Prem Tinsulanonda’s Legacy—and the Failures of Thai Politics Today
By Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Joshua Kurlantzick
General Prem Tinsulanonda, the former army chief, long-time prime minister (1980–1988), and head of the palace’s Privy Council, passed away on May 26, at the age of ninety-eight. Prem outlived former King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016. The two men had cultivated a special relationship that had shaped Thai politics for decades. Prem played a major role in the re-ascendance of the monarchy’s power, and also created a template of an unelected but relatively effective prime minister during his long time on the job in the 1980s. Unfortunately, few could replicate that template, yet Thailand’s generals and archroyalists have continued to dream of—and regularly put into place—unelected prime ministers, or prime ministers serving without a real popular mandate.
Today, junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was the pro-military party’s candidate for prime minister in March elections, appears set to become civilian prime minister. The military had positioned Prayuth to serve as civilian prime minister, whether or not he got a real popular mandate. And in the March election, which reportedly was unfair in the run-up to election day, Prayuth’s party did not win the majority of seats, although to be sure it did perform well in the popular vote. But, after the election, what appeared to be a dubious reading of electoral laws by the country’s election commission created an allocation of seats that favoured the pro-military party and its allies. Now Prayuth’s party apparently has made a coalition with two midsize parties, including the Democrat Party, which did poorly in the election but now is a kingmaker in the lower house of parliament. This coalition should be enough to make Prayuth prime minister, although he will command a very slim majority in the lower house.
If Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, a dictator and prime minister, was the key figure who mentored King Bhumibol in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the monarchy remained relatively weak—weaker than the armed forces—Prem was the individual who most influenced the king in the 1980s and afterwards. Prem’s influence, moreover, came in a time when, with Prem’s help, the monarchy shifted the balance of power. By the 1980s and 1990s, the palace was no longer subservient to the armed forces; increasingly, they were equal powers, and today the palace has come to dominate the army in many respects.
Sarit was responsible for constructing the ideology of neo-royalism, which resurrected the powerful position of the monarchy in politics after the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s, the diminution of the Thai monarchy in the 1940s, and the end of many monarchies globally in the post–World War II era. Sarit revived the ritual of prostration before monarchs, a ritual once abolished by King Chulalongkorn, who ruled what was then Siam between 1868 and 1910. The revival of prostration was one part of a broader campaign of rituals, media promotion, and other tactics designed to lift Bhumibol to the status of demigod. King Bhumibol also genuinely boosted his popularity in Thailand through extensive travel and charity work in the kingdom, earning subjects’ respect and love.
For Sarit and other Thai military rulers, the revival of the monarchy also helped support the role of the military in politics. The security of the monarchy was made equivalent to the security of the nation. As the defender of national security, then, the military claimed the need to remain in politics so as to defend the security of the monarchy as well.
The United States, which became Thailand’s key ally and patron in the Cold War, strongly supported the revival of the monarchy. Washington saw the king as a key ally in the battle against communism in Thailand and in Southeast Asia more broadly.
Prem took on what Sarit left behind, promoting the position of Bhumibol in politics and ultimately making the palace the central actor in the country, around which even the military revolved. (Of course, Thailand is technically a constitutional monarchy, but in reality it is far from one.) The central political network in Thailand in recent decades has been what Duncan McCargo named the “network monarchy,” a network of royalists surrounding the palace, and pursuing policies supported by the king—with the royalists spread among the military, political parties, business, the bureaucracy and other power centers.
In the 1980s Prem strengthened the network monarchy while ensuring that Bhumibol commanded the top of the political structure, and that other powerful actors understood the king’s role. Prem also oversaw a kind of managed democracy in which power still remained in his hands, the army’s hands, and the hands of the palace. However, since Bhumibhol died, the network monarchy has broken down; Prem and the current king, Vajiralongkorn, reportedly detested each other, and Vajiralongkorn has been more clearly amassing power himself, doing away with the idea of a network around the palace.
Prem was handpicked by Bhumibol to serve as prime minister in 1980, and his time as prime minister was a period of relative stability (albeit not real democracy) and extremely high economic growth rates. The current Thai junta, while trying to ensure Prayuth becomes civilian prime minister, seemingly sees the Prem era of managed democracy as a model to emulate. However, Thai society has changed significantly since the 1980s, after decades of real democratic contests. Despite the five years of repression since the 2014 coup, it is hard to imagine such managed democracy surviving for long, and Prayuth and his allies also have shown little of the management skills of Prem and his circle of technocrats.
After Prem stepped down from the premiership, he was appointed as the president of the Privy Council, the circle of advisors to the monarchy. As the head of the Privy Council, Prem positioned himself as maintaining the continuity and power of the network monarchy. He continued working with powerful institutions, including the armed forces, the judiciary, the Crown Property Bureau, and large companies, to control politics from behind the scenes.
At times, when Thai elected governments became strong, threatening the power of the network monarchy, the network would push back. In the case of the Chatichai Choonhavan government, in 1991, the network resorted to a military coup to overthrow Chatichai.
But the real challenge to the network monarchy and Prem arrived with the emergence of Thaksin Shinawatra on the political scene. Thaksin, who built an effective party apparatus and a sophisticated populist platform, posed a serious challenge to network monarchy. Winning multiple elections, he diminished the power of Prem and the network, until he openly challenged the authority of Bhumibol—an act that, in 2005 and 2006, sparked a coup in 2006 and Thailand’s seemingly never-ending political crisis, one that continues on today.
When Bhumibol was hospitalized, beginning essentially in 2009, Prem’s position in Thai politics became weaker. Another military faction, the Queen’s Guard, which was not aligned with Prem, gained more power following the newly active role of Queen Sirikit as her husband was bedridden.
The new reign of Vajiralongkorn commenced in 2016. Prem had long questioned Vajiralongkorn’s abilities as a monarch. In private, Prem had told American diplomats of his disapproval of Vajiralongkorn and wish that someone else would have been placed in the line of succession. His worries, captured in diplomatic cables that were ultimately leaked by WikiLeaks, likely infuriated Vajiralongkorn, given how the new king then treated Prem.
As king, Vajiralongkorn reorganized the Privy Council, replacing old councillors picked by his father with his own trusted men. However, Prem was not kicked out, and still served as head of the Privy Council. But it was a powerless position. Vajiralongkorn essentially amended the constitution to allow himself to rule without a regent when out of the country, and generally emasculated the power of the Privy Council. He is now relying on a few personal advisors, rather than the Privy Council. The king apparently no longer wishes to depend on his proxies, working through the Privy Council as his father in the past. Instead, he appears to be taking action in areas from politics to the military to the Crown Property Bureau, largely on his own.
The death of Prem, and the increasing power of the new king, could signal the end of the network monarchy era. Prem left a legacy in which the palace built up and maintained its power, through multiple eras, and even into the Shinawatra age. In this light, Prem left behind a legacy of royal dominance, to be further consolidated by Vajiralongkorn, even as the new king diminishes the network and takes more power for himself.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.