General Prem Tinsulanonda will be remembered for many things – but advancing Thai democracy will not be among them.
Soldiers-turned-politicians like General Prayut Chan-o-cha and Prawit Wongsuwan might admire Prem for his rise to the post of prime minister after a lifetime of military service. He managed to hold the position for eight years without ever running for election. Neither did he need his own political party.
Prem exploited military power to climb the political ladder in the late 1970s, when a golden era of democracy ended with the massacre of students at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976. He was then a member of the coup led by Admiral Sangad Chaloryu that toppled the elected civilian government of the day.
Prem served General Kriangsak Chamanan’s government as deputy interior minister and later defence minister, while also holding his post as Army chief.
Kriangsak’s ideology was moderate compared with that of his predecessor, the ultra-rightist Thanin Kraivichien, but his Cabinet member and long-time close aide Prem differed from both. Prem was more conservative than Kriangsak, showing no faith in democracy whatsoever.
In February 1980, after losing public support over rising oil prices, Kriangsak resigned to, in his own words, save democracy.
Prem, in contrast, chose to punish politicians by dissolving Parliament whenever he faced difficulties in the administration or legislature. Neither did he have any faith in elections as a way of legitimising his premiership.
Instead he secured his rule via strong connections to the Palace, which he used to build his own charisma and influence over the military. Officers seeking career advancement needed Prem’s patronage. Only “louk pa” (Papa’s sons) would be recruited to the inner circle of the military elite. The resulting intrigues and tensions within the ranks led to military uprisings against his regime, but with the blessings of the Palace he was rescued from internal threats.
Military backing also boosted Prem’s bargaining power with political parties in Parliament. Until the Chart Thai Party’s election victory in 1988, no politician dared to challenge Prem for the premiership. The task of forming the government after elections was always left to military commanders. Top brass like General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh were keen to take on the job, mustering political parties to support Prem as government leader.
Those parties unwilling to make deals would be consigned to the opposition benches – though not for their political platforms or ideology, but because Prem did not want them on board.
In stark contrast to elite establishment opinion, Prem’s regime did not address the needs of all citizens and stakeholders. By the late 1980s, as Prem propagandised via a bureaucracy network fanning out from the Interior Ministry, intellectuals, scholars, students and civil society were calling loudly for democracy.
The end of the Cold War, emerging liberalisation and domestic demands for change finally brought Prem’s regime to an end in 1988. The forward-looking Chart Thai Party leader Chatichai Choonhavan showed that Prem’s “military-guided democracy” no longer fitted the new circumstances.
An inside deal to kick Prem upstairs as an adviser to HM King Rama IX was offered, paving the way for Chatichai to take the national helm.
Belying his declaration of, “Enough, you can resume your democracy”, Prem retained his influence over the military and close links to the Palace. He was subsequently blamed for exploiting those links to engineer political setbacks, coups and political division over the past decade, as the establishment elite battled against the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra and democratic movements.
Prem’s legacy will be to inspire military top brass to maintain their strong influence in politics, to the diminishment of democracy in Thailand.