After just three months in office, Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has already bested naysayers who predicted his coalition government wouldn't last two weeks. Although he said last year that he was handpicked to run by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a military coup in 2006, Samak has recently distanced himself from the controversial, populist ex-premier. Sitting in the neo-Italianate splendor of Bangkok's Government House, Samak tells TIME's Hannah Beech that he doesn't take direction from Thaksin and describes in detail the green curry and pork-tongue stew he personally cooked for the visiting Burmese Prime Minister. Excerpts:
TIME: You campaigned as Thaksin's nominee, and...
Samak: I did not mention that. Someone asked me: "Are you the nominee of Thaksin?" I said what's wrong with this word, "nominee?" What's wrong with this word?
So are you Thaksin's Prime Minister?
It is an insult to ask me that question.
Has Thai democracy returned to a state of normalcy?
The coup was a waste of 17 months. [Before] we were on the frontline of ASEAN. After a year and a half [of military rule], we dropped back. When they staged the coup, the United States [and other countries] turned their back to us. Now that we have an elected government, they have all turned [toward] us, and we feel we have come back to normal.
What caused the 2006 military coup? Because Thaksin happened to enter politics, because of his ideas, because of his riches, so it created envy in politics. Thaksin used another way to run the country. Chuan [Leekpai, Thaksin's predecessor as Prime Minister] used the "bureaucracy way." Everything had to be by law first. But Thaksin [took] a little bit of risk we call it a "commercialized way." No one thought [Thaksin's economic policies would have] success, but they did. But when [Thaksin won another] term, [the political establishment] thought Thaksin would stay forever. That's why a handful of the military staged a coup.
Last month, you publicly quashed coup rumors. Are you worried about another military intervention?
I am the Minister of Defense, [a position held concurrently with the role of Prime Minister]. I work very closely with [the military]. [Previously], the prime minister would try to do this, do that, so that created an ill feeling. I get along with [the military]. I don't ask for this, for that. When you are happy, they are happy, too. Any [coup] rumor is impossible.
Do you consult with Thaksin on political matters?
No, I can do [it] on my own. I am a politician. I am a leader of a party. I was in [previous] cabinets eight times. And one time as governor of Bangkok. I know I can perform.
You just met with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein. What is your understanding of the continuing detention of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi?
When I met [Burma's leaders], they are normal people. The [Burmese] military explains that they will release her if she [agrees to] stay away from politics. They hate each other. Right or not, I cannot [say.] If world [leaders] want me to talk to the Burmese and ask them to release Aung San Suu Kyi, I will do it. But as Prime Minister of Thailand, I cannot mention that [I want her released.] Because the [Thai] Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said one, two, three four, which I must do. But I believe the military is ready to release her. It's so easy, it doesn't harm anything. No torture, just [the condition] that she must be out of politics.
Why did you recently cancel your twice-weekly press conferences?
[Critics] said that I did not speak good words. So no talking, no wrongdoing. I'm like a new driver. I need training to use the right words. To stay away from awkward things, I canceled [the press conferences.] It has helped quite a lot.