Momrajawong (M.R.) Kukrit Pramoj (1911-1995) was a leading political and literary figure in Thailand during the four decades after World War II, authoring the Thai constitution of 1974 and serving as prime minister, among other activities.
M.R. Kukrit, a direct descendant of King Rama II (1809-1824), was probably the leading intellectual of his generation in Thailand and one who was as close to achieving status as a "renaissance man" as any figure in contemporary Asia. Socially prominent because of his royal connections, he was also the founder and publisher of Thailand's most influential Thai language newspaper (Siam Rath) and weekly magazine (Siam Rath Sapadaan), the author of more than 30 books, a university professor, radio commentator, economist, capitalist (owner of the Indra Hotel), actor (the prime minister in the film The Ugly American), and narrator on an American educational television film series on Asian civilizations.
More important for Thai history, he served as prime minister from 1976 to 1977, deputy finance minister, member of Parliament, and chairman of the constitutional convention. He was the principal author of the Thai constitution of 1974. He was also a professional Thai classical dancer, a photographer, and a horticulturalist.
Born on April 20, 1911, the son of Prince Khamrob and Mom Daeng Pramoj, he was the younger brother of Seni Pramoj, who was prime minister (1945-1946, February-March 1975, and April-October 1976), leader of the Democratic Party, and member of Parliament (1968-1976). His brother also was ambassador to the United States at the onslaught of World War II and refused to convey the Thai declaration of war against the United States at that time.
M. R. Kukrit was educated at Suan Kularb College (high school) in Bangkok and then at Trent College and Queen's College, Oxford, in the United Kingdom. His family connections gave him great wealth, which he used to further both his intellectual and his literary goals. He authored books ranging from novels to essays and religious works.
The political influence of M. R. Kukrit spanned the four decades following World War II. He was a member of various national assemblies from 1946 to 1976 and was deputy minister of finance and deputy minister of commerce in 1947 and 1948. He was the leader of the Social Action Party (in opposition to his brother, who was the leader of the Democratic Party from 1968 to 1976) and speaker of the National Assembly in 1973-1974. He served as prime minister in 1975-1976 and concurrently as minister of the interior.
Following the student revolution of 1973 that overthrew the dictatorship of Thai military figures, M. R. Kukrit rewrote the constitution, making it a far more representative work than previous documents. The new constitution reflected a flowering of participation that was unique in modern Thai history. This was a period of considerable ferment—with rapidly expanding social and economic demands on the part of the populace because of pent-up political frustration through decades of authoritarian political control—directed toward a bureaucracy and military unaccustomed to complying with grass-roots agitation. As prime minister he instituted an innovative village development fund program that provided government support for economic development purposes to each village in the nation. It was probably the most affirmative action toward decentralization of power in modern Thai history.
As prime minister, M. R. Kukrit led the movement for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Thailand and issued a statement of national policy to this effect on March 19, 1975, giving one year for compliance with this demand. The United States, which at the height of the Vietnam War had about 50,000 troops in Thailand, was the target of this policy, which in fact reflected a Thai recognition of the American withdrawal from involvement on the mainland in Southeast Asia.
In the general elections of April 4, 1976, M. R. Kukrit was defeated. Running from the Bangkok district of Dusit, which is the site of large numbers of Thai military personnel, this defeat was widely interpreted as reflecting military disquiet with his generally liberal policies and strained relations with the United States. The Thai bureaucracy had failed to reach agreement with the United States on a satisfactory, face-saving means to retain residual U.S. troop levels in Thailand, and all U.S. troops were withdrawn.
The military coup of October 1976 ended the period of liberalism in Thai politics and the official government status of M. R. Kukrit. Following the reinstitution of legislative activity after the coup, M. R. Kukrit won election to the National Assembly, in which he still maintained a seat in 1985.
M.R. Kukrit's eventual place in Thai history may rest both on his political activities and on his literary stature. Only one of his novels, Phai Daeng (1955), translated in 1961 as Red Bamboo, appeared in English. It is an overtly Thai rendered version of the Don Camillo stories from the Italian. His greatest work, however, was Sii Phaeaendin (1954, Four Reigns), which is a panoramic two-volume novel of court life. It was "universally regarded as Thailand's greatest literary creation of this century."
He was par excellence Thailand's leading social critic, commenting through his writings and newspaper on practically all aspects of Thai life, from the family to the nation. He was called "teacher" by many Thai, who regarded his advice and insights as especially helpful. He quit politics in the early 1990s, but continued to speak publicly and was widely regarded as a Thai institution. "Journalists love to hear the crazy things I say," he said in a 1993 interview. "When I die, you will feel like you are missing something."
As the name "Kukrit" was unique in Thai history, so too was the character of its holder. No other person outside the royal family was as well known in contemporary Thailand, and no other had attempted so much in so many diverse fields, or succeeded so well. Kukrit was admired by Thais, not only as an emblem of democracy, but of the best of Thailand itself: a Buddhist (and briefly a monk) but mischievous; pluralist but monarchist. But he had his weaknesses, at least for those who prefer single-mindedness in a leader. Kukrit had many distractions. He was a novelist and he taught classical Thai dance. In his Bangkok house there were 2,000 fish, all of which, he said, had names. The Thai ideal, he wrote, was "an elegant sort of life, with adaptable morals and a serene detachment to the more serious problems of life." Kukrit died in October of 1995 of a combination of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, said officials at Samitivej Hospital in Bangkok, where he had been hospitalized for several months.
There is no biography of M. R. Kukrit in English. Standard histories of modern Thailand, of course, include references to him. For an analysis of his literary activities, as well as a sample of his writing (and from which part of this essay is drawn), see Herbert P. Phillips, Modern Thai Literature: An Ethnographic Interpretation (Columbia University Press: in press).