Pridi Banomyong: Agent of change
The influence of an extraordinary mind on Thai political history.
Every country has its great minds. History is a constant stream of different forms of power competing with one another; the course a nation takes in the midst of this chaotic rush depends a great deal on the personalities that happen to be powerful enough to implement their beliefs at a crucial moment.
In this, Thailand is no exception, and extraordinary and apt individuals are to be found amongst those who use their clout for their own advantage, and those who wish to use it for the common good, and to the benefit of their nation.
While Thailand has had a few such men and women, there is one individual who made a particularly marvellous bestowal of civilisation to his country. His name was Pridi Banomyong, a senior statesman who introduced a range of laws aimed at reforming Thailand’s dealings with other nations, its economic policies and every other conceivable issue of governance. Pridi’s influence was remarkable in those terms; however, when looking at the non-administrative prominence of his career, it seems his true magnitude lay in the way in which he personified the force of good in the ever-raging competition for hegemony. Various institutions throughout the world have recognised these achievements: UNESCO declared him a Great Personality on the centenary of his birth, and his alma mater, the Sorbonne, has likened him to Rousseau and Montesquieu.
The formative years
Pridi was born in the year 1900 in the historic city of Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam, sacked by the Burmese and, today, home to an astonishing assemblage of ancient cultural artefacts. Like so many of his compatriots, his ancestors included Chinese immigrants, who came to Thailand in the 18th and 19th centuries during one of the great waves of Chinese resettlements to the country. Pridi himself tells us how his ancestor fought and died in one of the many Thai struggles against Burmese invaders; according to his account, King Taksin (not to be confused with contemporary tycoon Thaksin who served as Prime Minister from 2000 until 2006) paid compensation to his forebears in China.
Pridi’s early life is characteristic of its era; at a time when European powers still held vast dominion over much of the world, other continents’ wealthy and intellectual classes sent their sons to be educated at universities in Britain, France and other European countries. There, the young students were introduced to European philosophy and the political ideas they produced. With some nations establishing a kind of European diaspora there, circles of like-minded students formed, often resulting in political parties and movements, which, once their exponents had returned home, led their respective countries onto new, often subversive paths. Pridi was one such student: he received a scholarship to read law and political economy at Paris, where he met some of his future comrades, including his soon-to-be antagonist and autocrat Phibul Songkhram, and founded the Khana Ratsadon, or People’s Party. Upon Pridi’s return to Siam in 1927 (as the country was called until Phibul changed its name to Thailand in 1939), he soon found employment at the Ministry of Justice in Bangkok. These formative years set out the direction into which he wanted Siam to go: his belief system was an undogmatic combination of socialist views and a non-revolutionary outlook, which set him quite apart from many of his more radical contemporaries. The ease with which he rose through the administrative ranks of his ministry may help explain this moderate approach, but there is no doubt that it was also a result of his experiences, learnedness and personality. Thus, the Siamese revolution of 1932, in which he played a key role, transformed the country from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy; it did not replace the existing system but remodelled and modernised it.
Still, some of his individual ideas of what shape Siam should take after 1932 proved too radical in practice. His attempts to nationalise parts of the nation’s economy accentuated the ideological differences within his party; after its members’ common goal of abolishing absolute rule had been achieved, their dissimilarities gained in gravity. Parliament rejected his projects, and, having made too many enemies and too few allies, he decided to flee into exile in 1933. This temporary expatriation did not last long: he returned to Siam the following year, beginning his twelve-year period in active government. He served in several capacities, first as Minister of Foreign Affairs, then as Minister of Finance, and, finally, as Prime Minister (though he remained in this post only for five months, in 1946).
During this time in government, he continued, albeit in different ways, Siam’s tradition of cunningly escaping colonisation or other forms of foreign subordination. In the 19th century, King Mongkut faced a severe threat of possible invasion by the French from the east of the country, and by the British from the north and south. Through a series of tactical moves, culminating in the grant of extraterritorial rights to the British Empire, he succeeded in keeping Siam one of only two countries worldwide never to suffer any form of colonisation by a European power (the other nation being Japan). Pridi continued this pragmatism by taking advantage of the current circumstances, which allowed him to withdraw the now-nearly-a-century-old extraterritorial rights. However, while the Khana Ratsadon succeeded in maintaining independence, it also opened up the party’s hitherto dormant potential of indulging in quarrels, which were such that they eventually led to its dissolution on the one hand and the establishment of quasi-fascist dictatorships in the following three decades on the other. Siam’s independence meant that the government was in a position to choose sides on the verge of the Second World War, and in this atmosphere Pridi’s socialist, vaguely pro-western views were increasingly at odds with Phibul’s ambition to ally Siam with Imperial Japan. Phibul prevailed and intermittently ruled Siam/Thailand for a total of 15 years, until the military itself eventually toppled him in 1957 (he died in Japanese exile in 1964).
