This post is the fourth post in the series ‘The Story of Thai Democracy’, covering the political history of Thailand since the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. You can see the rest of this project here.
Plaek Phibulsongkram, known as Phibun to the west and Field Marshal Por to Thais, became prime minister following Phraya Pahol Polpayuhasena’s resignation. After purging his rivals, including Khana Ratsadon co-revolutionary Phraya Songsuradet whom he declared he could not “coexist with”, Phibun set out to rule as the third premier.
The Khana Ratsadon had come to power promising democracy and development for the nation. Phibun, however, was different. He was far less interested in Pridi’s leftist economics and vision for a liberal, democratic society. He was, instead, inspired by the fascist leaders of Europe and Japan, and desired to build a “Great Kingdom of Thailand”: to promote nationalism, to gain acceptance from the West, and to elevate the country to great power status.
Upon becoming prime minister in 1938, Phibun immediately embarked upon his new nation-building program. Most important, he felt, was the need for a cultural revolution, both to build a new sense of unity in the country and to westernize it beyond what King Rama V and King Rama VI ever accomplished. Phibun issued a series of decrees under a program he named ‘ratthaniyom‘. Declaring the need to “uplift the national spirit and moral code of the nation”, these cultural mandates would encompass all aspects of life. Phibun said:
We must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonized. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.
First, Phibun changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, to emphasize that this was a country for the Thai people. Phibun ordered that the national anthem and national flag be honored, a custom which continues to this day. He made major amendments to the Thai language by simplifying the script. People were encouraged to buy and use Thai products. More intrusively, Phibun decreed that people must stop wearing traditional Thai dress in public, and must instead be attired in the western fashion. A particular slogan exalted that “wearing hats will lead Thailand to great power status”. Men were told that they must kiss their wives before leaving for work. Phibun even invited the term ‘sawasdee’ to be used for greeting each other. It was, in short, an attempt to build a nation and invent a national character.
Phibun also set about emulating the other fascist leaders of the age by building a personality cult. People were told to refer to him as tan poonum: “the leader”. His portrait went up in homes around the country; propaganda posters announced that not having a portrait of Phibun at home was a “shameful thing indeed”. A slogan was oft-repeated: “believe in the leader and the nation will be secure”. Gone was the pretense that the Khana Ratsadon were there to bring democracy to the country; the regime was to be a military dictatorship centered around one man. As Phibun explained:
I allowed the campaign depicting me as the Leader, because I wished others to believe that we, the people of the whole nation, can put our trust in one man, namely the Leader, who must be followed because of the good deeds he has performed…With this objective in mind, I have allowed the campaign about myself to be widely propagated.
Phibun, taking note of the Hitler Youth, started his own ‘Yuwachon Movement’ where schoolboys were given military training while schoolgirls studied nursing. Thailand’s militarization went beyond that, however. Phibun harbored grandiose dreams of a Thai empire, namely by recovering the ‘lost territories’ that had been ceded to the colonial powers during the reign of King Rama V.
When France fell to Germany during the Second World War, Phibun saw his chance to pounce upon a weakened French colony in Indochina. He ordered Thai forces to invade Laos and Cambodia. The former was swiftly conquered; the second, on the other hand, saw the Thai military bogged down. The French eventually launched a surprise counterattack by sea, which led to Japan’s intervention in the conflict. A peace was mediated, on the terms that France would cede some of its territory in Cambodia and Laos back to Thailand. A delighted Phibun built the Victory Monument in Bangkok to commemorate his win over a former colonial aggressor. For a man who had once noted “if you don’t want to be scum, you must be a great power”, this was a major victory.
Although Phibun had used France’s weakening during the Second World War to bring about his victory, he would not be able to escape that war for long. On December 8, 1941, Japan invaded Thailand and asked to be allowed passage to invade Myanmar. He had little choice but to accept and ally Thailand with Japan. In return, Japan allowed Phibun’s armies to annex Burma’s Shan states, furthering Phibun’s dream of a Thai empire.
What he disliked was that Japan wanted to include Thailand in its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, the term it had coined for its empire. How could Thailand become an own imperial power in its own right if it had to be Japan’s supplicant? Pointedly, the prime minister refused to attend Japan’s Greater East Asia conference. He also eventually became more concerned about his decision to ally with the Japanese as the Axis fortunes reversed.
As the Allies continued bombing Bangkok, tempers with Phibun were starting to fray. Some worried that the prime minister, who continued to issue cultural mandates during the war, had simply gone mad; why was he worried about whether Thai men were kissing women before going to work during the midst of a world war? The Japanese, on the other hand, became increasingly suspicious of Phibun.
