Friday, August 14, 2015

Thailand in World War II

The history of the Kingdom of Thailand during World War II is not a popular or widely-known subject and, yet, it was a critical period in the story of the Thai nation and, though many miss it, the Thai monarchy in particular. Relatively few people are aware that it was the war-time regime that changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, that it came at a time of great upheaval and trepidation for the Thai monarchy with some wondering whether the revered institution would survive at all. Relatively few people are aware that the Kingdom of Thailand, the “Land of Smiles” was a member of the Axis, albeit a minor one, going to war with the Allies and even having its own period of wartime expansion at the expense of Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaysia. One thing that can be noticed (and which very long-time readers here might just recall) is that monarchies were well-represented among the Axis powers, or at least seemed to be. There was Italy, Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Manchuria, Thailand and so on. Yet, the numbers alone can be misleading. In Italy, everyone knew it was Mussolini and not the King who ruled the country. The Emperor of Japan tried to keep his distance from politics, Hungary was a monarchy in name only, with no monarch, the King of Romania supported the Allies, the King of Bulgaria tried to stay out of the conflict and the designated King of Croatia never set foot in the country. Likewise, with Thailand, the King was absent during this period and would certainly not have held much power had he been present.

Prajadhipok signs the first constitution
In order to understand the situation of Thailand in World War II, we must go back to 1932. Mussolini was already in power in Rome but Hitler had yet to assume office in Germany. The year before Japanese forces had occupied Manchuria after the famous “Mukden Incident” and in Siam, as it was known at the time, there was a coup. That alone would not be seen as very remarkable as, in the recent history of Thailand, the country has become rather known for having a coup every now and then, and usually handling them quite well compared to most other countries that have them. However, the 1932 coup in Siam was different, it was not just a coup against the government but against the monarchy; specifically, King Prajadhipok. It was led by a clique of civilian and military elites who called themselves the “People’s Party”. They were backed by a movement of people, many young and western educated people, who looked with admiration on the French and Russian Revolutions. The coup, thankfully, did not go as far as either of those horrors but it did give Siam a constitution and bring to an end about seven hundred years of absolute monarchy. King Prajadhipok, who had instituted reforms himself as soon as he came to the throne, was simply informed after the fact that a coup had taken place and he was obliged to decree the new constitution. Distressed and fearful of the personal safety of himself and his wife, within a few years he abdicated and left the country, worried that Siam was not ready for democracy. Not a few would argue that subsequent events might have proven the King correct.

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
With their former King living in England and their current King living in Switzerland, Siam was effectively a monarchy without a monarch. With royal absolutism having been cast aside, power in the country was up for grabs and the man who ultimately grabbed it was Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun). He came to power in 1938, the first year that King Ananda Mahidol, at age thirteen, actually visited his country (along with his younger brother Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej), and quickly consolidated his power as leader of the government and commander of the army. King Vajiravudh had, in his time, promoted the cause of Siamese nationalism but when Phibun did the same, combining it with a cult of personality centered on himself, it seemed to take on “fascist” overtones in the eyes of most observers. His portrait was seen everywhere, portraits of the former King Prajadhipok were banned and in 1939 he changed the name of the Kingdom of Siam to the Kingdom of Thailand. Phibun ran what was, effectively, a military dictatorship and, indeed, since the 1932 coup the Thai military has been known as much for its role in politics as in national defense. The Phibun regime also began a noticeably more pro-Japanese and anti-Chinese foreign policy. Phibun was also increasingly antagonistic with the western powers while at the same time pushing his own people to adopt more western habits such as wearing western clothes and using silverware.

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.

