Obituary: Seni Pramoj

Judy Stowe
Tuesday 29 July 1997 23:02

Seni Pramoj had the unusual distinction of being Prime Minister of Thailand four times, but on none of these occasions did his tenure of office last more than a few months or in some cases a few weeks. He blamed fate for the vagaries in his career which led him, a junior member of the Thai royal family, to become a lawyer, a diplomat, a figurehead of the Thai resistance to the Japanese during the Second World War and a politician.

Mom Rajawong Seni Pramoj, to accord him his formal title, was one of the numerous great-grandsons of the second king in the present Thai dynasty. His birth provided him certain privileges including the guarantee of an official, if modest, position amongst the hierarchy of princes who maintained Siam, as it used to be called, as an absolute monarchy until 1932. By then, like many other members of the royal family, Seni had undergone what he later described as the rigours of an English public school education at Trent College before going on to Oxford to take a degree in Law and pass his Bar exams. On his return to Bangkok he became a junior judge with the prospect of a comfortable life thereafter.

In 1932 however when a small group of commoners staged a bloodless coup to abolish the absolute monarchy and establish a constitutional government, albeit retaining the King as Head of State, Seni was not as violently opposed to this change as some of his relatives. Perhaps this was due to his education in consitutional law in Britain. But neither does he seem to have had much affection for the new individuals who took over the governance of Thailand. He was therefore very surprised in 1940 to be invited to go to Washington to take charge of the Thai legation there just after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Thailand, under the leadership of Field Marshal Pibul Songkram - virtually the military dictator - was making noises about reclaiming so-called "lost territories" from French Indo-China, once the government in Paris collapsed in the face of the German invasion. Thus, when Thailand launched attacks against the French with Japanese support, Seni firmly defended his government's stance.

There was therefore all the more surprise in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Pibul's decision not to oppose the entry of Japanese troops to Thailand, when Seni suddenly and publicly expressed opposition to these moves. He also claimed that he declined to deliver Thailand's declaration of war on the United States, although the US archives contain a copy of it which he handed over.

Nevertheless, Seni assisted by the United States became the symbol of Thai resistance to Japan. He broadcast to his compatriots at home advising them against fraternisation and called on Thais abroad to join the Allied war effort, which many did. So was born what became known as the Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement of which Seni was titular head. On the strength of this, he was invited back to Thailand by the leaders of the internal Seir Thai movement to become the first post-war prime minister, on the premise that he had good relations with the Allied powers and was not tainted with collaborating with the Japanese.

What nobody in Bangkok knew was that many Americans had become disillusioned with Seni's leadership capacities, whilst the British knew that he harboured the belief that Lord Louis Mountbatten as Head of South East Asia Command (SEAC) was sending troops into Thailand on the pretext of disarming the Japanese but really with the intent of taking over the country as a British colony. This suspicion coloured Seni's first premiership in the closing months of 1945. Seni continued to maintain throughout his life that his greatest achievement was to save Thailand from British colonialism. Official records tell another story.

But after the general elections in January 1946 he did not resume the premiership, and after a few weeks as Foreign Minister dropped out of the government completely when a new administration was formed, composed mainly of the leaders of the wartime internal Seri Thai movement. Seni, who claimed that the Seri Thai were basically Communist, reverted to his royal roots and joined a political group calling itself the Democrats which was also opposed to military rule.

This situation culminated in a military coup in November 1947. The army under Field Marshal Pibul resumed power whilst Seni and his fellow democrats were consigned to the political wilderness. So Seni withdrew to set up a profitable legal practice until once more he was surprised.

In 1962 Thailand became engaged in a legal wrangle with Cambodia over the sovereignty of an ancient Khmer temple, Khao Phra Viharn, on their joint border. The case was taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Seni as a lawyer with international experience was asked to present the Thai case. It was lost. But Seni was not finished yet.

In 1973 when the Thai military dictatorship was overthrown by student demonstrations, Seni reconstituted the Democrat Party under his leadership. He was, after all, considered an elder statesman. He did not however take into account his younger brother, Kukrit, a far more dynamic character well known as a journalist and film star. The result was that in 1975 they ended up leading opposing parties in Thailand's first free elections for 30 years. Seni's party won the largest number of seats but he was unable to command a majority of votes in the National Assembly. After two weeks in the premiership, he had to concede it to his younger brother.

This was a fraught period in South East Asia with the Communist take- over of Cambodia, southern Vietnam and Laos in quick succession leading to fears that Thailand would be next. Kukrit stemmed this anxiety by making a ground-breaking visit to Beijing, a move most people doubted his elder brother would have been able to make. This increased the hostility between their respective political camps leading to another general election in early 1976. Once more Seni's Democrat Party emerged with the largest number of seats to form a new government but it soon ran into trouble over the question of how to treat members of the former military dictatorship seeking rehabilitation, and was also accused of harbouring Communists.

All these conflicting pressures led to his resignation in early October 1976, only to take it up again the following day to attempt to reconstitute his cabinet in a form more acceptable to the military and the royal palace. It was not to be. On 6 October 1976, Seni's government was ousted in a series of moves between para-military forces opposed to radical students during which many of the latter were lynched and killed.

In any event it spelt an end to his political career. Yet he has continued to command respect from those who believe he was the mainstay of the Democrat Party during the long 1950s and 1960s when political activities were banned. Against this background, his weakness as a prime minister is largely overlooked.

Judy Stowe

Mom Rajawong Seni Pramoj, lawyer, diplomat and politician: born 26 May 1905; Prime Minister of Thailand 1945-46, 1975, 1976; married 1931 Usna Saligupta (two sons, one daughter); died Bangkok 28 July 1997.

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