Thanat Khoman, Thai Statesman and Co-Founder of Asian Alliance, Dies at 101


BANGKOK — Thanat Khoman, a Thai diplomat and statesman who paved the way for United States military bases in Thailand during the Vietnam War and helped found the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, died on Thursday in Bangkok. He was 101.

His death was confirmed by his daughter-in-law, Sirilaksana Khoman.

As foreign minister from 1959 to 1971, Mr. Thanat forged close ties with the United States when the region was engulfed in war and the United States and its allies were fighting Communist forces backed by China and the Soviet Union.

A staunch anti-Communist throughout the Cold War, he served as ambassador to the United States in the 1950s and as Thailand’s deputy prime minister in the 1980s.

“The United States’ deep and broadening relationship with the region owes much to his original efforts,” the current American ambassador to Thailand, Glyn T. Davies, said of Mr. Thanat in a statement. “A tough-minded patriot and statesman, he defended Thailand’s interests with grit and grace.”

Mr. Thanat was the last surviving founding father of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which has expanded from its original five nations in 1967 to include 10 of Southeast Asia’s 11 countries. (Only East Timor is not a member.)

Mr. Thanat was born in Bangkok on May 9, 1914, to a prominent Thai family. His father was a justice of the Supreme Court of Thailand.

He completed his secondary studies in France and received a doctor of law degree from the University of Paris in 1940.

Mr. Thanat spoke fluent English and French and had a working knowledge of German and Spanish.

An ardent Buddhist, he was known for a bland demeanor and impeccable manners but most of all for having one of the sharpest minds on the international scene.

During World War II, while he was assigned to the Thai embassy in Japan, Mr. Thanat joined the anti-Japanese Seri Thai, or Free Thai, movement and opposed the Thai government’s decision to let Japanese forces move freely through Thailand to attack its neighbors.

After the war he was Thailand’s top diplomat to the newly formed United Nations. He was appointed ambassador to the United States in 1957 and Thailand’s foreign minister in 1959.

With President John F. Kennedy in the White House, Mr. Thanat negotiated what became known as the Rusk-Thanat communiqué with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in which the United States pledged to defend Thailand in the event of aggression.

The agreement, in 1962, brought Thailand into the American camp and opened the door for the United States to base forces in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Thanat told a group of visiting businessmen in 1965: “We here in Thailand have no place to retreat to. So we will make our first stand and our last stand here. We intend to preserve at any cost the heritage transmitted by our forefathers, our culture, our civilization and our traditions — our nation.”

Mr. Thanat was impressed with President Kennedy, whom he had met in 1961. After the president’s assassination in 1963, he started the John F. Kennedy Foundation in Thailand to provide scholarships for Thai students overseas.

While he was willing to align Thailand with the United States, Mr. Thanat saw that the country’s long-term future lay in cooperating with its neighbors.

In the 1960s, he developed what The New York Times called “golf diplomacy,” the tactic of bringing leaders together on the golf course.

“That was the real starting point of regional association,” Ms. Sirilaksana, a university lecturer and anti-corruption advocate, said in an interview. “Just playing golf with no politics. So they could become friends and talk.”

In a July 1964 article for Foreign Affairs titled “Which Road for Southeast Asia?” Mr. Thanat laid out his vision of a region where nations worked together to defend themselves from outside threats.

“If they succeed,” he wrote, “not only will each and every one of them be spared from destruction, but the region as a whole will emerge as a strong and free community, capable of serving its own interests as well as those of the world at large.”

He added, “This, we hope, will be Southeast Asia’s lasting call, and that it will be heard.”

His leading role was recognized in 1967 when Thailand was chosen as the site for the signing of Asean’s founding document, known as the Bangkok Declaration. At the time, the organization consisted of Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.

Mr. Thanat left his post as foreign minister in 1971 after a military coup brought a change of government.

He eventually turned to politics and in 1979 became head of the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party.

He was deputy prime minister in a coalition government from 1980 to 1982.

He is survived by two of his three children, Thavida Bijayenyothin and Thiravudh Khoman, and four grandchildren.

In a statement, the Thai foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, praised Mr. Thanat for conducting foreign affairs “with vision and determination to protect the national interest.”


Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on March 8, 2016, on page B15 of the New York edition with the headline: Thanat Khoman, 101, Thai Diplomat, Is Dead. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe