Perhaps, he was always like this. Perhaps, he has undergone a dramatic personality shift. With great finesse and subtlety, and just as the confused public wasn’t taking notice, Premier Surayud Chullanont has somehow morphed into a master of ambiguities in all his answers to the most political sensitive questions. And he doesn’t seem one bit concerned about what has become his signature ambivalence.
While most people think having a cool head and being perpetually vague over the country’ s major issues are too diametrically different qualities, the interim prime minister doesn’t seem to subscribe to that logic. He has chosen to be ambiguous to prove that he can survive any attempt to pin him down on all burning questions.
On his allegedly soured relations with Chairman Gen Sonthi Bunyaratkalin of the Council for National Security (CNS), for example, the premier has kept the speculation alive by being ambivalent.
Instead of explaining why his ties with his former subordinate (and now technically his boss) remain solid that he claimed to be, Gen Surayud keeps going back to history by insisting that he had never wanted to take up the premiership anyway.
“He came to me a few times to ask me to assume the leadership of the interim government. He told me that if I didn’t accept it, he would be dead!” Surayud said in his latest Saturday television show. If he thought that story would deter any attempt by Sonthi to sack him, his following statement clearly blunted it all.
When he was asked whether he was afraid the CNS chairman might force him out of the position, the prime minister said: “He doesn’t have to give me the sack. All he has to do is simply to tell me he wants somebody else in this position…”
And just when people were beginning to believe that things couldn’t get any worse, Surayud told the whole country that he couldn’t say whether he would be able to stay the full term until the election “because there are certain things you simply can’t predict about the future.”
Was he trying to stem the negative rumour about him and the coup-leader? Or was he, in fact, fanning the speculation?
The premier waited a few weeks before he (almost) reluctantly came out to deny a somewhat absurd “conspiracy theory” floated by some of his critics that he was in fact in collusion with Thaksin Shinnawatr – the man ousted by the Sept 19 coup with which he was inevitably linked.
And when he did deny that ridiculous allegation, he made it sound as if it was with a great deal of reluctance that he had to make a public statement that he was in no way in cahoots with the man who was supposed to subvert his political base at every turn in the past six months.
He was supposed to exude great confidence the other day when, in answer to a direct question from a reporter as to whether there could be another coup in the near future, the premier declared: “A coup is unlikely to be successful under the prevailing conditions.”
Granted it wasn’t the toughest statement he had ever made in his brief full-blown political life, that response could still have carried some weight had he not added, as if as an afterthought: “Who would do it?”
Was he saying that no military officer he knows is in a position to carry out another military takeover? Or was he suggesting that perhaps he was in no position himself to know who’s plotting what against whom? His undeclared strategy, it seems, is to keep everybody else guessing as to what he really thinks.
When you are never quite sure whether the premier is asking a question or making a statement – and the issues in question aren’t after-dinner jokes -- that’s when his leadership is in serious doubt.