If you hadn't already taken notice, you had better catch up quick with what I consider to be the most dramatic change yet in the character of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont.
He told reporters the other day - without batting an eyelid - that he had turned into "80 per cent a politician".
I might have misheard. He might have said he'd become "80 per cent political and 20 per cent non-political" - whatever that is supposed to mean. But it still would have been an earthshaking revelation. He was, in effect, sending out a stern warning that the man you will see leading the interim government from now on will be a "new Surayud".
For those who had admired General Surayud for having led the life of a "non-political soldier", that confession might have come as a shock. But then, one certainly can't have one's cake and eat it too. In other words, you can't praise a professional general for taking up the premiership and expect him to be "non-political" throughout his tenure. The fact that someone is propelled by circumstances into the top political post in the country doesn't exempt them from becoming politicised.
No matter how much you sympathise with him, there is simply no such thing as a "non-political" politician. Even the most "reluctant" premier would have to face the fact that everything he does or doesn't do is inevitably a political gesture.
Still, my first reaction to Premier Surayud's declaration that he had, in the short span of four months in the hot seat, turned 80 per cent into a politician was, I must admit, a cynical one. I couldn't help but blame Thaksin Shinawatra for tainting a clean, honest and professional soldier. But that sense of disenchantment lasted only a few seconds. Recent political developments must have taught him some brutally pragmatic lessons: never stand in the middle of the road, because there's the risk you'll be run over. And never be too much of a gentleman, because you might be mistaken for a sucker. It soon dawned on me that for Surayud to face down Thaksin, he would need all of the political instincts he can muster. The premier's most telling revelation about why he couldn't hold on to his former "No-politics-please, I-am-a-professional-soldier" self came in a press conference.
He said: "Khun Thaksin has already decided that he will stay abroad. The [Thai] public will have to keep an eye on the developments [on this matter]. That's because in politics, there is nothing to ensure that one plus one equals two. I am already now 80 per cent a politician. Only 20 per cent of me isn't political. Perhaps, I will have to conclude that one plus one doesn't necessarily equal two either
Was that a gentle threat to resort to "eye-for-an-eye" retaliation against Thaksin? Or is it a firm promise to deal with the crafty, scheming and unrepentant ex-premier with all of the tricks politicians use to corner their foes? Or was it both?
Whatever the final outcome of this major character transformation of the premier inflicted by Thaksin's subterfuge, you won't have the old, soft-spoken, tender-hearted Surayud to kick around anymore.
If, from now on, Premier Surayud starts evading tough questions from the press, you know why. That's Surayud the "new politician" at work. If he begins to tell you not to have any high expectations concerning his performance, then, that's his 20 per cent "non-political nominee" talking.
If he says that Thaksin can come back anytime because he is a Thai citizen, he is speaking as a naive, matter-of-fact non-politician - his old self.
If, on the other hand, the premier insists that Thaksin can come home only if he promises not to stir up political trouble, then it's a political statement. That's his political psyche - his new self - making its intentions clear.
If, however, he declares: "Thaksin wants to return home? Well, we need to talk first," then he has become a full-fledged political leader ready to play games with any foxy ousted prime minister trying to harass him from outside the country.
That, whether you like it or not, is what you get when you accuse a gentleman in politics of being a wimp.
I only hope that the 20 per cent "non-political" part of his character will manage to somehow keep his newly-acquired 80 per cent "political" self sane - and 100 per cent honest to his pre-political conscience.
(The Nation ,25/01/2007)