Prominent former Thai general and PM Prem Tinsulanonda dies at 98

Thailand's former general and prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda receiving PM Prayut Chan-o-cha at a visit during Songkran, the Thai new year, in April last year. Senior army officers would pay their respects to Mr Prem, who was a towering figure in th
Thailand's former general and prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda receiving PM Prayut Chan-o-cha at a visit during Songkran, the Thai new year, in April last year. Senior army officers would pay their respects to Mr Prem, who was a towering figure in the powerful Thai military, at his residence in inner Bangkok before each new year and on his birthday in August. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

He ended communist insurgency in Thailand and was long-time adviser to the late king

Thailand's former general Prem Tinsulanonda, who led the country as prime minister for more than eight years in the 1980s, died yesterday morning. He was 98.

Mr Prem, a towering figure in the powerful military, was widely credited with ending the communist insurgency in the country and steering the kingdom through a period of relative peace and prosperity as an unelected prime minister in five successive governments.

Just as important, he was a longtime adviser to the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej, and he remained as head of the privy council when the king's son Maha Vajiralongkorn assumed the throne in 2016.

He died of heart failure at Phramongkutklao Hospital in Bangkok, according to Thai media. The new Lower House of Parliament, in its second meeting yesterday after the March 24 General Election, observed a minute of silence in honour of the elder statesman.

The former army commander, who never married, had appeared frail earlier this month during King Maha Vajiralongkorn's lavish coronation, in which he was a key official in the anointment ritual.

Senior army officers would pay respects at his residence in inner Bangkok before each new year and on his birthday in August.

At the most recent gathering to celebrate Songkran, the Thai new year, last month, he said in reference to the administration led by former coup leader and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha: "This government is not corrupt. If I am wrong, then the Prime Minister needs to deal with it."

As a politician, he gained a reputation for deftly balancing competing power factions and staved off two attempted coups in the 1980s.

In October last year, he met visiting Malaysian Prime Minister and long-time friend Mahathir Mohamad, who is younger at 93, at his Bangkok home.

Mr Prem, whose father was a prison warden, was born in southern Songkhla province in 1920. He joined the army in 1941.

As a politician, he gained a reputation for deftly balancing competing power factions and staved off two attempted coups in the 1980s.

"He is respected for doing that and perhaps became a role model for those who wanted to be successful in Thai politics," said Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pandit Chanrochanakit.

"The Thai elite always look at his era as a time of peace."

Dr Pandit suggests that drafters of the current Constitution have used his premiership as a model, seeking to create similar political conditions that would allow another military strongman to be at the helm for an extended period.

One of these conditions favours a coalition government, making it difficult for single parties to win a parliamentary majority.

As the March 24 elections threw up no clear winner, the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party, which won the second highest number of seats in the Lower House, appears poised to form a coalition that will extend the five-year premiership of Mr Prayut.

Critics accuse Mr Prem of engineering the 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and triggering Thailand's current deep political divide.

Mr Prem had likened the government to a jockey hired by horse owners - the country and the king - in an address to officer cadets.

"Some jockeys are good at riding, some are not. It's the same for governments, some are good and some are not," he had said in 2006.

Later that year, the military ousted Thaksin from power.

While Thaksin has lived abroad since 2008 to evade jail for a graft-related conviction, political parties linked to him have remained front runners in every election since.

The former ruling party Pheu Thai won 136 of the 500 Lower House seats in March.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2019, with the headline 'Prominent former Thai general and PM Prem dies at 98'. Print Edition | Subscribe