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Cooking show lands Thai PM in hot water
Thailand Political 5115289
In this May 23, 2008 file photo, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej checks an anchovy as he shops items to cook for Thai embassy staff in Guadalupe wet market at the financial district of Makati city east of Manila, Philippines. Samak, a well-known foodie and a famous TV chef, defended himself in the Constitutional Court on Monday, Sept. 8, 2008 against accusations that he broke a prohibition on private employment while in office by hosting a television cooking show. - photo by ASSOCIATED PRESS/file
    BANGKOK, Thailand — 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 while in office by hosting a television cooking show.
    The court’s verdict is expected Tuesday. 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.
    They accuse him 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,’’ said Suwat Apaipakdi, a lawyer for a group of senators who filed the petition against Samak in the case. ‘‘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 that 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 that the prime minister is prohibited from holding any position in any business venture.
    In his hour-long testimony, Samak told the court that 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,’’ said Samak, 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.
    The People’s Alliance for Democracy is a loose-knit group of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists, who accuse him of corruption and violating the constitution. Samak’s People’s Power Party easily topped the vote in December 2007 general elections, allowing it to form a six-party coalition government.
    The Election Commission ruled last week that Samak’s party committed electoral fraud in the polls and should be dissolved. The case is also expected to end up in the Constitution Court.
    Samak also has been accused of defamation by Bangkok’s deputy governor, Samart Rajpholasit. A lower court sentenced Samak to three years in jail, and an appeals court is expected to rule Sept. 25 on whether to uphold the sentence.
    If the court does that, Samak would have to quit immediately.
    In addition, Samak faces at least three corruption allegations — two concerning his work as Bangkok governor in 2000-2003 — that have yet to reach the courts.

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