Obituary: Chatichai Choonhavan

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The Independent Online
CHATICHAI CHOONHAVAN was one of Thailand's most flamboyant and long lasting politicians. Not only was he a former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. He was also one of the godfathers of Thai politics who had the influence to make or break numerous coalition governments.

Chatichai's influence stemmed originally from his family. His father was Field Marshal Pin Choonhavan who gained prominence in 1941 during a brief border war which enabled Thailand to annex parts of Laos and Cambodia. Although this territory had to be handed back in 1946, the family had by then built a substantial commercial empire especially in north eastern Thailand.

It also added to its fortune with a series of well-judged marriages. One of Chatichai's sisters became the wife of the powerful police chief Pao Sriyanon. He himself married Bunrua, a close friend of the royal family.

In 1951, during one of Thailand's many military coups d'etat, this Pin- Pao clique as it came to be known, managed to seize most of the reins of power in the country, with Chatichai, who was already one of its youngest generals, becoming a cabinet minister as well.

But they were too obviously greedy. Five years later in another coup, the family lost out amidst allegations that it had amassed millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Whilst his father and brother-in- law died shortly afterwards, Chatichai was sent into virtual exile as ambassador to Argentina, a country with which Thailand had few obvious relations. He was to remain abroad for the next ten and more years but was not completely forgotten.

In 1970 yet another military coup saw him returning home to become Foreign Minister, a position he clearly relished. He also set about reforging old family alliances as the basis of a political party to contest Thailand's first truly democratic elections in 1975.

Since no party won an outright majority of seats, the outcome was a further period of political instability marred by several more coups in some of which Chatichai was implicated although he no longer held military rank. In fact he just could not desist from playing politics. But it was not until 1990 that he achieved his ultimate ambition of becoming prime minister.

His dream was to transform Thailand into a major centre of power in South East Asia, and with Vietnam on the brink of withdrawing all its forces from Cambodia, he spoke of changing the concept of Indo-China as a battleground into a market place where Thai businessmen could invest and make lucrative trade deals. He had little time to achieve this aim. Within a year, he was ousted from power in yet another military coup on the grounds that his government was totally corrupt.

Although this seemed to bring Chatichai Choonhavan's political career to an end, he never ceased manoeuvring behind the scenes, with still sufficient a power base to wreck several successive coalition governments. For all that he remained a popular figure with few obvious enemies and his death is likely to be widely mourned.

Judy Stowe

Chatichai Choonhavan, soldier, diplomat and politician: born Bangkok 5 April 1922; Deputy Foreign Minister of Thailand 1972-75; Foreign Minister 1975-76; Industry Minister 1976; Deputy Prime Minister 1986-88; Prime Minister of Thailand 1988-91; married (one son, one daughter); died London 6 May 1998.