Exhibition Glorifies Late PM Prem’s Debated Legacies

BANGKOK — A retrospective exhibition on the late Privy Council President and former PM Gen. Prem Tinsulanond showcases only the positive sides of his life and leadership. 

“Prem: The Great Iconic Statesman,” which runs until Sunday at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, continues a long tradition of only praising glorified subjects. Prem, a military strongman who championed what his critics called a “half-leaf democracy,” passed away earlier this year at the age of 98.

Although the late statesman’s legacies are still widely debated in academic circles today, the direction of the exhibit unfortunately only encourages Thais to understand public figures in black and white. 

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Prem as a young army officer.

The exhibit is organized by 15 private organizations, including Bangkok Bank and the Alumni Association of the prestigious Suan Kularb School, where Prem graduated. It depicts Prem as saintly, without an iota of controversy. 


Make no mistake, Prem made plenty of contributions. In 1980, the general achieved what four of his predecessors could not: defeating the communist insurgency that had been plaguing Thailand’s countryside. And he accomplished it in the bold move of offering communists a blanket amnesty.

“In defeating communism, force alone cannot be deployed. The principle of politics ahead of the military must be used,” the exhibition quoted Prem as saying.

Nor should we overlook his work ensuring political stability during the transition from the military autocracy of the 1970s to the semi-democratic regime of the 1980s, which in turn paved the way for a parliamentary democracy in Thailand. 

But the exhibition neither mentions the fact that Prem became PM in 1980 with the backing of the military in a quasi-democratic system referred to as “Premocracy”, nor the accusations that he continued to meddle in politics long after he formally stepped down from the role in 1988. 

Just months before the 2006 coup, Prem told army officers that the armed forces are akin to a horse that belongs to the King, while governments are merely jockeys who come and go. The message was widely interpreted as a green light for the military to rebel against the elected government. 

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Prem with King Bhumibol

When the most recent coup occurred in 2014, Prem also gave repeated blessings to coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. The coup leader “has rescued the nation and brought peace to all Thais,” Prem said that year. Three years later, he told Prayuth he had nothing but “admiration and pride” for his government. 

Instead, the exhibition insists that Prem “is more democratic than democratically elected PMs.”  “His Excellency worked 24 hours a day without resting,” it also says.

The three-floor exhibition also praises Prem for not taking public money for personal use. While this may be largely true, the Si Sao Thewes residence where Prem lived for decades until his death was paid for by taxpayers’ money – and not without controversy.

“Prem: The Great Iconic Statesman” does offer rare photos and interesting tidbits about the former military strongman (he learned to play piano while serving as PM). But a measured and fair retrospective it is not.


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PREM: The Great Iconic Statesman is on exhibit from 10am to 9pm on the third to fifth floors of the Bangkok Art and Culture Center until Sunday.