(b. Songkhla, 26 Aug. 1920)
Thai; royalist Premier 1980–8 From the southern Thai town of Songkhla, Prem's career as a political healer took off as a consequence of a term as army commander in the north-east, based at Khorat, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
He was able to reconcile many students and intellectuals who had fled to the jungle either side of the Mekong following the collapse in 1976 of the so-called ‘Student Revolution’, and also establish links with the ‘Palace’, which supported such policies. He was similarly useful to General Kriangsak Chommanan, who seized power in 1977 to restore parliamentary government, and appointed him as Deputy Interior Minister 1977, army Commander-in-Chief 1978, and Defence Minister 1979. He succeeded as premier in early 1980 when Kriangsak's coalition fell apart. Royal support also ensured that his concurrent term as army chief was extended five years beyond the normal retirement age of 60, and was further cemented when he took refuge along with the royal couple at Khorat during the short-lived army ‘Young Turk’ coup of 1981.
Prem was the beneficiary of two major factors. First was the sense of shock that pervaded Buddhist Thailand following the unprecedented blood-letting of the years 1973–6. He was more compatible than Kriangsak with the desire for consensus, even if maintaining it was never easy. The Young Turk coup also implicated dissatisfied senior officers, and was a warning that the army feared he would forget his military loyalties. Yet Prem was only able to maintain his acceptability in the assembly through a coalition of all the major parties, declining when offered the leadership of one of them, and refusing to submit himself for election. In line with the tradition that had brought him to power, he also employed a number of technocrat ministers entirely dependent on his patronage.
The other advantage was that the Thai economy was entering a period of unprecedented growth averaging more than 6 per cent annually, and the stability of the era was crucial to its continuance. But there were no major initiatives, for instance in foreign policy, comparable with the 1967 hosting of the first ASEAN meeting, or the 1975 and 1977 reconciliations with Beijing and Hanoi.
Around 1986, Prem's unflappability began to wear thin. His efforts to break down divisive regional loyalties like his north-eastern and northern military predecessors Sarit and Thanom, by bringing fellow southerners into his administration, came under increased criticism from the Bangkok press. Also his continuing bachelorhood became notorious. However, his decision to step down in favour of the first elected Prime Minister since 1976, Chatichai Choonhavan, in 1988, and maintain only a distant influence as royal adviser, undermined the consensus, and led eventually to a new army regime in 1991. This regime was overthrown in 1992 and civilian governments ruled until 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a military coup. Prem, President of the king's Privy Council since 1998, is thought to have assisted in gaining royal approval of the coup. He remains an influential figure in the complex process of returning to civilian government since the coup.