Unforgettable Puey Ungphakorn

– Anchalee Kongrut –

Recounting the life of one of Thailand’s most noble citizens 100 years after his birth


Today marks the centennial of Puey Ungphakorn, a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life as a founding father of the modern Thai economy, pedagogue at Thammasat University and Bank of Thailand, role model and larger-than-life figure who was influential during some of the most momentous years of Thai history.

Tributes are being paid to him all month long — in fact, it began early last year when Unesco named him one of the world’s outstanding personalities for his steely ethics and integrity. Since last April, Thammasat University, where Puey — often known as Ajarn Puey — served as dean for the Faculty of Economics and rector during the tumultuous 1970s, has held monthly lectures to examine his thoughts on economics as well as political and rural development. Bank of Thailand, where he served as governor for 12 years, will hold a regional conference at his memorial in Kuala Lumpur on March 14.

But it’s not just academia and the intellectual community that are remembering him. Puey’s life and work are being celebrated in other ways, too. In the current climate, his experience — as a man who worked for the military, and who was attacked by both the left and the right, eventually going into exile after the bloody incident of Oct 6, 1976 — has become as relevant as ever.

Every Saturday this month, ThaiPBS will be running a biographical documentary series about Puey’s life. Later this month, at the National Book Fair, Vanchai Tantivittayapitak will publish a biography entitled A Man Called Puey.

The book aims to explain to younger generations why Puey — who was born on Mar 9, 1916, and died in 1999 in England — has been revered, and what society can learn from him. Several magazines this month, including Sarakadee, National Geographic Thailand and A Day, have put Puey on their covers. And last year, there was a musical based on his life called Mungkorn Salad Klet, with three different actors playing Puey at three different stages of his life.

Asst Prof Pokpong Junvith, of the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University, says society under the current political system can learn a great deal from the life of Puey.

“It’s so timely to watch the documentary or read about his life, because what happened in his time bears such a resemblance to what we’re experiencing today,” says Pokpong, who produces the TV documentary Puey Ungphakorn: Jark Karn Marnda Sou Cherng Takorn (From Womb To Tomb) for ThaiPBS. The series aired its first episode last Saturday at 9pm, with three more episodes coming in the following Saturdays.

The documentary tells the life story of Puey, from his early days as a poor but outstanding student at Assumption College, his studies in England, his life-risking period as a spy in the Free Thai Movement against Japan’s occupation of Siam during World War II, and his days of constant pressure as Bank of Thailand governor when he was working under junta leader Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat. The most momentous episode of his life came when he was rector of Thammasat University, culminating with the Oct 6 massacre, which forced him to flee to England.

Asst Prof Pokpong says the series is not just a chronicle of Puey’s life.

“We want the viewers to get inside his head,” he says. “We want viewers to understand Ajarn Puey’s ideas about politics and development. He was always a champion of democracy, freedom of expression and public participation from the grassroots.”

Despite his background as a technocrat, Pokpong says that Puey was not a rigid bureaucrat. After observing that his idea of the modern economy did not distribute wealth to farmers and low-income groups as he wished, Puey shifted his focus to education and rural development.

“People often salute him for his contributions to the modern economy, rural development and education. Yet the gem quality of Puey that people often ignore, but which will be highlighted in the documentary series, is moral courage,” says Pokpong.

In fact, Puey’s name recently resurfaced after the 2014 coup, when the pro-military camp invoked his name as an example of an upstanding man willing to work with the military for the sake of the country, without prejudice against the way his boss had obtained power.

“But Ajarn Puey is different from politicians or officials who are working with [the current junta],” Pokpong says. “First and foremost, he never, ever, feared criticising the junta if he believed the military had done wrong. I wonder if any of the politicians and officials who work with the NCPO have the guts to upset the junta. I think our leaders, and those working with the junta, can learn from him.”

With a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the financier hotshot came back to Thailand in the 1950s. He refused lucrative job offers from financial institutes to work for significantly less money as a government official at the Ministry of Finance and then Bank of Thailand. Soon, he rose to become the country’s economic tsar, helping revamp the banking system in Thailand, making it stable and trusted in the world economy. His liberal economic ethos helped shift Thailand from military oligarchy to a more internationally accepted free market. His refusal to budge against the powers that be helped Bank of Thailand achieve relative freedom from political intervention.

Of course, the hard-nosed civil servant sometimes got caned. Even a high-profile technocrat like Puey was demoted during his time at Bank of Thailand, after he refused to waive the penalty levied on a commercial bank that was owned by strongman Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. In another case, he even needed to flee the country, and worked as an economic counsellor to the Royal Thai Embassy in London. This was after he denied the request of Pol Gen Pao Sriyanon, a strongman in the military, that Bank of Thailand switch banknote-printing houses. Surprisingly, after Field Marshal Sarit became prime minister through a coup in 1959, he invited Puey to return as Bank of Thailand governor, an offer that he took.

