti-communist polemic, broadcast over the radio and at political rallies, ignited an angry mob. Police and right-wing paramilitaries stormed Thammasat University and attacked scores of left-wing student activists. Sundaravej was untroubled: "It's no sin to kill communists," he said. More than a decade later, in May 1992, the army opened fire on protesters in Bangkok demanding the resignation of General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had seized power in a coup the year before. Sundaravej, as the general's deputy, labelled the demonstrators troublemakers and communists: as such, he said, it was acceptable for the police to shoot them.