Plaek Phibunsongkhram

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Phibunsongkhram in New York (1955)

Plaek Phibunsongkhram ( Thai แปลก พิบูล สงคราม [ plɛ̀ːk pʰíbuːn sǒŋkʰraːm ], Phibun for short ; *  July 14, 1897 in Nonthaburi as Plaek Khittasangkha ; †  June 11, 1964 in Tokyo ) was a Thai army officer and politician. He was Prime Minister of the country from 1938 to 1944 and again from 1948 to 1957 . From 1941 he held the rank of field marshal .

As a young artillery officer, he studied at French military academies. He was involved in the constitutionalist " People's Party " and gained military and political influence after it came to power through the Siamese Revolution in 1932 . After the crackdown on a royalist coup attempt, he became Minister of Defense in 1934 . In 1938 the parliament elected him Prime Minister.

Phibun ruled authoritarian , he propagated an aggressive nationalism and militarism and took measures to modernize Thailand culturally. The Fascist Italy , the Nazi Germany and the authoritarian Japan served as role models. Phibun strove for a "Greater Thai Empire" and demanded cession of territory from the British and French colonial empires. Between 1940 and 1941 he led Thailand to war with France , and in 1942 on the side of Japan in World War II . In July 1944 Phibun was urged to resign.

In 1947 the military under Phibun regained power. In 1948 he became Prime Minister again. He led the country authoritarian again, but this time in close alliance with the United States . After he initiated steps towards democratization in 1955, he was ousted by a rival internal military wing in 1957. Phibun went into exile in Japan, where he also died.

Origin, education and military career until 1932

The young Phibunsongkhram

Plaek Khittasangkha was born in Nonthaburi, a northern suburb of Bangkok , in 1897 . At that time Thailand was still called Siam . He was the son of a wealthy orchard owner who grew durian . His first name Plaek means “the strange one” and refers to the conspicuous shape of his ears (although he was later perceived as a handsome boy). Even as a child he had a preference for uniforms. At twelve he was accepted into infantry school. In 1917, after graduating from the Chulachomklao Military Academy , he joined the Artillery Regiment in Phitsanulok and was made a lieutenant.

During this time he met the six years younger teacher La-iad Bhandukravi, whom he married shortly afterwards. The two had three sons and three daughters in the course of their marriage. The young officer was popular with his colleagues and was considered personable, cultured, hardworking and punctual. However, possibly because of his small height, he was not perceived as outstanding or as a budding leader. In 1921 he was sent to the General Staff School in Bangkok, from which he received a scholarship to study military science in France.

From 1924 to 1927 he stayed in France for his training . He studied at the military academies in Poitiers and Fontainebleau. In France he made contact with other young Thai people who were studying there at military schools and universities. Like him, these came predominantly from middle-class backgrounds and not from the nobility. With them, under the influence of the political environment in the French Republic, he developed a negative attitude towards the absolute monarchy at home. In France, he first met the then law student Pridi Phanomyong , who headed the Siamese student association in France. The two became friends at first, but their relationship later developed into a rivalry and "hate friendship". Pridi and Prayun Phamonmontri , who also studied in France, both had revolutionary ideas and were able to convince Plaek to participate in the planning of an overthrow. However, this was only carried out in earnest in 1931, after everyone involved had returned to Siam.

After his return he entered the officer service. After his appointment as captain, he was awarded the honorary title Luang Phibunsongkhram in 1928 , which he then used instead of his birth name. Such name changes as status improvement were common in Siam. The name means "extended war". He was later promoted to major in the general staff and appointed equerry to Prince Naris , while teaching military science. Phibun joined the “ People's Party(khana ratsadon) , a constitutionalist reform movement that included officers, intellectuals and bureaucrats, but which, contrary to what the name suggests, was not rooted in the people. Together with the cavalry officer Luang Tasnai, he was responsible for organizing the coup in the army. After the successful Siamese Revolution of 1932 , which brought about the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, he became vice-commander of the artillery, but initially did not assume any political function.

Army leader and political career (1932–1938)

Government troops during the Boworadet rebellion

Phibun played a key role in the June 1933 coup , which was intended to defend constitutionalism and the rule of the military wing of the People's Party against a restoration of royalist forces. This strengthened his military and political influence. His leadership in combating Prince Boworadet's rebellion in October 1933 earned him great military prestige. Phibun was promoted to colonel, became Deputy Commander in Chief of the Army and, in 1934, Minister of Defense in the government of Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena . This was the second most powerful post in the military-oriented country.

