Saturday, June 28, 2008

Still standing but badly bruised


ON TUESDAY, the first day of a no-confidence debate against his five-month-old government, Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej nonchalantly folded a piece of paper as opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva accused him of being unfit to run the country.

Samak, a seasoned 73-year-old politician, then placed his origami masterpiece of a paper bird on the table and smiled. It was as if the prime minister was giving the bird to his detractors.

In his two-and-a-half hour speech, Abhisit, the 43-year-old Democrat party leader, described Samak’s leadership as “four months of inefficiency which cannot be allowed to be dragged out to a full four years”.

The opposition leader accused Samak of mishandling the stuttering economy, failing to tackle the impact of soaring fuel prices and violating national interests.

In his hour-long reply, the sharp-tongued Samak retorted: “You can’t wait for your opportunity. You’re so eager to become prime minister. I was seriously insulted by the opposition leader saying that I am incompetent.

“The accusations by the opposition are too serious. I am confident that in the past four months I have done no damage to this country, I have the capacity to remain leader of this country.”

Even as Samak and seven Cabinet members faced censure from the sole opposition party, the Democrat, People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) continued its 24-hour siege of the Government House, the seat of the Thai government, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

To cool the political heat from the street protestors who besieged his office on May 20, Samak made a U-turn and allowed the Democrat party to grill him in a censure motion (which he earlier rejected, saying his government was busy preparing the 2009 budget).

In the three-day debate that was televised “live” on state-controlled NBT Channel, Thais listened to almost the same accusations heard at the street protest broadcast “live” over the satellite-based ASTV television network owned by PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul:

> That Samak was the puppet of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup on Sept 19, 2006;

> That the PPP-led coalition government did not defend the revered monarchy; and,

> That foreign minister Noppadon Pattama handed control of the Preah Vihear Temple, a 900-year-old Khmer temple which borders Thailand and Cambodia, to Phnom Penh.

The difference for the TV viewers was that instead of PAD speakers such as Chamlong Srimuang, a retired major-general who in 1992 led “people power” protest against a coup leader, and Sondhi, a media mogul, those featured were elected representatives such as Abhisit, and Chuan Leekpai, the Democrat chief party adviser and a former Thai Prime Minister.

The august House also saw opposition parliamentarians slinging mud at the prime minister’s character.

On Wednesday, Democrat MP Dr Malinee Sukwenworakij, a medical doctor, claimed that Samak showed symptoms of mental deficiency and behaviour disorder.

Holding up the book Phu Puay Pok Krong Loke (Sick People who Ruled the World), Malinee attacked the prime minister for his “aggressive behaviour and bad temper”.

The burly Samak responded: “You can ask the Cabinet whether I am fit to administer the country. Would you like to compete with me in a brain game, like a memory test?”

Dr Malinee added that there was medical evidence to confirm that his glaring at reporters and ordering cake and red cordial drinks like a child reflected low IQ and EQ (emotional quotient).

As expected, Samak survived the censure, winning 280 “Yes” votes against 162 “No” votes.

“While the government (won the vote in the Lower House), Samak and a clutch of his Cabinet ministers will be so bruised, their credibility shaken to the point that a wide-ranging Cabinet reshuffle will be needed,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“After the censure debate, the PAD will continue to undermine the government’s credibility and legitimacy in the streets, stymieing Samak’s limited ability to address pressing economic difficulties.

“His position after the censure debate will thus become untenable.”

How the embattled Samak must wish that Thai politics is as straightforward as origami.

(Published in The Star on June 28, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)