Samak Sundaravej passed away and the obituaries are dissecting his past and noting that he was a complex political figure. PPT doesn’t plan to add too much to those discussions. Samak was one of Thailand’s old guard who was able to stay on the scene and politically relevant because many basic features of Thai politics remained unchanged. In other words, because the political environment changed relatively slowly, the political dinosaurs have been able to adapt and even thrive.
Samak was an anti-communist rightist who spared little time for human rights. That’s pretty much true. His period as Minister of the Interior under the palace’s prime minister Thanin Kraivixien (still a member of the king’s Privy Council) in 1976-77 was one of the most repressive in the modern era. Samak had hundreds of alleged leftists arrested and his tactics led to many fleeing Thailand or joining the CPT in the jungle.
Earlier, he had a critical role in the events that resulted in the massacre of students at Thammasat University on 6 October 1976. Samak is seen to have encouraged ousted dictator Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn to return to Thailand, setting off demonstrations that led to the Thammasat massacre. At the time, Samak was a close associate of Queen Sirikit and Samak claimed that the king wanted Thanom to return. When the royal family showed up to welcome Thanom on his return, Samak’s claims were vindicated.
More than this, Samak organized anti-government rightists to bring down the government and contributed to the extremist actions that led to horrendous events. Samak continued to deny the Thammasat massacre until the end.
Another rogue of this period, Chamlong Srimuang, whose role in the 1976 events is far murkier, has commented on Samak’s passing. In the Nation (25 November 2009: “Samak never knew I voted for him: Chamlong”), Chamlong says that things that show another side of Samak.
Chamlong says he used to vote for Samak when he was a “young-blood politician…”. In other words, when Samak was a hard-core rightist anti-communist. They became enemies as time went on. Chamlong explains that Samak “didn’t like the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect that much and I happened to be one of its members.” They also clashed over abortion rights when Chamlong was secretary-general to then Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. Samak want a “liberalisation of abortion” whereas the fundamentalist Chamlong mobilized to kill the bill. And, Chamlong explains that Samak was not prepared to be at Prem’s beck and call. So not all bad.
That animosity between Prem and Samak was reinvigorated when Thaksin Shinawatra nominated Samak to lead the People’s Power Party following the 2006 military-palace coup and the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai Party and banning of its leading members. That bitter rivalry eventually saw Samak ousted on very minor charges essentially trumped up by courts that sort every means to defeat the “Thaksin regime.”
Like so many of the dinosaurs that continue to stride the political stage, Samak’s longevity had much to do with the conservatism fostered by the weight of authoritarian and undemocratic institutions like the monarchy, bureaucracy and military. Until that hold is broken, human rights in Thailand are doomed to more dark days.