As defense minister, Phibun promoted the spread of nationalist and militarist propaganda, including in school curricula. His ministry commissioned the film "Blood of the Thai Soldier" (Lueat thahan Thai) in 1935, which dealt with the invasion of a fictional country on Thailand and the heroic defensive battle that followed. It sponsored plays such as "Das Blut Suphanburis" (Lueat Suphan) and "The Princess of Hsenwi" (Chaoying Hsenwi) , which Phibun's later chief ideologist and propagandist Wichitwathakan wrote. One was about the self-sacrifice and heroism of the common people, through which they succeeded in repelling a Burmese invasion. The other emphasized the historical solidarity of Thai and Shan (who are ethnologically related). Phibun had monuments erected in honor of kings like Naresuan and Taksin , who were popular and militarily successful models for him.

Even before his rise to the top of the government, Phibun escaped several attempted attacks. In 1934 he was shot at after an army soccer game. In 1935, a conspiracy was uncovered by sergeants who allegedly wanted to kill the entire Council of Ministers. In November 1938, Phibun's driver tried to shoot him, and a month later there was an attempt to poison him.

When a scandal broke out in 1938 over the sale of the confiscated property of the abdicated King Prajadhipok , the government of Phraya Phahon fell. Phibun, who had also bid, withdrew his offer and was able to wash away any guilt. Thereupon he was elected Prime Minister by parliament with a clear majority and appointed by the Council of Regency on December 16, 1938.

First term as Prime Minister (1938–1944)

Authoritarian rule

Phibunsongkhram cabinet 1938

Although Phibun had come to the office of head of government constitutionally, he ruled autocratically. Already at the beginning of his term as prime minister he used his position of power to get rid of political opponents. They have been tried for high treason. Allegedly they had conspired against the young king Ananda Mahidol in order to bring the ex-king Prajadhipok back to the throne. In the dock sat royalists and exponents of the nobility attached to the old regime, including the king's uncle, Prince Rangsit , alongside supporters of Colonel Phraya Songsuradet , but also leaders of the opposition in the National Assembly . After a questionable trial, an extraordinary court sentenced 18 of them to death and imposed severe sentences on 52 others. Dozens have been detained on the remote island of Tarutao . This eliminated the opposition of the conservative royalists, but also weakened that within the People's Party. Old King Prajadhipok was declared persona non grata and his pictures had to be removed from the public.

After the alleged "Songsuradet Rebellion" had been put down, Phibun had the democracy monument erected in the center of Bangkok, in the middle of Ratchadamnoen Boulevard , as a symbol of the victory of constitutionalism over absolute monarchy. By “democracy”, however, Phibun understood the rule of the People's Party, especially its right wing, and the military within the framework of the conditionally democratic constitution of 1932 by an appointed parliament, so more the concept of enlightened rule by a few. Phibun imagined the democracy monument to be the center of modern Bangkok, comparable to the triumphal arch in Paris.

There were also increasing conflicts within the People's Party. Phibun's former college friend Pridi Phanomyong, who headed the liberal and civil wing of the People's Party, became his main rival. On the one hand, both rejected any political interference by the monarchy and Pridi had approved the establishment of special courts to try the alleged conspirators against the constitutional order. On the other hand, the progressive intellectuals from Pridi's camp criticized the dominant role of the armed forces and called for a cut in the defense budget , while Phibun rallied military and conservatives who wanted strong leadership in the country.

Phibun avowedly emulated power men like Napoleon Bonaparte , tended to be arrogant and sometimes used sophisticated, sometimes brutal political methods. On the other hand, he was in control, appeared modest, reserved and even charming in his personal demeanor, even to his critics. Several sources highlight Phibun's winning impact due to his good looks, courtesy, and good manners.

Nationalist propaganda

The reign of Phibunsongkhram was marked by ethnic nationalism, the glorification of the country's history and the pursuit of economic self-sufficiency . Phibun sponsored parades, paramilitary youth organizations and threatened neighboring countries with expansion efforts. Authoritarian regimes, which were widespread around the world at the time, served him as a model - alongside the Italian and German fascists, the ultra-nationalist military governments of Turkey and Japan. Phibun's friend and ally Prayun Phamonmontri, whose mother was German, had observed the build-up of National Socialism in Germany . Phibun dreamed of a "Pan-Thai State" that would unite all Tai peoples in one nation. He was the main operator of the renaming of Siam in Thailand, which became official on June 24, 1939.

