Wednesday 18 September 2019

Prem Tinsulanonda

Former prime minister of Thailand and supporter of the king who survived coups and assassination attempts

General Prem Tinsulanonda, who has died aged 98, was a former prime minister of Thailand and the most prominent supporter, often from behind the scenes, of the Thai royal house during the second half of King Bhumibol's long reign. In 2016, after the monarch's death, he served as Regent for six weeks in deference to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn's request for a period of mourning before becoming king.

As an army officer, Prem came to the king's attention in the 1970s, when he was commanding counter-insurgency operations against the Communists in north eastern Thailand. He launched a peace offensive which included distributing clothing and tools, reopening schools, expanding medical care and encouraging the rebels to leave the jungle.

The policy, which reflected the king's own emphasis on development in rural areas, eventually succeeded in defeating the insurgency.

In 1980, with the support of the palace, the military and the main political parties, Prem was appointed prime minister, a post he held for nearly eight-and-a-half years, despite two coups and several assassination attempts.

Having stepped down as prime minister in 1988, Prem was made a member of the Privy Council, which advises the king. He became its president 10 years later, an office which he held until his death.

One factor that led to his 1988 resignation was a newspaper's threat to publish articles about Prem's private life, centred on his alleged homosexuality.

As an elder statesman and leading courtier, the general played an influential but often shadowy role in support of the monarchy. Following bloody demonstrations in Bangkok in 1992, he was said to have engineered an audience which the king gave to General Suchinda Krapayoon, the prime minister, and Major-General Chamlong Srimuang, the pro-democracy leader. The pair were famously shown kneeling in front of the monarch, who told them to make up their differences.

Prem was again active behind the scenes in 2006, when the army staged a coup against Thaksin Shinawatra, who had twice been democratically elected by a landslide. The general visited all the cadet schools and was photographed with the plotters during an audience with the king. Thaksin's supporters accused Prem of masterminding their leader's overthrow.

Prem was again a target of the Thaksinites during mass anti-government demonstrations in 2009. They accused him of being a "royal puppet".

The two men stood for the opposing forces which have torn Thai society apart in recent years. Thaksin's populism, ambition and willingness to challenge the royal prerogative were anathema to Prem. Thaksin went into exile and was convicted in absentia of corruption. But his great rival also suffered a loss of influence, partly because of the incapacitation of his patron, the king, partly as a result of vilification by his political opponents.

Prem Tinsulanonda was born on August 26, 1920, one of eight children. His father, Luang Winitlantagun, ran the local prison. He received his higher education at Suan Kularb in Bangkok, a government school. His first choice of study was medicine but, this being financially impossible, he was persuaded by a classmate to apply to Chula Chom Klao, Thailand's Sandhurst.

His successful military career led to his being made deputy interior minister, army commander-in-chief and defence minister. After he became prime minister in 1980, he retained the second post until 1982 and the third until 1986. Prem, who was unmarried, died on May 26.

Sunday Independent

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