OBITUARY : Kukrit Pramoj

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The Independent Online
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.