Phibun's chief ideologist and propagandist was Wichit Wichitwathakan , an admirer of Mussolini , whom the British ambassador to Thailand at the time referred to as "pocket Goebbels". Wichit wrote nationalist dramas and shaped the populist-ultra-nationalist ideology of the Phibun regime. This was characterized by a considerably greater aggressiveness than the elitist nationalism of King Vajiravudh's era at the beginning of the 20th century. He combined elements of the absolutist ideology of the late 19th century, such as the mystification of Thai history and nation, with the nationalist populism of the 1920s and 30s. Wichit used the emerging radio, the distribution of photographs and slogans to mobilize the masses. He was the main brain behind demands to "liberate" the areas ceded to France and Great Britain in 1907/1909 from colonial rule. The dispersed "Thai family of peoples" should be united because of their cultural similarities and "racial" kinship. After 1939, the government stirred up anti-France sentiments and negotiated with France to correct the treaties on the border areas on the Mekong .

The government distributed maps to schools showing the "lost territories" of Thailand. The army radio station called for the establishment of a "Greater Thai Empire" (maha anachak Thai) , with the government's nationalist ideologues expressly referring to Hitler and the Anschluss of Austria . Phibun and Wichit feared that after the Second World War there would only be great powers and their dependent territories. Therefore, they wanted to make sure that Thailand would be among the great powers. The prime minister put it: "If we don't want to be scum, we have to be a great power."

Economic nationalism and anti-Chinese politics

Phibun's policy of economic self-sufficiency was fundamentally directed against all foreign companies. However, it particularly affected the Chinese immigrants, some of whom were economically influential . The goal of an ethnically homogeneous nation also played a role here. As part of the " Thaiization ", the residents of Chinese descent were urged to adapt their family names to the Thai. The government set up state-owned companies to drive back Chinese private capital and placed certain industries under the state's monopoly. This left Chinese traders and producers in trouble or even bankruptcy. In 1939 and 1940, Chinese were banned from various trades and professions. Taxes on trade profits were sharply increased, mainly affecting Chinese merchants who dominated this sector.

The police repressed Chinese political activists. Government agencies increasingly controlled Chinese-language press products and schools. In 1939, the authorities closed 25 Chinese-language schools. The police searched educational institutions, editorial offices and printing plants of Chinese newspapers in August of the same year and arrested hundreds of people, some of whom were later sentenced to prison terms.

Phibun's chief ideologist Wichitwathakan called the Chinese "Jews of the Orient" and publicly considered transferring the German National Socialists' Jewish policy to the Chinese in Thailand. The aggressive anti-Chinese sentiment and the increased registration fee led to a decline in the number of immigrants after 60,000 Chinese had immigrated in 1937/38. While workers and small business owners were particularly hard hit by the discrimination, the hegemony of Chinese big business could not be broken. The assimilation of people of Chinese origin into Thai society increased.

Cultural reforms

Poster with the comparison of “uncivilized” (left) and “civilized” clothing (right), which was published during the reign of Phibunsongkhram

At the same time, the Phibun regime pursued a policy of cultural modernization. It tried to ethnically homogenize Thailand ( Thaiization ). The previous cultural differences, for example between Central, Northeast and North Thai, were no longer officially mentioned. The government urged Thais across the country to use the central region dialect. The Lao script in the northeast region ( Isan ) and the Dhamma script in the north , both of which were used to write the regional languages, pushed them back. Phibun set up a working group to reform and simplify the complicated alphabet and the sometimes irregular spelling of Thai . This should also make it easy for members of the minorities and other Tai peoples to learn the national language. However, due to resistance from intellectuals and clergy, a comprehensive renewal could not be implemented.

In front of all public buildings, the national flag, in accordance with Phibun's edict of 1939, is ceremoniously hoisted in the morning and lowered in the evening.

Phibun's edicts (ratthaniyom) on clothing and behavioral regulations, which came into force from 1939 to 1942, also served cultural renewal . He made European clothing, blouses and skirts for women, shirts and trousers for men and hats for both sexes mandatory. His time in France played a role that had shaped him in terms of fashion. The fact that Thais didn't wear a tie and many didn't even wear a shirt made them look backward compared to Europeans. Generally speaking, Europeans seemed more modern to him. He hoped that a European style of clothing would make the Thais look more developed and “civilized”. The government imposed disciplinary measures against the wearing of traditional clothing. The new dress code prevailed, with only hats remaining unpopular. Betel nut chewing, which is widespread in the province , was banned, as was sitting on the ground by the roadside, which in the eyes of the regime conveyed physical weakness among the people.

