Thailand’s top monarchal advisor Prem Tinsulanonda, 98, died in a Bangkok hospital of heart failure on May 26, a death that will inevitably diminish the influence and power of the 16-member royal advisory Privy Council.
Prem, a former prime minister and army commander, served as president of the Privy Council under both recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej and newly crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and grew the appointed body into a formidable royal power center with parallels to the ancient upatham, or vice-king, palace tradition.
Prem was widely seen as Bhumibol’s most trusted hand, a position he consolidated through loyalty shown in 1981 after standing down a coup attempt by ‘Young Turk’ soldiers where he camped out in the palace and later protectively escorted the king and queen from Bangkok to the upcountry province of Korat.
He rose from relative obscurity as a cavalry soldier without a power base among Bangkok’s elite military families into the most influential and powerful soldier of his generation, rivaling with a more delicate and sophisticated touch the power of earlier generations of military dictators.
Prem will perhaps be best remembered for his eight- year tenure as prime minister from 1980-88, a period of military-guided yet highly rambunctious democracy now widely known as “Premocracy.”
His government implemented various liberalizing reforms that opened the country to foreign investment and global markets, a then first mover advantage that sparked the country’s export-driven manufacturing-led economic miracle. (From 1980-95, Thailand was the world’s fastest growing economy; if the period is extended to 1996, China takes the crown.)
Thailand’s current generation of military leaders, led by coup-maker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, are clearly trying to replicate Prem’s successful model, though it’s not certain that drawing on ideas that worked in the autarkic 1980’s will work as well in the globalized 21st century.
In particular, Prayut’s junta has prioritized development of the Eastern Economic Corridor, a $44 billion bid to revitalize Prem’s once-vibrant but now fading Eastern Seaboard industrial zone by appealing for more high-tech oriented foreign investments.
While Prem’s economic contributions will be fondly remembered, his behind-the-scenes role in politics that leveraged his royal credentials, though not always clearly on command of the king, will be viewed less generously as impeding the kingdom’s democratic development.
Most famously, Prem re-donned his military fatigues to remind soldiers that their loyalty was first to the monarch and second to the government just weeks before coup-maker soldiers toppled then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s elected administration in 2006.
Prem’s main acolyte and fellow Privy Councilor, ex-army commander General Surayud Chulanont, was installed as prime minister after that coup, though many at the time saw that short-lived government of appointed bureaucrats and technocrats as truly controlled by Prem.
(Some see Surayud, a former army commander and personal aide to the new king, as the Privy Council’s next likely head.)
Prem’s known personal antagonism towards the self-exiled Thaksin, who many royalists considered a threat to the monarchy’s position and prestige, has ever since underpinned the kingdom’s now long-running political conflict pitting Thaksin’s supporters and detractors.
Over the years Thaksin has overtly and obliquely referred to Prem as the main obstacle to national reconciliation, though it’s clear by now the country is more deeply polarized.
The senior statesman’s relations with the current generation of military leaders who overthrew Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra in a 2014 coup has been more ambiguous, though Prayut and his deputies paid regular symbolic homage to Prem at his Bangkok home on his birthday and at Buddhist New Year celebrations in mid-April.
Prem was known to be at least initially peeved with the post-coup distribution of power on perceptions Prayut, and particularly junta No 2 Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, handed a disproportionate number of top government and military posts to their Queen’s Guard allies over other military cliques involved in staging the coup that were more aligned with Prem.
Many later suspected the Prem-led Privy Council played a role in leaking sensitive information to the press about alleged massive corruption in a junta-led project to build giant statues of past kings at a new royal park near Bhumibol’s seaside palace at Hua Hin, a damaging scandal that ran hot in the press despite strict junta censorship orders.
When Bhumibol died in October 2016, many diplomats and analysts wondered initially if new King Vajiralongkorn would retain Prem and other Privy Councilors appointed by Bhumibol, or move instead to appoint a new generation of royal advisors of his own loyalists.
The fact that the elderly Prem retained the Privy Council’s presidency spoke both to his residual power and the new king’s savvy in moving gradually rather than impulsively in consolidating his firm new reign.
Vajiralongkorn has re-centralized power that grew diffuse under his father, including at the Privy Council, whose members’ activities and movements – and even dress codes – are now more closely directed and monitored by the new king than the previous one.
Prem was front and center, though sometimes sitting rather than standing, during Vajiralongkorn’s coronation ceremonies earlier this month, a now poignant indication that the aged top royalist dutifully served the crown until almost literally his dying day.
To be sure, the Privy Council’s influence and autonomy was already on the wane before Prem’s passing, with some observers referring to recent top soldier appointments to the body as being moved to the hong yen, or cold room, reference to a less active post.
Prem’s death and Vajiralongkorn’s strong recentralization of power thus herald the end of a certain royal era in Thailand, where the line between king and advisor was from several perspectives often times blurred.