Book Review: Anand Panyarachun and the Making of Modern Thailand

Who was Anand Panyarachun? What was his role in contemporary Thai history? Published in 2018, this gargantuan book of 608 pages, multiple rare photos, and seven appendices, addresses these questions. Most people recognize Anand as either the 1991-1992 civilian frontman for Thailand’s then-military junta or prime minister again during 1992’s post-“Black May” crisis.

The author, Dominic Faulder, a Thailand-based journalist since the early 1980s, conducted approximately 100 interviews with Anand himself (among other sources) to comprehend him and political events around him. Faulder locates Anand for us as the youngest son of a prominent Bangkok Mon-Hokkien Chinese family with connections in high places—Anand’s father served in Thailand’s 1932 House of Representatives and Anand’s brother married the daughter of Plaek Phibunsongkhram.

After studying in the UK Anand became a Thai Foreign Service Officer before assuming (in 1958) the position as Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman’s Secretary. He rapidly rose to become representative of Thailand to the United Nations, then Ambassador to the United States before his appointment as Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs in January 1976.

Anand early on ruffled the feathers of the Thai military and the US Embassy with his support for diminishing the number of military officials who were ambassadors, expediting the withdrawal of US troops and resuming diplomatic relations with China, Vietnam and Laos. Some US officials simply thought that Anand was anti-American, while as Faulder points out, Anand became “high on the military’s hit list.”

Following the 1976 coup, the new regime targeted Anand for alleged left-wing sympathies. An inquisition was launched against him though it eventually absolved Anand of any wrongdoing. But pressures from the case had taken its toll. In 1979 he retired from the Foreign Ministry and became a Bangkok businessman.

Jumping ahead to 1991, Faulder offers a vivid description of the coup that year and Anand’s involvement in the regime it created. When the February putsch happened, the junta leaders looked for a technocrat to serve as their fig-leaf prime minister. When others turned them down, military officers reluctantly turned to Anand. His fame as a prominent industrialist caught their attention.

Also then-Army Chief Suchinda Kraprayoon had known Anand when the former was Deputy Military Attache in Washington and the latter was US Ambassador. Although Anand viewed the coup as a “national catastrophe,” he still agreed to serve as interim prime minister.

Leading Thailand’s caretaker appointed government from 1991 until 1992, Anand could implement numerous pieces of legislation. He became most familiar with the monarch, visiting King Bhumibol “on average once a week.” Faulder says that both Anand and the king reluctantly supported the military’s 1991 constitution, which allowed for an unelected prime minister, since it could be amendable.

Following a March 1992 election, Anand left office but the election winner, the pro-military Samakkhitam party, found itself scrambling for a suitable prime ministerial candidate. According to Faulder, junta leader Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong favored Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh for the post. Yet, to ensure military cohesion, he opted for Army Chief Suchinda, who resigned from the armed forces and became prime minister.

The ascension to office of Suchinda and Suchinda’s corruption-tainted cabinet led to political repercussions ranging from mass rallies in the streets to furious debates in parliament. By May 17 the rallies had become pitched battles between protestors and security officials. Faulder meticulously details the violent events of what became known as Black May, which resulted in the King’s dramatic televised scolding of both Suchinda and protest leader Gen. Chamlong Srimuang.

The monarch’s words helped to bring the crisis to a close. In the end, to transition Thailand to a democracy led by elected prime ministers, parliamentary president Arthit Urairat surprised parliament by submitting Anand’s name as caretaker Prime Minister in preparation for the September 1992 general election.

It was all a reluctant deja vu for Anand, who once again found himself as the monarch-endorsed, appointed prime minister. During his second tenure, Anand moved leading senior military officials tarnished by their participation in Black May, including Army Chief Gen. Issarapong Noonpakdi to inactive positions. He also abolished security laws which had facilitated military acts against the Thai populace.

According to Faulder, Anand could implement these policies because a coup against him might “have violated King Bhumipol’s assent.” When the outcome of September 1992 elections was complete, Anand again left office, this time with the premiership in the hands of the humble southern Democrat Chuan Leekpai. After 1992 Anand returned to the private sector and became a corporate advisor and chairperson to several associations. He also chaired the 1997 constitutional drafting committee.

The 1998 rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in politics directly affected Anand: Thaksin once asked him to lead the Thai Rak Thai party though Anand refused. He had “doubts about Thaksin’s genuineness,” Faulder writes. After Thaksin became Prime Minister, Anand criticized him on numerous occasions, including about Thaksin’s 2003 drug war and the heightened state counterinsurgency in Thailand’s Deep South against Malay-Muslim insurgents. Nevertheless, Thaksin appointed Anand to head a National Reconciliation Commission (on the South) in 2005. Though it tried to delve into considerations of regional autonomy, Faulder notes that such was not permissible to the “defense-minded establishment.”

Faulder says that Anand expected the 2006 military putsch against Thaksin because “’he corrupted the constitution.” The author then seems to imply that Anand was not chosen to head the caretaker regime in 2006 because Anand had previously sidelined the military in 1992 and because Privy Council chair Prem Tinsulanonda did not like the Anand report’s recommendations for the Deep South.

So Prem favorite Gen. Surayud Chulanond headed the appointed government instead. Meanwhile Thailand became increasingly divided between those supporting Thaksin and his opponents. Anand’s last role was to chair a National Reform Commission though its 2011 report faded into obscurity.

When the 2014 military putsch occurred, Anand was again never asked to assist in stewarding Thailand through the crisis. Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha took that job himself, navigating Thailand through the monarchical succession and preserving military privileges across Thailand’s political landscape. Anand’s political role since 2014 has amounted to slight “verbal…contact” with the junta.

Regarding strengths, this book is valuable for three reasons. First, it is based on numerous interviews from the subject of the book—Anand himself—as well as interviews from people who worked with Anand. Second, it offers well-written analysis based upon enormous detail. Third, there has never been an extensive biography of Prime Minister Anand and this book fills the void.

Still, as any book, there are weaknesses. First, Anand undoubtedly looked at this book before it was published, making it difficult to offer any criticism of him where it might have been needed. Second, there could have been more analysis of Anand as a torch-bearer (together with Dr. Prawase Wasi and others) of the civil society royalism of King Bhumibol. Third, with Thailand still under dictatorship and Anand lecturing in 2016 about the need for “democratic governance,” it would have been interesting if this book could have included Anand’s views regarding current junta leader Prayuth’s attempts to sustain power through a military-created political party—similar to Suchinda’s Samakkhitham party itself.

Ultimately, Faulder has done a thorough job researching and writing this book, portraying Anand as a disciplined, decent, royalist statesman intent on maintaining prosperity for the country, but despising corrupt politicians or military adventurism. The book is insightful and accessible to experts on Thailand and laypeople alike.

Dr. Paul Chambers serves as Special Advisor on International Affairs, Center of ASEAN Community Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Naresuan University, Thailand