Further regulations required the use of cutlery instead of eating with the hands, as well as applauding after speeches, theater and music performances. Phibun urged the country's men to treat their wives with respect. He wished, for example, that Thai people should kiss their wives in greeting, according to European custom. Phibun called the Thai woman the "flower of the nation" and promoted beauty pageants that also propagated the new dress code. He also introduced the western calendar , which begins on January 1st instead of the Thai New Year celebrations in April. During this time the greeting sawatdi ("salvation") was introduced. Likewise the so-called politeness particles khrap (for male speakers) and kha (for female speakers ). Most of the population accepted these ordinances, as many believed that this was the only way to get Thailand into the circle of civilized peoples.

By striving for a cultural redefinition, Phibun also tried to fill the void that had emerged as a means of identification due to the loss of absolute monarchy. In place of previous royal festivities, he introduced "national" events. He celebrated the anniversary of the Siamese Revolution of 1932 as a national holiday. In addition to the royal anthem, a national anthem was created. Your text, which is sung to this day, is characterized by nationalism and militarism, emphasizing the unity and sacrifice of the Thai "race". At 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. the people stand to greet the flag being raised and the anthem played.

Franco-Thai War

Phibunsongkhram holds a parade during the Franco-Thai War (1941)

In November 1940, Phibun began the Franco-Thai War against the French colonial troops in Indochina , which were under the Vichy government . The French units in Southeast Asia were largely disoriented as a result of the capitulation of the mother country to Germany in June 1940. Japan had already taken advantage of this weakness and forced troop stationing and usage rights for airfields and seaports. However, the Japanese formally recognized the sovereignty of Vichy France over Indochina. The Thai government feared that Japan might also annex Laos and Cambodia and destroy hopes of the return of the territories ceded to France in 1907. So Phibun decided to attack. The Thai Navy was defeated in a sea battle in the Gulf of Thailand , but on land and in the air the war ended in January 1941 with the victory of Thailand. Japan pushed its two satellite states to end the conflict and negotiated an agreement.

The victory column in Bangkok commemorates the territorial gains in the Franco-Thai War.

France had to cede the areas of Laos west of the Mekong and the north and west of Cambodia to Thailand. Battambang Province , which was one of the most productive rice-growing areas in Southeast Asia, was particularly valuable . The remaining areas recovered were largely undeveloped jungle. The part of the province of Siem Reap that came under Thai control (the provincial capital and Angkor Wat remained French) was renamed "Phibunsongkhram Province" in honor of the Field Marshal. To commemorate the victory, Phibun commissioned the erection of the Victory Monument , which was designed in the fascist style.

Domestic political strengthening and personality cult

Portrait in Field Marshal's Uniform (ca.1941)

Phibun was able to make use of his military success and the situation of the beginning World War II domestically. The renewal and strengthening of the armed forces seemed necessary. The liberal wing around its rival Pridi Phanomyong, who resisted the domination of the military, was thus put on the defensive. The prime minister was able to expand his leadership to an unchallenged status and dictatorial control. He now ruled effectively by ordinances and without parliament. While he was still making compromises with his former allies until 1941, they were no longer included in the cabinet reshuffle in August 1941. The military increasingly dominated the cabinet and civilians lost their influence. Phibun declared himself commander in chief of all three branches of service and was promoted directly to field marshal by the major general.

Phibun now also took measures to displace the monarchist influence in the Buddhist Sangha . The new Sangha law of 1941, which repealed the previous one from 1901, abolished the central position of the king and the prominent role of the Thammayutika order and established a structure that was modeled on the political administrative structure that had been in force since 1932.