Marshal Phibun
At the end of 1941 the Empire of Japan launched its massive offensive throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Japanese forces invaded Thailand but after only a few hours of fighting Phibun ordered a halt to all resistance and agreed to allow Japan to occupy Thailand in order to carry out military operations against the British in Burma and Malaysia. A military alliance was signed between the Kingdom of Thailand and the Empire of Japan, giving Japan full access to Thai military bases, road, rail and communication networks. Thailand had chosen its side and, in the wake of that initial Japanese offensive, it must have seemed that Phibun had picked a winner. Japan duly rewarded Thailand with border territory from Burma and the addition of four provinces in the south from Malaysia. In early 1942 the Thai government officially declared war on the Allied nations. Britain responded by declaring war in return while the American government responded to the news that Thailand had declared war on the United States by basically laughing, saying, “that’s cute” and ignoring them.

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
In late 1942 there was actually a small skirmish between Thai villagers and Japanese troops. Japan dispatched a new commander for the garrison in Thailand and began making an effort to improve relations but, of course, as the war situation worsened for Japan this became increasingly difficult. The Empire of Japan had established the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” as the framework for what they expected a post-war Asia to look like after a Japanese victory and it became the centerpiece of the Japanese justification for the conflict, the realization of their goal to destroy colonialism and eradicate the White race in Asian lands. However, as conditions became worse for Japan, tensions arose between the government, which wanted to foster pan-Asian unity, and the military which wanted Japan and the Japanese war effort to have priority. The government did not want to squeeze occupied lands too much and risk creating an anti-Japanese backlash, however, many in the military not unjustly reasoned that Japan was the one actually fighting the war and so the needs of Japan should come before all else. In Thailand, Phibun began to realize that he was bound to a country that was certain to lose and relations between his government and Japan began to cool as the war dragged on. At the same time, Phibun tried to win Allied good will by such actions as releasing Chinese prisoners being held in Thailand.

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
Finally, in December of 1945 the young King Ananda Mahidol was able to visit his country again and was soon back to stay. He was immediately hugely popular, being untainted by involvement in the war and as such could be a focus for unity for both the pro-Japanese and pro-Allied factions. He made a major impact in calming ethnic tensions by visiting the Chinese section of Bangkok as during the Phibun regime and Japanese occupation the Chinese minority in Thailand had been singled out for exclusion and vilification. However, the reign of the beloved young king was not to last long as the following year he was found dead with a gunshot wound in the palace. Officially the cause of death was announced as accidental suicide but mystery and speculation about the death of King Ananda Mahidol rose up quickly and has never completely gone away. He was succeeded on the throne by his younger brother, King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, who went on to become one of the most revered and beloved monarchs in all of Thai history. Later, after the next coup by Phibun, a Thai court ruled that the late King had been assassinated though those accused of the crime were not found guilty and no one has ever been punished for the supposed crime. The only survivor of the event is the current King who has always held to his opinion that it was simply a tragic accident.

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.


  1. Informative post. It seems like education and "modernizing" go hand in hand with revolution: ambitious , educated, young want powers properly denied them under a traditional monarchy. Are constitutional monarchies the only wau for monarchy to survive? Nearly all reigning monarchs with the exclusion of Saudi Arabia have constitutional monarchies from the U.K. to the Japanese Empire. Why does a constiruion SEEM ineveitable when a nation modernizes and the masses receiveeducation and freedom from feudal duties?

  2. I just wanted to point out that in Croatia, which you mentioned, as the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), the monarch did not have any real power, nor did he ever actually even visit Croatia. In the NDH, all of the power was in the hands of the dictator Ante Pavelic. It was a fascist dictatorship in all but name.

  3. Wonderful. I would have loved to have read this blog during my stay in Thailand (1994-2012). I was shocked that this information was all but unknown during my years as an English teacher at American University Alumni or as a Buddhist monk at Tiger Temple Thailand.

  4. Were not perhaps two palace "insiders" subsequently tried, found guilty and executed for some sort of involvement in Rama VIII's demise? Assuming that is so, and it was part of a larger scheme to bury (no pun) the whole affair (dead men tell no tales), I wonder who might have been behind it?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...