There are a few watershed events in Thai history that should be celebrated, honored, and remembered. This is definitely one of them.
During World War II, Thai Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkram famously allied Thailand with the Japanese and the Axis Powers and declared war against the Allies. Yet, at the end of the war, Thailand somehow emerged as a friend of the Allied Powers – not exactly a victor, but not a defeated nation by any means.
Most importantly, Thailand emerged from WW2 as a free and independent nation.
This was the doing of Seri Thai, Thailand’s underground ‘Free Thai’ resistance movement, which worked with the US and UK against the Japanese occupation. The movement involved people from all walks of life — from anti-royalists, to purebred royals, schoolteachers, government officials, family members, to students. It was a coordinated resistance against the multiple oppressions that Thailand faced and continues to face today: the oppression of a nationalist military government, and the imperialist occupier that the military had invited to its doorstep.
Although the Seri Thai movement is well remembered, it is not often remembered correctly. It was a movement driven as much by students as by politicians, young people who put their lives on the line to stand in defiance of a military government. Today, some of Seri Thai’s descendants are on the front lines of the democracy movement, as students drive their own open resistance against the current military dictatorship.
75 years after the declaration of peace, we revisit another pivotal turning point in Thai democratic history, as told through the words of direct participants and their descendants.
Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
The American Side
On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. On December 8, the Japanese also attacked Thailand. Despite fierce fighting in Southern Thailand, the battles lasted five hours before ending in a ceasefire. Thailand, under the leadership of Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkram, eventually signed a military alliance with Japan, making Thailand part of the Axis alliance. Students in the United States banded together to form a resistance movement that worked in coordination with the Office of Strategic Services (“OSS”, the precursor to the CIA) through the Thai Legation in Washington D.C.
Thada Savetsila (TS1): An important thing to understand about Seri Thai is that it was founded through common interest: the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the invasion of Thailand by the Japanese.
Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila (ACM SS): On the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded Thailand at various points: Paknam, Songkhla, etc. At that time, Field Marshal Pibulsongkram, the Prime Minister, was away from Bangkok. There was some fighting between Thai and Japanese soldiers for many hours. The Prime Minister finally signed a truce agreement with the Japanese stipulating that Japan would not make Thailand her colony, that Thailand would allow Japanese troops to pass through her territory on their way to Burma and that money to be spent by the Japanese would be in Thai currency (but the Japanese later printed Thai bank-notes themselves).
Thada Savetsila (TS1): “Thousands of Americans died that day, and hundreds of Thais died as well.”
Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): “At the time, Jompon Por [then-Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram] took hold of all power. The decision on whether or not Thailand would fight was entirely up to him, not the Military Commander. Jompon Por really admired the Japanese powers, he loved their military. He had his own team to frequently communicate with the Japanese and would only speak to the Japanese. He was so sure that the Japanese would win.
There were a significant number of people who disagreed with the alliance. An underground movement was established — Seri Thai.
In the beginning, the purpose was to resist a Japanese invasion into Thailand. But by the 23rd of January 1942, Thailand signed a treaty to fight alongside imperial Japan. By the 25th, Jompon Por declared war against the Allies. That declaration meant that if the Japanese were to lose, we would be dead and would lose as well.
Therefore, a second mission was established: not only did we have to resist the Japanese, we had to make it known to other nations and the Allies that we did not voluntarily declare war, so we could regain our independence.
But, of course, this second mission would be incredibly complex and grow increasingly difficult. First, we needed force. Second, we needed to be able to get in touch with the Allies.
Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): I was born when the World War broke out in Europe, but I grew up partially when the World War expanded into Thailand, which, at the time, was also during the Free Thai Movement.
My father, Pridi Banomyong, was the leader of the Free Thai Movement [in Thailand]. He tried to contact and communicate with the Allies to nullify the declaration of war that Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s government had signed.
Professor Emeritus Asavin Chintakananda (AC): Khun Pridi Banomyong really had great foresight and vision. When Pridi was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the early 1930s, he forged a connection with an American, Raymond B. Stevens, who had been living in Thailand as an appointed adviser in foreign affairs to the King of Siam for almost ten years.
Pridi then assigned my father, Ananta Chintakananda, to be Raymond’s assistant.
