The Thai military’s democratic nightmare
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK – When former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra first approached Samak Sundaravej to head the new People’s Power Party (PPP), the new incarnation of the recently disbanded Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, Samak says he advised the exiled leader to pick somebody else instead. Only after Thaksin pleaded, says the veteran politician in an exclusive interview with Asia Times Online, did he agree to take the PPP’s leadership. His surprise appointment has since caused plenty of political ripples, both inside and outside the party. The military coup-makers who ousted Thaksin last year said earlier this month that they would not rule out another putsch if Samak and the PPP win the December 23 elections and lead the next government.Meanwhile, Samak’s personal history as an ultra-rightist, dating back to his alleged instrumental role in the violent crackdown on student protestors in 1976, has given pause to some in the party’s more progressive faction, including former communist guerrilla leaders who held prominent positions in Thaksin’s TRT-led government. More then 30 years later, the 72-year-old Samak says that the history books and local press have got him and his legacy all wrong.He’s also keen to rewrite the book on last year’s coup. If, as some political pundits predict, Samak wins the premiership, he says he will aim to reverse many of the junta’s rulings and policies, including the May 30 decision to disband the TRT and ban 111 of the former party’s executive members from politics for five years. That would entail an amnesty that would pave the way for Thaksin’s return to the country and possible political instability.
More delicately, Samak also aims to debunk the coup-makers’ allegation that Thaksin was disloyal to the crown, one of the four main reasons the military gave for staging their putsch. With impeccable royal credentials, including several former family members who served with distinction in the royal court, Samak says he is one of the few people who can reconcile Thaksin with the many royalists who tacitly backed last year’s coup.
Samak is also one of the few politicians in the country with the stature to lock horns with Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda, whom certain PPP members have accused of masterminding last year’s military intervention beyond his role as a chief royal advisor. Samak’s paternal style appeals to a deep-seated conservative streak in Thai society, which he successfully leveraged to win the Bangkok governorship in 2000 – then notably over a TRT candidate who had campaigned on a new generation ticket.
Yet should Samak and the PPP win the upcoming polls and form the next government, the transition from military to democratic rule will likely prolong rather than reconcile the country’s political confrontation pitting military hard-liners against pro-Thaksin politicians. In a recent wide-ranging interview at his home with ATol’s Southeast Asia Editor Shawn W Crispin, Samak outlined his vision for the future of Thai politics. Excerpts follow:
ATol: You have raised complaints about the junta’s alleged secret plans to subvert your People’s Power Party at the upcoming polls. And the military has maintained martial law in constituencies where your party’s support is thought to be strongest. Do you think at the outset that these elections can produce a free and fair result?
Samak: After the coup the [military] set up so many new bodies, but it’s lucky that the Election Commission was created before the coup d’etat. Four [commissioners] are judges and one is a prosecutor. They are [independent] by themselves, so I don’t worry much about that. And they show no signs of favoring anyone. If there’s a warning it goes to every party.
Still I have a grievance and feel it’s a bit of a shame that when we have a general election where [the junta] keeps martial law. There’s not much reason – they say it’s to protect against the influx of narcotics and people who come to work illegally in this country. But the police can do that job.
ATol: But do you think the military coup makers will allow you to form the next government if you win the most votes at the polls? They have recently threatened another coup.
Samak: We just wonder how it would be possible that we get the most [votes] but not be allowed to form the government. I said in a recent television interview, I asked the public if the PPP gets 300 [of a possible 480 parliamentary seats] then why shouldn’t we be allowed to form the government? I don’t think anybody can stage another coup. Besides I’m not that lousy, I’m not that bad, I’m not that dangerous.
ATol: What are your thoughts on your main electoral competitor, the former opposition Democrat Party?
Samak: It’s strange. I always ask why that for the last 65 years they fought like mad with the military, with their dictatorships. But this time when they stage a coup d’etat they agreed with the action. Why did it happen like this? So I tell voters if you agree with the coup, then vote for the Democrats. If you disagree with it, then vote for the PPP. That’s all.
ATol: Why in your opinion were you chosen to carry forth Thaksin’s political legacy? I know you’ve said that you are not his proxy, but why did he choose you to lead the PPP?
Samak: Thaksin called me and said, “Samak please help me. We have 270 eligible [candidates] to run and if you don’t accept they will want to go to smaller parties.” Those people would like to run, either as PPP or with smaller parties, so I foresaw the reason. So I told [Thaksin] it’s not for you alone that I’m doing this.
I have given him a real helping hand. I have not taken a single baht from him. And I warned him, “Thaksin, I am not your worker, I’m just giving a helping hand.” Believe me, I don’t really want to be the leader. I’m not power hungry.
ATol: You’re a seasoned political veteran that has served in many different governments. Why do you respect Thaksin?
