As we’ve all been inundated with coronavirus coverage, much of it being rather depressing, I’ve decided to start writing about random aspects of Thai politics and history not related to the ongoing pandemic. I hope you enjoy this first installment!
In February, a controversy blew up when it emerged that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was still living in an army base despite having retired from the military a couple of years ago. Facing calls to move into his own housing, Prayut declared: “I’m the prime minister and security is necessary. It’s important that there be an appropriate place for the leader of the country.”
The quote does beg the question of why the Thai prime minister is expected to live in his own personal residence. After all, world leaders tend to have official residences. US President Donald Trump is, of course, the current occupant of a rather famous structure on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The South Korean president lives and works in the scenic Blue House. Turkey’s Erdogan has just finished building a palace to the tune of $600m. So why is the Thai prime minister living on an army base?
The truth is that the Thai prime minister does have an official residence: a beautiful house named Phitsanulok Mansion.
The mansion’s history is storied. Built in 1922 on the orders of King Vajiravudh and designed by the Italian architect Mario Tamagno, one of the contributors to the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, it was granted to the director of the Royal Office of the Performing Arts, Phraya Aniruth-deva. It was initially named Banthomsin Mansion. Phraya Aniruth’s family later however faced hard times during a subsequent economic depression and was unable to afford the high maintenance costs of the mansion. He offered the residence to King Prajadiphok, who refused to accept this offer; Phraya Aniruth thus left the mansion deserted.
Subsequently, Thailand entered the Second World War on the side of the Axis. A visit to Thailand by Japan’s wartime leader Hideki Tojo was imminent, and Prime Minister Plaek Phibulsongkram (Phibun), eager to please the new great power, saw the need for a residence befitting the Japanese guests. He thus bought the mansion from Phraya Aniruth at a price of 500,000 baht. The residence was renamed the Thai Alliance Mansion.
Defeat, of course, was soon brought upon Japan. Phibun, showing a keen eye for branding, quickly erased this legacy of Axis cooperation by renaming the building to Peace Mansion, and later to its current name of Phitsanulok Mansion. In 1979, the government designated Phitsanulok Mansion as the prime minister’s official residence.
But since then, only two prime ministers have lived in Phitsanulok Mansion. Why? The common reason, as befitting the ever-superstitious society of Thailand, is that the residence is haunted.
At night, it is said, the sound of horses can be heard, likely emanating from a bronze horse statue that sits in the garden. The Roman statues, others rumored, would occasionally take strolls around the house.
It was even reported that some who entered the building would come to find themselves possessed. When Banharn Silpa-archa was prime minister, an MP supposedly stood up and, pointing angrily to his fellow party members, demanded to know what they were doing in the house. During the Thaksin era, it is also said, a worker suddenly fell down and began speaking in an elderly voice, “Why is this house so dirty? Why has no cleaning taken place?”, a trance from which she escaped only after being splashed with holy water.
And the name “Phitsuanlok Mansion” itself was said to be inauspicious. Thais, after all, in their habit of shortening names, often referred to it in short-hand as Baan Phit — ‘Phit’ being a homonym for ‘poison’.
Thus the residence was not for the faint-hearted. But with a defiant determination to dispel once and for all the notion that Phitsanulok Mansion had any undesirable supernatural inhabitants, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda upon ascending to office instructed that the mansion be renovated for him to move in, a promise he kept immediately after the renovations were complicated. Yet Prem lived there only for seven nights before moving out without explanation, intensifying speculation that all was not right with the mansion.
No prime minister used it again until Chuan Leekpai, who lived there during his two terms as premier. But Chuan refused to use the bedroom, deciding instead to sleep on a sofa in the mansion’s study — interpreted inevitably as a demonstration of respect for the spirits. Since Chuan left office, the mansion has only been used sparingly for receptions and meetings; the current prime minister, as we have seen, prefers to live on an army base.
It must be noted, of course, that reports of supernatural activity have been strongly denied by others. Phraya Aniruth’s son, who lived in the house as a child, denies ever having witnessed anything out of the ordinary and believes the reports are made up by security guards who did not want to be stationed there. And other reasons have been given for why prime ministers prefer not to live there: its high cost of maintenance, age and inconvenience.
Yet, true or not, this story yields fascinating insight into the intersection of superstition and politics in Thailand, a country where traditional folk beliefs continue to play an enduring role in political decision-making.