Prem Tinsulanonda

Prem Tinsulanonda (born 1920), a leading military and political figure in Thailand, became prime minister of his country in 1979.

In the rapidly shifting arena of Thai military politics since 1932, the date of the end of the absolute monarchy and the introduction of representative government under a constitutional monarch, Prem Tinsulanonda gained a certain distinction. Although he was one of a large number of top generals who shifted to civilian politics, he remained as premier for a longer period than any previous premier since 1973. He did so with the clear and explicit sanction of King Bhumibol.

Like many other leading figures in Thai politics, Prem succeeded first in his military life. Born on August 26, 1920, in Songkhla, he attended the prestigious Suan Kularb High School in Bangkok and then the elite Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. Starting as a sublieutenant in 1941, he rose gradually through the ranks until he was in 1968 commander of cavalry headquarters. He was royal aide-de-camp in 1968 (and also later in 1975). From 1973 to 1977 he was first deputy commander-in-chief and then commander-in-chief of the 2nd Army. He became commander-in-chief of the Thai armed forces in September 1978.

During the period 1977-1979 he was also deputy minister of the interior (the organization that controls the Thai police). On March 3, 1979, he was nominated to be prime minister by an overwhelming majority (399 votes of 500) of the National Assembly, and on the same day his nomination was forwarded to the royal palace for approval. He held this post into the late 1980s. He was concurrently the minister of defense, and he was the chairman of the Petroleum Authority of Thailand from 1981 to 1983.

Prem's importance lay in the stability he brought to the Thai political scene at its apex. This political longevity was threatened by an attempted military coup against his government in 1981, but the prime minister, with the strong backing of the royal family, weathered that storm. Prem's strength, in fact, was due both to the loyalty he exhibited to the monarchy and to the king's support of his position, but also to his reputation for personal integrity and his capacity to engender consensus.

In a nation that since 1932 had witnessed continued military bickering over the plums of political power, Prem had the capacity to retain support from a broad spectrum of military figures. He was not without rivals, however, and he skillfully managed the clear but unarticulated challenge to him in 1984 by Gen. Arthit Kamlang-ek over the need to devaluate the Thai currency by 17 percent, a move that was as unpopular as it was necessary.

Although the prime minister made his first official visit to the United States in October 1981 and his second in April 1984, he was no stranger to foreign travel. He attended the U.S. Army War College in 1960 and the U.S. National Defense College in 1966.

As prime minister, Prem played a positive role in the strengthening of the six country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and of their cooperation. As both a general and a civilian political leader, he had to deal with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the resulting economic, social, and political issues connected with the many refugees crossing the Thai border. These were the major foreign policy and military concerns of the government. He survived coup attempts in 1981 and 1985.

After resigning as Prime Minister in 1988 Prem served as a member of the King's Privy Council and continued to have considerable influence on Thai affairs.


Further Reading on Prem Tinsulanonda

There is no English language biography of Prem. References to specific aspects of his government may be found in the standard studies on contemporary Thai politics. The Public Relations Department of the Royal Thai Government has published a booklet entitled The Thai Prime Minister and His Task (Bangkok, no date).