Samak: What respect? I didn’t say respect. I just think he did some good things for the country. For instance when you compare him to former prime minister Chuan [Leekpai]. When we had the financial crisis in 1997, Chuan had an opportunity. But after three or four years, he was not successful. He tried to solve the problems through a bureaucratic way.
But Thaksin used a commercialized way. Within just two years he earned enough to repay the International Monetary Fund loans. In four years he brought up new policies which he proved could work. The Democrats have only tried to destroy what Thaksin has done.
ATol: But you are also a well-known royalist. What about the military’s charges that Thaksin was disloyal to the crown?
Samak: I decided I must help [Thaksin] because he was given a bad name for not being loyal to the monarch. This is very delicate for Thai people. He and I received the same [royal] decoration on the same day of the same year. So when [the junta] put a bad name on him like this, I know it’s not true … Its unfair and I can help him.
My father served in the royal court in the old tradition. My family served the court from Rama V to Rama VII, all the way through. My uncle was the doctor to King Rama VI. My grandfather served under Rama V, Rama VI and Rama VII. He was the one that helped design royal decorations and that sort of thing.
In the royal court it is set up like a military, you have a general, a major general and like that. My grandfather was a major general, a director of a department. My uncle was head of the doctors to the King. So all the way through my family served the monarch … I can talk the royal family’s language, I can ask and answer questions many [others] cannot.
When I accepted the position [of PPP party leader], I made the grievance to the public that Thaksin’s disloyalty to the crown was not possible. I said that the four points the junta stated as the reason for making the coup d’etat are not true … Let us have elections, let us have a new government, and then after that he must come back to fight the corruption charges in court.
ATol: What then was the root cause of last year’s coup in your opinion?
Samak: The reason the coup was carried out was because eight years ago [Thaksin] called a group of political lecturers to come talk. After that they finished he gave 200,000 baht to each lecturer to have a good time in a Nordic country, Finland .
But when they were talking and drinking, they talked and said that in Thailand the monarch is concerned with politics too much. [They said] it should be more like the Queen of England or the Emperor of Japan where they’re just figureheads.
But actually the law is the same here. Thaksin happened to agree with that and supposedly there is a tape on this. Then he was a telecom and satellite tycoon. But one day he became prime minister and some people used this to blackmail him, a group that is very close to [Privy Council President] General Prem [Tinsulanonda].
When Thaksin was in power, people were always talking, “Thaksin is very clever, if he was president and the country was changed [from a monarchy] to a republic we would be more developed.” Something like that. [Thaksin] doesn’t know anything about it.
ATol: Obviously the nation is very concerned about King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health approaching his 80th birthday celebrations. I know it’s a delicate subject, but do you think you would be up to the task as prime minister to help manage national affairs during the royal succession? What is the risk that the military stages another coup when that day comes?Samak: In Thai we don’t talk about such things. It will happen; what will be will be. But when the time comes, the Thais will know how to manage. But now when the military powers use the monarch to run a smear campaign against [Thaksin], this is bad enough. But I hope another coup group like the current one will not exist, but only those who take good care of the country’s future with a helping hand.ATol: If you become prime minister, what would you change first?Samak: The first thing would be to bring the 111 [banned Thai Rak Thai party members] back through an amnesty … [The coup makers] dissolved the tribunal court, so they set up a tribunal committee, which is not a court. So this was not a court judgment, but a decision about who committed something right or wrong about the constitution.When they did such a thing, I felt it was biased. So when I made the announcement about bringing back TRT members through an amnesty, those that had scattered around [to other political parties] just came back. They still supported Thaksin.
Then I’d change the constitution. The former  one was good. We will upgrade the present one by keeping the first chapter about the monarch and then for the other articles we will bring back the old constitution and then slightly amend what was wrong with it.
ATol: Some of your party members feel that Privy Council president Prem had both before and after the coup overstepped his bounds as a royal advisor and was getting involved with political affairs. Do you foresee the need to reform the powers or role of the privy council?
Samak: Actually it’s good already because [constitutional] articles 14 and 15 mention that [the Privy Council] is not the monarch and that they just act as consultants to the monarch. And that they can not get involved in politics. It is written in the charter. That is good enough.
Prem is good advisor, but he always does something that leads to politics. When he gives talks to cadets – military cadets, air force cadets, navy cadets – it comes out on the news and he says things about the government, this and that, this and that. So I just make a warning that by law you can’t do this. You are very close to the monarch and when you do this people might think it’s the intention of the monarch.
ATol: Is it your belief that Prem orchestrated the coup?
