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Clowns, cronies, dimwits crowd centre stage

The Samak government will tomorrow present its policy plan for three days of scrutiny and debate in the House of Representatives, a session expected to see strong arguments and questions, especially about the focus on populist programmes to please rural grass-roots villagers.

Published on February 17, 2008

To some people, the time since Samak Sundaravej took the national leadership seems like ages ago due to the many events and controversial issues floated since then by Cabinet members on the fast track to steal the limelight and show off their talents.

The government's policy has yet to be unveiled in the House, but several wild-eyed Cabinet members tried to put forward their personal plans, which defy rationale and sensible imagination. Their incredible ideas left the public amazed and wondering whether the country is heading towards grave risks.

So, clowning among the cronies of Thaksin Shinawatra has become an almost daily show with weird plans for public consumption. It seems like the dawning of an era of dimwits with ruling power, so to speak.

Prime Minister Samak has had to endure all this clowning and folly. When he felt it was too much, he resisted, reminding himself and Thaksin's cronies that he is the boss who has the final say.

Hearing these Cabinet members' fancy ideas, such as planting eucalyptus trees in rice fields, selling unsalted fermented fish for better nutrition, setting aside traffic lanes for brats to enjoy motorbike races and, most recently, a plan to build a copy of the London Eye, one cannot help but be resigned to the fact that one has to suffer fools gladly at times.

These ideas, whether or not they are part of the government policy, will face tough tests and grilling from the opposition in the House beginning tomorrow. The acid tongues of Democrat MPs will surely make the session more entertaining.

The past two weeks saw the floating of trial balloons, such as a proposed end to the compulsory licensing by the Public Health Ministry, abolition of the 30-per-cent capital reserve requirement and giving ex-Thai Rak Thai executive members plum assignments as board members in state enterprises.

They were all shot down, surprisingly, by Samak himself, who has changed quite a bit in the way he handles the media and response to criticism. At times he has even been jovial, schmoozing with reporters while complaining that as a political nominee he cannot yet do everything to please the public.

This is for Thaksin a reason for concern. Samak is obviously trying to shake the public perception that he will do everything for the man in political exile. When there were ridiculous issues or plans proposed by Cabinet greenhorns, he brought them into the open, telling the public about his disagreement and disapproval.

Not only does Samak want to be independent of Thaksin and other obligations, his tendency of trying to build and solidify his own political base is gaining ground. His outspokenness in saying what he likes or dislikes, calling a spade a spade to the point of irking Thaksin's cronies, serves as a strong message that his tolerance as a loyal nominee is wearing out.

In allocating assignments to his deputies, Samak retained supervision and control over key units relating to budget, legal affairs and law enforcement, supposedly for his own good and strong bargaining power in dealing with Thaksin when their relationship turns sour.

We now see Samak as a man with a split personality and character. On one side, he has to act like a political nominee of Thaksin, but not as much now. On the other, he wants to make it known that he is a national leader who wants to make his presence felt and his performance duly recognised.

The more he wants to have a free hand in running the government, as he has told foreign news agencies, the more he could face risks in the form of Thaksin's agitation and wrath, which could eventually lead to a showdown. For all we know, Samak may have to opt for self-preservation when he has to choose between his pride and toeing the line drawn by Thaksin.

His earlier statement that he would introduce a bill to give amnesty to 111 ex-Thai Rak Thai executives only three months before he completes his four-year term must have troubled Thaksin, who cannot afford to wait that long.

Growing displeasure and distrust could lead to a war of attrition, with Samak holding the slightly upper hand as the man with the power and control on law enforcement and dissolution of the House. Thaksin is in a precarious situation as a fugitive criminal evading an arrest warrant.

Samak loves high-wire politics. For him, there is nothing to lose while there is a lot to gain. As said before, he can choose whether he wants to be an obedient nominee of Thaksin or a politician who wants to undo past harm and rewrite his own history to leave an admirable legacy.

He can achieve that just by doing what he can for public good and the national interest. It is not a hard act to follow and, as a headstrong person, he does not have to force himself. It is even more part of his nature.

On the contrary, by acting against his will just to please and serve somebody else bearing public disgrace, he will be remembered as a self-serving politician uncaring even for family members who will have to endure shame for years, if not forever.

 Sopon Onkgara

The Nation

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