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Prem Tinsulanonda: Thai Cold War warrior dies at 98

Former PM's liberal achievements clouded by Thaksin-era turnabout

Prem Tinsulanonda, Thailand's former prime minister and president of the Privy Council, was seen in public recently. He died of heart failure early on May 26.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The death of Prem Tinsulanonda at the age of 98 brings down the curtain on one of the most influential figures in modern Thai history -- a veteran soldier, politician and statesman whose career began in 1941 during World War II, spanned the entire Cold War and continued right on up into recent weeks.

Prem served eight years as prime minister in the 1980s, and became president of the Privy Council in 1998 -- the position he still held when he died despite other elderly privy councilors being retired after King Maha Vajiralongkorn acceded to the throne in 2016.

"His role, stature and prestige were too immense and widely influential to be left out," Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University told the Nikkei Asian Review. "By retaining him as president of the Privy Council in his twilight, the new monarch could benefit from continuity and a sense of loyalty."

In one measure of how much has changed since Prem's heyday, millions of tourists from China and Russia -- former communist foes -- visit Thailand each year as tourists. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Prem was instrumental in dismantling the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) these countries once backed.

Prem emerged as a pragmatic force in the military in the late 1970s after cajoling leftist students back into the fold, away from the CPT. Thousands had fled to the forests and remoter parts of the kingdom, particularly in the northeast, after an exceptionally violent rightist coup in 1976.

Originally from Songkhla in southern Thailand, Prem was famous for a beguiling smile and outward mildness that concealed a steely and extremely determined personality, as well as considerable tactical shrewdness.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father and longest-serving prime minister, admired Prem for his steady statesmanship. After his election last year, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad  -- an even more active nonagenarian -- met with Prem for the first time in 30 years during a visit to Bangkok.

Prem's influence was certainly enormous. Without fail over the past four decades, ambitious generals turned up on birthdays and other significant occasions at his Sisao Thewes residence in Bangkok bearing bouquets to pay their respects and seek his approval.

Latterly, these included Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who seized power in 2014, and senior members of his military government. Prem had been publicly supportive of Prayuth, and retained a powerful say in military affairs despite having stepped down as army chief in 1980 when he became prime minister.

Duncan McCargo of Leeds University in the U.K. placed Prem at the center of what he termed "network monarchy." In academic papers, he contended that Prem was hand-picked to manage this political web four decades ago by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016. "Prem's power was never absolute, though it was always considerable," said McCargo.

As prime minister, Prem brought political stability after a roller-coaster decade that witnessed eight governments, three coups and considerable bloodshed. Prem's predecessor as army chief, Gen. Kriangsak Chomanand, had steadily lost support in the military after staging a coup in 1977 and installing himself as prime minister. Kriangsak promoted Prem to head the army in 1978; his subsequent forced departure, and Prem's takeover of the premiership, have been described as an "invisible coup."

A confirmed bachelor who dressed immaculately and called the army his family, Prem was the staunchest of monarchists; he served as a royal aide-de-camp to King Bhumibol in 1969 and 1975. "His appointment as premier is said to have delighted the king," the Far Eastern Economic Review reported at the time.

After the tumult and divisiveness of the bloody 1970s, Prem's eight-year stewardship was a crucial period of national economic repositioning against a background of relative political calm and moderated democratic development. Prem had five cabinets, each with progressively more elected politicians as ministers, and fewer appointments from outside.

While Thailand went through three elections on his watch, Prem himself was never elected -- he was always legally appointed under the constitution and parliamentary rules of the time. When he convened his all-male cabinets, Prem's inclination was to listen quietly and let trusted ministers take the lead in reaching decisions.

"Prem served Thailand astutely and effectively in the latter decades of the 20th century but his record in the 21st century is more mixed"

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University

Prem was strongly influenced by technocrats, particularly Snoh Unakul, his development czar and head of the National Economic and Social Development Board who established the Thailand Development Research Institute think tank in 1984.

The TDRI functioned almost as a ministry; with its counsel the Prem governments tackled an economic slowdown in the mid-1980s, devalued the baht against strong military opposition, built up manufacturing with the development of the Eastern Seaboard along the Gulf of Thailand, promoted tourism and fostered export-led growth.

In addition to winding up the CPT, Prem calmed the situation in the restive south with its three Muslim-dominated provinces, which lasted through the 1990s. He established the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) in 1981, and used amnesties and other low-key cajolery to defuse tensions. SBPAC served as a liaison between local government, security forces and other actors, and was credited in building up some trust among local communities.

In public, silence was always golden. Prem believed the less said, the less chance there was of making a mistake. "General Prem was very reluctant to have any session for the press to ask questions," said Mechai Viravaidhya, who served as a minister in Prem's later cabinets. When Mechai once organized a get-together with reporters, Prem reproved him afterward, and said "never again." He liked to be addressed as "Pa" Prem. After he decided in 1988 to stand aside and not form a sixth cabinet, Prem chided reporters quizzing him on the issue. "Go back home, children," he said.

Prem survived a few assassination attempts as well as failed coups in 1981 and 1985, both staged by the "Young Turks" of Class 7 from Chulachomklao Military Academy -- firebrand colonels who had backed Kriangsak. During the first botched putsch, King Bhumibol and the royal family left the capital for Korat, the gateway to northeast Thailand, where he openly sided with Prem and gave him shelter. There was some concern that this move drew the monarch too directly into politics, but support for the coup in the capital quickly fizzled out.

"Prem oversaw a civil-military compromise as unelected prime minister [and] kept the army from seizing power in 1981 and 1985," Thitinan told Nikkei. He believes Prem also served as a counterweight to excessive political graft and shielded the Ministry of Finance and macro-policy agencies, particularly the central bank, from domestic politics.

"Prem served Thailand astutely and effectively in the latter decades of the 20th century but his record in the 21st century is more mixed," said Thitinan.

Few doubt that Prem was instrumental in the military's removal of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup.   © Reuters

Indeed, few doubt that Prem was instrumental in the military's removal of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Initially, Prem had backed Thaksin after his convincing election in 2001 under a new constitution, even when he ran into an asset declaration problem early on with the Constitutional Court. Among many other issues, unrest later flared up again in the south, where Thaksin had imprudently disbanded Prem's SPBAC.

The coup was staged by Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, Thailand's first Muslim army chief and a protege of Gen. Surayud Chulanont, another former army chief who by then was Prem's deputy in the Privy Council. Surayud stepped out of the Privy Council to replace Thaksin as prime minister, and many observers inevitably interpreted this as palace complicity in the seizure of power. Once his term was up, Surayud was reinstated in the Privy Council in January 2008.

Thwarting the Shinawatra clan's populist political ambitions continued to drive Prem in his twilight years. Many believe he also supported the overthrow of the caretaker government of Thaksin's youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014. Yingluck herself had already been removed from office by court order, and later followed her brother into self-imposed exile -- also to escape criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

Prem was seen in public early in May when he participated prominently in the elaborate coronation rites of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Looking somewhat frail, the abstemious and health conscious president of the Privy Council had recently been seen with oxygen tubes in place during his assisted outings.

Prem was pronounced dead from heart failure at Phramongkutklao Hospital in Bangkok just after 9 a.m. on Sunday. Aides had rushed him to the military teaching hospital not long before dawn.

"Prem's passing marks another important closure of the Cold War era and its attendant political order set up around the monarchy and military," Thitinan told Nikkei, "although the forces of that old order could still continue without Prem."

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