Opinion: Memories of Prem Reflect a Divided Nation

Former chief royal advisor Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda passed away on May 26 at the ripe old age of 98. But which Prem do you remember?

Thais can’t seem to agree on the identity of the man who passed away last Sunday.

Many praised Prem as a statesman. In that narrative, Prem played an instrumental role as prime minister, along with his subordinate then Maj. Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, in ending the communist insurgency by passing a blanket amnesty in 1980 (best known as PM Order 66/2523). The order successfully prioritized a political rather than military solution whereby communist insurgents could return to civilian life. Thousands surrendered, leading to the demise of the Communist Party of Thailand.

A day after Prem’s death, Facebook user Nat Tharapong Rungroj wrote that without Prem and his able military men, “Thailand would have been no different from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, which took a long time and faced difficulties recovering [from the Cold War].”

Nat’s positive Facebook post among the many written in praise of Prem in the week after his death was shared 3,500 times in six days.

As prime minister, Prem saw through the end of the Cold War with a historic visit to Moscow to meet the Soviet leadership in May 1988. A week later, decade-long fears that communist would invade Thailand through occupied Cambodia ceased after Vietnam withdrew its 50,000 troops. All Vietnamese troops were gone from Cambodia by September 1989 and the rest is history.

A staunch royalist, Prem became president of the privy council for two decades from September 1998 until his death on Sunday, seeing through the royal transition as regent for a month and a half after King Bhumibol passed away in October 2016.

But while supporters regarded Prem as the most senior non-royal figure in Thai society and mourned his passing, others opted for the apparently heartless hashtag #RIH – rest in hell – upon hearing the news of his death.

Many supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra believe Prem was the engineer of the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, a charge that has never been substantiated beyond public statements by Prem. In June 2006, just months before the September 19, 2006 coup, Prem reminded military cadets in a speech that politicians are not the real masters of the armed forces.

“Governments are like jockeys. They come to look after the soldiers. But the owners of the soldiers are the nation and the king,” said Prem.

Two months later, the leading horse in the audience then army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin staged a coup. The act was followed by a televised audience with King Bhumibol, accompanied by Prem.  

Since the 1932 revolt that ended absolute monarchy, Thailand has long struggled with the army as a state within the state. Prem played an instrumental role in ensuring the military’s political prominence by praising successive coup leaders including current junta leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Prayuth is now trying to emulate Prem by using his army profile to enlist the support of various small parties in his bid to continue on as prime minister when MPs convene to make the decision next week.

Such networking is what Prem, as prime minister, did best for eight years between 1980 to 1988, managing to enlist the support of parties including the Democrat Party in a semi-democratic political environment.

The two sets of memories concerning who Prem was do not sit well together. Many seem only able to grasp one or the other, entirely positive or negative evaluations as if a human being can only be good or bad and never a bit of both.

No one escapes the wrath of historical assessment. Perhaps a more nuanced and balanced appraisal of Prem will be penned in the decades to come.

For now, many Thais are happy to remember Prem one way or the other. Their disagreement about who Prem was speaks volumes about their starkly differing understandings of history and their desired futures for Thailand.