End of an Era

I was saddened to learn earlier today that Thanat Khoman has died. He was 102 years old. Our kids’ quartet had just played a concert in his home to celebrate his birthday and only a week or so I gave Woody, his son, the video so that he would be able to play it for his father...

When I learned of his death, I was sitting with one of students and when I read the message, my student asked me who this man was. It just shows you how little history they teach.

I can’t remember a time when this man was not in our lives and the lives of my family. As a child, I was always frightened of the guard at the gate of his house. He had a sunburned and weatherbeaten face, and I thought that he resembled one of those Indian chiefs in a cowboy movie ... like Chief Dan George. My earliest memory of Khun Thanat’s house was my fear of the man who opened the gate to let in our car.

It is my incredible fortune to have been a fly on the wall at some very major historical events. For instance, there was this meeting of all the Southeast Asian foreign ministers ... they were going to sign the ASEAN treaty. By day these ministers were all banging out the treaty while their wives were being entertained by Khunying Molee and my mother (my Dad was Khun Thanat’s right hand man at the time). I remember being hovered over by these very important ladies and taking barge trips along the canals … and at one particularly important lunch, when they suddenly discovered they were thirteen at table, and they were worried about bad luck, they summoned me from the kitchen to share the lunch. Maybe if I hadn’t sat there to avert the ill omen, the ASEAN treaty would never have gone through! However, of course I was too young to know that the events around me were of such import!

As I grew older Khun Thanat never stopped being like a very beloved uncle to me. Whenever I was home for the school holidays, he would always summon me and ask me to do a fake Indian accent, which he found quite hilarious. The last time I had a coherent conversation with him, I ran into him in the Erawan Hotel where he had gone for a dim sum buffet. He called out to me and said, “Hey ... you’re the kid who can do the funny Indian accent.” He was in his nineties. I couldn’t believe he could still remember that.

This man has had an extraordinary life, the kind of life that is the stuff of huge, picaresque novels. When he was a young teenager, Thailand was still an absolute monarchy. Thanat played a crucial role in dragging Thailand into the modern age. His life spanned both World Wars and the Cold War and he was a key shaper of Thailand’s alignment with the U.S. He was a mastermind behind the creation of ASEAN. He ran the foreign ministry as a meritocracy, promoting highly qualified people like my father and ignoring the complaints of those who felt that their seniority entitled them to better treatment. He once literally saved my father’s life, when certain political enemies wanted a human sacrifice after they ignored my father’s legally accurate but politically unpalatable warnings about international law. Our family therefore owes him far more than we can ever say.

However, I really think of him mostly as a gentle, generous, and profoundly intelligent avuncular figure, and his son is one of the only people from that far back in my school days whom I still talk to on a regular basis. Today I promised Woody I would put on a memorial concert. I hope that our friends will come to it, and we will remember him together.

The photo above was taken 55 years ago and shows him in Bayreuth. Wieland Wagner is standing behind him. This was during the King and Queen’s state visit to Germany....