Friday, March 6, 2009

A man for all seasons

In the mid-1970's, if you heard that the Prime Minister of Thailand was having supper with the son of a royal prince, the country's best known novelist, a pioneering journalist, a Hollywood actor, and a trained classical dancer, you might well have assumed that M. R. Kukrit Pramoj was dining alone.

Few Asians of modern times have excelled in as many fields as Kukrit. He has the advantage, of course, of being born into minor royalty, which provided him with the advantages of a good general education and training in khon (Thai classical dance). As a teenager, he was sent to England for further education and ended up with a degree from Oxford in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. On his return to Thailand he joined the civil service and later moved into banking and teaching.

In 1945, Kukrit entered politics and was elected to parliament where he rose to the rank of deputy minister three years later. In parliament he spoke out against an increase in MP salaries and resigned when the measure was passed.

Thai politics' loss was Thai literature's gain, however. In 1950 Kukrit founded the Siam Rath newspaper and rapidly became famous for the wide range and elegant style of his writing.

Several of his best-known works were originally serialised in Siam Rath, including a "capitalist version" of the Chinese Classic The Romance of the Three Kingdom, in which he mercilessly satirised Thailand's military dictator.

In Phai Daeng (Red Bamboo), Kukrit adapted Giovanni Guareschi's comic classic of the cold war, The little World of Don Camillo, about an Italian village where the wisdom of the local priest generally prevails over the ideology the communist mayor. In the Thai version the priest has become a Buddhist monk, but the message is the same: if we look in our hearts, we have more in common than the "ism" that divide us. As in his acclaimed short story collection Lai Chiwit (Many lives), Kukrit celebrated the simplicity and "natural justice" of a Thai way of life already beginning to disappear in the 1950's, and a source of great popular nostalgia today.

Kukrit's literary masterpiece was probably Si Phaen Din (Four Reigns), a popular novel of a woman who, along with her children, has to adapt to the many changes occurring in the turbulent first half of the 20th century. He called upon his own familiarity with the royal court to provide fascinating insights into Thai society at the very highest level.

At the same time, Kukrit continued to produce regular essays on political and social topics, one of which resulted in his arrest for libelling the American ambassador. Ironically, a few years later he was flown to Hollywood to appear in the movie "The Ugly American" as Prime Minister of the mythical Asian country of Sarkhan who has to confront an American ambassador played by Marlon Brandon. In both life and film, he comported himself in the face of foreign power with dignity.

But it was only after the democratic revolution of 1973, which unseated another military dictator, that Kukrit came to play prime minister in real life. A few years earlier he had become a senator, he had then helped draft the new constitution and had been chosen as speaker of the house. But in the infant democracy it was difficult for any party to sustain a majority; so when the government of M.R. Seni Pramoj, his brother failed in early 1975, Kukrit rose a last to the top of the political tree.

As prime minister he established the Tambon Council Fund for rural development, made the first visit of a Thai head of government to the People's Republic of China, and negotiated the withdrawal of American troops from Thailand at the end of the Vietnam War. But after just 400 days his coalition collapsed and Kukrit fell from power, replaced by his brother again. A few months later there was a right-wing coup and democracy disappeared from Thailand for another decade.

From there until his death in 1995, Kukrit continued "sniping from the sideline" at various governments, calling upon them to live up to traditional Thai ideals and democratic values. In 1987 he so strongly criticised the organisation of the internal security command which he suggested would create a military "politburo or praesidium", that 250 Thai rangers stormed his house. The public outcry over this blatant abuse of power was an important step on the slow road to the restoration of democracy in Thailand.

But in the end, Kukrit will not be remembered primarily as politician, nor even as merely a literary figure. He represented the "vital centre" of modern Thai life, trying to combine the best of the past and the present, of Asia and the West. A prince committed to democracy, an anti-communist who attacked military dictators, an Oxford graduate who helped revitalised traditional Thai dance, eloquent in several languages, dignified both on and off the screen, Kukrit was indeed Thailand's man for all seasons.

1 comment:

  1. Great blogs. I love those photos of old Sibu.
    I spent 1 year in Sibu when I was about 6 years old.