Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pridi Phanomyong

Pridi Phanomyong, was a politician. He was a former and Senior Statesman of Thailand, and named one of the world great personalities of the century by the UNESCO in 2000.

Family background

According to Pridi himself, Pridi's great-great-great grandfather, Heng, was a native of Etang village in Chenghai District who migrated to Siam alone during the reign of Boromaracha V, leaving behind his wife who was already pregnant with their son Seng. While in Siam, Heng lived among the Chinese relatives of King Taksin, who later recruited some of the local Chinese, among which was Heng, to fight against the Burmese. Coincidentally, Heng died in his service, and Taksin later notified about Heng's fate and compensated his family back in China after they sent a letter enquiring for Heng's whereabouts. Seng himself, while being persuaded to travel to Siam to seek for a better life, nonetheless lived his life in China as a rice farmer.

Seng's son, Tan Nai Kok , came to Siam in 1814, during the reign of . Nai Kok settled in Ayutthaya and eke out a living by selling both Chinese and Thai sweets, and it was said that he had made some new innovations by combining culinary skills from both the Chinese and Thai methods. A devout , he married a Thai woman, Pin. Pin's sister, Boonma, also happened to be Pridi's wife Poonsuk's ancestor. They had a son, Nai Koet, who married Khum, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur. Nai Koet died before his wife, who directed that his remains were to be cremated and interred at the shrine at Phanomyong hill.Their son, Nai Siang, who became a wealthy rice merchant, married Lukchan, were the parents of Pridi. Nai Siang adopted the surname Phanomyong in 1866.


Early life

Pridi Phanomyong was born in the province of , and was the second child of five other siblings. Pridi also had another two half-siblings from his father's other wife. In 1915, following the royal decree issued by King Vajiravudh, Pridi and his family dropped the "Nai" from their names.

He received a government scholarship to study law and political economy at the Sorbonne, and returned to Siam in 1927 to work for the Ministry of Justice. He quickly rose to the rank, and was granted the honorary noble title of Praditmanutham. During this period Pridi gradually and secretly built up a group consisting of fifty civilian officials who wished to put an end to the absolute monarchy by installing the constitutional monarchy.

People's Party

On June 24 1932, "Khana Ratsadon", the , with Pridi as the leader of the civilian faction, carried out a lightning revolution that abruptly ended 150 years of absolute monarchy under the Chakri Dynasty.

In 1933, Pridi went into voluntary exile when his radical economic plans, which called for the of land and , were violently rejected by many as extreme and allegedly in nature.


He returned in 1934 to found Thammasat University, before assuming the posts of Minister of the Interior the same year, Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1937, and Minister of Finance in 1938.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1935 to 1937, Pridi successfully signed treaties revoking the of 12 countries. With these treaties, Thailand was able to regain complete independence with regard to legal jurisdiction and taxation for the first time since unequal treaties were first signed since King Rama IV's reign.

Although he had been friends with Field Marshal during the early days of the People's Party, the two had fallen out during the following years. Pridi was violently anti-Japanese as well as a , and therefore opposed many of Phibun's militaristic policies.

Free Thai movement

On 8 December, 1941, Imperial Japan launched its attacks on Southeast Asia and the possessions in the region, which resulted in the full development of the Pacific War. This included several in Thailand. The Thai government quickly agreed to let the Japanese pass through and utilise its military bases in order to strike other Allied possessions in the region, including commencing the Battle of Malaya.

Pridi refused to sign the declaration of war against and the United States in 1942 and, as a result, was effectively demoted by Phibun to take on the figurehead role of Regent. In this capacity, Pridi built up the anti-Japanese underground Free Thai Movement network in Thailand. Codenamed "Ruth", he established contact with the Allies and the parallel organisations based in Britain and the United States. As the war progressed and the fortunes of the Japanese had turned, public dissatisfaction grew and Phibun was forced to resign as prime minister in 1944.

Khuang Abhaiwongse, the liberal lawyer and a member of the Seri Thai, was chosen to be prime minister due to "his ability to dissemble with the Japanese" to shield the growing Seri Thai movement while at the same time to improve surface relations with the Japanese.

With the end of the war and the Japanese surrender, the Seri Thai-dominated government immediately acted to "restore the pre-war status quo". As regent, Pridi termed "the declaration of war illegal and null, and void, and repudiated all agreements made with Japan by Phibun".

When he visited Bangkok in 1945, Lord Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander, South East Asia, recorded a tribute to Pridi in which he said that there had existed a unique situation wherein "the Supreme Allied Commander was exchanging vital military plans with the Head of a State technically at war with us".

Post-war years

Pridi retired from the regency when the King returned in December 1945, and was formally named Senior Statesman , and subsequently served as a respected advisor to the post-war, civilian governments under Tawee Boonyaket and Seni Pramoj.