The seal of Phibunsongkhram Province shows a rooster, Phibun's zodiac sign

Strengthened by the first success of the war, the regime practiced a personality cult around Phibunsongkhram. His quotes and pictures, which showed him in a self-confident pose, were omnipresent on posters. The radio broadcast his eloquent speeches, which were convincing in their frankness. His birthday on July 14th became a national holiday. He also tried to implement the greeting “Heil Phibun!” (Sawatdi Phibun) . The rooster, Phibun's zodiac sign according to Chinese astrology , played a role in public decorations instead of the wheel, which is the symbol of the ruling Chakri dynasty . The color green was also used as dominant, since Phibun was born on a Wednesday, which is associated with this color in Thai tradition . After each performance, cinemas had to show a picture of the premier, in front of which the audience should stand and bow. Every family should also have a picture of him at home. Newspapers were required to glorify him in their headlines. From the beginning of 1942 Phibun let himself be called phu nam ("the leader"). A slogan popularized by the government was "Believe in the leader and the nation will be out of danger."

In May 1942 Phibun had the "Law on the Abolition of Ranks and Titles" passed. It ended the award of the feudal honorary titles Chao Phraya, Phraya, Phra, Luang and Khun, traditionally bestowed by the king on higher or particularly deserving military and bureaucrats . Phibun dropped his own Luang title and began to use his real first name Plaek again. He encouraged all civil servants to do the same. However, the reform was more of a concession to its allies in the People's Party, who pushed for the anti-aristocratic ideals of the 1932 revolution to be implemented. Phibun himself was actually a fan of titles and awards. Since he was not ready to give up his honorary name Phibunsongkhram, he made it his surname and usually abbreviated the first name.

Second World War

Despite Phibun's ideological proximity to the Axis powers , his government shied away from openly opposing Great Britain and the US, which were important trading partners for Thailand. As the only non-colonized country in Southeast Asia, Thailand was of great importance for the strategy of the Japanese. They urged Thailand to terminate an agreement with Great Britain in 1941. Even after the outbreak of the war between Japan and England, Phibun tried to maintain a policy of neutrality. On December 8, 1941, Japanese troops landed on the coasts of Thailand and presented Phibun with an ultimatum in which they demanded troop stationing and marching rights for their offensive against the British colonial areas of Burma and Malaya . The Thai armed forces initially resisted, but on December 11, Phibun gave in.

Thai delegation to the Japanese Prime Minister General Tōjō Hideki (1st row, center) in Tokyo in 1942

On December 21, he concluded a mutual defense pact with the regime of General Tōjō Hideki . In return for the Thai concessions, Japan Phibun guaranteed the independence of Thailand, the preservation of the independence of the Thai army and its control over the military facilities in the country, as well as assistance in the repurchase of the areas in Burma and Malaya that had been ceded to Great Britain in 1909. In retrospect, it cannot be unequivocally clarified whether for Phibun only the national interest, the protection of Thailand from annexation and destruction by the aggression of Japan, or its own ideological proximity to the Japanese regime was an important motive. Cabinet and parliament approved the alliance.

The declaration of war against the United States and England on January 25, 1942, met with opposition. Finance Minister Pridi Phanomyong and Foreign Minister Direk Jayanama resigned in protest. The Thai Ambassador to Washington, Seni Pramoj , held the statement invalid and refused to forward it to the US government. In May 1942, Thai troops and the Japanese army conquered northeast Burma. In August 1943, Japan contractually awarded the Shan states to Thailand, as did the northern Malay sultanates, which had been under Thai control until 1909.

The Second World War hit Thailand very hard economically. A large part of the buyers of Thai natural resources turned away. Important imports from Europe also fell away. The value of the baht fell significantly against the yen . This was serious because Thailand had committed in May 1942 to settle all foreign trade accounts in the Japanese currency. While imports became more expensive, the price of Thai products in Japan fell. This brought increasing devaluation, black market trading and corruption with it.

In June 1942, Phibun admitted that Thailand was close to bankruptcy. Japan made a loan of 200 million yen to its ally. The Japanese army, however, acted like an occupying power. She asked for rice and other food to be delivered. She even fed in buffalo that were actually needed for plowing. Metal products, machinery and consumer goods of all kinds were either confiscated or bought and brought to Japan. The Japanese demanded the mass forced mobilization of Thai workers for construction projects such as the Thailand-Burma Railway ("Railway of Death"). In this project alone, over 250,000 forced laborers, mainly civilians from Southeast Asia, as well as Allied prisoners of war died.

In 1943 Phibun had specialized universities founded, namely the University of Medical Science (now Mahidol University ), Kasetsart University (agriculture) and Silpakorn University (art). The latter was directed by Silpa Bhirasri ( maiden name Corrado Feroci ), a sculptor from Italy who created numerous monuments and statues on behalf of Phibun and was considered the artist of the regime.

