Leekpai, Chuan

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Chuan Leekpai

Thai politician Chuan Leekpai (born 1938) spent a humble childhood as the son of a vegetable seller. In 1992 he became his country's prime minister amidst a crucial transition from a military government to one of democracy.

Born to Law

Chuan Leekpai was born on July 28, 1938, in Trang Province, in the south of Thailand. His father was a vegetable seller, and his mother a Chinese-language teacher. He was the third of nine children. Despite any odds against him getting an education, Leekpai graduated from Thammasat University 1962 with a law degree, practiced law, and became a member of the Thai Bar Association in 1964. His initial intention was to study art. He decided against that in order to make a better living and help support his family. He has also served as a visiting lecturer in forensic medicine at Chulalongkorn University for the medical school.

In 1969 he became a member of Parliament. By the 1970s his interests were turned almost entirely toward politics when the country's students and intellectuals became engaged in confrontation with the military regime and its stronghold over the country. When the military began prosecuting the activists Leekpai left Bangkok and returned to his home town, according to Rahul Jacob and Kim Gooi in an article they published for Time International on March 30, 1998. Leekpai wrote a novel and continued with his art, as he did even into mature adulthood and a life in politics. He noted to Jacob and Gooi that he found "by studying faces as an artist I can get to know people better."

By 1975 Leekpai had returned to government when he was named Deputy Minister of Justice, making him the youngest minister official at the age of 37. That post was quickly followed with his position as Justice. The following year he moved into the Prime Minister's Office serving as minister there until 1980, when he returned to the Minister of Justice post. Leekpai continued to become a well-rounded government minister and held varied positions—some of which he held more than once throughout the next decade including Minister of Commerce, 1980; Minister of Agriculture, 1982–83; Minister of Education, 1983–86; Speaker of the House of Representatives, 1986–88; Minister of Public Health, 1988–89; Deputy Prime Minister, 1989–90; and, returned to the Ministry of Agriculture post that same year. In 1991 he became the leader of the Democratic party. By May 1992 the military regime was back out onto the street, gunning down demonstrators who were vocal in their support of democracy. All state-owned television and radio stations immediately enforced a media blackout on what was going on during the crisis. Only newspapers were able to get news out. The pro-democratic stance that the print media took paid off in influencing many people to join forces to promote a new democratic form of government, and to vote out the pro-military stronghold politicians. The monarchy in Thailand had remained above the law but had no active role in shaping government as it did in 1973 during student protests against the military. In addition, the monarchy intervened by persuading three generals who had been running the country to leave. Because the king so seldom spoke out, or intervened in any way, when he did, it was significant.

With the election on September 13, 1992, came support, if even by a narrow margin, for the four parties who were in support of change to a pro-democracy form of government. The power passed to Leekpai following that election and he became Thailand's new prime minister. And if the victory was slim, it was still enough of a victory to the pro-democracy forces as they prepared to open parliament that September 21. In a country long known for its political leaders to be known as the worst of dishonest and almost criminal-like bullies who were more interested in Bangkok's night life than in the lives of its average citizens, Leekpai was a welcome choice. According to the September 19, 1992, issue of the Economist, however, questions remained whether the new prime minister would succeed. The journal commented that, "He hardly rates as a strong leader, but appears to offer what the public wants. Despite long experience as a minister in several governments, he has a reputation for honesty." Honesty was what a slim majority of the people of Thailand were clearly willing to gamble on.

Faced Challenges of Office

Leekpai served his first term as prime minister focused on legislation that would diminish the power of the military. Yet even though at that time Thailand was enjoyed double-digit growth, the distribution of wealth remained a serious issue. The capital of Bangkok as well as the regional capitals enjoyed the bulk of the wealth. How that might be spread to the rural areas such as Leekpai's home would be an issue. In March 1993, Rodney Tasker wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review that Leekpai was "governing in a subdued and low-key manner based more on achievements rather than showcase projects." Still, Tasker indicated, due to an angry outburst by a member of Parliament, Chai Chidchob, on February 27, observers thought that he and others might be positioning for another military coup. He noted that most Thais did think that seemed unlikely. Leekpai and the army's commander, General Wimol Wongwanich, were known to possess a mutual respect for one another and were thought to be able to work out any differences that might arise. Leekpai's nickname during that first tenure in office was "Chuan Chuengcha," or "Chuan the slow mover," due to the deliberate and plodding manner he had in implementing his programs.

By 1994, the state of Thailand's affairs did not seem as benign as the hope had been during the first year of Leekpai's term. James B. Goodno wrote for the May–June 1994 edition of Canadian Dimension, that "1993 should have been a good year for Thais. In May, they marked the first anniversary of a popular uprising that chased a violent military junta from power. They did so with an elected coalition parties that supported the pro-democracy forces controlling the government. The economy continued growing steadily throughout the year. And a series of political intrigues failed to create the disruption the conspirators hoped for." Then Goodno added the snag in the scenario, much due to two tragedies that occurred that spring and summer. A disastrous fire at a toy factory killed 189 workers. Three months later a hotel that had been enlarged illegally, without regard to any safety codes, collapsed and killed more than 130 employees and guests. Social activists claimed that Leekpai's government bore little difference to the right-wing opposition when it came to favoring wealthy business interests. People in Bangkok's Klong Toey slum began to believe that, too. "Life here is very cheap," Goodno quoted a Klong Toey woman as saying. "No one wants to pay attention to these poor people," she noted. Other problems that Goodno and others were highlighting indicated that while the middle class was growing, and industrial and service jobs were plentiful, there was a darker side to the apparent boom. The GNP (Gross National Product) index per capita matched Jamaica, whose economy was long stalled. "Pollution, prostitution, and an out-of-control AIDS epidemic," according to Goodno, were social problems that showed no signs of diminishing soon. He also described the obvious inequitable distribution of wealth even in the capital city. "Disabled beggars sit in front of glitzy department stores. Shantytowns abut gleaming glass towers. A street named for the reigning monarch begins at a small slum, passes over squatters camped beneath bridges, and ends by a Ferrari dealership."

