Country mourns loss of Thanat, a man of principle

Thailand is mourning the loss of Thanat Khoman, former foreign minister and co-founder of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), who passed away on Thursday at the age of 101.

Thanat was recognised as a “model diplomat” for officials at the Foreign Affairs Ministry for his dedication to his role and success in the foreign service. Many remembered him as an idealist who was a man of principle.

Born to an ethnic Chinese-Thai family in 1914, Thanat attended Assumption College in Bangkok and won a Foreign Affairs Ministry scholarship to study in France until he graduated with a doctorate degree in law from the University of Paris in 1940. Upon returning to Thailand, he was obliged to join the Foreign Affairs Ministry which had financially supported his studies.

He held several diplomatic posts and became deputy head of the Thai mission in New York, and later became Thai ambassador to the United States in 1957.

Two years later, Thanat left his life as a civil servant behind when he was named foreign affairs minister by strongman Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat — a position he held for nearly two decades. Thanat went on to be the longest-serving foreign affairs minister in the history of modern Thai diplomacy.

The rise of communism in the region, with the intensification of the Vietnam War, prompted Thanat in his capacity as foreign minister to enter into a security agreement with the US by signing the so-called “Thanat-Rusk communique” resulting in closer security and military cooperation including the establishment of US air bases in Udon Thani and U-tapao. The deal was, however, criticised by certain factions as leading Thailand into ideological conflicts in the region while some neighbours including Cambodia tried to stay out of the disputes and maintain neutrality.

Later on in that tumultuous decade, Thanat felt the need to make a serious effort to convince neighbouring countries to form a regional group after earlier groups like the Association of Southeast Asian countries; Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato); and the Asian and Pacific Council were unsuccessful. In 1967, he finally co-founded Asean with his four counterparts from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore in the historic Bangkok Declaration which became his legacy.

Much later in his life, he shared this part of history with some young diplomats, saying it was the realisation that Washington would have to withdraw in disgrace from the Vietnam War that made him push for the formation of Asean in a bid to enable regional players help each other and stand on their own feet in the wake of the regional power vacuum.

Thanat was quoted as saying on the day he and his four Asian colleagues signed the Bangkok Declaration on Aug 8, 1967: “For it is no exaggeration to say that our future destiny will be better safeguarded if we are all determined to carry out these momentous tasks in harmonious cooperation and understanding. What we have decided today is only a small beginning of what we hope will be a long and continuous sequence of accomplishments of which we ourselves, those who will join us later and the generations to come can be proud.”

A few decades after its 1967 formation, the association expanded to cover 10 countries with the participation of Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. It moved another big step forward with the launch of the Asean Community (AC) at the end of last year.

Thanat was remembered as a man of principle from the days when he was a junior official.

“He is an idealistic person,” said Kasit Piromya, former foreign affairs minister, during a public speech last year.

From Mr Kasit’s account, Thanat, who was posted to the Thai embassy in Tokyo during World War II, showed his stance against the decision of the Phibulsonggram government to allow the Japanese army to march through Thailand and to attack its neighbours. The young diplomat then became a member of the Seri Thai movement, Mr Kasit said.

As a diplomat, Thanat upheld the principle of good neighbourliness, the rule of law and international obligations.

Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, speaking at an event to mark Thanat’s 100th birthday, praised Thanat, together with Pote Sarasin, then Seato secretary-general, for convincing Field Marshal Sarit not to use military action in the Preah Vihear row with Cambodia after the International Court of Justice in Hague issued a ruling in favour of the latter in June 1962. Instead, he was of the view that Thailand had obligations to abide by the ruling.

For Sihasak Phuangketkeow, former permanent secretary for the Foreign Affairs Ministry and now Thai ambassador to France, Thanat was truly a model diplomat for all foreign affairs officials. “He was keen on academic affairs, while attaching importance to protocol and social issues," he said. "Most importantly, he was well-rounded and adopted a life-long learning lifestyle.”

Thanat finally left the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 1971 and formally entered politics, as leader of the Democrat Party in 1979. In the following years, he served as a deputy prime minister in the Prem Tinsulanonda government.


Ploenpote Atthakor is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
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