Likely new Thai leader known for short temper
Samak not shy about unleashing a sharp tongue
BANGKOK - Samak Sundarevej, the man likely to become Thailand's next prime minister, is known for his sharp tongue and short temper.
Whether erupting at reporters for asking "stupid" questions or whipping up curries on his television cooking show, the 72-year-old has gained fame - and notoriety - largely thanks to his words.
He minced few words in his campaign for last month's elections, declaring himself the proxy for deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His platform was a carbon copy of Thaksin's populist agenda, which provided cheap healthcare and low-interest loans to the poor.
Samak's People's Power Party heads a coalition with two-thirds of Parliament's 480 seats, making him the most likely candidate to become prime minister when Parliament votes tomorrow.
"He comes across as belligerent, aggressive, and uncompromising," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "But many people find him affable. He's kind of like your uncle. He's folksy, and not afraid to be a bit profane. He's straight-shooting and connects with a lot of people."
Charisma alone would not have propelled Samak to the premiership. He won widespread support by piggybacking on the popularity of Thaksin, the billionaire tycoon ousted in a 2006 coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power.
"I don't like Samak's mouth. He's always chewing people out. But I like Thaksin," said taxi driver Prawut Panto, who like many cabbies in Bangkok comes from the rural heartland that supports Thaksin. "I voted for Samak because we know Thaksin is backing him."
A former Bangkok mayor who has held several Cabinet posts, Samak has been a divisive figure for decades.
He is widely accused of having fomented anti-communist sentiment in 1976 that prompted mobs to storm a Bangkok university, killing dozens of leftist student activists. The massacre came after Indochina had fallen under communist rule and Thailand was deeply polarized between right and left.
Samak, who was deputy interior minister at the time, subscribed to a motto of the extreme right-wing, "It's no sin to kill communists."
He was linked to another bloodbath in 1992 now known as "Black May."
Dozens were killed when the army fired on street protesters in Bangkok demanding the resignation of General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had become prime minister in a coup the year before.
Samak, then deputy prime minister, said the demonstrators were troublemakers who needed to be controlled. He has never expressed contrition for the killings.
A Bangkok native with a law degree and strong ties to the royal family, Samak was elected mayor of the capital in 2000. He left the job four years later with low approval ratings but resurfaced with a popular cooking show called "Tasting and Complaining," a mix of Thai cooking and rants on subjects of Samak's choice.
Dealing with the media brings out the street fighter in Samak, who has a history of confrontation with the press.
One of his most colorful recent remarks was to a female Thai reporter, who inquired about rumors of infighting within his party. "Did you have sinful sex last night?" he snapped back.
His penchant for vulgarity has earned Samak the nickname "Dog Mouth" among critics.
At a weekend news conference, Samak bristled when asked if he would become prime minister. "That's a lousy and provocative question," he told a Thai reporter.