Thai Statesman Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda dies at 98

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Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda (AP Photo by Sakchai Lalit File)

Bangkok (AP) — Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, who as an army commander, prime minister and adviser to the royal palace was one of Thailand’s most influential political figures over four decades, died Sunday at age 98.

His death in a Bangkok hospital was announced by the government’s Public Relations Department, confirming earlier unofficial reports in Thai media. Never married, he leaves no family survivors. Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn will preside over his initial Buddhist funeral rites on Monday.

Gen. Prem was best known for his long-standing devotion to the monarchy, especially the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who appointed him to his Privy Council immediately after Gen. Prem’s eight years as prime minister, and named him head of that powerful advisory body in 1998, a position he held until his death.

Gen. Prem was prime minister from 1980 to 1988, and helped usher in a period of relative stability after a successful pro-democracy uprising against a military dictatorship in 1973, a counter-revolution and coup in 1976 and another coup in 1977, as well as edginess about communist takeovers in neighboring Indochina in 1975. As prime minister, Gen. Prem weathered two attempted coups and was reportedly the target of several assassination plots.

Gen. Prem retained his role as a behind-the-scenes power broker after the 2006 coup. Well-publicized annual pilgrimages by all army brass to his Bangkok home to convey birthday greetings underlined Gen. Prem’s influence.

Gen. Prem appeared to be in vigorous health for his age until recently. He looked frail at two recent public appearances: voting in the March general election and the coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn, earlier this month.

Gen. Prem was born in the major southern fishing port of Songkhla on Aug. 26 1920. He attended the prestigious Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Bangkok and later U.S. Army schools. He began his military career in 1941 as a second lieutenant in a tank regiment.

He first achieved national prominence in 1974-77, when as army commander in the Thailand’s poor rural northeast he stressed rural development and civic action instead of military might in a successful campaign against communist insurgents. As prime minister he continued using policies of amnesty and other political means to prompt defections from the communist guerrilla movement.

Junior officers pushed a reluctant Gen. Prem into taking the prime minister’s job in 1980, when Thailand was facing an ailing economy and perils on the border with Cambodia, which had been occupied by Vietnamese forces who had driven out the communist Khmer Rouge regime but also sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into Thailand. At the same time, Thailand expanded ties with China and allies in the West, Japan and Southeast Asia.

He was appointed deputy interior minister in 1977 and later army commander and defense minister. He became prime minister in March 1980, after the resignation of Kriangsak Chamanand, another former military leader.

The border crisis with Cambodia eased over time, and Gen. Prem had the good luck to preside over the birth of Thailand’s economic boom, which ended only with Asia’s devastating 1997 financial crisis.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, credited Gen. Prem with keeping the military at arm’s length from politics by warding off the coup attempts in 1981 and 1985, and checking elected politicians from excessive graft by shielding the Finance Ministry and macro-policy agencies, particularly the Central Bank, from domestic politics.