Embattled Thai Premier Known For Politics, Cooking
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has declared a state of emergency after days of protests in which thousands of demonstrators occupied his Bangkok office compound, demanding his resignation. Samak vowed that he would not step down, but he called for a national referendum on whether his government should stay in power.
Opponents charged the prime minister with corruption and said he is little more than a mouthpiece for Thailand's former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup.
The man at the center of Thailand's latest political crisis has been the country's prime minister for less than eight months, but he's been a prominent conservative politician for more than 40 years.
He's also widely known as a chef who had a long-running cooking show on Thai television.
Samak Sundaravej began his political career in the late 1960s, after attending law school in Thailand and a business college in the United States. He led a right-wing opposition faction that was connected to the Thai Army. Samak was known as an anti-Communist and a supporter of Thailand's monarchy.
He served as mayor of his home town, Bangkok, and as a minister in several governments, where he gained a reputation for arresting left-wing activists. He was deputy prime minister in 1992, when the military launched a violent crackdown on pro-democracy advocates.
In 2006, Samak agreed to form a new political party from the followers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, was ousted by a military coup that year amid charges of corruption, and his party had been banned.
Samak's new People Power Party won a big share of the vote in elections late last year and became the major member of a ruling coalition.
But Thailand's economy has stalled, amid soaring food and fuel prices that are driving high inflation. Street protests began to shake the government in June and grew in force over the summer. Members of Samak's government were implicated in vote fraud and corruption scandals and forced from office.
Samak and his Cabinet survived a vote of no confidence in parliament but remained embroiled in legal battles. In late August, tens of thousands of protesters occupied the grounds of Government House, the prime minister's headquarters in central Bangkok, demanding that the government step down.
Samak refused to resign, and the Thai army showed little inclination to topple him in another coup or use force to evict the protesters from the Government House compound.
Samak proposed a nationwide referendum on his government, a process that could take weeks. Opposition leaders charged that the offer was a ploy to wait them out until the protests subside.
In the meantime, Samak and his government have been forced to operate from a military command post. The 73-year-old prime minister hasn't said yet whether he'll continue his television program, a mix of cooking and political commentary, which is aptly called Tasting While Grumbling.
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