By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Former Thai prime minister and influential royal adviser General Prem Tinsulanonda, a towering figure over decades of turbulent politics and military interventions, died on Sunday at age 98 of heart failure, the royal palace said.
In a career that spanned decades, Prem most recently played a role in organizing the ornate coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn this month. He served briefly as the country’s regent shortly after King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current monarch’s father, died in 2016 after a 70-year reign.
As chairman of the prestigious Privy Council of royal advisers, Prem held one of the country's most powerful unelected positions. He also sat as honorary advisor on the board of several of the country's most prominent businesses including its largest bank, Bangkok Bank and its largest conglomeration, Charoen Pokphand Group.
Having served as army chief, he was seen by political analysts as having significant influence with Thailand's powerful royalist military which has staged 13 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
His death comes as Thailand prepares to form a new government after the first elections since a 2014 coup, with a pro-military political party expected to keep current junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha on as prime minister over the objections of opposition parties who say the new junta-written constitution nearly guaranteed army proxies would retain power.
Prem became Thailand’s 16th prime minister in 1980, appointed by parliament to replace a predecessor who had been installed by a military coup leader.
Many Thais remember him as the prime minister who served as the bridge between decades of military rule and a period of democratization that came after he handed over power eight years later to an elected leader.
In his first years in government, Prem granted amnesty to students exiled by Thailand's previous military governments and former members of the Communist Party of Thailand who had for years waged a bloody insurgency in the country’s rural heartland.
His administration, run by technocrats and specialist advisors, sought to open up the economy to the international markets and modernize a financial sector that had been lagging for years.
"In the 1980s, Prem became for the Bangkok elite the exemplar of an unelected prime minister ruling over corrupt and factious politicians," said David Streckfuss, an independent analyst and scholar of Thai history living in Thailand.
Through his close ties to King Bhumibol, Prem was able to survive two coup attempts by hard line and reactionary members of the military who viewed his circle of civilian advisors and amnesty programs with suspicion.
Those ties were made more apparent when Prem stepped down as prime minister and was almost immediately appointed as a member of Bhumibol's privy council, which he became head of in 1998.
In his later years, Prem was accused by supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of siding with the royalist military establishment against the populist leader, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile. Prem never addressed the accusation publicly.
In a Wikileaks cable detailing a meeting between then U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce and Prem after the 2006 coup, Prem was noted by Boyce as being "unapologetic" for the putsch against Thaksin.
Boyce also writes in the cable: "While it does not appear that Prem was part of the coup planning, it seems likely that his blessing was sought a few days before the event."
Prem recently made public statements in favor of coup leader Prayuth, who seized power in 2014 from an elected government loyal to Thaksin.
"I can say with full confidence that the government of the prime minister (Prayuth) is not corrupt, because they truly work for the people in general," Prem was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying in April when Prayuth visited him during the Thai New Year celebrations.
(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat. Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Edwina Gibbs)