They worked closely together for seven years until Raymond’s return to the US in 1935. Pridi later sent my father to the Thai legation in DC, so the connection and relationship would stay. Coincidentally, Raymond Stevens turned out to be a close confidant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as they attended the same college [Harvard]. From then on, communication from Thailand would be passed through my father, then to Raymond, to reach the President.
One day Minister Seni [Pramoj, then-Minister of the Thai Legation in the United States] came in, alarmed, saying that the declaration of war from Thailand had arrived. His duty was to deliver the declaration of war to the US government, telling them that Thailand has now declared war against America.
He sent my father to speak to Raymond Stevens. Raymond initially told my father, “this is something I cannot answer. But tonight, I’ll visit you at the legation.”
That afternoon, he really came. No one knew what he did during that time, but they all guessed that he must have had a talk with Franklin D. Roosevelt – if the Kingdom of Thailand declared war against the US, what would the US do?
The answer that Stevens gave was this: “If the Thai government declares war against the US, we will crumple the paper and throw it in the trash,” implying that America would not accept the declaration of war from Thailand. They would consider Thailand as having been forced by the Japanese to declare war against the United States.
US Ambassador Michael G. DeSombre (GD): [I know that] He [Seni Pramoj] sent out a call for volunteers, and one of the most important things is that he did not deliver the declaration of war to the United States.
That allowed us to take the view that we were not formally at war with Thailand and were therefore able to support the Thai resistance movement.
ACM Siddhi Savetsila (SS): I was about to finish my undergraduate course at MIT when MR Seni Pramoj, with the help of the US Government, set up the Free Thai movement with the idea of rallying Thai nationals living in the US.
The American Free Thais, the student Free Thais
Professor Emeritus Asavin Chintakananda (AC): Truth is, the Thai students came together, and pushed my father and ML Khab Khunchorn to negotiate with minister Seni that they want to form the Free Thai movement.
Many Thais in America disagreed with Jompon Por, that he sided with the Japanese. And in America, because the people living there knew America very well, they were quite certain that no matter what, America would win the war with the Japanese.
The university students set up a group, led by a student named Jok Na Ranong. Many others, Dr. Boonrod, and so forth, came together and said: “we will cut our ties with the Thai government. We do not want to be under the Thai government.”
Hence, the Thai government cut all financial support to these students — most of which were on government scholarships. But all the Thai students in America at the time were united as one.
Seri Thai, in actuality, wasn’t formed by the initiation of minister Seni, but he was the minister at the time.
A meeting was held between the Thai Delagation in D.C. and the hundred or so students, led by Jok. Pao Kamurai, a student attendee, recalled a fiery exchange over working styles and principles between Seni and Jok.
Pao Kamurai (PK): “They argued over the establishment of Seri Thai. MR Seni said, the American government only recognizes one representative of Thailand and no other. If we were to set up Seri Thai, the Americans wouldn’t recognize us. He said if you were to fight, then fight for the Thai delagation.
Khun Jok argued — In that case, you guys fight for yourselves. We are only willing to die for Thailand.
The students signed up to be Seri Thai wanted to fight for Thailand.
Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): Seni was good at what he was doing. He was a diplomat, he was told to come home, but he refused. Even though he was a political appointee, he dared to fight, stand up, and speak up against the Japanese.
Professor Emeritus Asavin Chintakandanda (AC): Khun Seni, who was the minister at the time, probably faced more barriers and challenges as he was an official representative of Thailand. To be so forthcoming and forward in his stance against the Japanese would not have been appropriate, and might have had negative consequences.
He was also difficult to approach. The students would get through to him via ML Khab and my father, and, eventually, who would report to the minister [Seni]. He was a good man, but not too flexible.
Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): The US also wanted Free Thais in the US to prove that they were seriously committed, so the OSS put them in training for over two years. Think about it — none of them were trained soldiers or had ever been soldiers, and they were going to be sent to war!
Before the US would recognize and accept Thailand as an ally, we had to prove a lot of things. Were we really willing to sacrifice ourselves?
The first batch of Free Thai students sent by the OSS for training were split between Georgia, USA; Assam, Sri Lanka and China. The main goal for the Seri Thai volunteers was to return to Thailand and establish a communication link with OSS headquarters, as the Americans had heard that there was a network of underground resistance in Thailand but wanted to see how strong it was. While those in Assam were successfully sent to Thailand to complete undercover missions, many in China disappeared. Pao was one of the few who successfully delivered radio equipment from OSS headquarters in the South of China to Thailand, a journey he completed by foot.
