|Prajadhipok signs the first constitution|
There was a failed royalist counter-coup in 1933 and the fallout from that probably helped persuade the King to abdicate and leave the country in 1935. He would die in exile in England in 1941 (soon to be, officially, “enemy” soil) and was succeeded by his nephew King Ananda Mahidol, who was only nine years old. The young King of Siam was to have a troubled and tragically short life. His parents were traveling, studying and living abroad when he was born in Germany (his younger brother, the current King, was born in the United States). His father died when he was only four and, in fear of his safety, his grandmother suggested that he not return home after the 1932 coup that stripped the monarchy of its power. As such, the prince spent most of his earliest years in Switzerland. According to the new constitution, it was up to the cabinet to choose a successor to the throne when King Prajadhipok abdicated and it was they who chose Ananda Mahidol to be king, Rama VIII. Siam had, of course, not really become democratic at all but was being ruled by a select group of elites with military backing and they realized that having a child monarch who was living and studying in another continent would be no threat to their continued hold on power.
|King Ananda Mahidol|
When World War II broke out in Europe and France came under German attack, Phibun saw an opportunity for Thai expansion. Fighting broke out on the border between French Indochina and Thailand in October of 1940 and in January of 1941 Phibun launched a full-scale invasion of Laos and Cambodia. The French colonial army was outmatched and fared poorly. Most of Laos was overrun relatively quickly and though more resistance was offered in Cambodia, the French only won a single significant victory in the Franco-Thai War before the Empire of Japan intervened and brought both sides together for peace talks in Saigon. Japan backed Thailand and as Germany backed Japan the French had little choice but to concede to most Thai demands. Border territories in southern Laos and northwest Cambodia were ceded to Thailand and soon the Vichy French regime was obliged to allow Japan to occupy Indochina. However, many Thais were more concerned than pleased over the expansion of their country. The war had earned the Phibun regime the enmity of Britain and France and left Thailand with no leverage against Japan. Phibun tried to win over the British and Americans but it was to no avail given all that had happened and the increasing Japanese military build-up in the region.
Actually, the internal political divisions of Thailand allowed the Allies to respond differently. The Thai ambassador in Washington DC, an aristocrat who disapproved of the Phibun regime’s alliance with Japan, refused to deliver the declaration of war and the United States refused to recognized the actions of the Phibun government as legitimate. The regent for King Ananda Mahidol had not signed the declaration of war and so, lacking royal approval, the American government considered it invalid. A “Free Thai” movement (Seri Thai) was formed to coordinate underground resistance to the Japanese. The Thai embassy in Japan actually supplied information to the American OSS (fore-runner of the CIA) and though Britain had declared war on Thailand, the British also worked with Thai exiles that opposed the Japanese occupation of their homeland. The widow of King Prajadhipok, Queen Rambai Barni, in England became a leading member of the Free Thai Movement. The internal opposition to the Phibun regime steadily increased as the glow of the initial Japanese victories dissipated and the effects of the war began to set in. There was only one major market for exports, only one source of imports (Japan in both cases), the economy went into nosedive and Allied aircraft were soon bombing Bangkok. Those in the underground at least also knew what the war situation was, that the Allies were pushing forward and nowhere were the Japanese able to stop their steady advance.
|The King in 1938|
It was to no avail as in 1944 the National Assembly removed Phibun from power, taking their example from the removal of Mussolini the previous year. The next prime minister pledged public support for Japan but in private backed the Free Thai Movement. Free Thai forces made plans and preparations for a massive uprising against the Japanese in 1945 but the atomic bombings and subsequent unconditional surrender of Japan prevented this. British-Indian troops moved in to occupy Thailand and take the surrender of Japanese forces in the country and Thailand was forced to return the territory they had gained by allying with Japan. Phibun was arrested and, under pressure from the Allies, put on trial for collaboration with the Axis powers. However, he was acquitted and in 1948, following another coup, actually became prime minister again, renewing his anti-Chinese campaign which was much more popular with the Allies that it had been before. Overall, there was some division over how to deal with Thailand since, while Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand etc had declared war on the country, the United States had not and while the British and Commonwealth countries wanted punishing terms on Thailand, the United States opposed these. As such, America made no demands on Thailand while the kingdom had to negotiate separate peace treaties with the U.K. and Australia, including reparations (in the form of rice shipments) to Malaysia.
|King Ananda Mahidol|
World War II was a critical period for Thailand. The power of the monarchy had been shaken by the 1932 coup, a king had abdicated and left the country in fear of his life. Siam, soon to be Thailand, rushed to become like other countries but the result was a military dictatorship followed by a succession of governments dominated by political in-fighting and one coup after another, a cycle which still continues today. Thailand has never known the sort of order that existed before 1932 to date. Phibun gained no small amount of popularity for his actions during the war and expanding the territory of Thailand. Given some of his actions, a few historians have speculated that he might have done away with the monarchy had events unfolded differently. As it was, Thailand suffered considerably from the war but still emerged better off than most would have expected. Despite being an enemy of the victorious Allies, Thailand was not harshly punished, its leaders were not prosecuted and it maintained its independence. The arrival of the handsome, young King after the war was like a savior returning to his people. The hardships of military rule as well as the chaos and often criminality of the civilian regimes inadvertently worked together to make the monarchy more revered and even more politically critical than anyone around in 1932 would have thought possible. Even while Thailand remains a constitutional monarchy, the King has been able to wield considerably more influence than any other national leader because he alone is regarded as being concerned with Thailand as a whole rather than himself or a particular faction. Thailand entered World War II with the monarchy at its lowest point but it ultimately emerged from the conflict and post-war chaos as strong as it had ever been.