Thailand and the Second World War

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

 On the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War this short post looks back at Thailand during the war.

When the Japanese invaded Thailand in late 1941, the Thai government under Field Marshall Pibun hardly put up a fight. Pibun then declared war on Britain and the United States.

It should be noted that the Thai military has never really defended the country from outside invasions. Its weapons and hardware are used primarily to strengthen its political power and repress radical and pro-democracy citizens.

Pibun quickly came to an agreement with the Japanese who were primarily interested in attacking the British in Burma and India. The proposed Burma or “Death” Railway, linking Singapore and Burma was a key part of this strategy and Thailand allowed the Japanese free movement between Japanese occupied Singapore and the Burmese border.

The railway was built under terrible slave-labour conditions. Two hundred and fifty thousand Chinese, Malay and other Asian forced labourers were used by the Japanese and it is estimated that approximately half of them died in the process. Of the 61,000 Allied POWs who were forced to work on the railway, 16,000 died. Thai paid labourers were initially used by the Japanese but they tended escape from the harsh conditions.

Pibun’s alliance with the Japanese was opposed by left-leaning and liberal Thais, the most prominent being Pridi Panomyong, who had become the main political rival to Pibun and his military dictatorship.

Both Pibun and Pridi had previously played leadership roles in the 1932 revolution against the Absolute Monarchy and Pibun remains a unique figure among Thai military generals in being an anti-royalist. His military regime built the “Democracy Monument” in 1939 as an anti-monarchy monument. Visitors to the monument, who are brave enough to cross the busy road, will note the rather “heroic” images of Thai citizens. There are no images of the monarchy, however. If you do visit the monument today it is best not to look like you support democracy or you might be arrested by the junta’s soldiers or police.

Despite Pibun’s anti-monarchy views, Pibun and General Prayut today share an egotistical streak and a habit of making stupid statements. Pibun decreed that all Thais should wear hats and shirts and that all men should “kiss their wives goodbye before going to work in the morning”. This was his idea of modern civilisation.

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Pridi Panomyong built up the underground Free Thai Movement to oppose the Japanese and used the code name “Ruth” during operations. The Free Thai Movement established links with the British and Americans during the war. My father, who was a student in Britain at the time, joined the Free Thai Movement and enlisted in the British Force 136. He and his comrades parachuted into Thailand in late 1944. Their mission was to relay intelligence about Japanese military movements to the British in India and also to blow up the railway at an opportune time. However, they were captured by the Thai police and imprisoned. Despite this, they were soon given the freedom to move about outside the prison at night, after the Japanese commanding officer had gone home. This is because members of the Free Thais had recruited the Thai Chief of Police to the movement. They were thus able to relay intelligence to the British.

In the final year of the war Pibun was push out of power and Pridi became the most influential political figure, although Japanese troops were still stationed in the country. The British briefly bombed Bangkok in April 1945, cutting off electricity and water supplies. At the end of the war the British initially demanded reparations in the form of rice shipments to Malaya and the French demanded the return of Indo-Chinese territories seized by the Pibun regime after the French were temporarily subdued by the Japanese. The French administration in Indo-China became allied to the Vichy regime.

The “Victory Monument” in Bangkok is another example of Pibun’s “Fascistic” architectural projects, alongside the Democracy Monument, the General Post Office building and the old provincial administrative building in Ayuttaya. The so-called “victory” was in a short and inconclusive war with the French in late 1940. After the Allied victory in 1945, Thailand was forced to return any territories which it had taken.

In November 1947 Pridi lost all power and influence after a pro-Pibun military coup. He eventually died in exile in Paris in 1983.

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