Published on October 11, 2007
The ongoing verbal ambushes are verging on the absurd. The more PM Surayud Chulanont and his ex-ally-turned-arch-rival Prasong Soonsiri trade accusations, the more ridiculous the exchange becomes - and the more disillusioned the public will be towards national politics.
Prasong has mounted a campaign in the legislative body to grill Premier Surayud and his Cabinet over what he describes as "the government's failure to perform".
Left unsaid in public was Prasong's attempt to get at Surayud's Achilles' heel - the premier's acquisition of a piece of land in Khao Yai Thiang in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, that might have been classified as a forest reserve.
There is nothing wrong with putting pressure on the country's chief executive to make full disclosure of questionable personal assets, of course.
But the controversy assumed serious political nuance when some of Prasong's close aides suggested in public that the no-confidence move was in fact aimed at removing Surayud from office - three months before the national election is to be held.
If the premier was perturbed by that move, he did a marvellous job of concealing the fact.
Then came the "legal interpretation" by House Speaker Mechai Ruchupan, who went on the record to say that if Surayud should be pressured to step down, things could get rather confusing indeed because he would have to sound out the House to pick a new candidate for the premiership from among the lawmakers.
With that, the premier's supporters fired back the first salvo at Prasong, saying that Prasong was in fact instigating the no-confidence move to put himself in line for the top political post.
That naturally shed a negative light on Prasong, who has been insisting all along that he was going after the premier only to fulfil his duty as a legislator charged with the responsibility of keeping the government honest.
No, he declared, he wasn't gunning to become prime minister himself.
Things could still have remained tolerably tense but not explosive had Surayud, as had been his previous practice, brushed aside any provocative or leading questions from the press. Deliberately or not, the premier got himself trapped by responding to a question from an interviewer in last Saturday's "Open House at Baan Phitsanulok":
Q: "Why do you think Khun Prasong is becoming so antagonistic toward you? Have you done anything that may have angered him?"
Surayud: "I don't know. Perhaps he was disappointed because once, when I was Army commander-in-chief, he had asked me to do something and I turned him down because it was against my principles."
That was it. The simmering skirmish exploded into a full-blown war.
Prasong hit back by denying ever having made any self-serving request to Surayud - demanding that the premier clarify his statement. He then launched a frontal assault on Surayud, attacking him with thinly veiled contempt and scorn.
If Surayud's initial blow at Prasong was considered a punch below the belt, then Prasong's counter punch wasn't aimed much higher either.
Prasong claimed: "In fact, it was I who helped Khun Surayud out of the Army's wilderness and got him promoted to Army chief and subsequently as prime minister today."
The premier's responses to Prasong's hard-hitting counter attacks on the same day were ambiguous and feeble. When confronted with direct questions, he turned evasive.
Did Prasong ask him as Army commander-in-chief to stage a coup to oust Thaksin Shinawatra from the premiership?
Surayud, instead of a straight "No", said: "I have never said anyone had tried to persuade me to stage a coup."
Was it true that his rise to the top was helped by Prasong?
"I would rather not say anything that might cause divisiveness …"
Now, Prasong's own political record and credibility hasn't been all that solid. But Surayud's ambivalence and caginess have done little to help lend him any credence either.
After all is said and done though, there is more heat than light. Both sides have avoided taking up the real issue. But is the Khao Yai Thiang land a real issue? If so, why does Surayud have to wait for the lawmakers to make a move against him in the House before he speaks up.
If it's a serious breach of ethics, why hasn't Prasong spoken up on what is unethical or illegal? Why has he used the issue as if it is a political bargaining chip?
The other personal brickbats (who helped whom to rise to his post? Who asked whom to do what?) are simply trash that shouldn't be dumped onto the public at all … no matter how many newspaper headlines the stories have made in the past week.
By Suthichai Yoon
(Share your views at my English-language blog at blog.nationmultimedia.com).