The best prime minister Thailand never elected
text size

The best prime minister Thailand never elected

Biography of Anand Panyarachun is a hefty book about a worthy subject


Anand Panyarachun's two spells as unelected prime minister in 1991-2 had such a profound effect that they now seem preordained by history. This splendid book shows how the reality was otherwise.

Anand Panyarachun And The Making Of Modern Thailand By Dominic Faulder Singapore, EDM 576pp

Anand was not among the people that coup-leader General Suchinda first approached. Indeed, Suchinda did not think of Anand's name at all until prompted. He knew Anand resented the army for wrecking his diplomatic career in 1976 and might well refuse. But Suchinda was desperate. The coup had been a botched job. The generals had thought (wrongly) that they were about to be sacked. They could not now roll back the takeover, so they needed a civilian government to hide behind. Suchinda popped the question and Anand said yes. "My greatest concern," Anand explains now, "was that the country was drifting."

What Anand achieved in his first 409 days in power remains staggering: VAT, decontrol of oil prices, lead-free petrol, the independent power producer programme, the environment bill, the HIV/Aids campaign, trade liberalisation, automobile policy, liberalisation of capital transactions, the ASEA free trade area, 3 million telephone lines, taxi meters, emasculation of public sector unions, maternity leave for civil servants. His brief and anomalous government shaped modern Thailand, especially its economy, but also its politics: when a coup happens, many people hope for another sparkling Anand, but end up with an ineffectual general.

There have been puff books on Anand but this is the first serious biography. It's a big book, running to 576 large-format pages, with appendices, timelines, a family tree and many rare photos. The author, Dominic Faulder has been a journalist in the region since the 1980s. He sets Anand's career alongside a detailed picture of Thailand's political development, regional affairs and international politics. It is an authorised biography with all the advantages and limits. Faulder had 200 hours of interviews with Anand, the same again with a hundred other players in the story, and access to the letters Anand wrote to his beloved daughters. The reader should not expect any startling revelations. Anand is the epitome of diplomatic discretion. Instead, this is a very full picture of a man, his personal milieu and his times -- much broader and deeper than a standard political biography. And some of the set pieces are wonderful.

There has long been speculation about who selected Anand to return after Suchinda's disastrous premiership and the bloodletting of Black May 1992. Arthit Ourairat, president of the newly formed parliament, had the duty of submitting a name to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He went into the palace with a decree drawn up with the name of ACM Somboon Rahong, but also another blank sheet of official stationery with the crested letterhead. He came out with a signed decree bearing Anand's name. Nobody involved will say exactly what happened -- we have to join up the last few dots.

Anand was born into a noble family with Mon and Chinese roots and high status in royal service. He was sent to England for education, as such boys were. He had little aptitude for academia and is proud of his double third from Cambridge. He concentrated instead on his English, his social network and racquet sports. Many of the other rising stars he met were cousins or in-laws. He returned to join the foreign service, the most prestigious branch of officialdom, and rose like a helium balloon. The long-serving foreign minister, Thanat Khoman, recognised his talent early on. Anand was not the most brilliant of his cohort but he was clever, hard-working and fiercely loyal. He was also blessed with a mixture of personal attractiveness, people skills and an extrovert touch that often spells leadership. Thanat sent him off to the UN where he rose to become ambassador to the US at the age of 40, and then permanent secretary of the ministry.

He was Thailand's man in the US during the messy ending of the Vietnam War. He had a secret role, later an open one, in restoring Thailand's relations with China. He pushed for a demilitarised foreign policy to suit the changing times, which rankled the Thai generals. In the polarised chaos after the 1976 tragedy, they accused him of being a communist. He was cleared with little difficulty, but resigned soon after and took up a second career in business.

The dominant motif of this book is public service. Anand was not rich in the early days (he moonlighted as an English teacher when he started at the foreign ministry) but had the security of his family and never prioritised making money. He was a clean pair of hands when this was rare. He could use his influence to get his admirers working for the public good.

He had a concept of public service that included an imperative to seek change and improvement. After a total of 514 days as prime minister, he lent his talents to an extraordinary array of commissions and causes, including the drafting of the 1997 constitution, the Reconciliation Commission of 2005-6 on southern unrest, the Reform Commission of 2010-11, a commission on political reform of the UN and a goodwill ambassadorship for Unicef.

Anand spent most of his working life either overseas or in the cocoon of high office. At an age when many retire, he realised: "I knew very little about Thailand. I had never been to the Northeast. I never knew about poverty." Before chairing the Reconciliation Commission, he "never knew anything about the three southernmost provinces". He had read little of Thai history. He compensated by cultivating friendships with intellectuals and devoting some of his time to NGO and social causes. His Reform Commission mapped a blueprint for Thailand's future based on liberalisation, participation and decentralisation -- a vision diametrically opposite to the top-down, centralised, illiberal approach of the new 20-Year Strategic Plan. The report got lost in the conflict of colours.

Anand is a strong royalist. His second administration is the only time the full cabinet was photographed with the king. As prime minister, he had a weekly audience. He remains discreet on the content of those meetings. However, he has no hesitation in calling King Bhumibol "the foremost constitutional authority in the country".

But Anand distances himself from some strands of Thai conservatism. There is no such thing as "Thainess", he argues. "I don't like the term -- it's a myth." On lèse majesté, he says: "My own personal view is that I don't like the law."

Dominic Faulder has given us a remarkably broad and deep view of one of Thailand's great political figures. He leaves the last words in the book to the political scientist, Chaiwat Satha-Anand: "He is a realist, but adventurous, a royalist and also a liberal -- you can be both."

Do you like the content of this article?