Resistance and disempowerment

From 1942 the Seri Thai movement ("Free Thai") was constituted as a resistance movement against collaboration with the Japanese occupiers. Her leading figures were the Crown Regent Pridi Phanomyong and the Thai ambassador to Washington, Seni Pramoj . The network tried to fill important positions in politics, the military and business with its people. Since it became apparent in mid-1944 that the influence of Japan was declining, this also succeeded and a large part of the civilian elite joined the resistance movement. Phibun, who outwardly stood on the side of the Japanese, covered the opposition and did not betray it to the Japanese. He also allowed his deputy, Police General Adun Adundetcharat , who worked with the Allies as head of the intelligence service. Adun personally detained American agents of the OSS instead of handing them over to the Japanese, thereby protecting them.

General dissatisfaction with the Phibun government increased because of the disastrous economic situation. The Prime Minister's edicts, such as the obligation of government officials to teach folk dance, also met with increasing lack of understanding. When in July 1944, despite war and economic hardship, Phibun wanted to move the capital from Bangkok to Phetchabun and build a huge Buddhist park ( Phutthamonthon ), parliament refused to obey him. An opposition MP, Thong-in Phuriphat, claimed that 100,000 Thais were used for forced labor, 10,000 of whom died, to build the new capital in the malaria-infested jungle of the north. However, these numbers cannot be verified. Phibun later justified himself after the end of the war that the relocation of the capital to the inaccessible mountains was necessary in order to free Thailand from Japanese influence. In addition, Bangkok was hit by Allied air strikes. His opponents, however, described the project as megalomaniac.

The premier announced his resignation on July 24, 1944. He still considered himself irreplaceable and believed that the Regency Council would, as with an earlier threat of withdrawal in February 1943, reject his application for dismissal or, in the absence of an alternative, appoint him again immediately. However, the parliament elected Khuang Aphaiwong as his successor, who stood between the Seri Thai forces and the Phibun camp, and who could be mediated by both the Allies and the Japanese. Phibun initially remained supreme commander of the armed forces and tried to maintain de facto control of the country in this position. As a result, Minister Thawi Bunyaket , a member of the Seri Thai movement, issued a statement on August 24 that Phibunsongkhram's position as Supreme Commander was unconstitutional; according to the constitution, the king had to be formally supreme commander. To save face, Phibun was appointed "Supreme Adviser" to the armed forces. He accepted the disempowerment and retired to the country.

Temporary withdrawal from politics (1944–1948)

The Axis defeat led to Phibun's imprisonment, but the military tribunal acquitted him after five months in prison. The reason for this was that the post-war government of Seni Pramoj had put the war criminals law, according to which Phibun - possibly even to death - should be sentenced, into effect retrospectively. It probably paid off that Phibun, despite their rivalry, never completely broke with his former companion Pridi Phanomyong during the war. Pridi was very influential in the post-war period and argued against Phibun's punishment. This withdrew from political life.

A brief phase of multi-party democracy followed, in which the military hardly played a political role. Contrary to his promise to abstain from political activity, Phibun founded the conservative Thammathipat party ("Rule of the Dharma ") in the spring of 1947 . Officers close to Phibun, including Phin Choonhavan , took advantage of the unstable situation following the unexplained death of the young King Ananda and launched a coup in November 1947 . The putschists first installed the leader of the Democratic Party , Khuang Aphaiwong , as prime minister because they suspected that Phibun would not yet be an acceptable negotiating partner for the victorious powers. However, they dropped him in April 1948 and Phibun took over the role of Prime Minister a second time.

Second term as Prime Minister (1948–1957)

Domestic power struggles until 1951

Phibun with the chairman of the Sangha Council during the awarding of the diploma at the Buddhist University Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya

During his second term, Phibun did not have unlimited power as it did during the first. He had to work with the coup group that brought him to power, in particular with the power-conscious officers Sarit Thanarat (from 1954 Commander-in-Chief of the Army) and Phao Siyanon (from 1951 Director General of the Police). There was talk of a triumvirate Phibun-Phao-Sarit. Power struggles and conflicts raged between different circles within the military.

The coup group pursued the liberal opposition that was close to the exiled Pridi Phanomyong. In 1948 a number of MPs from this faction from the northeastern provinces ( Isan ) were tried. They were accused of separatism. Allegedly, they planned to detach the northeast of Thailand and create an autonomous state. In order to weaken the radical Central Labor Union (CLU), which is close to Pridi , Phibun founded the Thai Labor Union (TLU). The TLU was corporatist and anti-communist and had recruited over 20,000 members by the end of Phibun's tenure. In February 1949, Pridi secretly returned to Thailand from Singapore and attempted an unsuccessful coup with members of the Navy.

