Prem Tinsulanonda, King’s Advisor and Statesman, Dies at 98

Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda chats with junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha at his residence in Bangkok on April 11, 2019.

BANGKOK — Former prime minister, ex-army commander and head of His Majesty the King’s advisors died at the age of 98 at hospital in Bangkok on Sunday morning.

Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, the powerful father figure looming over the armed forces and Thai politics in recent decades, died of heart failure at Phra Mongkut Hospital according to his aides. Funerary details have yet to be announced.

The retired general died three weeks after he presided over a wedding ceremony of King Vajiralongkorn and the newly anointed Queen Suthida, and a month after he granted audience to junta leaders on the occasion of his 98th birthday.

His career has been intimately intertwined with the military and the monarchy. One historian calls him King Rama IX’s most trusted man. Pro-establishment supporters hail him as a man who unites Thailand, while his detractors accuse him of plotting to overthrow elected governments.

Born in 1920 in southern Thailand, Prem joined the army and first entered politics as a member of constitution drafting committee in 1959 under tyrant Sarit Thanarat. He went on to rise in military and political career, from Senate to MP, Deputy Prime Minister and finally Prime Minister in 1980.

Prem served in the top post for eight years – a period later known to history as ‘semi-democracy’ era. His term was marred by coup attempts and growing dissent from parliamentarians before the general stepped down to take a post as His Majesty the King’s Privy Councilor in 1988.

Despite his absence from politics, Prem continued to be revered by the armed forces, and delegates of government and military officials visited him at least twice a year to receive his blessings.

He stirred controversies in 2006 when he donned an army uniform and told a group of military cadets the army has a duty to defend the country, not the government. Prem’s remark was widely interpreted as a jab at then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was fending off calls from street protesters to resign.

In September that year, just two months after Prem’s speech, the military ousted Thaksin in a coup.