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Richard S. Ehrlich: Warnings Not To Seek Revenge

Warnings Not To Seek Revenge

By Richard S. Ehrlich

Bangkok, Thailand -- Criticized as a rude right-wing demagogue, 72-year-old Samak Sundaravej was named prime minister on Monday (January 28), amid warnings that he must not seek revenge against military leaders who ousted his partner in a coup.

This Buddhist-majority, U.S. military ally was split by the bloodless September 19, 2006 coup when a handful of generals used tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees to boot out the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Today, Mr. Thaksin is a fugitive in self-exile, mostly resident in England.

Mr. Samak's earthy, combative style -- and support for Mr. Thaksin -- helped his newly formed Peoples Power Party (PPP) win the most votes in a December 23 election.

His PPP secured 233 of 480 seats in parliament's House of Representatives.

Smaller parties then joined Mr. Samak, creating a six-party coalition totaling about 315 seats.

On Monday (January 28), 310 of them selected Mr. Samak as prime minister. In the next few days, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was expected to endorse their choice.

When the coup leaders orchestrated a new constitution, they also created a 150-seat Senate comprised of 76 elected politicians, and 74 appointed members. Senate elections were expected in the coming weeks, possibly increasing Mr. Samak's power.

The junta, and their collaborators, are bracing for possible revenge by Mr. Samak's PPP, which was formed mostly by toppled supporters of Mr. Thaksin.

"The armed forces will not interfere with political affairs, and likewise there should not be any political intervention in military affairs," a junta spokesman, Col. Sansern Kaewkamnoed, warned on January 22.

During the past 16 months, the coup-installed junta awarded itself amnesty against prosecution, purged military officers loyal to Mr. Thaksin, and gave salary raises and other perks to the coup's generals.

Mr. Samak's new government was expected to reverse the coup's anti-Thaksin policies, amend the junta's constitution, and favor Mr. Thaksin and his loyalists with amnesties, military-related jobs, and other support.

Many urban, middle and upper class Thais welcomed the coup, cheered on by Thailand's media, intelligentsia, academia, feudalists and others who loathed Mr. Thaksin.

Mr. Thaksin was a billionaire telecommunications tycoon before becoming prime minister.

But Bangkok's establishment turned against him when his monopolistic politics, and welfare policies, gained popularity among the neglected rural poor.

Others condemned Mr. Thaksin's "war on drugs" which left 2,500 people dead.

Mr. Thaksin's government blamed the deaths on gang rivalries. Human rights groups pointed to possible "extrajudicial killings".

Today, some Thais fear Mr. Samak's administration may seek "revenge" on the junta for freezing the assets of Mr. Thaksin and his cronies, and dragging them into court.

Mr. Thaksin's wife, Pojaman Shinawatra, pled "not guilty" at the Supreme Court's Criminal Tribunal for Political Office Holders on January 23 to allegations she illegally purchased government real estate in 2003.

She said her co-accused husband would join her defence in May.

Mr. Thaksin is also faces tax dodging allegations, after his family sold its telecommunications holdings.

Mr. Samak's mood swings have meanwhile raised concern among some self-conscious Thais.

"Who did you fornicate with last night?" Mr. Samak snapped at a Thai reporter in November during a nationwide televised broadcast, while ignoring questions about his PPP officials.

Thais were especially embarrassed because Mr. Samak used the ancient language of Pali, favored by Thai Buddhist priests, to ask about the reporter's sex life.

Mr. Samak apparently hopes his rural majority will favor him as a no-holds-barred challenger to Bangkok's pampered, hypocritical society, even though he is linked to Mr. Thaksin and his moneyed loyalists.

Mr. Samak received a Bachelor's degree in law from Bangkok's prestigious Thammasat University, and was a newspaper columnist from 1957 to 1973.

"During his brief stint as interior minister [in 1976], he cracked down on the press and temporarily shut down this newspaper for making critical comments against the military government," lamented The Nation newspaper's columnist Kavi Chongkittavorn, recalling Mr. Samak's right-wing credentials during a vicious, countrywide witch-hunt against alleged communists.

After a 2000-2004 stint as Bangkok's governor, Mr. Samak was elected in 2006 as a senator for Bangkok -- but the coup obliterated those elections.

Mr. Samak's new government includes other men with confrontational reputations.

Parliament's new House Speaker is Mr. Thaksin's former aide, Yongyuth "Refrigerator Man" Tiyapairat, on trial for attempted murder despite claiming he "had nothing to do with the incident."

Mr. Yongyuth received the nickname, from Thai media, after allegedly leading a police attack on a suspected illegal drug dealer's house in 2000.

No drugs were found. An elderly couple inside the house survived behind a bullet-riddled refrigerator, which became symbolic of the case.

"I know I am a lightning rod, but I am determined to do my job without bias, hatred or revenge," Mr. Yongyuth said on Friday (January 25).

************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

ENDS

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