In the so-called "Manhattan Putsch" on June 29, 1951, naval officers kidnapped Phibun during a ceremony to hand over the American dredger Manhattan to Thailand and took him to the Navy flagship Si Ayutthaya . Although Phibun called on the armed forces to exercise the greatest possible caution, the officers at the top of the army and police were unwilling to respond to the rebel demands in order to save the prime minister's life. The uprising was put down with brutal force. The air force and police even bombed the Si Ayutthaya , at the risk of Phibun's death. A total of 1200 people, mostly civilians, died in the troops' uncontrolled action and 1800 were injured. The premier himself was able to swim to shore from the sinking ship. The incident showed, however, that Phibun's allies in the armed forces did not consider the head of government to be irreplaceable and that the actual power now lay with Generals Phao and Sarit.

Until the end of 1951, Phibun still needed parliament to govern. But he and the military did not have a secure majority. The prime minister therefore drew MPs on his side with bribery and pressure. At the end of 1951, the young King Bhumibol Adulyadej was due to return to Thailand from his studies in Europe. Bhumibol had a negative attitude towards the incumbent government, the coup group and Phibun. The leading officers of the coup group urged Phibun to dissolve the National Assembly and repeal the 1949 constitution. They wanted to end their dependence on civil parliamentarians and exclude the risk of losing power to the royalists. Phibun refused, however.

Thereupon nine officers formed an executive council and announced over the radio the repeal of the current constitution, the return to the more authoritarian, at the same time less monarchical, Basic Law of 1932 and the dissolution of parliament. The event is known as the "silent" or "radio coup". Then Phibun was again entrusted with the formation of a government. At first he wanted to refuse, but then accepted the fait accompli and again assumed the office of Prime Minister. High-ranking military officials occupied all important positions in the new cabinet. After the coup, Phibun was weakened compared to the emerging officers who competed with him for power. But the rivalry between General Sarit's wing and that of Police Director Phao in the army increased. Since the two absolutely wanted to prevent a representative of the other group from rising to the top of the state, Phibun was able to remain in office.

Pro-American foreign policy

Phibun and his wife with Eleanor Roosevelt in New York 1955

Phibunsongkhram stood loyally on the side of the United States during the beginning of the Cold War . As early as 1948, the new government ended the support it had begun under Pridi for the national liberation movements in Indochina. On the contrary, it even recognized the "State of Vietnam" supported by the USA and France under the leadership of Bảo Đại . In 1950, Phibun sent 4,000 soldiers to the Korean War on behalf of the UN . Thailand was a founding member of the anti-communist military alliance SEATO in 1954 .

From 1951 to 1957, the United States provided its most loyal ally in Southeast Asia with $ 222 million in military and $ 149 million in economic aid. Thailand's western allies viewed Phibun as the country's only capable statesman and preferred interlocutor. That was an important factor in keeping him in office as prime minister and in accepting him as head of government by the ambitious rival officers who also wanted to benefit from the payments from America.

Attempts at democratization and disempowerment

Phibunsongkhram with King Bhumibol Adulyadej in monk's robe (1956)

After an extensive trip abroad to the USA and Europe in 1955, Phibun was apparently enthusiastic about democracy and freedom of speech. Following the example of Hyde Park in London, he set up a “Speakers' Corner” on the Sanam Luang in Bangkok. Phibun allowed the formation of political parties, amnestied political opponents and planned free elections in order to make himself independent of Field Marshal Sarit, the Army Commander in Chief, and Police General Phao. He founded the Seri Manangkhasila party , which was dominated by the most influential military and provided the government. Sarit and Phao also joined the party and formed internal wings to secure their respective power bases. Phibun became chairman, Sarit vice chief and Phao general secretary of the party.

In addition, during this time Phibun presented itself as a friend of the workers. The labor law of January 1957 legalized unions, limited weekly working hours to 48 hours, regulated vacation and overtime, health and safety regulations. The May Day was a public holiday.

