Military-rule and military prominence in Thailand is a legacy of American imperialism

“The formation of a “Revolutionary Council” in Thailand announced today does not represent a coup d’état’,” reads a stunning 1958 memorandum from the American Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Without a trace of irony, it goes on to explain: “Although the Council has declared martial law, abrogated the constitution, and dissolved the National Assembly, the arrangement, in fact, is an orderly attempt by the present ruling group to solidify its position.”

The memo made explicit what was already known to many: that Sarit Thanarat’s 1957 coup had been approved and supported by the American government.

In turn, the support of dictators was crucial to the American coalition in Southeast Asia in the ‘wide arc of containment’ against the Sino-Soviet bloc. The relationship between international great power politics and Thai elite power was mutually constitutive, even if that pact excluded the Thai populace.

The Cold War, far more so than the 1932 revolution, was a pivotal nation-building period for the Thailand we experience today. What is striking about the Cold War is just how close Thailand came to embracing an alternative future – the neutralist, pro-democracy possibility imagined in the aftermath of the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference – and how suddenly this was shut down by Sarit’s coup, underwritten with American support.

It is worth recognizing the lessons of Thailand’s dance with American power to better understand the stakes for Thailand’s own struggle for democracy in the context of great power imperium.

Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference in 1955

What did Bandung mean to Bangkok?

In the recently released ‘Jakarta Method, journalist Vincent Bevins asks: how did the 1950s metonym of Bandung, indicating the hopefulness of anticolonial independence and Afro-Asian solidarity, come to be replaced by the 1970s idea of Jakarta, symbolizing forced disappearance, death squads and political murder?

It is a question deeply applicable to Thailand. Thailand, too, was part of the Bandung moment.

Although the government was tied to the American-allied SEATO, it sent a representative, Prince Wan, to the April 1955 Afro-Asian Conference (once again, without a trace of irony, Prayut attended the 60th anniversary of Bandung in Jakarta in 2015). The conference would become a “watershed” in China-Thailand relations, providing inspiration for the first Thai neutralist political parties that were formed in its direct aftermath.

Zhou En-lai and the Chinese delegation had a keen interest in developing relations with Thailand. At the time, Sang Phathanothai – Prime Minister Phibun Songkram’s close advisor – was an advocate for establishing Sino-Thai relations, but was thwarted by Phibun’s fear of falling out of favor with the Americans. At Bandung, however, Prince Wan was won over by Zhou’s diplomacy, and his specific proposals to counter Thai fears of communist subversion. The encounter at Bandung was followed by a top-secret exercise to establish relations with China, by exchanging delegations of elite officials and journalists.

By 1956, Zhou declared: “We are glad to see that resumption has begun recently of the once-broken ties between the peoples of China and Thailand.”

Events at Bandung coincided with a rare opening in the Thai political atmosphere. Two months after Bandung, Phibun returned from a world tour that (like most concerts) took place mostly in the United States. His newfound mission was to make Thailand more democratic. Suddenly, suppressed political parties were legalized, restrictions on press freedom lifted, public political discussion was encouraged in “Hyde Parks”, and Phibun himself set up weekly Cabinet press conferences.

Anti-Imperialism and the Thai left: The Economist Party

At the confluence of these two forces – greater rapprochement with China and a growing arena for democratic competition – stood Thep Chotinuchit, parliament representative from Srisaket in the Northeast and founder of the Economist Party. He would come to champion one of the most important ideological developments at Bandung: the idea that U.S. alliances in Asia and Africa were a new form of colonialism.

Following the Bandung conference, much of China’s activities with Thailand were part of its United Front against imperialism. Parties that bloomed after Phibun’s 1955 pro-democratic ‘turn’ joined the United Front: The Economist party, a Socialist party, a Social Democratic party and the Hyde Park Movement. In the ‘Spirit of Bandung’, Thep himself led a trip to China in January 1956, where he met Mao and the two discussed the importance of Asian solidarity against imperialism. All this was heavily covered in the press, and his trip made the covert, abstract issue of Sino-Thai relations, and American imperialism an issue of the people.

Upon his return, however, he was immediately arrested and charged with violating the Act Against Communism. In the words of historian David Wilson, “the affair had a dramatic effect in Bangkok political life.” Suddenly, the government no longer entertained the Spirit of Bandung – more importantly, the brief spirit of democracy was also overturned. The military elite, seeing that Phibun’s experiment with democracy did little to help his re-election, decided to take matters into their own hands. By 1957, Sarit’s coup d’etat quashed any hopes that Thailand would be led by a democratically-elected – let alone neutralist – government.

