“Anand Panyarachun and the making of modern Thailand” by Dominic Faulder

Anand Panyarachun and the Making of Modern Thailand.  Dominic Faulder (Didier Millet, May 2019) Anand Panyarachun and the Making of Modern Thailand. Dominic Faulder (Didier Millet, May 2019)

While the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej is perhaps the figure most associated with the development of modern Thailand, two-time Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun has had a large influence on the country’s development. Anand stands out as an upstanding, liberal figure who steered well clear of corruption and scandals. As Thailand embarks on a new era under a new king, Dominic Faulder’s recent biography of Anand provides timely background.

This comprehensive work stretches well beyond the realms of a political biography. Covering Anand’s long career, it also details Thailand’s domestic politics and foreign policy from the 1930s until the present. This, it must be said, is an authorized biography and Anand Panyarachun is shown in a strongly positive light, not necessarily a problem, but he is sometimes a distant figure, playing second fiddle to the complexities of history.

 

Anand, born in 1932 into a prominent family of mixed Thai and Chinese descent, leaves a bucolic Bangkok for England and ends up at Trinity College, Cambridge. Although not of a scholarly disposition, he impresses all with his people skills, practicality and hard work. Throughout the narrative there is a pattern of positions being offered to Anand, rather than him actively seeking them. His first break is to be appointed secretary to the Thai Foreign Minister, Thanat Khoman.

Anand spends the 60s and early 70s in the foreign ministry, both as ambassador to Canada and the USA, and permanent secretary to the UN. Closer to home, his work includes taking a strong stance on the American Military leaving Thailand at the end of the Vietnam War and normalizing relations with China. In 1975 he even got to meet a doddery Mao Zedong. Anand is a man to get things done and although hard on his staff, he is of genuine character.

 

There are stories of junior Thai diplomats appearing at the UN improperly attired. On a short fuse, Anand blasted them publicly. They were sent home to change, and such basic mistakes were never repeated. “He liked his officials to be like ping pong balls in water,” says Manaspas. “When the hand moved, they sprang back up. For him, substance was very important. He was very direct and not afraid.”

 

In 1976, at the peak of his career in the foreign ministry, Anand gets caught up in the aftermath of the Thammasat University massacre of October 6, in which student protestors with anti-royalist tendencies are massacred by the military, police and paramilitary forces. After a subsequent coup, the army claims the incident was part of a Vietnamese backed communist takeover plan. Anand, bewilderingly, is fingered as a communist sympathizer. He loses his job and is faced with a court case.

After an official investigation, Anand is cleared of any wrongdoing and sent to West Germany as ambassador. However, after being purged he understanbly wants out of the foreign ministry. A man of Anand’s connections has little trouble moving over to the private sector. He pursues a successful career with the Saha-Union Group, his web of international contacts being invaluable to this company.

 

Things change again for Anand in 1991 as the military fresh from conducting another coup, are looking for someone reliable to serve as Prime Minister. Anand, now with a successful business career, is reluctant to accept an offer from the military’s political wing, the rather sinisterly named National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC). In the end he takes the job and is a success as Prime Minister, liberalizing the economy, tackling the AIDS crisis head on and dealing with the foreign press in forthright and engaging fashion.

When the time comes Anand steps down ahead of the March 1992 elections without a fuss. The NPKC candidate Suchinda Kraprayoon is made Prime Minister following the elections and trouble ensues. There are protests on the streets and a violent crackdown. King Bhumibol then intervenes and Suchinda resigns. Anand once again steps up and becomes PM, this time only for four months.

Anand’s involvement in drafting the 1997 People’s Constitution confirms his legacy as a reformer—however, this constitution gets overturned after the coup in 2006 which deposes Thaksin Shinawata. At this stage of the book, a non-expert in Thai history will be marvelling at the country’s predilection for coups d’état.

 

The book moves on to the rise of Thaksin Shinawata and Faulder makes some insightful comparisons in the leadership styles of the two men. Although the relationship between the two quickly becomes strained because of Thaksin’s hunger for power, Thaksin appoints Anand to head a reconciliation commission aiming to peacefully resolve the Muslim insurgency in Southern Thailand. Faulder has a member of the commission, Bangkok Muslim academic Chaiwat Satha-Anand, sum up Anand’s strengths:

 

Chaiwat regards Anand as a very unusual figure in Thai society, a member of the so-called ammarat but one who had been exceptionally ostracised and ill-treated after the Thammasat University massacre in October in 1976. In Chaiwat’s view, that experience was vital to shaping Anand’s worldview, imbuing him with a quality often absent in Southeast Asian politics: empathy.

 

Towards the end of the book there is a summary about Anand’s role in bringing Thailand to the world, a relief to a reader struggling to give his career some focus among the wealth of detail. The sections about what he reads, watches on TV, business interests and publishing projects give a picture of a rather conventional life outside of diplomacy and politics.

The underlying message Faulder leaves us with is that Thailand could do with more like Anand, an open and caring man. Anand, although he worked with the military, was never scared to stand up to them, and despite being Westernized, was not a US flunky.

This is an amazingly detailed and comprehensive work that perhaps would have been better split into two or three books.


Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.