A scandal that implicated Leekpai emerged unexpectedly from a program he instituted that would put property back into the hands of farmers. A high-ranking government official abused the program by giving his friends and allies valuable real estate on the island of Phuket. Leekpai had not been successful in effecting the reforms he had set out to implement. His government was finished after that.

A Second Term and Crisis

Leekpai ended his first term and left the Prime Minister's office in 1995 and began to serve in his capacity as the leader of the opposition. In 1997 he once again joined Parliament as a representative from his native Trang Province. In 1998 he resumed the role of Prime Minister and served as well as the leader of the Democratic Party and the Minister of Defense. It was at this time when the financial markets throughout Asia had collapsed, throwing Thailand into crisis with a consequently shattered economy. Time International correspondents Tim Larimer and Terry McCarthy interviewed Leekpai in March 1998 as angry Thais from the rural areas of the country were protesting outside the government house windows in Bangkok. When the reporters asked the Prime Minister if he thought the worst of the economic crisis was over, he responded that, "The lowest point," had passed, even though its effects were lingering. The problems of liquid cash flow, unemployment and increased layoffs were only beginning to be felt and had a long way to go until the recovery began. Leekpai indicated that measures were being taken to save businesses and to address the unemployment situation. But he agreed with the reporters when he said that, "The real problem did not originate from the poor or working classes. But we cannot avoid the impact on all sectors of society. The government has therefore strenuously avoided cutting social welfare among those people in education, in health care, even in milk for schoolchildren. The rich people, they can fend for themselves," he said assessing the management of the crisis. Leekpai reiterated what had always been his trademark of behavior: "I have told my ministers, because of how we came into office, to be honest. We cannot engage in corrupt practices." Despite Leekpai's good intentions, scandal hit him and his government's second tenure much as it had the first. A leading member of his party, the former interior minister, Sanan Kachornprasart, was found guilty under the 1997 reformist constitution that had been written specifically to eliminate government corruption. The Constitutional Court found that he had forged a document for a $1.2 million loan to hide his assets. No such loan had been made, according to the court ruling, and threw into question over how he accumulated his vast wealth. He was not imprisoned but was forced to leave his governments posts first resigning as interior minister, and his seat in parliament, and then his position as secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Party. With that scandal, and an election forced on Leekpai by the resignation of a group of opposition party members of parliament on the first day of the new session, his government again was facing the end of another run. A telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra became Leekpai's successor in 2002.

Remained Political Voice

Leekpai continued throughout the next years as his party's chief advisor. As with his own administrations, scandals would continue to plague Thaksin as well. And Leekpai was not averse to criticism of the new government, along with others. But despite unrest in the southern region of the country, and an increasing censoring of the media, Thaksin was voted "Person of the Year" for 2003. Leekpai came in second as the outstanding opposition politician of the year, behind Democrat deputy leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. In April of 2003 Leekpai decided to resign as the Democrat's party leader. Instead he would run as a regular member in the general election. Banyat Bantadtan took his place in May as the new Democrat party leader. In August of 2003 Leekpai became the party's new chairman of the advisory board.

Professional and Private Life

Leekpai has served as the vice president of Songkhla University Council. He has received numerous honors and awards throughout his career that have included Knight of the Grand Cross of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand, 1979 and 1981; Knight of the Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, 1980 and 1982; honorary Ph.D. in Political Science from Srinakharinwirot University, 1985, and from Rhamkamhaeufg University, 1987; Honorary Ph.D. in Letters, National University San Marcos, Lima, Peru, 1999; Grand Companion of the Most Illustrious order of Chula Chom Klao, 1998; Order of the Sun, Republic of Peru, 1999; Grand Cross of the Order of Christ, Portugal, 1999; and, Jose Dolores Estrada, Batalle de San Jacinto, Nicaragua, 2000.

Though he has a common-law wife and son, Leekpai does not live with them, according to Jacob and Gooi reporting in March 1998. He had been living in the same simple house for 20 years that belonged to a law school friend. His location was described as being "on a noisy, cluttered side street beneath one of Bangkok's new expressways. He lived extremely modestly, and listed a net worth for the last major election of $138,000 as compared with the $48 million of his wealthiest cabinet member, and far below the billions of Thaksin.

Leekpai keeps an active political voice regarding Thai government. In 2004, he voiced concern over the continuing situation in the southern provinces. Leekpai criticized the government for not taking the appropriate actions to resolve the unrest. He also accused the government as quoted from Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, of "inviting enemies into the country" due to the deportation of troops to Iraq. Many people fled from the south to relatives because of the growing violence. Within about two months around 50 people were killed. Leekpai believed that the parties must communicate in order to progress ahead. As to his active role in the opposition party Leekpai is certain to be heard for many years to come.


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