Samak Sundaravej was born in Bangkok in the aristocratic family of Chinese descent. He grew up in Bangkok, studied law at Thammasat University (where Chuan Leekpai was one of his classmates), and worked for a number of years as a newspaper columnist before entering politics in 1968 by joining the opposition Democrat Party.
He was also a career TV chef hosting a popular cooking show, called "Tasting 'n' Grumbling". Few could have predicted that it would be his love of cooking that ousted Mr. Samak it has been one of his few saving graces for much of his premiership.
Originally a member of the Democrat Party, Samak was elected to the Parliament in 1973. Since his political debut, Samak's political friends and enemies have varied with the twists and turns of his political career.
Few years later, Samak stirred controversy by instigating violence against pro-democracy activists he called 'communists'. Deputy Interior Minister back then, Samak has been implicated in the Thammasat Massacre one of Thailand's darkest episodes. It happened on 6 October 1976, when University students protested against the return of a military dictator. The incident ended violently claiming the lives of dozens of students. The dead bodies were brutally slaughtered and burnt.
As a reward for his right-wing stance, Samak was appointed as Minister of Interior in the civilian puppet government of the coup leaders. While in power (197677), he acted as a civilian dictator, closing down any newspaper which dared to put up news and comments unfavourable to the powers-that-be.
Able to attract enormous crowds with his communicating skills, Samak formed his own right-wing political party, Prachakorn Thai Party, which he led from 1979 to 2000. In the 1979 election, Samaks newly established Prachakorn Thai Party won 32 seats (29 of them in Bangkok) in the 301 seat House of Representatives. One of the reasons for Samak's success was his strong rhetoric, appealing to the low income groups like Bangkok's market dwellers, street vendors and taxi drivers.
In 2000 Samak scored a resounding victory in the Bangkok mayoral race, but his four-year term in office ended amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power. He went on to host political talk shows as well as a popular cooking show on television, returning to politics in 2006 with a successful run for the Senate, where he served until Thaksins overthrow.
Following the dissolutions of Thaksins Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, Samak helped establish the pro-Thaksin PPP in August 2007. The PPP led by Samak, a self-described "nominee" for Thaksin (labeled as a puppet), won the December 2007 election and was able to form a multiparty governing coalition.
In his short stint as Prime Minister and Defence Minister the combative Mr. Samak, 73, has shrugged off the street protests, an unstable relationship with the military elite and a variety of legal challenges*.
Before he became Prime Minister, Samak's weekly television appearances cookery-themed political rants and culinary demonstrations at local markets made him a household name in Thailand. So did his more innovative, self-devised recipes such as pork leg stewed in Coca-Cola.
On 9 September 2008, Samak lost his premiership after the Constitution Court decided that the continued apron-wearing appearances of Mr. Samak on the television cookery shows, "Chim Pai Bon Pai" and "Yok Kayong Hok Mong Chao" while in office had breached a conflict of interest law that forbids moonlighting.
* Samak's Legal Challenges
The National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) decided to probe Samak Sundaravej for malfeasance, abuse of power and bribe allegation while serving as Bangkok Governor, and as Prime Minister and Defence Mimister:
1. on the day Samak Sundaravej was royally endorsed as the 25th Prime Minister of Thailand, an inquiry has been set forth on the controversial bidding on three garbage disposal projects in the capital worth ฿9.5 Billion in 2003
2. the ฿6.7 Billion controversial procurement of fire trucks and boats from an Austrian firm for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) causing ฿2 Billion worth of damages to the state and violating the Anti-Bidding Scam Act in 2004
3. the bribe of ฿125 Million paid by a Japanese Nishimutsu Construction company to BMA officials for a winning bid in the major tunnel-construction project in the capital in 2003
4. irregularities involving the planned construction of the ฿120 Billion hydro-power Ban Koum dam project on the Mekong river being pushed by the Samak administration
5. Prime Minister and Defence Minister Samak cries foul over the NCCC probe against him for having approved the reinstatement of Sub-Lt Duang Yoobamrung, the disgraced son of former Interior Minister Police Captain Chalerm Yoobamrung, into the Royal Thai Army against due processes in April 2008. At the time the approval was given, Chalerm was the Interior Minister in Samak's coalition government.
Remark: Duang was discharged from the military in 2002 on charges of desertion, when he fled to Malaysia in 2001 after being accused of shooting to death an on-duty police officer at Bangkok's nightclub brawl. He surrendered the following year and was later acquitted of murder charges. Sub-Lt Duang Yoobamrung didn't stand a court-martial trial for his year-long desertion.
6. the ongoing investigation on the charge against the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for wrongfully making a decision that favoured Cambodia registering Preah Vihear Temple as a world heritage site. In particular, Thana Duangrat, Thai Ambassador to France, whom former Foreign Affairs Minister Noppadol Pattama claimed acknowledged the process of a joint communique between Thailand and France that led to handing the disputed ancient site over to Cambodia.
In 2007, Samak was sentenced to two years in jail without probation for defamation, however the two-year jail term was suspended pending appeal. On 25 September 2008, shortly after the Constitution Court disqualified Samak from the premiership, the Court of Appeals upheld the two year jail sentence in libel case against former Deputy Bangkok Governor Samart Ratchapolsitte. Shortly afterwards Samak jumped bail and fled the country heading for the United States, supposedly to receive the cancer treatment.
Samak Sundaravej (13 June 1935 - 24 November 2009) would be remembered as one of the most colourful and controversial figures in Thai politics. He was known for his sharp tongue and short temper.
A veteran politician who was also a celebrity chef, a newspaper columnist and owner, a Bangkok governor elected with the highest number of votes, a multiple-term MP, known as a lawmaker with a famously sharp tongue, and a Cabinet member serving in many ministerial portfolios, including Interior, Transport, Agriculture, And lately, Samak briefly served as the 25th Prime Minister of Thailand and Minister of Defense.
His presence on the cooking circuit will be sorely missed, if only for his vibrant and exciting personality.
"Khun Samak throughout his brief term in office as PM certainly kept politics alive and thriving. His lively and some time irreverent comments invariably kept people riveted to his speach's and often wondering what he would say next to liven up an otherwise dull subject. Not quite my type of character, although I did have a grudging admiration for his free spirit and determination to say what he felt, come what may. RIP." said one observer.