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Thailand

Flair for debate wins praise for Sutin

"Without a strong political ideology, one can be swayed very easily while on the opposition benches," said Sutin Lungsang, opposition chief whip.

Due to its failure to form and lead the new coalition government despite pulling in the most votes in this year's general election, the former ruling Pheu Thai Party has seen its profile dim during its time in opposition.

But that isn't necessarily the case for the party's Sutin Klungsang, an MP for Maha Sarakham, who has gained enormous publicity for his role as the opposition chief whip over the past months.

The middle-career politician is seen as a rising star in the House, a reputation he humbly plays down while insisting he still has much work to do before he deserves any plaudits.

"I'm not a big name in the party, just someone who is between small and big," Mr Sutin told the Bangkok Post when asked to comment on speculation that Pheu Thai has him earmarked as a rising star.

With his politeness, sophistication and ability to simplify complicated issues for the public, he recently stood out during the opposition's grilling of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in the House.

During the past three months, Mr Sutin, who featured heavily in the televised House debates, has won recognition for his performance in parliament.

And as the opposition chief whip, he also has an important role in directing the seven opposition parties' movements at a time when political activities have become vigorous again after five years under a military-installed regime.

The 58-year-old politician has so far won in six general elections, including two declared invalid by the election regulator. He joined the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party ahead of the election that made Thaksin Shinawatra a prime minister for the first time.

Mr Sutin has stayed with the Thaksin camp ever since, despite a series of changes to the party structure in which the Thai Rak Thai became the People Power Party before that morphed into the present Pheu Thai Party. The highest position he had held before his current role was as a deputy spokesman for Thai Rak Thai.

Opposition chief whip is seen by some political observers as a role used to test potential candidates for cabinet positions should their party take office.

Born and raised in a rural area in the northeastern province of Maha Sarakham, Mr Sutin grew up in a family where his father worked as a teacher before resigning to pursue a new career as a village head.

As a young boy he was close to his father, and whenever a resident visited his home to complain about a problem, the young Sutin heard all about it.

Hearing about problem after problem facing the locals, the young Sutin couldn't help but wonder why the lives of people in rural areas and those of people in the cities were so different.

"I became interested in politics when I was young. Any time a politician came to my village and gave a speech, I was glued to the stage listening to them intently," he said.

At the time of the Oct 14, 1973 uprising, Mr Sutin was a 12-year-old adolescent who, unlike other kids his age, was interested in the political situation.

His interest in politics had drawn him to apply to join the Democrat Party.

He was also determined to come to Bangkok to study at either Chulalongkorn University or Thammasat University where he believed he would be able to fully immerse himself in the fight by the young for democracy.

But after his father died when he was only 15, he chose to study at the then Maha Sarakham Teachers College in his hometown, close to his family. His mother died when he was 23.

After graduating from the college, he began his teaching career in Khon Kaen where he chose to teach children who were blind, deaf or autistic, a job he did for 18 years.

"I didn't actually mean to remain in teaching that long; but because I had a lot of sympathy for those kids and it really was a challenging job to help them overcome their physical limits in learning, I kept doing it year after year," he said.

A turning point in his career came when he got to know former MP Adisorn Piangket, who was then a political activist. He and Mr Adisorn shared a similar political ideology and a determination to become politicians although neither had enough money to fund their dream.

Mr Sutin later quit the teaching job in Khon Kaen and returned home to become a lecturer at Mahasarakham University where he later became an assistant to the university's rector.

He also became the host of a popular radio programme, and as he gained a large following of loyal fans he sensed the chance to begin his political career by representing them in parliament.

While continuing to build his popularity on the radio, he pursued his higher education until he graduated with a master's degree in Thai Studies from Mahasarakham University. Later on, he earned a doctoral degree from Magadh University in India.

In 1999 when the Thai Rak Thai Party was founded and Thaksin asked him to represent the party as a list MP in the general election, Mr Sutin agreed.

After Pheu Thai swept to victory in the poll, he was chosen as a deputy party spokesman responsible for the raising publicity in the Northeast.

After winning selection again in his second election, Mr Sutin later switched to compete in the constituency system in his third general election. He won with the highest number of votes in Maha Sarakham.

However, after the People Power Party was dissolved, he along with other party executives faced a five-year ban from politics.

Over the past two decades, he said, he has lost a total of 11 precious years due to that political ban and military coups; years which he laments he should have spent as a politician serving his constituents.

The most difficult part of his job as the opposition chief whip, he said, is brokering common ground among the seven opposition partners.

While each party has many different aims, the opposition is only given limited time in debates, he said, referring to the past four major House debates on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's eligibility, the PM's incomplete oath, the government's policy statement and the budget bill.

Aside from thorough preparation, he said a good debater needs to be able to improvise in the heat of the moment to counter what is said during a House session.

Mr Sutin said he always tries to do this in an efficient and eloquent manner so that his contributions are memorable and effective.

About an hour before each debate begins, he spends time reviewing a mind map he has created on what he would say in the session.

And after each debate, he normally sought feedback from his favourite mentors, including MPs in parties seen as opponents of the Pheu Thai.

He said he also studies social media to get an idea of how his input has been perceived by the public.

He is clear, though, that while he listens to feedback to sharpen his skills, he is not one to change his beliefs to court popularity.

"Without a strong political ideology, one can be swayed very easily while on the opposition benches," he said.

He says he has firmly remained in the same political camp for so long because he truly believes in its ideology. And no matter what enticements he has been offered, he has never been tempted to switch sides.

Asked what his political goal now is, Mr Sutin says he wants to restore democracy to the country as much as possible, in order to make the government more accountable to the people it is supposed to serve.

Aside from this, he said, he has a dream to become a renowned speaker in the House in the mould of his role models such as former prime minister Samak Sundaravej and former House speaker Uthai Pimchaichon.

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