“Puey knew how to speak and deal with the military government. Sometimes he even composed poems to air his disagreement or urge a dictator like Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachon, who came to power in the mid-1960s, to adhere to his promises. Puey was respectful and polite but firm in his causes. Most of all, he knew that his most powerful weapon was a threat to leave.

“Puey once said the best weapon of Bank of Thailand governors was to tender a resignation,” says Vanchai Tantivittayapitak, a writer and critic who received the Sri Burapha Literary Award and whose biography of Puey will come out this month.

Thus when the military government was crossing the line, they would see the stubborn central bank governor waving the letter of resignation. “And Field Marshall Sarit would back off. The junta had refused to let Dr Puey go as they fully knew he was highly capable, upright and could deliver like no one else. Most of all, they knew Puey was not doing anything out of his own interest. Other commercial bankers and tycoons in the country also trusted him. Everyone knew the country always came first for Dr Puey Ungphakorn.”

Throughout his civil servant’s life, Puey had been approached to become finance minister and prime minister a number of times. He always declined these political positions. Once, when he was offered the chance to become prime minister, he asked the government to make him rector of Thammasat University instead.

“Ajarn Puey is a unique character, one of a kind. Thailand never lacked brilliant students from world-famous universities, but I wonder how many ace students would drop out of his class at LSE to risk his life during World War II, by volunteering for the Free Thai Movement and parachuting into Thailand to work in the resistance against the Japanese army. Puey knew he might get killed, but he did it anyway,” says Vanchai.

Unlike many high-achieving leaders, Puey, according to records from his colleagues and friends, was self-critical and open to criticism from others.

After learning that his economic ethos and development model did not trickle wealth down to the low-income brackets, Puey created the Thailand Rural Reconstruction Movement, known as the first NGO in Thailand. And when he became rector at Thammasat University, he founded a social-development project that made students observe up-close the life of the rural poor. He realised that economic development on its own cannot create equal wealth distribution. Puey said in 1976: “There is a flaw in the country’s drive to achieve economic prosperity. We give priority to growth while ignoring social justice. At this point, we should instead pay serious attention to rural development.”

Vanchai reflects on the fact that “Puey is an elite yet he is down-to-earth. Not many elite technocrats in this country have his common touch. Perhaps the problems with development policy in this country are the result of us having had only one Puey Ungphakorn instead of a few more”.

Puey also has his critics. For the radical left of the Cold War years, his Gandhist non-violence and socialist ideology — evident in such policies as land reform and the social-welfare state — was never to the taste of the Maoist-style 70s. Activist students also criticised him for banning some of their protests against the junta. At the same time, the ultra-right wing saw Puey’s pro-welfare-state stance and accused him of being communist, an accusation that forced him to leave the country in dramatic fashion on the night of Oct 6, 1976, after the bloodshed at Thammasat University. With this biography, he might appear larger than life — the rise of a son of from a poor immigrant Chinese family to become a major figure in history. But the most poignant memory people have of Puey is of his humble personality. This financier did not have a taste for Savile Row suits; his colleagues report that he did not even have his own dinner jacket. Puey was known for his frugality and his palate for street food — he was generous in handing out money to his drivers and other low-ranking employees. Puey shunned material gain: his lifelong wish was to see an economic model that allowed for the trickling-down of wealth and development — sadly, something he never witnessed in this country.

After his death in 1999, his wife, Margaret Smith, discarded many of his belongings. His funeral was simple, his ashes scattered according to his own stated wish in his much-quoted “From Womb to Tomb”, a moving piece of writing that reflects his vision towards development for Southeast Asia, and which is part of the paper he wrote during sabbatical as lecturer at Cambridge University.

His eldest son, Jon Ungphakorn, said in a seminar in January at Thammasat that he disliked seeing his father become simply a worshipped memory of the past, rather than a person with significant relevance to the present.

“When you read books about my father, or articles criticising his ideas and words, you make him alive. His legacy will remain when he is perceived as a human being who did many good things but also did some bad things. And that is the truth about being human.”


Puey Ungphakorn (1916 – 1999)


Born March 9, son of a Thai-Chinese immigrant family in Talat Noi on Charoen Krung Road. His father died when he was young, but his industrious yet poor mother worked to support him and get him a good education. Puey studied at Assumption College in Bang Rak.


Studied economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science on scholarship.


Joined the Free Thai Movement, a resistance against Japanese occupation. His codename was Khem Yenying.


Parachuted into Thailand for a secret operation.


Returned to Thailand from England and joined the civil office, first at the Ministry of Finance and then at Bank of Thailand.


Became governor of Bank of Thailand.


Resigned from Bank of Thailand and became dean of the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University.


Became rector of Thammasat University.


Left Thailand on Oct 6 after the bloodshed at Thammasat University and the pursuit of right-wing groups. He went into exile in England.


First return visit to Thailand.


Died on July 28 in London.


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