Cooking show lands Thai PM in hot water

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) – Thailand’s prime minister, who has survived two weeks of militant street protests demanding his resignation, could be booted out of office for a handful of appearances on a cooking show where he whipped up dishes like “salmon coconut soup.”

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a well-known foodie and TV chef, defended himself in the Constitutional Court on Monday against accusations that he broke a prohibition on private employment by hosting a television cooking show while in office.

If found guilty, he would have to resign, an outcome that would allow him to exit without succumbing to pressure from protesters who have occupied the grounds of his office complex since Aug. 26, demanding he step down.

Samak is accused of doing the bidding of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in 2006 by a military coup after demonstrations denouncing him for alleged corruption and abuse of power. The same protest coalition, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, has led both the current protests and the ones in 2006.

“By making a quick decision, the court will help a lot in resolving the political crisis,” Suwat Apaipakdi, a lawyer for a group of senators who filed the petition against Samak in the case, said. “If the court rules that Prime Minister Samak is disqualified from holding office, then the political crisis will automatically cease.”

But even if Samak is acquitted his troubles are not over. The Election Commission has recommended his party be dissolved for vote fraud, and he faces a defamation suit and three possible corruption cases.

Samak’s immediate problem, however, is his appearance on the cooking show “Tasting and Complaining,” a mix of traditional Thai cooking and diatribes on the subjects of Samak’s choice, which he hosted regularly before taking office in February.

He made about a half-dozen appearances on the show after becoming prime minister, the most recent in May, prompting the senators to petition the Constitutional Court.

The Constitution stipulates the prime minister is prohibited from holding any position in any business venture.

In his hour-long testimony, Samak told the court he only received an honorarium from the company that made the show.

“I was hired to appear on the program and got paid from time to time. I was not an employee of the company so I did not violate the law,” he said. Samak told the court the television company paid for his transportation.

“I presented the cooking show and got paid for my acting,” Samak said, whose recipes include a spicy coconut soup with salmon called “tom kha salmon” and “pig legs in Coca-Cola.”

Samak’s love for food and cooking is well known. When visiting Beijing for the Olympics, he whipped up a dinner for Thai athletes that included stir-fried chicken with mushrooms and baby bamboo shoots.

Sakchai Khaewwaneesakul, the managing director of the company that produced the show, testified for Samak, saying he paid the prime minister $560 per show for incidental expenses.

“The presenters of our shows are not our employees, but we pay them honorariums,” he told the court.

Samak has not been able to enter his office, the Government House, since protesters stormed the compound Aug. 26. Despite facing emergency rule in Bangkok, the protesters have refused to leave. Samak has refused to step down. The deadlock has made it difficult for the government to function and raised fears of an economic downturn.