The Oral History of the Seri Thai – Final Part

On August 6 and 9, 1945, nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On August 14, the Japanese surrendered, marking the end of the war. 

The following day, the Allies ordered Lord Mountbatten’s (Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia) political advisors to send a secret telegram to Pridi, the head of the Free Thai movement. The telegram declared that the war on Thailand had been nullified, citing the assistance Seri Thai gave to the Allies and Seri Thai’s willingness to make personal sacrifices.  

On August 16, Pridi, in his capacity as Regent, declared Thailand’s Declaration of Peace (the day is now officially commemorated as Thai Peace Day). The Seri Thai objective of securing Thai independence was now complete. 

However, party politics complicated the post-war Thai political power structure, and a counter-coup led to the death of many key Seri Thai members. 

“Declaration of Peace” celebrations at Tha Chang, Pridi Banomyong’s residence

Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila (ACM SS): The Free Thai movement in Thailand had as one of its objectives the preservation of the territorial integrity of the nation. After the Japanese surrender, the next day Thailand issued its Declaration of Peace.

When the War ended, the United Kingdom considered itself at war with Thailand because Field Marshal Phibulsongkram had declared war on the Allied Powers. The United States, on the other hand considered that there had been no state of war between the two countries.

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): The United States, on the other hand, considered that there had been no state of war between the two countries. In fact, the Americans treated Thailand as an “enemy-occupied territory”.

Mamoru Shigemitsu, as civilian plenipotentiary, signing the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945.

Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila (ACM SS): The background of this episode has to do with differences among the three Allied Powers. China was displeased to see Thailand siding with the Japanese in the early part of the war. An editorial in a leading Chinese newspaper stressed that Thailand must surrender unconditionally and that leading members of Phibulsongkram’s cabinet must be sent to stand trial in military court as war criminals in China.

From the standpoint of the United Kingdom, Japan had invaded British Malaya and Burma through Thailand. The British military and economic authorities insisted that Thailand and the UK were still at war and that Thailand was the vanquished party. But thanks to the Free Thai movement’s intermediation by sending delegations to foster understanding with Britain, the UK government finally accepted that Thailand’s declaration of war on the UK was null and void.

US-British negotiations at the post-war conference

Thirasid Savetsila (TS2): Lord Mountbatten tried to get Thailand to sign a treaty that declared we were on the losing side. The Americans opposed it.

Professor Emeritus Asavin Chintakanand (AC): Not many people know this, but when the war ended and Japan lost, the UK took over Don Mueang airport, with the intention of taking over Thailand as a colony [of the UK]. Through my father, the Americans sent a message to K. Pridi: “Don’t worry, we’ll handle this.”

They told Pridi to go ahead and promulgate Thai Peace Day on the 16th of August, 1945.

Pridi Banomyong, as Regent to Thailand and leader of the Seri Thai Movement leading the parade on 25 September, 1945

Thailand narrowly avoided being taken as a British colony, with support from America. After the war, Thailand was able to play rising American influence against waning British power, to secure better terms in the post-war settlement.

On 25 September 1945, as part of the Thai Peace Day celebrations, around 8,000 Seri Thai fighters paraded through Rajdamnoen Road and Democracy Monument. They were fully armed with weapons supplied by the Allies, showing their readiness to fight. Pridi, as Regent and head of Seri Thai, presided at the podium.

Seri Thai Movement Parade at the end of WWII, 25 September, 1945

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): They were representatives of Seri Thai from all over the country, and not all of them were donned in military uniform. 

Professor Emeritus Asavin Chintakanand (AC): During that time, the US intentionally released numerous reports on Thailand — through newspapers, radio stations, and so forth — stating that if Thailand had not helped America during the war, so many more American lives would have been lost.

They declared: the United States received so much help from the Kingdom of Thailand. The information/intelligence sourced from Thailand — reporting on the movement and whereabouts of the Japanese — allowed the US to drop bombs into their camps.

And so when the British took over the airport, the Americans interfered and told the British not to mess with Thailand. What America wanted to do was to have the British withdraw their forces from Thailand.

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): This was also in part done by Pridi, who sent Phra Pisan Sukhumvit to set up a Thai information office in Washington DC.