This would end up benefitting Pridi Panomyong, Phibun’s onetime ally and now enemy. When Phibun had become prime minister, he had retained him in his cabinet, despite Pridi’s opposition to Phibun’s right-wing policies. But once Thailand joined the Second World War, Phibun decided that it was time for the vehemently anti-Japanese Pridi to go; Pridi was instead made regent of the young King Ananda Mahidol, who was still studying in Switzerland.
Outside the cabinet, Pridi made it his secret duty to resist the Japanese, forming the Free Thai Movement. He was joined by a number of influential officials, including Khuang Aphaiwong, the Thai ambassador to the US who had refused to deliver Phibun’s declaration of war (which meant the US also never declared war on Thailand). Pridi later said:
My friends and I saw that the people could not trust the government to preserve the Thai nation’s independence and sovereignty. We would have to accept all of Japan’s demands, until we are fully entwined with them…after much discussion, we agreed that we are willing to die for the country, so that we can restore Thailand’s full sovereignty. We thus resolved to form the Free Thai Movement…
Lord Louis Manbatten would remark that the situation was strange, in that “the Supreme Allied Commander was exchanging vital military plans with the Head of a State technically at war with us”.
In 1944, the breaking point came for Phibun. He announced that the capital should be moved from Bangkok to the sleepy province of Petchabun. His true intentions to this day remain clear; ostensibly the decision was made as Bangkok was an easy target for Allied bombing, but others have suspected that he either wanted to build an independent military base that could be used to resist the Japanese, or that he wanted a pretext to move the nation’s wealth to the isolated caves of Petchabun, out of reach of the enemy. In any case, it proved to be one eccentric order too far. Phibun lost a major vote in parliament on moving the capital city, and was forced to resign.
Pridi quickly engineered a change in government: his ally Khuang Aphaiwong was elected prime minister. Khuang’s task was a delicate one: he was an ardent supporter of Pridi’s secret Free Thai Movement, but he had to pretend to be an ally to the Japanese. Khuang was succesful, however, in pretending to be sympathetic to the Japanese cause while aiding Pridi.
Pridi had initially planned for a major uprising by the Free Thai Movement against the Japanese, but this became unnecessary after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Immediately upon Japan’s surrender, Pridi announced as regent that Phibun’s declaration of war on the Allies had been unconstitutional. Khuang resigned as prime minister to make it easier to conduct negotiations with the Allies, replaced by Seni Pramoj; Seni was able to bring the negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion. Eventually, Pridi resigned the regency and became prime minister himself. Power seemed to have shifted decisively from the militaristic wing of the Khana Ratsadon represented by Phibun to the liberal wing represented by Pridi. The new prime minister continued his attempts to build a more democratic state, such as by passing a constitution that created a fully elected legislative chamber.
Unfortunately, Pridi would have barely any time to actually rule, for then a tragedy no one expected struck. The young King Ananda Mahidol, who had just returned from Switzerland where he studied to Thailand, was suddenly shot dead in his bedroom. Pridi had made numerous enemies, particularly Phibun’s clique, and they saw an opportunity to go on the offensive. Pridi was accused of regicide, and he was forced to resign as prime minister. But this did not placate the military. Eventually, a coup was launched, bringing Phibun back to power, while Pridi fled the country. Phibun now began his second stint as prime minister.
Pridi would make one final attempt to return to power, in 1949, he sneaked back into Thailand. Forces loyal to him in the navy and former members of the Free Thai Movement seized the Grand Palace and Thammsat University and proclaimed the end of the Phibun regime. It was to no avail. An unexpectedly low tide meant that the navy forces did not reach Bangkok in time, and Phibun’s forces decisively defeated the Pridi’s loyalists. Pridi had to once again flee the country, never to return.
It was a disappointing end for a man who had once harbored grand visions for his country. Pridi would later complain while in exile:
Sometimes I adapted theory like I was a scholar. I did not take into account the realities within the nation. I did not have enough contact with the people. All the knowledge I had came solely from books….I was in 32 in 1932, and we launched a revolution. When I had power, I had no experience. Now that I have experience, I have no power.
Pridi spent his later years in China and then in France. He died in 1983 of a heart attack while writing at his desk. Four years before his death, students at the university he founded, Thammasat University, displayed the following poem at a card stunt:
Father, with his brain and two arms, led this nation.
Father built Thammasat as his glorious creation.
Father’s name, reverberating far, is Pridi.
But Thailand wants not people with morality.
So concluded the career of one of the giants of early Thai democratic history. Pridi had launched the 1932 revolution, launched the Free Thai Movement, served as regent but lost his ultimate clash with Phibun. As he observed later in life, “Nothing in this world is constant. Everything must keep moving and changing without stopping”. Power is impermanent. The liberal wing of the Khana Ratsadon died with him, but Phibun would not last either.