It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Prem Tinsulanonda, who was widely seen as the most powerful unelected person in Thailand and the real architect of the kingdom’s military-monarchy alliance.
Prem, who circulated in the senior echelons of power since 1976 and remained active in elite politics till the very end, died over the weekend at age 98. His influence as an appointed prime minister, from 1980 to 1988, serves as a model for Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the leader of the May 2014 coup and current prime minister.
Prem had long been a favorite of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the nation’s beloved monarch, whose death in October 2016 ended his 70-year reign.
As a commander in the country’s northeast, Prem focused counter-insurgency efforts against the Thai Communist Party on economic development, coupled with general amnesties. He also elevated the role of royal development projects at the core of those anti-communist efforts. These were later replicated with the hill tribes in the north, as well as with the Malayan Communist Party and some of the Malay separatist groups in the Deep South.
Prem served as deputy interior minister under the ultra-conservative government of Thanin Kraivixien, after the massacre of nearly 50 students by state security forces at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in 1976. Two years later, apparently through the king’s preference, Prem was chosen ahead of several more-senior officers to head the Royal Thai Army. In 1979, he served as minister of defense in the government of Prime Minister Kriangsak Choonhaven.
The next year, he was appointed prime minister and served in that role until 1988. Although two elections were held during that period, Prem was no democrat. He tended to put power in the hands of unelected technocrats, keeping parliament and political parties weak. Yet, despite two attempted coups, he oversaw a period of relative political stability and high economic growth.
When Prem resigned as prime minister in 1988, the king immediately appointed him to his Privy Council. Prem became its president in 1998, and it was in that position where he wielded utmost power, especially in the last decade of Bhumibol’s life.
Prem was not just the Bhumibol’s most trusted advisor, but his gate keeper and proxy when the king’s mental faculties began to fail. Prem was at the center of what British academic Duncan McCargo referred to as the “network monarchy.’
While the ultra-monarchists and military saw Prem as infallible, pro-democratic forces increasingly saw him as the impediment to the country’s political development.
One of the justifications for the 2014 coup was that no politician – especially any in the Thaksin camp – could be trusted to oversee the royal succession and protect the monarchy’s long-term interests.
And it is here that Prem, the ultimate loyalist to Bhumibol, had a disagreement with the king, who had designated his son, Vajiralongkorn, as his heir. But in the end, Prem acceded to Vajiralongkorn’s ascension to the throne, though he himself served briefly as regent in 2016.
For his part, Vajiralongkorn understood Prem’s power and influence. The king could have forced Prem’s resignation, but instead kept him on as Privy Council president, although he stacked it with his own loyalists.
In one of his last official acts, Prem officiated the new king’s marriage to his fourth wife, and oversaw Vajiralongkorn’s three-day coronation ceremony earlier this month.
The passing of Prem removes one of the last checks on the monarch, who has already consolidated an estimated U.S. $40 billion in Crown Property Bureau assets in his own name. There is no longer a Prem-like insider pulling the strings.
Prem was largely responsible for the military’s constant machinations in politics since 2006. And he, no doubt, approved of the rigged elections and constitutional impediments to democracy that the junta had put in place since 2014.
But national reconciliation continues to elude the country, which is as divided as ever, and there is no endgame in sight for military rule.
That is Prem’s enduring legacy to the country.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.
An earlier, longer version of this commentary has been condensed.