Samak: I cannot mention, but that is the understanding of the people of this country. I can say that. Let’s put it this way: if you read the history books, he ended his military service 27 years ago. But he still thinks and acts like he’s in the service. Twenty seven years after he gave up his position, when he was 60 years old, why does he still interfere in politics? Everybody says he’s a statesman, that’s OK. But when you are very close to the monarch, you can’t do such a thing.
ATol: Historically you’ve had strong ties with factions inside the military. Are you on good terms with the group of soldiers [Pre-Cadet Class 10] that supported Thaksin and since the coup have been sidelined? Would you as prime minister move to restore them to positions of authority to diminish the coup makers power inside the armed forces?
Samak: I just know they are the class of Thaksin. And that’s all. I don’t know them personally. (laughs)
ATol: But historically you have had close ties inside the military, no?
Samak: Actually we can not call them ties – we can say that we think the same way. Such as when we faced a communist movement 30 years ago, which wanted to overthrow Buddhism and overthrow the monarchy. If you remember they overthrew the monarchy in Laos and they tried to do it in this country.
So I was the one who just came to fight and the military also protected the throne. We fought for our life to save the monarch. I didn’t know anyone [inside the military] personally, but I knew who they were and they knew who I was.
ATol: Your role in the violent suppression of the 1976 student uprising is documented in certain Thai history books. How have you reconciled with the former student leaders who Thaksin brought into TRT that are now attached to the PPP?
Samak: I don’t know them at all personally. We don’t know each other and actually I didn’t do anything wrong with those people. Only those who write history books think so.
ATol: So in essence the history books have misrepresented your role in the suppression of the October 6, 1976 student uprising?
Samak: Yes, because on October 22 I was just invited to be the minister of the interior, so I had no authority to order anything before that. But they say I ordered to kill students, to do this, to do that.
ATol: It’s not true?
Samak: No, no, no, no – not at all. And anyone who has accused me of that I’ve taken the case to court.
ATol: Let me take a step back. In 1976 you were instrumental in bringing [former military dictator] Thanom [Kittikachorn] back from exile and that was pivotal in instigating the student uprising and the political violence that followed. Do you think there could be a parallel with your plans to bring Thaksin back from exile?
Samak: No that was something different. Thanom was hated, Thaksin is loved. But you see it was completely different. Then it was the hatred of a dictator, and we can say that they were real dictators.
ATol: So what do you think the political upshot would be of Thaksin’s returning to Thailand ?
Samak: Even if I’m not the prime minister, Thaksin can come back after the election. Even if [the PPP] is not in government, he must come back and surrender himself to the court. But if we announce an amnesty, he will automatically be free to make political movements. But he can come back even if there is no amnesty law, he can come back … He will not die because of this thing. It’s finished already, everyone understands now.
ATol: Could his sudden return give motivation for another military coup of the PPP-led government you hope to form?
Samak: If they do it again, it will be a shame in the eyes of the whole world. The new army commander-in chief [General Anupong Paochinda] says that politics must be solved through politics, not by coup d’etats. He is a good guy.
ATol: What are your feelings about how the US has accommodated the coup-makers? Did you feel that Washington was too quick to support their coup?
Samak: The past year of US support for [ Thailand’s military junta] was on the condition that they could only stay in power for only one year, on the promise that democracy will be restored. So that’s why the US has had patience and that’s why the elections are being held on time.
It’s OK, they didn’t sell them weapons at this time. But the US is still a guarantor of this kind of military movement across the world. They make strong statements when the world is looking, like with General Musharraf in Pakistan now, they tell him you must stop with emergency rule. But the US doesn’t say much when the world’s not watching.
ATol: So would a PPP-led government approach US relations in a different manner because Washington apparently tacitly supported the coup? Particularly considering the regional competition now underway between the US and China for regional influence and Beijing’s overt support for Thaksin while in exile?
Samak: Let me put it this way, what would Thaksin have done? It’s a dynamic. If he disagreed with the US , he would go to China , he would go to Russia . If he had a conflict over buying F-16 fighters, he would join with China, join with India. So when you do things like this, it makes things more balanced. And the United States can’t say anything. I think it is good.
When you compare it to [former Thai prime minister] Chuan he just followed the way of what the bureaucracy said. He wasn’t dynamic enough to do anything else. But Thaksin was willing to take risks. Under Thaksin we were on the front line of the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], both in politics and economics. But now just one year after the coup, we have moved down to the level of [ Myanmar ] and Cambodia . Why? Because everyone else is running and we are standing still.
ATol: So a PPP-led government wouldn’t necessarily be more pro-China at the US’s expense because of their engagement with the coup-makers?
Samak: No, no, no. We can balance no problem. They are both colleagues. The US is a little bit far away, but a good old friend. But China is more than a good old friend, we are not far away from each other, we are in the same zone.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia Editor. He may be reached at email@example.com