AN EXTRAORDINARY DEMOCRAT
As he sits alone on his shaded verandah, sheltered by his rose garden from Bangkok's raucous morning traffic, M.R. Seni Pramoj is a picture of peaceful concentration, like one of his own pastel sketches.
His home is set well back from Ekamai Road, so there is time for the clutter of cars to give way to the spaciousness of well-kept grounds as one approaches his sanctuary. Still, it's difficult to make out the slim, upright figure. But Seni's thatch of silver hair invariably sets him off, like some elegant small bird.
When awareness of a visitor breaks his meditation, the stillness is transformed—after the offer of coffee or ice water—into a stream of words. They are never harsh. They are always thoughtful and evocative in often humorous response to questions about past, present, and future. Over many days their gentle, almost casual depth marks this quiet aristocrat as a truly extraordinary democrat in his own country of Thailand, in all Southeast Asia, and in the frequently discouraging worldwide search for freedom and responsibility in the affairs of individuals and nations.
Mom Rajawongse—freely translated as Prince but really meaning great-grandson of a king— Seni Pramoj (the j in the family name is pronounced as d) has been prime minister of Thailand four times, each time at a decisive juncture in the long Thai struggle for political freedom. Yet at the age of ninety he is little known by his own people, except in a special way by the thousands of lawyers and law students he has taught in the classroom or through legal textbooks.
Few Americans realize that Seni inaugurated singlehandedly one of the most astonishing chapters in U.S. involvement in World War II. As the young Thai envoy to Washington when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor and occupied his country in December 1941, he refused to deliver Bangkok's declaration of war on the United States to Secretary of State Cordell Hull.