One of the least divisive politicians leaves the scene
These days, the country could use more politicians like Chumpol Silapa-archa, whose approach was to avoid outright confrontation
The passing away of Deputy Prime Minister Chumpol Silapa-archa, who died a few days ago of heart failure, has deprived the volatile and deeply divided political scene of a rare veteran who admirers and critics have different opinions about. To one camp, his ability to remain a gentleman against all odds stood out. To the other, he was someone who didn't take great risks, whether for better or for worse.
However, if we were to come up with a list of "lesser" controversial or divisive political figures nowadays, Chumpol would be in the top 10. In Thailand's current political context, that is one remarkable achievement. Again, that might have more to do with the expedience that his political party is best known for, but at least his "quality" of being non-confrontational did Thailand one big favour once.
Throughout his life, Chumpol contributed to his country using his knowledge in various political positions. However, he will be most remembered as being associated with the birth of the 1997 "People’s Constitution", after heading a reform committee whose work - along with that of other panels - laid down the groundwork for the charter.
The process of creating that constitution was not without difficulty. Politicians clashed with reformists over key ideas, adding to the tension caused by the fact that mainstream politicians were all but barred from the writing process. Having Chumpol as a key representative of the political status quo, however, helped keep the situation from boiling over. His non-confrontational attitude went a long way toward making what could have been a potentially explosive process become something manageable.
Chumpol's contribution to the constitutional writing process was not really recognised at the time, probably due to prevailing ideological battles that his party were not known to specialise in. Many believed that his elder brother, ex-prime minister Banharn Silapa-archa, agreed to kickstart a constitutional revamp because he could no longer resist public pressure. If we look back, however, we will see that the decision to make Chumpol chairman of the Political Reform Committee in 1995 was a good one, at least under the circumstances. Chumpol was not aggressive, which meant a destructive clash between the status quo and the extreme reformists was avoided.
Chumpol worked as a civil servant and political-science lecturer at Thammasat University before entering politics in 1979. In 1986 and 1992 he was deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. From 1997 to 1998 he was minister for education in the Chuan Leekpai cabinet. In 1995 he chaired the Political Reform Committee, and after two years the "People's Constitution" was born. Chumpol was among the first group of senators elected under the 1997 Constitution.
He became leader of the Chart Thai Pattana Party after the Chart Thai Party was ordered dissolved by the Constitution Court for electoral fraud in 2008. The dissolution also banished Banharn from politics, leaving Chumpol the only sensible candidate to lead Chart Thai Pattana, the reincarnation of Chart Thai.
When Chart Thai Pattana joined the Democrat-led government following the political turmoil of 2008, Chumpol became minister of tourism and sports under then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. At that time Chumpol made a famous - or infamous, to some - statement that political changes were out of his control because they were effected by an "invisible hand".
In 2011, Chart Thai Pattana sided with the Pheu Thai Party after the latter won the general election. Chumpol remained the minister of tourism and sports and was later appointed a deputy prime minister in the Yingluck Shinawatra government.
Chumpol's death is a big blow to his party and to his brother Banharn, who has now lost his most trusted ally in politics. If the two brothers have both been associated with too much political expedience for people's liking, it was Chumpol who managed to garner praise for it. And both admirers and critics alike are in unison in their condolences and wishing for him to rest in peace.