Puchong Kanthatham (PK): In my life, there is nothing as difficult as traveling from China [to Thailand]. Just, everything: the starvation, the scarcity, all of it.
ACM Siddhi Savetsila (SS): As a member of the Free Thai movement, I was given the military rank of Sub-Lieutenant in April 1944 and was dispatched for intelligence work behind enemy lines in Thailand. This was the Free Thais’ second batch traveling out of Los Angeles, California…from there we journeyed to…Assam for additional military training and to await instructions to proceed, staying at Camp 101.
Dr Charivat Santaputra: Siddhi Savetsila was on a scholarship provided by the Royal Air Force and a student at MIT. He gave up his education in order to join the fight.
Dr Charoen Charoen-Rajapark: I received military training from the United States on encryption, sending signals, working the radio etc. Once I finished my training in radio signals, I went to train parachuting at Fort Benning in Georgia. In 1943 or 44, we traveled from Washington to Camp 101 to further our training.
Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): The students were willing to die for the country. They made countless sacrifices – infiltrating Thailand by foot, by parachuting, all in disguise, risking their lives for this mission.
The British Side
After Thailand signed the military alliance, students also reached out to the Thai Minister in the UK to set up their own underground movement. However, the Minister was not receptive, and instead boarded a ship back to Thailand in an exchange of captives (as Thais were then considered enemies of the British after the declaration of war).
MRW Saisavasdi Svasti (SS): Students in the UK at the time also approached the to set up a resistance movement in the UK.
However, the Minister did nothing. He allowed the declaration to be passed on to the UK, and the UK responded back by declaring war against Thailand. Thais who lived in the UK were then considered official enemies to the United Kingdom.
Resistance in the UK was additionally complicated by the fact that the British had competing interests in Southeast Asia. Eventually, students got in touch with British forces via Prince Suphasawat Svasti, and were eventually sent to India where they got in touch with members of the Thailand-based resistance.
Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): Seri Thai, as you know, united all kinds of people from different industries, statuses, and social circles.
This included Prince Suphasawat Wongsanit Svasti, who was Queen Rambai Barni’s brother. He eventually persuaded his sister, who was in exile in the UK at the time, to join the Free Thai Movement. He was a key player for the Free Thai movement in the UK.
MRW Saisvasi Svasti (SS): I’ve got to say this – the Thai students who joined Free Thai at the time had to be very brave, and love Thailand very much. They signed up even when the minister warned them of likely becoming traitors, punishable by execution. And, if they didn’t return with the minister — not only would they be considered traitors, but their Thai nationalities would have been revoked, and they would never be allowed back to the country ever again.
The Thai officials who refused, meanwhile, were also instantly dismissed.
The two main leaders of the student movement [in the UK] were Dr Puey Ungpakorn and Sena Thanboonyuun. The two approached my father, Prince Suphasawat Wongsanit Svasti, at his home to set up a resistance movement against the Japanese, just like the one Seni had set up.
Prince Suphasawat’s title as a Chao (royal), however, would prove to be an arduous, extraneous challenge throughout his entire time as a Seri Thai.
The students, after a meeting together, concluded that they did not want my father to be the leader of the movement. They considered him a chao who had really close ties with the late king and Queen Rambai Barni. They didn’t trust him, and feared that he would eventually restore absolute monarchy.
Although my father had no such intentions, the students decided not to accept him as their leader.
Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): At the time, the UK was stagnant – a Great Old Power, while America was a Rising Power. And while America did not have any interests in the region, the UK did.
South East Asia, at the time, was under the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia (SACSEA), which was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten, and they had to divide and determine the Theatre of War, under SACSEA.
Therefore, even though China and the UK were ‘Allies’, in reality, they wanted to take over Thailand for themselves. No country wanted to share.
MRW Saisavsdi Svasti (SS): Even when they didn’t accept my father as leader, my father had already started working with the Brits in enlisting Thai officials and students into the British forces to fight against the Japanese.
36 Thais – most of whom were students, with some officials – were eventually enlisted in the British forces. They underwent intense, vigorous, torturous training. The British wanted to test them to see if they were really serious about this mission.
They succeeded in overcoming British doubts, and soon boarded a ship off the coast of Liverpool. It took months to travel around the Cape of Good Hope to eventually reach India.
