Thailand's lessons from the Prem years
In a galloping world of communications instantaneity, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda's passing earlier this week is likely to be framed by popular expectations and grievances so far in the 21st century rather than the conditions and circumstances of the 20th century where most of the late elder statesman's life was rooted.
Those under 40 who came of age after the Cold War are likely to see Gen Prem for his shortcomings and flaws, as much as those who lived through the Cold War years would want to recall his attributes and contributions.
Across political divisions and demographic lines and over decades of change in Thailand's socio-economic and political fortunes, Gen Prem's legacy is certainly mixed. He served what he often called the "motherland", astutely and with distinction when the heyday of Thailand's military-authoritarian era needed him to thwart communism, but much less willingly and effectively in his twilight years when the winds of change were blowing across the Thai landscape.
Several of Gen Prem's lasting legacies, which marked his illustrious political life and performance at the top, deserve mention.
His political longevity was rare and remarkable, a life that lasted not just 98 years but traversed Thailand's crucial nation-building decades. From modest origins, Gen Prem enrolled in the Thai military academy unwittingly, only to end up seeing action during Thailand's brief period of irredentism in the Second World War to reclaim territories from Burma and Cambodia. His career rose with the military's surging role in Thai politics in the 1950s-1970s, and reached its peak as army chief by the late 1970s, when communist expansionism was an existential threat.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge with ease and ended up on the Thai border in early January 1979, Gen Prem was on the front pages of the newspapers, staring down at Vietnamese tanks across the way. Most Thais in the 40-plus category are likely to recall those years of fighting communism with appreciation for the role of traditional institutions such as the military and the monarchy.
By the early 1980s, Gen Prem, serving as army chief and prime minister selected by elected politicians, engineered twin compromises that should be seen as the main achievements of his administration. One was to promote an amnesty bill, known as "Order 66/2523", to clear the slate for Communist Party of Thailand members and student activists who earlier fled to jungle hideouts and strongholds to return and restart their lives in society. This far-reaching measure promoted reconciliation and healed wounds left raw from the turbulent period culminating in October 1976, when activists, progressives, and many others in favour of open political space and an alternative political order were crushed.
Such a compromise to bridge political divides enabled Thailand to move on, a lesson for the current military regime under unelected prime minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has overseen Thai politics getting stuck and going nowhere.
The other compromise was between civilian leaders and military generals. As prime minister, Gen Prem presided over three elections and five governments. He maintained control over security- and economy-related cabinet portfolios, especially interior, defence, finance, and foreign affairs, but allowed elected politicians to run line ministries, such as commerce, industry, agriculture, and transport and communications. This compromise led to a so-called "Premocracy", that was semi-authoritarian and semi-democratic. Similar to the current Thai military regime's situation, this kind of compromise requires fair and sufficient power-sharing, which may be lacking in the post-election political setup.
Gen Prem's trademark ruling style was his promotion of a technocracy of policy professionals and experts to manage the Thai macro-economy and to protect them from the cut and thrust of politics. The high point of his eight-year administration was the November 1984 devaluation of the baht, when the army chief who doubled as supreme commander, along with politicians of all stripes, wanted to dislodge Gen Prem. Military hardware became more expensive, and foreign currency debtors were naturally upset.
But Gen Prem held sway, even from his sick bed. The technocrats he appointed also put reforms and plans into motion for the Thai economy to capitalise on foreign investment for export-led growth, especially after the Plaza Accord in 1985 that realigned major global currencies, revalued the yen, and induced Japanese capital inflows. The Eastern Seaboard is a testimony to the technocratic planning and execution during this period.
Unlike Gen Prem, Gen Prayut initially appointed technocrats, but he has allowed them to be politicised. In fact, the few who are supposed to be Gen Prayut's technocrats turned out to be full-fledged politicians running a pro-military party.
Along the way, Gen Prem overcame two military coup attempts in April 1981 and September 1985. The first putsch by a united young cohort of army officers should have succeeded but Gen Prem was seen as having the support and confidence of the monarchy at the time. This incident cemented Gen Prem's role and relationship with the then-monarch. It also underpinned Gen Prem's subsequent approach and actions after the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and his juggernaut Thai Rak Thai Party in the January 2001 election.
After Thaksin's landslide re-election in February 2005, Thaksin-Prem ties soured. Many who saw Thaksin's abuse of power and conflicts of interest, and his penetration and capture of accountability-promoting agencies, saw in Gen Prem a checks-and-balances mechanism to curb the excesses of elected politicians.
When the September 2006 coup transpired, it was seen as a reboot, fair to some and robbery to others.
Rules were reset and referees were refreshed while Thai Rak Thai was dissolved. When the Thaksin-aligned Palang Prachachon Party still won in the December 2007 election, the winds of change were evident.
The majority of the electorate kept voting and pointing their democratic preferences in the same direction. When Palang Prachachon was similarly dissolved in December 2008, the tide turned against Gen Prem, tarnishing his twilight years as he was perceived to have backed military-authoritarianism time and again since then.
It was a painful irony for a legendary leader who brokered a compromise in one period but later deepened polarisation in another.
The penultimate lesson for Gen Prem's army successors currently in power should be the twin compromises he ushered in when Thailand desperately needed them.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.