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As Thai military holds on to power, a 1980 order by former PM Prem looms large

Former Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who died on May 26, and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Thailand’s Future Forward Party, were separated by almost six decades in age — and by much else. But a clear thread connects the political legacy of Prem and the legal pressure on Mr Thanathorn.

General Prem Tinsulanonda putting on a beret before addressing cadets at a military academy in Nakhon Nayok province in 2006.

General Prem Tinsulanonda putting on a beret before addressing cadets at a military academy in Nakhon Nayok province in 2006.

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Former Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who died on May 26 at the age of 98, and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 40-year old leader of Thailand’s Future Forward Party, were separated by almost six decades in age — and by much else.

Born in the Southern Thai province of Songkhla, General Prem was a career military officer who distinguished himself in north-east Thailand before rising to the post of Army commander-in-chief. In the last two decades of his life, he served as chairman of the Privy Council, an influential body of advisors to the Thai king.

Mr Thanathorn, who challenged Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for the premiership in Wednesday’s (June 5's) session of parliament in Bangkok but lost, is the Bangkok-born scion of a Thai Chinese family that made its fortune in the automobile parts business.

A former deputy-secretary general of the Students Federation of Thailand, he has long faced accusations of disrespect toward the monarchy. His party emerged as the third best-performing party in the March general election despite being just a year old.  

On May 25, the Constitutional Court suspended him from parliament on technical charges relating to the violation of the electoral law.

These differences notwithstanding, a clear thread connects the political legacy of Prem and the legal pressure on Mr Thanathorn.

In early 1980, a murky deal involving the palace resulted in Prem replacing Kriangsak Chamanan as Thailand’s prime minister. The simple significance of this deal was that the counter-insurgency wing of the country’s security forces had taken control of the Thai state.

Prem’s policy of amnesty for Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) fighters, introduced in 1982, and the subsequent demise of that party have received attention in obituaries.

But another measure, taken in the second month of his premiership, has proved far more consequential.

Prime Ministerial Order 66/2523 of April 23 1980 articulated a counter-insurgency philosophy that Prem and a number of close advisors had developed over the course of the 1970s.

It committed the Thai military to advancing a political line, to supporting democracy and the popular good, and of thereby denying support to the CPT. The order stressed the roles of the Cabinet, the National Security Council and the Internal Security Operations Command and the importance of attention to the demands of the people.

But, despite its embrace of democracy, it made no mention of elections, parliament or political parties as vehicles for the legitimate expression of those demands.

Prem served as prime minister for eight years. Thailand had elections during those years, but he never ran in them or joined a political party.

His governments depended on the deft manipulation of shifting and volatile parliamentary coalitions of essentially non-ideological parties in the lower house of parliament.

The upper house or Senate was wholly appointed, dominated by military officers and other government officials.

As prime minister, Prem worked rather fruitfully with civilian technocrats, as Thailand moved into a period of rapid economic growth. But his premiership illustrated that Order 66/2523 was more than a philosophy of counter-insurgency.

It was a philosophy of government, grounded in scepticism about the role of political parties in general — and not just the CPT — in mediating between citizens and the state.

Order 66/2523 and its lasting influence count among the most important legacies of Prem’s long life. That legacy remains important for two reasons. One is that the Thai military has continued to play an important political role.

The second is that, unlike during the counter-insurgency era, the top officers in the Thai military today attach little importance to the development of new political visions to suit changing times.

They remain largely reliant on the visions of the past, not least that of Prem and his counter-insurgency advisors.

Last October, the military government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha released a constitutionally-mandated 20-year National Strategy, intended as a blueprint for a secure, prosperous and fully developed Thailand.

While 30 times longer than Order 66/2523, this document also fails to mention parliament. It mentions political parties only once, in the context of the importance of efficient, clean and fair elections and of good governance.

Thailand’s 2017 Constitution does not require that the prime minister be an elected member of parliament. It provides for an unelected Senate. It imposes onerous restrictions on the formation and operation of political parties. Its design promotes the emergence of coalition governments comprising numerous middle-sized parties, like those of the Prem era.

From one perspective, the Future Forward Party, with its 81 seats in the 500-member lower house, looks like it fits the bill.

But Mr Thanathorn and his party are now facing a broad legal assault.

He faces sedition charges relating to anti-junta protests in 2015, scrutiny over loans that he made to the party, an investigation concerning the timing of his sale of shares in a media firm, and possible indictment over the use of Facebook to disseminate critical comments about the junta.

A ban from political activity, or even prison, could result. Other members of Future Forward also face legal scrutiny. Observers consider a judicial ruling to dissolve the party almost inevitable.

These circumstances invite comparisons between Mr Thanathorn and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, given the history of sustained legal pressure against Thaksin and the political parties that supported him.

The appeal of those parties to a broad segment of Thai citizens challenged the political vision of Order 66/2523.

In channelling citizens’ demands, the pro-Thaksin parties mediated between citizen and state in a manner for which that vision did not allow.

The research of political scientists Joel Selway and Allen Hicken into the level of support for Future Forward in Thailand’s March elections suggests that its popularity is even greater than its share of seats in parliament indicates.

This electoral performance partly explains the legal assault that the party now confronts. That assault demonstrates the persistence of the political vision of Order 66/2523 and its intolerance for parties that represent more than interchangeable components of parliamentary coalitions.

Of course, the specific ideological content of Future Forward’s platform is a further explanatory factor.

In calling, as Selway and Hicken note, for lower spending on Thailand’s armed forces and civilian control of the country’s military, as well as an end to conscription, the party seeks not only to mediate between army and citizen but in fact to deny the political role for the military that Order 66/2523 takes for granted.

The date of Prem’s cremation has not yet been set. The fates of Mr Thanathorn and the Future Forward Party are not yet clear.

It is a reflection of Prem’s legacy that the interval leading up to that cremation will coincide with the period in which we wait to learn the fate of Mr Thanathorn and his upstart party.



Michael Montesano is coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. The co-editor of After the Coup: The National Council for Peace and Order Era and the Future of Thailand (2019), he has observed Thai politics since 1983.  

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Thailand Prem Tinsulanonda Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit Prayuth Chan-ocha military

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