US Ambassador Michael G. DeSombre (GD): Clearly, both Britain and [I think] France as well were pushing for reparations to be paid by Thailand, and the United states declared that that was not something that we would support and pushed back on that at the Peace Conference. Ultimately there was no requirement for reparations to be paid for by Thailand.

US Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies [2015-2018] (third from left) visiting the Seri Thai Museum in Phrae Province, founded by Puchong Kanthatham (first from left)

Thada Savetsila (TS1): Thailand has always been able to survive during sensitive times, between power plays. We were aware of what Great Powers were doing, and understood the context in which it was done. But Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila did not feel loyalty to the United States. He was inspired purely by his loyalty to Thailand.

After the war, there were also clashes in Bangkok between some Chinese residents (who considered Thailand the defeated allies of the Japanese in the face of China’s victory) and Thai police.

Seni Pramoj became the Thai post-war prime minister in 1945. However, Seni’s rule seemed riddled with obstacles: Pridi continued to wield power behind the scenes while politicians like Tiang Sirikhanth questioned his understanding of Thai political realities, deeming him a royalist elitist. He soon resigned, making way for democratic elections in January 1946.

Initially Khuang Aphaiwong and the conservative Democrat Party came to power, but the government was soon voted out in a vote of no confidence by Pridi’s followers, and Khuang resigned from his post. With the abrupt resignation, Pridi was forced from behind the scenes into the Prime Ministerial spotlight in March 1946. This was soon followed by an event that would shock the nation: that June, King Ananda Mahidol was found shot dead in his bed. Pridi was then forced to resign in August amidst (fabricated) suspicion that he was involved in the regicide.

In November 1947, the army made its return to politics in what was then Thailand’s fourth Coup d’Etat, led by Plaek Phibunsongkram, Sarit Thanarat, Thanom Kittikachorn and Chatichai Choonhavan. By April 1948, Phibun was reinstated as Prime Minister. 

Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): When Japan moved its troops into Thailand. Pridi clearly stated that the purpose and duration of Seri Thai was dedicated to this one goal, and was not to form any coalitions, political links or to pursue any other agendas. 

When the mission was over, Free Thai was over. 

What was really heartbreaking came after: On the 8th of May, 1947, Pin Choonhavan staged another coup along Phao Sriyanond and Chatchai Choonhavan. They drove in tanks and fired into Tha Chang Palace, where we [Pridi’s family] were staying.

They thought that Seri Thai was going to form its own political party.

After that, so many of the other Seri Thai members were murdered [by them]. Tiang Sirikhant was abducted and killed, Tawil Udol, Chamrong Daoruang, Tawee Davethikul, Khlong Chantawong, and Thong-in Puripat were also shot and killed.

Tha Chang residence, the official headquarters for the Seri Thai underground movement in Thailand

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): Tong Kanthatham, who was also minister, caught on in time and fled to Burma for years until the threat subsided. 

The four that were murdered – Tawil, Chamrong, Tiang and Thong-in – were all ministers. 

ACM Siddhi Savetsila once even mentioned to me that if he decided to return to Thailand right away and not continue his studies in the United States, or if he joined politics after, he would have probably been killed.

Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): When the Free Thai movement was over, everyone went their separate ways. The soldiers went back to being soldiers, the politicians were back to being politicians, teachers back to teaching, and so forth. The party searched and killed so many of those members — countless numbers of them.

One thing that should be engraved [in its legacy] is that the Seri Thais in Thailand were abducted and killed by Plaek. The fate of the Seri Thai members in Thailand were mostly met with death and ridicule, which was unjust and unfair. Pridi had told them all that this mission wasn’t to gain anything, but they lost their lives as a consequence.

The event has startling resonance in the current context, as Tiang Sirikhant’s descendent Juthathip Sirikhant now heads the anti-government student protests as President of the Student Union of Thailand. On September 1, 2020, Juthathip was arrested on charges of sedition along with other charges for organizing a protest on July 18.