Relief depicting the 1957 coup on the monument to Sarit Thanarat in Khon Kaen

In February 1957, Phibun held elections. The general secretary of the ruling party, however, manipulated them heavily by intimidating the opposition, buying votes and fraudulent elections. This led to great public criticism of the head of government and police director Phao. Sections of the military around Field Marshal Sarit joined her to get rid of the rivals on this occasion. They publicly attacked the fraudulent elections and uncovered other corruption affairs.

In addition, Phibun was accused of a lack of respect for the monarchy. The anti-aristocratic prime minister always tried to limit the role of the monarchy to a constitutional minimum. Phibun had taken on religious functions that traditionally belonged to the monarch. In 1956/57, the prime minister and not the king led the celebrations for the 2500th anniversary of Buddhism. However, this did not increase his popularity among the rural population as hoped. King Bhumibol Adulyadej made his dislike of Prime Minister Phibun clear. Bhumibol found that he was acting like a "second king". With allegations of electoral fraud, self-importance and insufficient respect for the monarchy, Field Marshal Sarit and his wing in the army justified a coup on September 16, 1957 , with which they ousted Phibunsongkhram.

Exile and Death (1957–1964)

Old Phibun in civilian clothes

Phibun had to leave the country. He first went to Cambodia and eventually retired in Japan. The new regime in Sarit refused his requests to allow him to return home several times. In 1960 Phibun traveled to India to be a monk in the temple in Bodhgaya for some time . On June 11, 1964, Plaek Phibunsongkhram died of heart failure. After his death, his ashes were transferred to Thailand in an urn and buried with military honors in Wat Phra Sri Mahathat (also known as the "Temple of Democracy") in the Bang Khen district of Bangkok, which he founded .

Aftermath and work-up

Some of Phibun's reforms shape the culture and everyday life of Thailand to this day. The majority of Thais are mostly not aware that these can be traced back to the field marshal. The sawatdi he introduced is the most widespread greeting, the particles khrap and kha are an essential part of polite language. Thais naturally dress in western style. “Thailand” has become the only common country name and has practically completely displaced the older “Siam”. The duty to stand still while the national anthem is broadcast at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. continues to this day. The noodle dish Pad Thai popularized by Phibun is one of the Thai national dishes .

The historical role of Phibunsongkhram fell into oblivion in the public consciousness, was suppressed or reduced to a one-sided perspective. Many intellectuals identified with Phibun's opponent Pridi Phanomyong and condemned Phibun. The influential social scientist Sulak Sivaraksa , for example, characterized Phibun as a selfish, power-hungry and opportunistic dictator who hindered the country's democratic development and harmed the real interests of Thailand. Phibun was remembered as an ultra-nationalist, a racist who marginalized the Chinese ethnic group and especially an anti-royalist. He was mainly associated with headstrong ideas, the implementation of which interfered with people's private and everyday life and which subsequently earned him ridicule: such as the ban on chewing betel and the prescribed kiss between spouses before the man went to work in the morning.

Historians avoided dealing with the 15-year Phibun era, which was stamped as a dark time. It was not until the 1990s that Thai historians reassessed it. The English Asian scholar Nigel Brailey had previously highlighted Phibun's advocacy of national sovereignty for Thailand and the 1932 constitution in 1986. He rejected the parallels between Phibun's rule and European fascism as superficial. In 1993, on the initiative of its professor Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thammasat University held a first conference that focused on Phibun's role in the modern history of Thailand. In 1995 a biography of Phibun by the historian Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian followed, which Phibun also characterized as principled and rejected fascism comparisons as distorting.

The American historian E. Bruce Reynolds, on the other hand, in a 2004 study showed a multitude of parallels between European fascism and Phibun's ideology - extreme, folk nationalism, irredentism , militarism, emphasis on popular unity and the cult of the leader - as well as a number of explicit and implicit references to the Regime of Hitler and Mussolini.



  1. There are numerous variations in the transcription of the name. The front part can be written Phibun, Phibul, Pibul or Pibun . The second part is transcribed as Songkhram, Songgram or Songkram . The two parts can be found either connected or written separately. This article follows the transcription according to RTGS . Often Phibunsongkhram is just called Phibun , often with the honorary title Luang in front . He was also known as Chomphon Por ( จอมพล ป. ; "Field Marshal P.") in Thailand .
    ("Luang Phibun / Pibul / Bipul-songkhram / songgram", in: Dennis Kavanagh (Ed.): A Dictionary of Political Biography, Oxford University Press, 2003.)


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Web links

Commons : Plaek Phibunsongkhram  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

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