Women of Thailand’s Past: Sirin Phathanothai

Thai Enquirer’s ‘Women of Thailand’s Past’ series chronicles the lives of Thai women in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. We begin with Thak Chaloemtiarana’s prompt of Thai women as “multi-faceted beings” as an entry point for tracing different models of femininity developed in Siamese / Thai history. In doing so, we highlight the ways gender has intersected with political ideology and been used to legitimate, or resist, authoritarian rule. 

In this article, we look to Sirin Phathanothai, a cultural emissary who grew up under the care of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) former premier, Zhou Enlai. She was sent by her father, Sang Phathanothai, an advisor to then-Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkram, as a “human bridge” to foster Sino-Thai relations during the Cold War. This article is based on Phathanothai’s biography ‘The Dragon’s Pearl,’ and an interview with Phathanothai herself. 

Sirin Phathanothai’s political life began at age eight, in a room in the Beijing Hotel. The year was 1956, and she was part of a vital opening in Sino-Thai relations. In 1967, just over ten years later, she was back in the Beijing Hotel, this time being interrogated by the Thai Communist Front and forced to denounce her father and brother as traitors to the revolution. In 1972 she found herself again in Beijing Hotel playing a pivotal role in Zhou Enlai’s Ping Pong diplomacy. By then, she was a recognized top-level contact on China, having lived through much of Communist history in the company of the Chinese political elite. 

Her story began at a pivotal turning point for the world: the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference hosted in Bandung. It was convened at the opening of the Cold War by newly independent states, inaugurating what would become the Non-Aligned Movement which would challenge racism, structural inequality, colonialism and great power intervention across various forums for the next twenty years. 

Sirin Pathanothai at aged eight, just before leaving Bangkok. Picture courtesy of Sirin Pathanothai

In the words of Sirin Phathanothai, daughter of Phibun’s closest advisor Sang Phathanothai, “Bandung had a great impact on my father, and as a result affected me and my whole life.” 

Sang convinced Prime Minister Phibun to send Thai Foreign Minister Prince Wan to the Bandung conference as an observer. But Prince Wan’s real mission was to try to establish a contact with Zhou Enlai, which he successfully executed. After some secret correspondence between the Thai delegation and Zhou Enlai, Sang decided to send his children as “human bridges” of what he hoped would become an official Sino-Thai relationship. They would be received under the auspices of Mao Ze Dong and would live under Zhou’s care. All this had to be done in absolute secrecy: Thailand’s Cold War relationship with the U.S. depended on Sang’s plan not coming to light. 

That was how, in 1956, Sirin and her brother Warnwai became one of the first and only ‘tributes’ to Communist China. She recalls growing up among the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite in the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing, where the gender dynamics were suffused with the egalitarianism of Chinese Communist ideology. “Since I was little, I lived with Mao’s famous dictum on women: that “women held up half the sky,” Sirin says confidently. 

While Lady Laiad was driving the gender turn in Thailand that demanded more femininity and domesticity of Thai women, Sirin observes that throughout the 1950s -1960s, “Chinese women worked as hard as men, dressed up like men…their job was not only to raise children but to join in the reconstruction of the country.” 

Sirin lived a life of relative comfort in Beijing. Zhou would often drop in to check on her at school or at home. “As a little girl, I was adored by many leaders, including Mao himself,” Sirin reminisces. In her younger days, she spent her weekends with CCP leader Liao Chengzi and swam with Mao at the Beidahe seaside. 

Warnwai and Sirin Pathanothai with Zhou Enlai in 1972, at the first official Sino-Thai meeting in Beijing with Prasit Kanchanawat, Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs

But this came to a grinding halt in 1967, when the Cultural Revolution thrust her from the heights of privilege into extreme hardship. “I lost my memories of those hard years” she laughs wryly, “it must have been hard enough to forget.” As the Gang of Four rose to prominence, they purged CCP leadership – among them, some of her guardians – and set alight the counter-revolutionary forces which began to terrorize Beijing. 

As timing would have it, her father had just been released from jail in Thailand. He chose that unfortunate moment to come to China with a message of friendship from U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. However, a meeting between him and a group of newly radicalized Chinese officials went terribly. Sirin’s father and brother were denounced as imperialist lackeys and deported from China. Sirin was allowed to stay, but Sang’s parting words portended the horror she would face: “Life is struggle.” 

Shortly after Sang left, Sirin was forced to denounce her father and brother on Beijing Radio for international broadcast. She went into hiding as a laborer in an impoverished commune in Hebei, where she worked so hard and ate so little that she was hospitalized after two years. Zhou, who remained among Party leadership, managed to bring her back to the Beijing Hospital in critical condition. Afterwards, she continued undercover as a worker in a textile factory, before she eventually escaped to the United Kingdom with Zhou’s help. 

“How strange it was,” she remembers candidly of the moment, “to have the world I had been raised in suddenly gone. It took me years to regain my balance.”

“The Cultural Revolution was a lost decade, in terms of total destruction of culture and civilization,” Sirin tells me. “It could have been avoided.  It is one of the least studied events, especially in China.” From her vantage point among China’s elite, she saw how precipitous the fall had been: “Those who had worked the hardest to build China into what it was, those closest to Mao were often those who suffered the most.”

Zhou managed to survive by staying in Mao’s shadow. Critics argue that he enabled Mao’s worst excesses, even as he intervened to save the lives of many leaders and scientists. However, by outlasting the Gang of Four, he was able to emerge more powerful than ever, pioneering US-China ping-pong diplomacy and eventually opening up China to the world. For that, he is revered as one of China’s greatest statesmen today, both at home and abroad. 

Sirin also survived. As the Cold War began to thaw, she became a key figure in rebuilding the official Sino-Thai relationship. She and Warnwai coordinated the momentous 1972 meeting between Prasit Kanchanawat and Zhou, kickstarting Thailand and China’s own ping-pong diplomacy. Today, Xi Jinping’s reference to the Sino-Thai “brotherhood” stems from the ‘study bridge’ forged by an eight-year-old girl and a twelve-year-old boy. 

Sirin now raises her grandsons in Beijing, the next generation of what she sees as ‘human bridges’ between Thailand, China and the world beyond. She carries the foresight of her father by continuing to invest her time and family in Beijing. As the single mother of two boys for much of her life, she also carries the strength of the revolutionary women she grew up around. 

“I am very proud of being a woman, with men behind me and in front of me who taught me so many things ingrained in my blood.”

Sirin Pathanothai in 2021 in her Beijing home. Pictures courtesy of Sirin Pathanothai

But she is skeptical of the term ‘brotherhood,’ especially given how much Zhou valued and protected her Thai cultural heritage while she was growing up in Beijing. “Zhou Enlai immediately sent me a Thai tutor when I started to forget Thai,” she recalls. “My fluent Thai today is because of Zhou’s vision.” 

Rather than seeking ‘brotherhood,’ Sirin argues that Thailand should seek to balance the great powers. 

“Thailand would be wiser to continue our greatest tradition of independence, which has saved our country from domination in the last hundred years. Thai leaders must always remind ourselves of our past wisdom that Thailand should continue its balancing act, never fully picking one side or the other.”

No one knows better than Sirin how important it is to remain cautious in the face of awesome power. It is a lesson inscribed in her through hardship, and one that she hopes to impart onto the Sino-Thai relations she helped build with her own blood. 

For Thailand, and Thai people to live with China, Thailand has to retain its own identity. Even speaking from Beijing with her sons and grandsons, Sirin concludes: “We are not Chinese, we are Thai, and will always remain so regardless.”

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