OBITUARY : Kukrit Pramoj

A former prime minister of Thailand, an international film star, a journalist, a newspaper proprietor, a banker, an art connoisseur, a Thai classical dancer, Kukrit Pramoj was a man for all seasons; or, rather, a man who knew how to weather the enormous political and social changes that have transformed his country from a sleepy South East Asian backwater into a Mecca for economic investment and international tourism.

By birth he was an aristocrat and proud of it, although he often joked that his official title Mom Rajawong, usually abbreviated to "M.R.", stood for minor royalty. Kukrit was in fact a great-grandson of the second king in the current Thai royal dynasty and he wrote several nostalgic semi- historical novels about life at court in the time of his forebears. However, even at the turn of the century the absolute monarchs of Siam, as the country was then called, realised they could not forever insulate their kingdom from the outside world. Bending with the wind, the princes who occupied all the leading positions under the absolute monarchy sent their numerous offspring to be educated abroad. As a result Kukrit experienced a traditional British public school upbringing, at Trent College, in Derbyshire - although he never complained about it as did his elder brother Seni - followed by Queen's College, Oxford.

Nevertheless the ruling princes did not bend far enough and in 1932 their comfortable world was shattered. A group of commoners staged a virtually bloodless coup to oust the absolute monarchy and introduce a constitutional government, albeit retaining the King as head of state.

No longer could Kukrit look forward to occupying a position at court where he could indulge in his passion for Thai art, literature and classical dancing. Instead he had to go out and earn a living in the incipient world of Thai banking. But it was after the Second World War, in which he played no role (unlike his brother Seni, who as Thai Ambassador to the United States led the Free Thai movement abroad in opposing the Japanese occupation), that Kukrit discovered his major vocation. He founded a newspaper, Liberty, as a platform for criticising those who had abolished the absolute monarchy, whom he regarded as corrupt and simply hungry for power.

These views met with considerable sympathy amongst the Bangkok elite and he was elected to the National Assembly in 1946 on the basis that he opposed the ruling clique. But the acerbic wit in which he clothed such criticism earned him many enemies, including the wartime dictator Field Marshal Pibul Songkram, who returned to power after a military coup in 1947. That, and the subsequent imposition of increasingly strict press censorship, seemed to put an end to Kukrit's political and journalistic career. Instead, during the next 22 years of virtually unbroken military dictatorship in Thailand, he devoted himself to cultivating his interest in preserving and fostering Thai culture.

His reputation brought him to the attention of Hollywood for the casting of the film The Ugly American, a cynical view of a supposedly imaginary South East Asian country caught up in the wiles of US diplomatic intrigue at the time of the Vietnam war. Kukrit was chosen to star in the film as the Prime Minister of Sarkhan who has to cope with a somewhat boorish American ambassador played by Marlon Brando. Little could he have realised in 1962, when the film was shot, that it was a role he would come to play in real life 13 years later.

Like Sarkhan, Thailand was enormously affected by the neighbouring wars in Vietnam. Not only did Thailand see a massive influx of American aid during the 1960s "to prevent it from going Communist". It also had to cope with the presence of large numbers of Americans who established seven air force bases in Thailand as well as using Bangkok as the main recreation centre for their troops fighting in Vietnam. Despite the negative aspects of this physical and cultural invasion, it began to transform political attitudes as well, especially amongst the younger generation: in 1973 a spontaneous popular uprising, to everybody's surprise and after much bloodshed, succeeded in ousting Thailand's military dictatorship. The country was returned to civilian rule under a government to be elected according to a new constitution.

This was Kukrit's great opportunity to revert to his former career as journalist and politician. He established the Social Action Party to campaign in the elections held in early 1975 on the basis of spreading Thailand's newly acquired economic prosperity more evenly throughout the country. This party gained a lot of popular support, but not an overall majority in the Assembly which, unexpectedly and some would say perversely, decided that the Democrat Party with many fewer seats should try to form a coalition government under the premiership of its leader Seni Pramoj - Kukrit's brother. But Seni was much less skilful a politician and soon lost a vital vote of confidence in the Assembly which had then no other resort but to ask Kukrit to become Prime Minister.

It was a task he took on with relish as if he had been waiting for it all his life. But this was 1975, when the Communists gained control of neighbouring Cambodia followed by Vietnam and Laos in quick succession, leading to fears that Thailand might soon succumb. In the tradition of Thai diplomacy, Kukrit presided over a major readjustment in the country's foreign policy, first by appeasing China and establishing diplomatic relations during the course of a historic visit to Peking to talk to Mao Tse-tung. Then, bowing to militant left-wing student pressure, he demanded that the Americans withdraw all their military bases from Thailand immediately in order to avoid any possible provocation for a Communist takeover.

These moves deeply divided public opinion, which had become volatile following the end of the military dictatorship, with militant groups taking to the streets of Bangkok on any pretext. In one such demonstration, an angry clique of police marched to Kukrit's home and burnt it down, together with his priceless collection of antiques.

But it was the issue on which he had campaigned during the election which finally spelled the end of his government in early 1976. To boost the income of the peasants in the countryside, he proposed that the price of rice should be increased in urban Bangkok. This brought down upon him the wrath of his opponents in the Assembly, who forced his resignation and new elections. His brother Seni was briefly brought back to premiership; but once more the military intervened.

Short as his spell as prime minister was, and he was never to return to power again, Kukrit Pramoj came to be regarded as Thailand's elder statesman. He had, after all, negotiated with Mao and dared to argue with Henry Kissinger. What is more, even after the return to power of the military, he did not hesitate to express his opinions in forthright terms both in the columns of Siam Rath, the newspaper he controlled, or directly to journalists who frequently made their way to his home.

For instance, during yet another military coup attempt in the mid-1980s, I managed to force my way through his gate by virtue of having met him previously on social occasions, to be told that the only way to stop Thailand's seemingly endemic coups was to shoot all the generals. But then Kukrit abruptly changed the subject and started talking about his latest hobby: growing daffodils and crocuses with the help of a deep freeze. This, he said, provided a sensation of winter before emerging into Thailand's tropical heat.

His knowledge of flowers prompted him on another occasion to describe one of his less robust successors in the premiership as a "pressed pansy" which, given his own sexual tendencies, about which he made no secret after divorcing his wife, was interpreted not so much as malice but as a matter of fact. It was typical, too, of the man Thais have come to love and hate as the most colourful and outspoken politician and journalist of their past few decades.

Judy Stowe

Kukrit Pramoj, politician: born 20 April 1911; prime minister of Thailand 1975-76; died Bangkok 9 October 1995.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices