When Samak Sundaravej became Thailand's prime minister on Feb. 6, pundits wondered how long it would take the right-wing firebrand to put his foot in his month.
Not long at all it turns out.
For the past two weeks, the 72-year-old Samak has turned the spotlight on his past with comments that have shocked Thailand and focused heated debate on a massacre of student protesters three decades ago.
The pugnacious prime minister publicly denied any role in the carnage of Oct. 6, 1976, and told CNN in a recent interview only "one unlucky guy" was killed that day _ even though historical records show almost 50 perished.
"No deaths, one unlucky guy being beaten and being burned," Samak said of the death toll when asked about the incident. "Only one guy died that day."
Violence was unleashed that day on leftist student demonstrators gathered to protest the return of ousted Prime Minister Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, one of the so-called "Three Tyrants" _ national leaders who were ousted by a student-led uprising in 1973.
Photographs and video footage from the time shows security forces and right-wing paramilitary troops firing weapons into the campus of Bangkok's Thammasat University. Protesters were shot, beaten, hung, and set ablaze. Bodies were publicly mutilated. Some were dragged around the university's football field.
According to the official record, 46 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. Some human rights groups and witnesses suggest the death toll was in the hundreds.
Samak's dismissal of one of the country's most traumatic events sparked outrage among the public, academics and relatives of the victims. It also prompted intense soul-searching in a country where talk of the 1976 massacre is all but taboo, partly because of the failure of any authorities to intervene to stop the brutal spectacle of Thais killing Thais.
Newspapers have seized on the incident to criticize Samak, academics have organized lectures to discuss the rarely mentioned subject, and Samak's remarks have been brought up repeatedly during parliamentary policy debate last week.
Samak should be "ashamed" of "his insensitive, inflammatory and plainly inaccurate comments," the Bangkok Post, one of the country's main English-language newspapers, said in a Feb. 13 editorial. Samak "knows very well what went on because he played a key role."
Critics have said Samak's anti-communist rhetoric on radio and at rallies at the time helped stoke sentiment that prompted the lynching of students. Samak _ like others in the Thai establishment then _ subscribed to a motto of the extreme right wing, "It's no sin to kill communists."
As interior minister at the time, critics said Samak had hundreds of "leftists" arrested in a witch hunt reminiscent of the anti-communist persecution spearheaded by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
But Samak has repeatedly denied any involvement in the incident, which came at a time when Indochina had fallen under communist rule and Thailand was deeply polarized between right and left.
"Why did a murderer with blood on his hand receive more than a million votes?" Samak asked rhetorically during parliamentary debate this week, referring to his landslide election victory for Bangkok governor in 2000.
Analysts said Samak's controversial remarks so early in his tenure could undermine his premiership, threatening to turn even his allies against him.
"It has become a hot issue that might be a rallying point, bringing his current political allies and his opposition together," said Kanokrat Lertchoesakul, a professor at Chulalongkorn University. "It's an emotional issue for many people across today's political spectrum."
Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee and Chaturon Chaisaeng _ allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and now supporters of Samak _ are among many contemporary politicians who were leftist student leaders in 1976.
On Saturday, Chaturon said Samak "should gather accurate information before speaking" about the incident.
Charnvit Kasetsiri, a former rector of Thammasat University and a historian, said Samak's clumsy remarks could provide the opportunity to re-examine "a traumatic history that hasn't healed," and force others who took part to answer for their crimes.
After the incident, an amnesty was issued that prevented any of those responsible for the massacre from being brought to justice.
"How many people in Thailand actually know about what happened then? It's not even in the history textbooks in our school curriculum," Charnvit said. "The ruling elite want it forgotten because it goes against mainstream conservatism that is preferred in Thailand. But it reopened the wounds of many people who were there."