Monday, March 25, 2013

Militarism versus Reform (an excerpt from Moon Thailand)

This is the last of the excerpts from Moon Thailand.  Here we look at Thailand's role in World War II and how they managed to come out, if not ahead, at least well-positioned for the next era.  But the tension between militarism and reform remains an issue for Thailand to this day.

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Militarism versus Reform

The designated heir was Prince Ananda Mahidol, a nephew of Prajadhipok.  As the young prince was only ten years old and studying abroad, he would not be a factor in Siam’s politics for at least a decade.  The power vacuum this created was filled by both the military and intellectuals, led by Phibun and Pridi, respectively.  Phibun took control, and at this point changed the name of the country to Thailand.

Phibun and his supporters were openly enamored with the strength of the militant nationalism espoused by Italy, Germany and Japan.  Further, the Thai felt a kinship with the Japanese as their two countries were the only ones in Asia that had escaped European colonization during the 19th century.  Despite this, he did not have any desire to enter a war between the Allied and Axis powers and strove to keep a balance between the two interests in Thailand.  However, once France capitulated to Germany in 1941, Phibun took the opportunity to snatch back the parts of French Cambodia that had been lost to them in 1893.  Japan sweetened the deal with Thailand by giving them territory to the north and east of their borders. 

Pridi Banomyong

Thailand’s entrance into World War II on the side of the Japanese was complicated. On one hand, Phibun was hopeful that if Japan could use Thailand as a base they would be able to gain back more “lost” territory.  Indeed, they did regain territory from Burma and Malay in 1943.  On the other hand, resisting the Japanese would have been disastrous.  After Japan’s initial request to use Thailand as a base in December of 1941, Phibun’s aides attempted to delay giving an answer for a day.  However, when Thailand was invaded at nine different points on the same day that the Japanese struck, infamously, at Pearl Harbor, the Thai felt they had no choice but to comply with the Japanese terms. 

Initially, Phibun imagined that Thailand could be a partner with Japan that would throw off the hated European colonialists.  However, it quickly became apparent that the Japanese saw Thailand as an occupied country and not an ally.  They forced the Thai government to make “loans” to them and used their supplies for their war effort. 

Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun)

The war alienated the civil leaders, such as Pridi, from the militaristic followers of Phibun.  Nevertheless, when it was apparent by 1943 that Japan would not be victorious, both factions began to make contacts with the Allies to undermine the Japanese.  They were joined by Seni Pramoj, a member of the royal family who was serving as the ambassador to the United States and had refused to serve the notice of war to the American government.  These efforts came together in the Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement.

Seni Pramoj

By 1944, Pridi’s civilian group took power from Phibun, in part to improve their chances with the Allies after the foreseeable Axis loss.  This maneuver did in fact help the Thai when the British and French, indignant over the manner in which the Thai had taken advantage of their weaknesses during the war, demanded retribution.  The United States, which had never officially been at war with Thailand, instead insisted that it be treated as an enemy-occupied state.  After Pramoj was invited to return to Thailand as Prime Minister, the British were convinced to settle for a compensation of rice and the return to pre-war boundaries.  These negotiations were the beginning of the strong ties between the US and Thailand.

© Suzanne Nam.

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Want to read more?  Please check out Moon Thailand (Moon Handbooks) by Suzanne Nam