THAILAND: A Reckoning with History Begins

By Montesano, Michael J. | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

THAILAND: A Reckoning with History Begins

Montesano, Michael J., Southeast Asian Affairs

Introduction: Wat Thepsirin, 12 November 2006

On the clear, sunny afternoon of 12 November 2006, a sliver of Bangkok's great, good, and merely loyal gathered at Wat Thepsirintharawat Ratchaworawihan to participate in the royally sponsored cremation rites for General Kriangsak Chomanan. Thailand's prime minister during 1977-80, Kriangsak had passed away in late 2003. Three years on, his cremation offered a rare, even reassuring moment of calm and order during a year of disorientating and discouraging developments for Thailand.

Thais present at Wat Thepsirin included a number of those who had shaped recent history. Former Foreign Minister Air Chief Marshal (Retired) Siddhi Savetsila attended the cremation. So did former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and several of the leading technocrats of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Dhanin Chearavanont of the Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group was also present - perhaps in recognition of Kriangsak's engagement with the People's Republic of China, where CP was an important early foreign investor, during his tenure as premier.

For all their reminders of yesteryear, the rites had a particularly timely aspect, too. Not least, they came less than two months after a military coup in Bangkok, executed on 19 September 2006. In his time, Kriangsak had been no stranger to coups. He was a leading participant in the October 1976 coup that ended Thailand's three-year experiment with open democratic politics. A year later, the extreme rightist orientation of judge Thanin Kraivixien's government led Kriangsak to lead a further coup, this time without prior royal approval, and to assume the premiership himself. During his years in office, Kriangsak moved to limit the political influence of the right-wing, pro-monarchist mass movement, the Village Scouts. Determined to place the Thai monarchy truly above politics and convinced of the need for a systematic approach to the challenges facing the country, he consulted with the King only minimally.1 This determination is said to have earned him the lasting dislike of the palace.

With no member of the royal family present, and in the King's stead, Privy Council president General (Retired) Prem Tinsulanonda presided over the 12 November cremation rites. His role was not without irony. Prem had served in Kriangsak's cabinet until, in February 1980, a meeting between the two officers and the King resulted in Kriangsak's resignation, Prem's replacing him as prime minister, and the inauguration of the latter officer's eight-year tenure as Thailand's chief of government. Despite Kriangsak's status as a distinguished career army officer, a former armed forces supreme commander, and a former prime minister, none of the active-duty officers in the 19 September junta attended his cremation rites. The privy councillor and retired general whom that junta had installed as prime minister in early October, Surayud Chulanont, spent the day in Khao Yai National Park on an outing with young people from Thailand's troubled, Muslimmajority far south.2 One of his deputy prime ministers (and concurrent finance minister), Pridiyathorn Devakula, did attend the cremation, as did the defence minister.

The lack of security measures at General Kriangsak's cremation rites, a publicly announced outdoor event drawing a number of the more prominent political figures in a country fighting a violent war within its own borders, was conspicuous. So were the unmistakable enthusiasm and interest generated by the arrival at Wat Thepsirin that afternoon of Chaturon Chaisang, acting leader of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party.

Thaksin Defiant: 1 January to 19 September 2006(3)

The campaign to oust an elected premier

Thaksin's premiership was from the start a high-wire act.4 His brashness and outspoken determination to reshape the Thai political order, his unabashed plutocracy and utter insouciance about glaring conflicts of interest, and his persistent unwillingness to make the adjustments necessary to veil his disreputability always involved real risks. …

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