Prem Tinsulanonda, power broker and royal councilor, dies at 98

Prem Tinsulanonda in 2010. Photo: Royal Thai Government
Prem Tinsulanonda in 2010. Photo: Royal Thai Government

Prem Tinsulanonda, the powerful head of the king’s privy council who helped weave the power dynamic between throne and barracks over six decades, died this morning due to coronary disease. He was 98.

Through channels direct and indirect, Prem’s longevity in the halls of power was without equal. After a long career in civilian political office including eight years as prime minister, he spent 20 more as president of the king’s powerful body of advisers, a position he held at the time of his death.

During that time he played a critical role using his immense influence to mediate power disputes, for which his critics accused him of being an unaccountable force meddling in civilian affairs.

Prem, who survived multiple assassination attempts during his tenure as premier, also served as regent during the interregnum following the death of the late King Bhumibol.

Prem at 39 in 1959. Photo: Parliament Secretary's Office
Prem at 39 in 1959. Photo: Parliament Secretary’s Office

Though he had receded from active public life, Prem still issued dispatches weighing in on the political situation. And those opinions weighed heavily. Birthdays at his home were closely watched annual pilgrimages for top brass to travel and both their respects and be granted an audience with Prem.

But Prem’s locus of power in the military belonged to a faction other than the Eastern Tigers which seized power five years ago. While he was loudly supportive of the junta, he wasn’t above telegraphing some subtle criticisms.

It was headline news when he was too ill this past August to welcome them for his 98th birthday.

There has yet to be a statement made by junta leader and Prime Minsiter Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

Word of his death was eliciting some criticism but mostly praise online.

“You were King Rama IX’s right-hand soldier. You’ve completed your job now. You get to follow his majesty one more time,” MJhantamas tweeted.

Prem was born Aug. 26, 1920, in Songkhla province. He attended the Bangkok’s elite Suankularb Wittayalai School, an all-boys school that produced many men who would go on to grasp the levers of power.

Prem entered the army in 1941 and after nearly two decades as an officer embarked on a civilian political career that saw him serve on committees, in the senate and in the parliament. He became an adviser to Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien in 1976 and following several cabinet posts under other governments, he became prime minister in 1980.

It was in 1988 that he left public life for a role on the king’s Privy Council.

Prem remained a bachelor and never married. Funeral details have yet to be announced.

Here’s a clip of Prem meeting with US President Ronald Reagan in 1984:

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