When Pridi's diplomatic skills shaped the nation's fate

14 May 2000


AS Thailand celebrates the centenary of the late statesman Pridi Banomyong on May 11, The Nation's Kulachada Chaipipat explores one of his unchallenged achievements, diplomacy which shaped the nation's fate, before and after World War II.

Thailand's success in countering the threat of European imperialism was in part good luck and in part good geography but also a matter of successful government. And had it not been for the vision of Pridi Banomyong, the common man who held the fate of the nation in his hands amid the threat of global conflict, the country's long-cherished independence would have been sullied by the Japanese military aggression during World War II.

One of Pridi's great achievements, despite his tumultous years in power and tremendous political constraints, was in international affairs. After leading the People's Party in a bloodless coup d'?tat on June 24, 1932, which transformed the absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, Pridi assumed various political positions, including those of prime minister and foreign minister.

"During 15 years in power, Pridi achieved more than his successors have ever been able to," says Dr Charivat Santabutr, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry's international organisations department, in a study of Thai foreign policy between 1932 and 1946 under Pridi.

He concludes that the statesman's diplomatic objective was not only to secure the country's full independence or recognition in the international arena, but also to bring about social justice as well as economic and social well-being of the Siamese, as they were called at that time.

"He succeeded in convincing the Western powers to relinquish their extraterritoriality rights with promises to bring the country's outdated legal and financial systems up to par with international standards," he says.

Thailand's long struggle for complete autonomy was finally achieved in 1935, when Pridi as foreign minister (1935-1937) successfully negotiated new treaties with 12 countries, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, the United States, Norway, Britain, Spain, Italy, France, Japan and Germany.

These agreements fulfilled the promises of the treaties of 1925 and gave Thailand control over all legal and fiscal aspect of its administration.

Pridi also negotiated with Britain to reduce the interest on a ?2,340,300 loan Thailand had contracted in 1924 from 6 to 4 per cent, enabling the country to save money for domestic use.

Nevertheless, the fate of the nation continued to unfold with the approach of World War II. With the expansion of Japan's interests southward from China, Thailand was caught in a quagmire between Japan on one side and Britain and the United States on the other.

On December 8, 1941 Japanese troops landed at several points along the Gulf of Thailand. Nationalist Colonel (later Field Marshal) Phibulsongram, who was the prime minister, sided with Japan, signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation and subsequently declared war on Japan's enemies Great Britain and the United States.

Pridi immediately resigned from all political posts in protest and assumed the regency for King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who was still in exile in Europe.

Pridi, under the code name of Ruth, led the underground Free Thai Movement in resisting the Japanese invasion and engineered secret talks with the Allied powers to nullify Thailand's declaration of war against them. He successfully averted the prospect of the country being treated as a defeated enemy like Japan at the end of the war in 1945.

Thailand's post-World War II success in maintaining its independence and winning back international recognition was not a miracle but due to Pridi's courage and dedication. He earned his description by Lord Mountbatten as one of the most romantic figures of the war in Southeast Asia.

This also earned him the title of the most powerful man in Southeast Asia, this compared to other revolutionary leaders of the same generation like Ho Chi Minh and General Aung San, who had yet to achieve their nations' independence.

In an ironic twist, his sympathy with the indigenous liberation movements in Southeast Asia, in particular in Indochina, where Soviet-style communism was proliferating, later landed him in trouble with the Western powers, which feared that Thailand would fall to communism.

Pridi helped to set up the Southeast Asian League, formed in late 1930s to support revolutionary movements in Southeast Asia fighting for independence.

By order of Pridi, the abundant arms supply from the Allies which the Free Thai Movement had left over after it was disbanded in 1945 was siphoned off to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to help in their struggle to end French colonisation. Thailand was a temporary refuge for Ho Chi Minh from 1947 to1954 and several other revolutionary Indochinese leaders in their final years of liberation against French rule.

Dr Pramoj Nakornthab, whose father, Ouane Nakornthab, was a member of the movement, says his family's houses in Nakon Phanom, Udonthani and Nong Khai were turned into secret arms caches waiting to be shipped to the three Indochinese states.

The former lecturer at Thammasart University says Pridi's support won the hearts and souls of the Indochinese and later contributed to the improvement of Thailand' s ties with Indochinese states in the late 1970s when both tried to overcome their brief ideological confrontation during the Cold War.

By the time the three Indochinese states gained full independence in 1954, Pridi had gone into exile in China, where he lived from 1949 to 1971. On the night of November 8, 1947, the right-wing military groups led by General Phin Choonhavan moved to seize complete power, forcing Pridi to flee to Singapore. He tried to stage a comeback two years later but failed.

According to Dr Charivat, Ho Chi Minh, in a display of gratitude towards Pridi, instructed the Vietnamese Embassy in Paris to pay hommage to Pridi every year during his exiled years in France from 1971 until his death in 1983. So did the Laotian and Cambodian leaders.

The Nation / Editorial Opinion

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