In March 1946, Khuang, who had earlier been elected Prime Minister in January, resigned, and Pridi took the Premiership in an attempt to stabilise the political situation which was spiralling out of control. It was during the first months of the Pridi government that the war crimes trial against Phibun was dismissed on a legal technicality.

On June 9 1946, the young King Ananda Mahidol was found dead in his bed. Ananda's death resulted from a gunshot to the head, while in his bedroom in the Baromphiman Palace in the . In October 1946, a Commission of Inquiry reported that the King's death could not have been accidental but that neither suicide nor murder was satisfactorily proved.

After a general election, Pridi resigned as Prime Minister, resumed his status of Senior Statesman, and left on a world tour, visiting Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and US-President along the way.

On November 8 1947, army troops seized various government installations in Bangkok. The coup, led by Lieutenant General Phin Choonhavan and Colonel Luang Katsongkhram, ousted 's government. It marked the return to power of Phibun. At the same time, armoured cars arrived in front of Pridi's riverside residence. However, when the troops entered, they found that Pridi had already escaped. Pridi spent a week hiding with the Navy at Admiral Sindhu Songkhramchai's headquarters. On November 20, the senior statesman was spirited out of the country by British and American agents to Singapore.

Phibun arrested King Ananda's secretary Senator Chaleo Patoomros and two of his pages under charges of conspiracy to kill the King. Rumours were spread among the public that Pridi was part of a conspiracy involved in the regicide, and that he had plans to turn Thailand into a republic. After a farcial trial, during which the entire defence counsel resigned and two members of a subsequent counsel were arrested under charges of treason, the judges ruled that none of the accused could have fired the fatal shot. However, it did convict one of pages, Chit Singhaseni, of being a party to the crime. Chit appealed his conviction. The Appeal Court later dismissed Chit's appeal and, undeterred by the legal doctrine of double jeopardy, found the other page, But Pathamasarin, guilty too. The Supreme Court upheld the convictions, and convicted Chaleo as well. All three were later executed.

According to biographer William Stevenson, King Bhumibol has said that he does not believe that Pridi was involved in the murder.

Permanent exile

Pridi secretly returned in 1949 in order to stage a pro-democracy coup d'├ętat against Phibun's dictatorship. When it failed, Pridi left for China, never to return to Thailand.

Pridi died on May 2 1983, at his Antony Home in the suburbs of Paris.


During the military era Pridi was cast as a monarchy-destroying communist, a demon designed to frighten off anyone who might be tempted by liberal ideas. Relentless unto death to destroy Pridi’s reputation, in his later years Seni sought to promote the idea that he had single-handedly saved Thailand from a British colonial enslavement that his rival had been willing to accept. The writings of Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, which portray Phibun. in a favourable light and see his wartime downfall as a result of ambitious scheming on Pridi’s part, exemplify another line of anti-Pridi analysis. The author Nigel Brailey treats the Free Thai movement as largely a sham and casts doubt on Pridi’s part, arguing that “it appears questionable whether Pridi committed himself personally to the Allied cause much prior to August 1942, if even then,” suggesting that “his eventual anti-Japanese stance was a consequence primarily of his hostility to Phibun.”

There is no question that Pridi wanted to elbow Phibun aside and that the war offered an opportunity. However, there also should be no question that Pridi recognised well before the war that Thailand’s alignment with the Axis powers would work to Phibun’s advantage and enable him to further strengthen his dictatorship. Even the Japanese recognised Pridi’s orientation, which is why he was shoved out of the cabinet in December 1941. It was also reason why every knowledgeable person on the Allied side, from fellow Thais like Seni Pramoj and Prince Suphasawat, a chief organiser of the movement in Great Britain, to former British Minister Crosby, anticipated that Pridi would be the person to emerge at the head of a domestic resistance movement.

One time conservative monarchist Sulak Sivaraksa, displaying the zeal of a convert, has emerged as Pridi’s most ardent champion. A prolific, audacious critic of the Thai status quo, Sulak, in addition to praising the achievements of the Pridi-led Free Thai in its role in saving Thailand’s sovereignty, has skewered Seni and his political party for complicity in the military’s return to power in 1947.

Sulak-led efforts to rehabilitate Pridi have recently achieved some significant results. Two Bangkok streets now bear his name , and in 1997 the Thai government dedicated a Bangkok part. On August 16, 2003, a library/museum, built as a replica of Pridi’s wartime residence, opened there.

For Pridi and his murdered colleagues, it was a sorry reward for their successful effort to unshackle Thailand from a doomed Japan and ensure its post-war sovereignty and independence.

On 30 October 1999 UNESCO included Pridi Phanomyong's name in the calendar of Anniversaries of Great Personalities and Historic Events Calendar as a belated tribute to not so much his achievements, but his ideals and character integrity.

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