General Chatichai Choonhavan

As prime minister (1988-1990) General Chatichai Choonhavan (born 1922) tried to lead Thailand in its internal economic expansion and in its enhanced political and economic roles in Southeast Asia.

Born on April 5, 1922, to a military family (his father was Field Marshal Phin Choonhavan), Chatichai Choonhavan had a distinguished career both in the military and in public service. It was under the leadership of his government that Thailand began to play a more important role in the politics and economic life of mainland Southeast Asia.

Chatichai Choonhavan was educated at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, graduating in 1940. His military education continued at the Royal Thai Army Cavalry Officer School in 1946 and at the Armored School of the United States Army in 1948. His active-duty career included action in the Thai-Indochina conflict of 1940, World War II, and the Korean War. He started as a sublieutenant in 1940 and a year later was promoted to lieutenant. He became a captain in 1943, a major in 1947, lieutenant colonel in 1951, colonel in 1954, brigadier general in 1956, and major general in 1973.

Military and Diplomatic Duties

In addition to his extensive military duties, which included serving as the commander of the 2d Cavalry Regiment in 1954 and as commandant of the Armored School in 1955, General Chatichai Choonhavan also held concurrently a variety of diplomatic and executive positions. He was minister plenipotentiary to Argentina in 1960, and thereafter ambassador concurrently to Austria, Turkey, and the Vatican, posts he held for eight years. In 1968 he was appointed ambassador concurrently to Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and the Vatican and permanent representative of Thailand at the United Nations office in Geneva.

By 1962 he became director general of the Political Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in 1972 he became deputy minister of that ministry. In 1975 he became a member of Parliament from Nakhon Ratchasima Province and minister of foreign affairs; then the minister of industry.

Throughout most of the remainder of his career he retained his political role as a parliamentary member from Nakhon Ratchasima Province, and in 1986 became the leader of the Char Thai political party. He was appointed deputy prime minister in 1986, and prime minister in 1988.

Election as Prime Minister

The strengthening of the political process under the long tenure of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond from 1980 to 1988 gave a measure of stability to a nation that had witnessed a continuous intervention of the Thai military into leadership roles in the government since 1932. Beginning in 1980, elections and the military's involvement in the political process through parliamentary politics contributed to internal stability and an expanded Thai role internationally. Thailand had a history of military coups, and although there were two unsuccessful coup attempts by younger officers under the Prem regime, the emerging pattern was indicative of greater political stability through a strong military presence, but also with its governmental involvement through the political process.

Under the leadership of the prime minister, Thailand began to reassert a much more positive economic and political role in the region, while maintaining its strong support for ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Thai membership. The enrichment of the country produced a growing and policially ambitious middle class opposed to the exploitation of the military government. In 1988 this began to have an impact, with the appointment for the first time in decades of an elected prime minister in Chatichai. Chatichai took some measures to curtail the practices of the military, but his government was widely seen as corrupt.

Thai Economics

Internally, the Thai economy was one of the healthiest in the region, with the gross national product expanding at an average rate of about 10.9 percent in 1989. Thailand was regarded as the newest of the "newly industrializing countries" (NICs) of the region, following Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In 1989 international forces caused difficulties for Thailand. The income from tourism became threatened by the worldwide AIDS epidemic. In Bangkok, as many as 40 percent of the thousands of male prostitutes and 600,000 female prostitutes were infected with the HIV virus. In 1991, tourism was adversely affected by fear of travel generated by the Persian Gulf War.

Thailand had continuously been concerned over the expansion of Vietnamese influence over Indochina, specifically the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and its role in Laos, states bordering Thailand. Thailand was alarmed not only because of the military power of the Vietnamese, but also because a significant number of peoples of Lao and Cambodian ethnic descent live in Thailand and there had been historical Vietnamese and Thai rivalry on the mainland of Southeast Asia. The economic liberalization in Laos and the withdrawal of the bulk of Vietnamese military forces from Cambodia allowed a relaxation of tensions in the region, and in fact provided lucrative opportunities for Thai traders to play a dominant economic role in the region.

At the funeral of Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo on February 25, 1989, Prime Minister Chatichai presented President Bush with an aide memoire in which Thailand requested United States cooperation in an expanded diplomatic and economic Thai role in the Indochina states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and in Burma as well. All of these countries had recognized the need for major economic liberalization, a process in which Thailand believed it could play a most important role. The United States did not respond positively to the Thai interest, because the United States at that time did not recognize the Vietnamese or Cambodian regimes and had cut economic and anti-drug assistance to Burma (now called Myanmar) because of human rights violations by the Burmese military. After the Burmese coup of September 18, 1988, there were close Thai-Burmese military relations leading to major Thai economic investments in Burma.

A Coup

The careers of General Chatichai Choonhavan and other retired Thai military leaders seemed to indicate a shift to democratic processes in politics. However, sudden military pressure forced Chatichai Choonhavan to resign his post December 9, 1990. Chatichai was ousted in a coup d'etat that installed a mlitary junta, the 17th coup or attempted coup since 1932. A military junta took control of Thailand, calling itself the National Peacekeeping Council. Within days King Bhumibol Adulyadej recognized the new government. The former prime minister, his family, and some of his aides were charged with corruption and imprisoned.

A civilian diplomat, Anand Panyarachun, was appointed the prime minister pro tem by the junta that deposed Chatichai. But as new parties formed, the leading role was taken by a military party, Samakkhi Tham. In 1992, their choice for prime minister fell on General Suchinda Kraprayoon. Protests among university students and the middle class began immediately. Those opposed to a continuation of military rule rallied in Bangkok in the hundreds of thousands. In May the government declared a state of emregency and ordered troops to fire into the crowds of demonstrators. In the four days of turmoil, a number of people, somewhere between 40 (the government's figure) and 1,000, were killed by government troops. Violence was quelled when the king stepped in to call for an end to confrontation. Suchinda lost the support of the political coalition in charge of the government and resigned, replaced once again by Anand in the role of prime minister pro tem. In elections held in September, an anti-military pro-democracy coalition of parties, led by Chuan Leekpai of the Democratic Party, won a majority of seats despite violence and vote-buying that were manifest in many areas in Thailand.

Chatichai remained a vocal and active leader of the Char Thai political party, speaking out frequently on matters of Thai economic policy as it related to foreign relations and the development of Thailand. In September of 1996, just before elections, Chatichai publicly criticized Prime Minsiter Banharn Silpa-Archa for failing to fully pursue Mekong river sub-regional economic development projects, which, if properly managed, would enable Thailand to serve as a gateway to Indochina. The quadrangle project in the north and the seaboard development projects in the south had virtually come to a halt under the Banharn administration, Chatichai said. He added that the Banharn government has paid little attention to Indochina, and other countries have moved into what is supposed to be Thailand's backyard. He also said that Banharn lacks vision in foreign ecnomic policy-making. Just a week later, however, a new prime minister was selected: Chavalit Yongachaiyudh. Chatichai had also been in consideration for the position. The new prime minister selected Choonhavan as his special advisor for economic and foreign affairs.

Further Reading on General Chatichai Choonhavan

Except for brief references in the daily press there is no biographical material in English for Chatichai Choonhavan. The Royal Thai Government has published a booklet, The Thai Prime Minister and His Task (Bangkok, no date). An analysis of Thai writing can be found in Herbert P. Phillips, Modern Thai Literature: An Ethnographic Interpretation (1987).

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