By 1941, Imperial Japan had conquered large parts of East Asia and was eyeing Thailand as an adjoining target. Japan’s priority at this point was to drive the British out of Asia, a goal for which taking Malaya and Singapore was vital. The Japanese were therefore content to accept Phibul’s receptiveness, and quite happily used Thailand as a military base and passageway in order to attack the British to the north and south of the country (they achieved that aim in 1942). Phibul’s pro-Japaneseness resulted in a corresponding anti-westernness, and so, at Japan’s behest, he declared war on Britain and the United States (although the Thai ambassador in Washington refused to impart Phibul’s declaration of war to the Americans, and the two countries were thus never in fact at war with each other). Since Pridi fiercely opposed this move, Phibul demoted him to the less inconvenient position of Regent to the young King Ananda Mahidol (who, like his late brother, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was being educated in Europe at the time). This led Pridi to become involved with the recently founded Free Thai Movement (“Seri Thai”), which fought Japanese activities in Thailand and collaborated with the Allies. When the much more sympathetic Khuang Aphaiwongse replaced Phibul as Prime Minister in 1944, he paved the way for Seri Thai to become actively engaged in government, a role which was accelerated by Japan’s defeat in 1945. Phibul’s friendliness towards Japan had been discredited among the population, thereby legitimising Seri Thai as a new political force, with which Pridi was closely associated. The young King Ananda’s return to Thailand and his tragic demise – he was shot in the head by unknown gunmen at the mere age of 20 – were parallel to the power struggles of political ideas in Thailand as a whole; Ananda was a highly educated and progressive king whose views mirrored Pridi’s.
What followed was a period of instability and inconsistency; Pridi’s short spell as Prime Minister was followed by a succession of various types of government, including non-fascist, moderately conservative ones, as well as Phibul-style dictatorships. The latter were able to retain power up until the 1970s, largely because they were propped up by the United States, who valued a (as of now) friendly but right-wing leader of a country that gained more and more strategic importance as the war in Vietnam became imminent.
After the war
It was this new political constellation that thwarted Pridi’s attempts to stabilise the country and shape its future political history according to his liberal-socialist ideas. The US as the main power to arise from World War II needed a right-wing strongman, not a liberal-minded politician, to run Thailand, in order to establish itself in the region; the resulting marginalisation of the young Thai left was a by-product of that. With increasing US influence came the use of “communist” as a propaganda term; Pridi’s enemies sought to brand him as one and attempted to portray him as one of the murderers of his political ally, King Ananda Mahidol. Although this has been disproved, and King Bhumibol himself has stated that Pridi had played no role in his brother’s death, the promulgation of both myths sadly had some effect.
In the wake of these events, Pridi resigned as Prime Minister, and, after taking on roles as advisor to subsequent (non-fascist) governments, was forced into exile, returning briefly in 1949 to attempt a coup d’état against Phibul (who by then was in power once again), and, having failed, fled to France, where he spent the rest of his life, until his death in 1983.
Despite the numerous efforts by his enemies to slur him as an anti-royalist and communist sympathiser, it needs to be remembered that Pridi was a reformer at heart, not a revolutionary. It would have been very easy for him to garner Chinese or Soviet support and use it to gain power in Thailand; he never did. His integrity and competence have, despite the accusations, reinforced the acknowledgement of his vast positive contributions to the Thai nation: statues, a park, a museum, Bangkok streets named after him and, of course, the university he founded – Thammasat – serve as reminders of the pivotal role he played as a beneficial force during the inevitable changes his country was subject to. Pridi Banomyong wanted to use his influence to make that change a good one, so as to lead Thailand in a progressive, enlightened direction. And, given the intellectual legacy and cultural institutions he left his country with, he was, providentially, to some degree successful.