Wednesday, September 3, 2008



The time has come, Mister Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, to step down for the good of your country. I say this not as a supporter of the righteous protestors who demand you resign, they have much to answer for themselves, nor out of malice towards you. I am an admirer of your plucky style, as much as I am a critic of your sometimes prejudiced words.

You are proud and sometimes virulent in your nationalism, so I will not advise you to look at my country, America, with its very own very flawed version of democracy, as a model. But you might look to Asia for inspiration.

Not to Burma, the least democratic of your Asian neighbors, certainly not to paramount dictator Than Shwe. Although you reportedly admire the cruel and vain Burmese dictator because of his apparent devotion to Buddhist ritual, we have come to understand that sort of incendiary comment as Samak-speak, a trademark random comment that manages to shock and enrage, rock the boat and assault the intellect, only to fall harmlessly by the wayside because you are not taken seriously as an intellectual. Yet your silver tongue has the power to inspire and incite and you have built a solid career on this talent.

We only met once, when you were running for mayor. I was impressed that a man of your fame and stature would visit the predictably unsympathetic venue of the Bangkok Foreign Correspondent’s Club at all, but the fact that you did so completely on your own, no aides, no assistants, no personal secretary, not even a driver, truly impressed. You just walked in and started talking.

On the other hand you disappointed when you summarily dismissed the topic of your involvement in the bloody crackdown of October 6, 1976 by turning the question on the questioner, who happened to be me.

“You, when you come to Thailand?” you challenged, as if a foreigner who had the temerity to ask such a question could be ridiculed for relatively recent arrival in the country.
“In the year 2514, khrap,” I answered in Thai. Stating the year 1971, when I first arrived as an exchange student, bought a rare interlude of silence from the silver tongue.
“You been here long time, you speak Thai well.” ("Phut thai taekchan", was the exact phrase I believe)
“Aren’t you ashamed of October 6?”

And that was that. I still admire your pluck and tenacity and accept that, for whatever reason, talking with you about October 6 is not going to be constructive. Similar journalistic exchanges took place in the past year upon your ascension to Prime Minister. I could only note with wistful nostalgia your deft ability for turning questions back on the questioner.

But enough of that: there’s too much going on in the present to dwell in the past.

You are between a rock and a hard place, Mister Prime Minister. For inspiration, I suggest you look to the most democratic of your Asian neighbors, Japan.

You, a prime minister hanging in by a thread, were scheduled to fly to Tokyo and meet Japan’s prime minister, also hanging in by a thread. That meeting was of course cancelled because of unrest in Bangkok, but in the interim, your Japanese interlocutor resigned.

You have political karma that enables and inhibits you.

Since Thailand’s Government House has been occupied by your political opponents, an understandably annoying development that might have caused a less confident leader to resort to more extreme measures, you have been uncharacteristically calm, almost unruffled in your public response. Despite your unwillingness to talk about it, the shadow of October 6 does hang over you, in the positive sense that you want nothing of the sort to happen again.

There’s less bravado and more nuance in your recent presentation of self as prime minister, suggesting a swift, self-corrective learning curve. Under ordinary circumstances you might grow into the role, though it could also be argued you reached the natural peak of your abilities as a mayor and should be content with that.

The necessary humility and willingness to compromise, inherent to being an effective prime minister at a delicate time such as this, does not mix well with your brash, populist style, nor that of your ambitious patron-in-exile, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a political blueblood and veteran party stalwart of considerable skill, knew better than to fight the inevitable. When it became clear to him that he could not serve his country as he might like to because of unfavorable deadlocks, logjams and impasses in his own party and Japan’s parliament as a whole, he quietly resigned.

“Sorry for causing so much trouble with this abrupt announcement,” said Mr. Fukuda, stepping down with grace and good manners that have characterized his career.

Each person has his or her own style and no one would expect you, Mr. Samak, to follow the mild-mannered Mr. Fukuda to the word. But there are lessons that can be drawn from the Japanese cultural penchant for humility and dignified resignation in the face of intractable difficulty.

Sometimes the best way forward is to step aside.

pc (Bangkok Post, September 4, 2008)