BANGKOK: At this time of unprecedented grief in Thailand over the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country is also in the uncharted territory of not having a monarch for the first time in its modern history.
After Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn postponed his ascension to the throne, the head of the Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda, automatically assumed the role of temporary regent based on Section 24 of the Thai constitution.
General Prem Tinsulanonda, 96, was born in the southern province of Songkhla. He first joined the army as a cavalryman in 1941 and fought in the Second World War.
His military career spanned more than four decades and in 1978, he became the army chief.
General Prem also had some political roles during his time in the military and in 1980 he was chosen by political parties to become Prime Minister, a position which he held for eight years.
“Prem was a good soldier and he had the image of an honest soldier, free of corruption," said Chulalongkorn University historian Sutachai Yimprasert. "This was a major factor that propelled him to the army chief position and later as a candidate for Prime Minister”.
As Prime Minister, General Prem survived two coup attempts by rival military factions, thanks to the loyalty of his men and his close relationship with the royal family.
He is best known for guiding Thailand out of the Cold War by normalising relations with China and granting amnesty to Leftist rebels who fought in an insurgency against the Thai government for decades in the countryside.
“General Prem served in a distinguish career as a Prime Minister for eight years, his integrity and honesty has never been in question” said Thitinan Phongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
“That period was a pivotal period for Thailand, we had economic development, the construction of the Eastern Seaboard, a lot of things got done. It was the threshold of the Thai economy,” said Thitinan.
“General Prem also favours a technocratic management of the Thai economy, he manages relationship with the politicians, but when it comes to Finance, Interior, and Defence Ministries, these were his domain. He appointed technocrats and listens to them too.”
The stability of his premiership served as a foundation for Thailand’s double-digit growth in the ensuing decade.
AS HEAD OF KING BHUMIBOL'S PRIVY COUNCIL
General Prem became a member of late King Bhumibol’s Privy Council when he stepped down from the premiership in 1988. A decade later, he became the Privy Council’s president.
As the head of the powerful Privy Council, he is known for his fight against corruption. But he has also been accused by critics of interfering in politics, particularly in the period leading up to and after the 2006 military coup. This accusation had been denied by the government of the time.
“I think General Prem was good at coordinating relations that allow democracy to flourished in the late 1990s to 2006,” said Sutachai.
“Prem has become powerful over the years as president of the Privy Council”, said Thitinan. “He is seen by others and himself as a counterweight to corrupt politicians. He also sees himself as a guardian, a steward of the Thai political order that was built from the Cold War.
"This is his overall role and now I think he is in his final role, playing as a Regent during the transitional period.”
CHALLENGES AHEAD FOR THE REGENT
There are two kinds of regents in Thai history. Prior to the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, a regent chosen by the king has the full power of the absolute monarchy.
A regent was appointed at the beginning of King Chualongkorn (Rama V) reign in 1868 because he was 15 when he became king.
But after 1932, the regent or council of regents are caretakers of the throne under the constitution. Queen Sirikit was appointed as a regent for the late King Bhumibol in 1956 when King Bhumibol was ordain as monk.
“The regent responsibility is that of the head of state, as given by the king. It will not be beyond the boundary of power of the monarch under the Constitution. The regent does not have the power to administer the country”, said Sutachai
As temporary regent, General Prem, is now protected by the country's lese majeste law.
His role will be that of a ceremonial head of state as he presides over the Royal Funeral period of the late King Bhumibol.
He also has to endorse legislations and decrees passed by parliament, and endorse all appointments and movements in the military, police and civil service.
“People can relate to Thailand’s regent as a kind of a caretaker for the monarchy; an interim caretaker, temporary, not permanent," said Thitinan. "Functionally, the regent would perform various functions and conduct activities as a monarch would. The regent is a bridge between monarchs.”
The regent could also face some challenges ahead.
Depending on the length of his tenure, which the government says could be up to one year, General Prem may have to deal with tough issues such as endorsing the military-drafted Constitution that was recently passed in a referendum.
He may also have to handle impending issues regarding the appointment of the Supreme Patriarch or the head of Thai Buddhist order, a matter monks have accused the government of interfering in.