Thai Means Free

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 2, 2006 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

To call the events of 1941-1945 a world war is no exaggeration, although the New World was spared from fighting on its own soil.  Asia, at any rate, became a huge battlefield, and countries that had enjoyed relative peace or neutrality (albeit under the supervision of their European masters) were forced to take sides and take up arms.  Some were swayed by Japan's promises of liberation from the Western powers; others, perceiving Japan's evils and weaknesses, assumed and desired that the Allies would ultimately win out.

A day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded Thailand, which had little choice but to capitulate and pay obeisance to its conquerors.  On January 25, 1942, Thailand declared war on the United States and Britain, a token gesture that would nevertheless provoke outrage among Thais sympathetic to the West.  Among these were Thais then pursuing their studies in the US and the UK.  Thus was born the Free Thai (or Thai Seri) movement, inspired by the anti-Vichy Free French under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle.  Free Thai: Personal Recollections and Official Documents, compiled by Free Thai member Wimon Wiriyawit, is a valuable introduction to this unsung resistance.

The book offers the rather startling revelation that the Chinese and the British had been conspiring to occupy and even partition Thailand upon the war's conclusion.  But one of the concessions made by Churchill in enlisting American support had been that the British should work toward relinquishing their colonial possessions (which, in any case, they could hardly afford to maintain.)  But imperial dreams die hard.  Fortunately the Free Thai, having learned of the plan by intentionally getting a Chinese soldier drunk, conveyed the plan to the Americans.  They in turn guaranteed that Thailand, the only Asian country to escape colonization, would revert to its independent status.  The mind boggles at what Thailand would be like today had the partition plan succeeded.

The Free Thais from the United States had reason to feel confident in eventual Allied success:  they had seen what America is capable of, especially when provoked.  (In the book Hirohito by Leonard Mosley, then ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew is quoted as saying that "history has shown that the American people are among the most inflammable in the world.")  The Americans were all too happy to encourage the Free Thais.  Support came from the new OSS, precursor to the CIA; and in 1947 the heroes were honored in a ceremony on the grounds of the Pentagon.  One cannot help but feel nostalgia for the so-called Good War and America's Golden Age, soon to founder on the shores of Korea and Vietnam. 

The importance of the Free Thai should not be exaggerated.  With admirable humility, Wimon writes that as late as September 1944 the "Free Thais from [the] United States still existed only in name with no tangible achievement whatsoever that could be proudly noted."  Many of the recollections are of training, travel, spells of diarrhea and malaria and motion sickness, and quite a lot of just plain hanging around.  Combat is notably absent; activities tended to involve intelligence collection or logistics.  One Free Thai tells of reading Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (about the Spanish Civil War); he says that the book made him feel "the thrill of violence."  But leeches seemed to have been a bigger headache than the Japanese, who by 1944 were already beginning to wonder how to surrender with honor.  One Free Thai relates that, well before V-J day, the Japanese were dismantling their infrastructure in Thailand, as if they had already anticipated defeat.

To their chagrin, the Free Thai often stood accused of entering the war for personal gain.  Nothing, they say, could be further from the truth.  They were patriots, but to the reluctantly pro-Japanese government they were officially traitors.  Some would become statesmen; one shunned politics because "[o]nce you enter politics you cannot stay away from dirt."

The second half of the volume consists of memoranda and aides-memoire exchanged between Siamese, American, French, and British officials.  They concern two main points.  First, a bilateral Siamese-British agreement to end the state of war between the two countries.  Great Britain had reciprocated Thailand's declaration of war, whereas the US believed that it had been made under duress and should therefore be ignored.  The US "considered Thailand not an enemy but a country to be liberated from the enemy."  In contrast, the British seemed determined to punish the Siamese, not least by demanding a probably impossible 1.5 million tons of rice.  Perhaps the British had reason to be resentful:  six years of war had brought them to poverty and their empire to the point of disintegration.  According to them, Thailand had in contrast sailed through its war:  its coffers were full and it had suffered "comparatively little war damage".  But the US seemed actuated by a desire to avoid the conditions likely to produce another war:  "It is settled American policy," went one memorandum, "that no country, not even the major aggressor nations, should be compelled to pay reparations which, either in amount or in kind, will impair its ability to provide for the essential peaceful requirements of its civilian economy without external financial assistance." 

The US argued that Japan, and not Siam, should pay war reparations; and it made short work of British claims to be "at war" with Siam - "a country which never fought the Allies, which in fact aided the Allies and did not enter the war against Japan only because requested not to by the British and American governments, and which, to be technical, never even surrendered to any of the countries in a state of war with Siam."  It seemed "obvious" to the Americans that the British intended to "treat Thailand as [an] enemy country to be occupied and controlled."  But by then the UK was well aware that the US had eclipsed its power and saved its arse; at the last minute the US intervened and Thailand's sovereignty was saved.

The second major point of contention concerned territories in Indochina ceded to Siam by the Vichy government in 1941.  The French wanted these territories back, and believed that all agreements made by Vichy should be considered null and void.  But, the Siamese argued, the French had not yet resumed control of Indochina, so who would govern the reclaimed territories in the meantime?  And who did the French think they were, anyway?  A Thai diplomat complains:  "The French demand for the delivery to France of the image of the Emerald Buddha is regarded as unwarrantable and seems difficult to reconcile with any genuine desire to promote lasting peace and friendly co-operation." 

As I said, imperial dreams die hard.  But the territories were ceded; and then the French had to give them up anyway because Indochina was in no mood to accommodate itself once again to French rule.  Although the Thais were enormously grateful to the US for saving Thailand from foreign domination, many Asians felt that, by condoning the return of Britain and France to their former colonies, the American commitment to self-determination was less important than its commitment to wartime allies.  Subsequent American intervention in Vietnam would only disillusion them further.

But perhaps the disputed territories were a small price to pay for the Thais.  After all, they had once again wriggled out of foreign hands, with no little help from the Free Thai.  The name itself underscores the point:  "Thai" itself means free.  Free free.  Any questions?

- The End -

Review of Wimon Wiriyawit's Free Thai: Personal Recollections and Official Documents, White Lotus, 1997.

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