Samak Sundaravej, a firebrand right-wing politician and TV cooking show host who briefly served as Thailand’s prime minister and considered himself a proxy of ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, died of cancer Tuesday. He was 74.
Mr. Samak died at Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok after a long battle with liver cancer, hospital official Navachamol Sangkaew said. Mr. Samak had sought treatment for the cancer late last year in the United States and kept a low-profile after returning to Thailand.
Known as a straight-talker with a penchant for the profane, Mr. Samak’s political career spanned four decades including an incarnation as an anti-communist rabble rousers, but many supporters remembered him best for his TV show called “Tasting and Complaining,” a mix of traditional Thai cooking and rants on pet subjects.
Among the first Thai politicians to express their condolences was former Prime Minister Thaksin, who was forced out in a 2006 coup and tweeted about Mr. Samak’s death from self-imposed exile. He also expressed regret that he could not return to the country to attend the funeral.
Somchai Wongsawat, who replaced Mr. Samak as prime minister after serving as his deputy, called him a respectful leader who devoted his whole life to politics and democracy.
“I always sought his advice. I revered and loved him very much,” Mr. Somchai told reporters. “During Mr. Samak’s honorable life, he was a politician loyal to the people and someone who had a strong conviction about sustaining the country.”
It was ultimately Mr. Samak’s TV work that ended his political career, which peaked in December 2007 when he became the country’s 25th prime minister a job that lasted only nine months.
Mr. Samak’s tenure as prime minister coincided with one of the worst political crises in Thailand’s history and followed the September 2006 that ousted Thaksin. Mr. Samak rose to power as the self-proclaimed proxy for Thaksin, who was living in exile. Mr. Samak became the focus of street rallies by anti-Thaksin protesters who demanded his resignation.
Tens of thousands of protesters stormed the prime minister’s compound in August 2008, but it wasn’t the protesters who led to his ouster.
A court ruled in September 2008 that Mr. Samak’s appearance on his TV cooking show while prime minister and the fact that he had accepted money constituted a conflict of interest. The hasty decision prompted speculation that the court ruled to curtail protests and end Mr. Samak’s divisive tenure, amid fears of another coup.
Known for hurling epithets at his critics, Mr. Samak made one of his most infamous comments while prime minister. When a female Thai reporter inquired about rumours of infighting within his party, he snapped back: “Did you have sinful sex last night?”
His colorful vocabulary earned him the nickname “Dog Mouth” among critics.
Bangkok-born and of Chinese descent, Mr. Samak began his political career in 1968 when he joined the Democrat Party. With Bangkok as his power base, he went on to hold eight Cabinet posts and served more than 20 years as a member of parliament.
Early on, Mr. Samak established his trademarks a right wing ideology, a common touch which endeared him to some and a bias against freewheeling democracy and the press a “burden on development” he once called reporters whom he periodically berated for asking “lousy” questions.
It was his vitriolic rhetoric on radio and at rallies that helped stoke anti-communist sentiment in 1976 that prompted mobs to storm a Bangkok university, killing and burning alive scores of leftist student activists. The massacre came after Indochina had fallen under communist rule and Thailand was deeply polarized between right and left.
Mr. Samak, who was deputy interior minister at the time, subscribed to a motto of the extreme right-wing, “It’s no sin to kill communists.” The massacre, he maintained, had been the work of Vietnamese communists because dead dogs were found at the site and everyone knew that Vietnamese ate canines.
As interior minister following the bloody events of 1976, he had hundreds of “leftists” arrested in a witch hunt reminiscent of the anti-communist pogrom spearheaded by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
He was linked to another bloodbath in May 1992 now known as “Black May.”
Dozens were killed when the army opened fire on street protesters in Bangkok demanding the resignation of Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had become prime minister in a coup the year before.
Mr. Samak, then deputy prime minister, branded the demonstrators troublemakers, arguing the government had the right to use force as long as the United States could send troops to kill people in other countries.
After stints as deputy prime minister and as Bangkok’s mayor in the 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Samak emerged as a strong supporter of Thaksin, whose populist policies, including cheap health care and low-interest loans to the poor, Mr. Samak has vowed to continue.
Following Thaksin’s ouster, his Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved but former members formed the People’s Power Party which named Mr. Samak as its leader.