Seri Thai in India / China
MRW Saisvasdi Svasti (SS): When they [Seri Thai UK] arrived in India, they were trained to fight with guerilla warfare tactics, from behind enemy lines. My father also received training in India, even though he was over 40 years old.
During his time there, he heard that Chamkad Balankura was in Chongqing, and asked to meet him.
Puchong Kanthatham (PK): In the beginning, it was very difficult to contact the United States. Dr Pridi communicated through the UK legation in China to reach Seni Pramoj in Washington D.C., but it took over a year each time.
Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): Chamkad Balankura was a messenger sent by Dr Pridi from Seri Thai Thailand to Chongqing, China, to connect with Seni and see if he could get a meeting set up with the American allies. When Chamkad was about to leave for his mission, these were the words my father said to him.
If we are lucky and the mission runs smoothly, we will meet again soon. If we aren’t so lucky, and the mission fails to go smoothly, then it might take quite a while. But, if eventually, you may have to sacrifice your life and the mission is unsuccessful, know that you have sacrificed and done this for the country and the Thai people.
Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): Chamkad actually walked to Chongqing, hopping on buses and cars here and there, in an effort to connect the movements across countries; to establish a unified force and let the movements in the UK and US know that there were underground operations taking place in Thailand. He was also sick, at the time.
Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): It took him three months, but when he arrived, Seni wouldn’t budge and delayed setting up any meetings. He was waiting for almost a year after that.
Chongqing wasn’t too far from India. Prince Suphasawat travelled to see Chamkad from India to Chongqing, to visit him when he was sick. They were poor and had no money or financial support. It was self-funded, everyone had to pay for travel by themselves.
Prince Suphasawat gave his diamond to Chamkad to sell and raised funds for his cancer treatment.
MRW Saisvasdi Svasti (SS): That meeting [between Prince Suphasawat and Chamkad] was very important, because through that meeting, my father found out that there was also another resistance movement in Thailand led by someone who was incredibly brilliant and extremely patriotic – Pridi Banomyong.
My father was able to send the evidence to the UK government, and they were able to convince the UK government that the Thai leader of the movement was someone legitimate and credible. The UK finally recognized the Seri Thai movement in Thailand.
Professor Dutsanee Banomyong (DB): Chamkad was stuck in Chongqing for so long, that he eventually succumbed to his sickness and died. He could have travelled to the UK, where he was a scholarship student, and it would have been over with. But there were too many processes and prodding [by Seni] – was he really from Pridi? Where was he from? Where was he going?
MRW Saisvasdi Svasti (SS): Eventually, when he said that the appointment was made, and was ready to fly Chamkad off — it was too late. Chamkad passed away a couple days after that.
Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): Many members of Seri Thai who have now passed away were very angry about this incident.
Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): [Chamkad] was a legend of Seri Thai.
MRW Saisvasdi Svasti (SS): But at the same time, my father had a very important role in trying to send the Thais into Thailand, helping with everything — from strategy, planning, advising, and executing. Eventually, the students ultimately recognised and accepted my father as the leader of the Seri Thai movement in the UK.
The entire time, my father kept getting accused of doing this to regain absolute monarchy.
Seni was also a chao, but he was not close to the King and Queen — my father was.
Eventually, all the 36 students and officials came to regard my father with the utmost respect. At first they were fearful and uncertain of his agenda, but he proved to them that he was for democracy — for the people and for the nation — not for himself.
The Seri Thai movement in Chaag Pueak [in Thailand, Pridi’s team], also came to love and respect my father.
Prince Suphasawat Svasti was a progressive, democratic royal. Initially, he wanted to contact Pridi Banomyong, but considering their recent history [with Pridi’s involvement in Khana Ratsadon], my father was unsure if Pridi would welcome him.
He sent a telegram to Pridi [about the Seri Thai efforts in the UK / India]. Pridi responded warmly, telling him to send [the British-trained soldiers] in. My father asked Puey if the response was genuine, and he confirmed that it indeed was.
My father and the British official, Jake, donned UK military attire and landed in Cha-am, where they were received by Thai officials. From then on, they hopped on a Jeep to Tha Chaang, to meet with Pridi in Bangkok.
The moment they spoke, they were immediately on the same page. They trusted one another, and knew that they both wanted the best for their country.
To be continued…
Correction: changed UK embassy into legation and UK Ambassador into Minister