Tiang Sirikhant, leader of the Seri Thai Movement in Isaan

Legacy

Today, the story of Seri Thai continues to resonate in a Thai context where students are once again fighting for the nation’s freedom. Here, the descendants and participants reflect on the many meanings of Seri Thai today:

Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): [On military killing] Someone once told me this — “the winner is the one who writes history.” The good thing about some countries, as in Europe, is that not all winners really do get to write the history. 

In Thailand, however, the winners do.

Across many watershed events in Thai history — from 1932, to Seri Thai, to 14 October, to 6 October – the winners always got to write the history. Therefore, the direction and narrative always leans on to what they want to say.

Pridi Banomyong receiving the Medal of Freedom from the US

Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): [On the selective history of the movement] There are many records and recollections of the movement in the UK and USA, as most were intellectuals. In Thailand, many were locals and commoners, and teachers, like Khun Tiang. There hasn’t been much about these people also because, at the time, Pridi emphasised that Seri Thai was to be kept top secret.

For instance, none of us [Pridi’s children] knew what was happening as we were growing up. 

My mother, who had very beautiful handwriting, had a role in the movement as well — someone who wrote letters and codes to the allies. We could not use typewriters at the time because they were easily detectable by the Japanese and Germans.

Pridi Banomyong and wife Poonsuk Banomyong

Women played an important role in the Seri Thai movement. Women like Buppa and Anong Taesuji became nurses in a hospital dedicated to treating patients who had been wounded by Japanese bombs, while Suphap Yosunthorn was originally secretary to Manee Sanasen, Seni’s chosen Seri Thai representative to the UK. However, she was eventually sent to New Delhi, India, to lead radio communication efforts between Thailand and the US / UK, and gained renown for her skills in psychological warfare. Read more about the women of Seri Thai here

US Ambassador Michael G. DeSombre (GD): [On Thai-US relations] I think it has really left behind a strong strategic bond between the United States and Thailand, and I know that the people who participated in the Free Thai movement and their descendants very much understand that the United States has Thailand’s back, essentially, that we are there to help you.

Wimon Wiriyawit (center) and ACM Siddhi Savetsila (right) with former CIA director George J. Tenet attending the Seri Thai exhibition launch event at the CIA headquarters, Washington DC

MRW Saisvasdi Svasti (SS): What inspired me about Seri Thai was the young people, the students, who hadn’t even graduated.

They were threatened with death, accused of treachery, were going to lose their nationality and might never be able to return home. They also no longer had money to support themselves, as the funding from the Thai government was cut off.

They had no idea what their future would hold, but still decided to join the resistance movement against imperial Japan — for Thailand’s independence. Even when these students were in their early twenties, had no money, had not graduated — but they were ready to risk their lives for Thailand.

I am so inspired by these young people.

(From left) Bunmak Thesabutr, Wimon Wiriyawit, Siddhi Savetsila, Samoejai Sailasutr, Bunyiam Meesuk, Jintana Yossoontorn, and Sompon Bunyakupta, in the US

Professor Emeritus Asavin Chintakanand (AC): Indeed, the university students at the time are quite similar to now. They were willing to sacrifice anything and everything for Thailand.

American Seri Thai members/students heading towards Thailand from China

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): Seri Thai should be appreciated much more than most Thais understand. Indeed, we can learn a lot from their sacrifice and love of the nation, not unlike the young students these days. 

We have to fight for what is right and correct, to safeguard our independence and freedom. This is the lesson of Seri Thai.

Seri Thai Museum in Phrae Province, Thailand. Photo Courtesy of Puchong Kanthatham

Seri Thai brought together people from vastly different social backgrounds, even those with diverging views about politics. They were united by the clear goal of seeking independence for Thailand, even as they were ultimately hunted down and killed by the military forces that had allied with the Japanese in the first place.

As the Thai protest movement works to displace military power and reclaim Thailand once more, there are lessons that can be taken on from Seri Thai: the willingness to accommodate those from a variety of backgrounds, the strategic alliances that can and should be made across the political spectrum in pursuit of key goals. As idealistic as the students of Seri Thai were, they were also thoroughly practical.

Seri Thai Leaders: (from left) Luang Adul, Seni Pramoj, Pridi Banomyong

To read Part One, please click here.

To read Part Two, please click here.

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