Defiant Surayud fights home-front battles from abroad
It took him six months but Premier Surayud Chulanont finally did it - he took Thaksin Shinawatra's legacy of corruption head on. The fact that he had to deliver that long-anticipated blow in Japan on Tuesday proved once again that "all politics is domestic".
In his address to the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, the premier, who had been hit recently by some home-grown criticisms that he had been too soft on his predecessor, went for the jugular when he quoted Thaksin's recent interview in Time magazine.
"Thaksin told the world that 'corruption in Thailand won't go away, it's in the system'. If I thought that was true, I wouldn't be here today. Without the rule of law, nothing else matters. There can be no justice, no equality and certainly no democracy," Surayud declared.
He then took the battle home by addressing allegations that his interim government had shown slow progress over allegations of corruption and abuse of state power by members of the previous government. "Some people have urged the use of executive power to short-circuit the judicial process. But if we adopt that approach, how will the rule of law ever be strengthened?" he asked.
Perhaps, for the first time, Surayud felt the need to publicly spell out why he was placed in the current position in the first place. He said: "In a nutshell, the triggers for the military's intervention were the unprecedented consolidation of political and financial power by Thaksin Shinawatra during his five years as prime minister, his alleged abuse of state power, widespread corruption, curtailment of media freedom and a disastrous human rights record."
For some inexplicable reason, he had previously tried to avoid "pinning down" Thaksin in public in such an overt manner. Perhaps, he wanted to portray a "velvet-glove" image.
But when the proverbial "iron fist" failed to make an appearance in any meaningful way six months later, Surayud inevitably came under heavy pressure to show that he actually was in possession of some political guts.
Just before his decision to fly to Tokyo to wrap up the Japan-Thai Economic Partnership Agreement, the prime minister came under a cloud from at least three rumours:
1) He was "making a deal" with Thaksin behind the public's back. This suspicion stemmed from an interview with Matichon daily last week when he disclosed that Thaksin had called him two months ago. Surayud said that Thaksin "talked about things related to his family members and asked me to help take care of them". In the same interview, the premier also refused to take a firm stand against the founders of PTV, all of whom have close connections to Thaksin and have been staging rallies against the coup leaders but, as critics saw it, have refrained from criticising Surayud directly.
2) Surayud is at odds with the chairman of the Council of National Security (CNS) General Sonthi Boonyaratglin who, according to the same rumour-mill, may be planning to replace him. The lurking speculation came to a head when the premier turned down a proposal submitted by Sonthi to impose an "emergency decree" to block a PTV-spearheaded rally at Sanam Luang last Friday.
True or not, that intensified the speculation about the differing distances that Surayud and Sonthi respectively keep from Thaksin. See No 1.
3) Surayud may have finally realised that the premier's job is too big for him. It's only a matter of weeks before he calls it quits. There were even rumours that coup-leader Sonthi may install himself as the premier to "get some real action done".
In one bold stroke, and to the surprise of some of his critics, Surayud shot down all three "nightmarish scenarios" that have been making the rounds in political circles in the past few weeks with his Tokyo speech.
With this address, Surayud made it clear that he was set on pinning down Thaksin's dirty past - that he was in the same boat as the coup leaders and that no, he wasn't a political wimp.
But then, his vocal detractors will maintain that it was only a speech, albeit a well-written and eloquent formal address, meant to impress the world from the Tokyo rostrum. Of course, he can sack his speechwriter anytime for a "too-good-to-be-true" speech, but the guy himself can't be held responsible for what he read out in public, can he?
Now that he has delivered a persuasive, impressive speech from outside, he will have to prove whether he can deliver the goods at home.