Thep’s legacy has been obscured by the prominence of Phibun’s other opposition party: The Democrats, led by Khuang Aphaiwong. In many ways, Thep stood for the opposite of Khuang. Where Khuang represented an ideological commitment to elite westernization, Khuang developed a strong neutralist and anti-American position that was ideologically grounded in the anti-government sentiment of the Northeast. In his estimation, a true party of the people would also oppose imperial great power demands.

Like Sukarno, Thep’s ‘Bandung Spirit’ presented a vision of democracy that was firmly grounded in Thailand’s role as a defiantly independent nation. Like Sukarno, Thep’s vision was brought to a forceful – and eventually very bloody – end.

Sarit and the Americans

Even before Bandung, American involvement in Thailand had been largely military. As the first shipment of American arms was presented to the Thai government in 1951, Ambassador Stanton declared: “Thailand’s destiny is freedom.” By 1954, 87% of the $34bn program of economic aid was in support of the military.

But it was precisely because of the U.S. alliance that Thailand could not be the land of the free. Its military aid became critical to consolidating the Thai military’s political power. Sarit Thanarat’s army and General Phao’s police force were generously supplied with American arms and anti-communist training. CIA officer James Lair worked with Phao to build the Thai paramilitary PARU special police units. The PARU units would play a role in America’s ‘secret war’ with Laos, and eventually, be used to enact the horrors of the 1976 Thammasat University massacre.

State capacity in the organization of violence enabled enormous political control. Backed by American power, the military triumvirate (Sarit, Phao, and Phibun) siphoned off 12% of Thailand’s national income into their own pockets. In this sense, Thep was correct: opposing American imperialism was central to opposing the military government.

After the failure of Phibun’s Hyde Park overtures and the disgrace of the rigged election in 1957, Sarit enacted a coup d’état that was welcomed by American leadership. Dulles and others were aware of Thailand’s turn to United Front politics. In response, they promised Sarit increased aid in support of his strong anti-communist stance. From Sarit through to Thanom Kittikachorn, an anti-communist position was enough to win U.S. backing, no matter what horrors were authorized against its people. This was even more true of CIA-backed massacres in Jakarta, Chile, and Brazil. 

In 2004, when Thanom passed away, the headline on his obituary in the New York Times and LA Times declared him “military ruler of Thailand who helped the US during the Vietnam War.” It mentions, some paragraphs later, his involvement in the Thammasat Massacre. That the imperatives of local democracy became subordinate to American foreign policy was a worldwide phenomenon: in Thailand, as elsewhere, it had devastating consequences.

Plaek Phibulsongkram, Sarit Thanarat and Phao Siyanon

Recovering Anti-Imperialist Advocacy

Thailand’s ‘Bandung Spirit’ of neutralism and democracy lasted for a brief, flickering period from 1955-57. It seems apt that its champion was a previously obscure parliamentarian from the Northeast, who was catapulted to national fame as he brought the equally obscure anti-imperialist conversation to the national arena.

In Thailand today, the imperative of opposing imperialism remains critical to the struggle for democracy. Pro-democracy activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal has been consistent in his linkage of Hong Kong’s struggle with Thailand’s, highlighting the role that Chinese imperialism plays in the region. “If we don’t [oppose China],” he wrote for Thai Enquirer, “what is happening in Hong Kong will eventually happen at home.”

In some ways he is correct: that China supports and does business with Thailand’s authoritarian leaders is a central feature of Thailand’s present economic development. But the Thai experience with America presented here is an important counterpoint: China is not the same kind of interventionist imperialist as America is, nor is it as willing to sink its resources in the pursuit of goals as abstract as anti-communism or freedom. Therefore, the movement of Chinese oppression from Hong Kong to home sounds compelling but is not as swift nor as direct as Netiwit makes it seem.

Grounding activism in anti-imperialism today will look very different from what it looked like at Bandung. There is no United Front to join, no international coalition of nationalist leaders to support an alternative future. ‘Opposing China’ is not the same call that opposing Western imperialism was in 1955.

Chinese imperialism is clumsier, louder, yet – in its command of the region’s economies – somehow more unavoidable. The #MilkTeaAlliance feels like somewhat hollow in the face of China’s contribution to Thailand’s GDP.

But anti-imperial politics is important precisely because it is so difficult. Recovering the memory of the Economist party and Thep’s ‘Bandung Spirit’ does provide us a clue: democratizing the concern about imperial control over politics, such that it resonates in the Northeast as it does in Bangkok, at least helps provide a domestic united front. This is the first step towards people’s diplomacy.


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