Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Phra Sarasas: Rebel with Many Causes

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Phra Sarasas: Rebel with Many Causes

Article excerpt

Let me pride myself for being the first Thai in various kinds of ventures, good and bad....

Phra Sarasas, Preface to Outlaws Against Outlawries (1960)

Phra Sarasas has been and remains an enigmatic, mysterious figure in modern Thai history, with a chequered career as a politician, economist, propagandist, journalist, writer, even "war criminal", that intertwined with many of the key events in the saga of Siam between 1910 and the end of the Pacific War.(1) Yet for one who played - or at least claimed to have played - a major role in all manner of upheavals stretching over more than three decades, surprisingly little is known about the man.(2) The purpose of the present paper is to attempt to compile some of the scattered data available to provide the beginnings of a biographical profile and some assessment of the significance of this highly controversial figure.

It may be suggested that one reason for the silence - his own rather prolific writings apart - that has surrounded Phra Sarasas is his failure to fit into any recognizable camp or category in modem Thai politics or thought. As a professed "revolutionary" and harsh critic of monarchy in general and the Thai monarchy in particular (though lauding the Japanese imperial system) he became persona non grata with the royalists, and yet by the late 1930s, despite his proclaimed socialist radicalism, he found refuge in an increasingly rightist-militaristic Japan, was financed by leading zaibatsu figures active in the expansionist ultra-nationalist movement, and emerged as the most visible spokesman of a Thai-Japanese entente, thus alienating the Thai "liberal" camp. Even on a personal level this "conspiracy of silence" seems largely to have prevailed; his marriage in the 1920s to a French woman, despite having five children by his Thai Bangkok wife (one of his daughters, rather ironically, was eventually to marry a high ranking prince of the Chakri house), seems to have left a deep family rift, and with rare exceptions his descendants have been unwilling or unable to talk about him.

A Life of Vicissitudes

What then can be said about this elusive figure? He was born Long Sunthanon in 1889/90,(3) presumably in Bangkok. The name "Phra Sarasas" by which he would eventually become known, and which he himself used when not using a pseudonym (see below), was in fact a conferred title of bureaucratic rank in the pre-1932 system of absolute monarchy. The "Phra" element indicates the third highest rank then in use (coming below Chao Phya and Phya), while the "Sarasas" was part of a longer honorific that would be unique to a single individual at any one time.(4) Phra Sarasas' early life is essentially a blank, but given his fluent, if idiosyncratic, mastery of English and French, and the wide acquaintance with world history and politics evident in his later writings, we may assume a good educational background. His early official career was in the army, and it is as an instructor at the Military Academy, with the rank of Captain (awarded in 1909, a year before the death of Chulalongkorn),(5) that he first appears upon the stage of Thai history. This was in connection with the so-called "R.S. 130 [1911/12] Conspiracy", an abortive plan among mainly middle and lower ranking military officers to overthrow the absolute monarchy. Later Phra Sarasas, speaking through the pen of his second wife Claude (see below), was to claim that he "was the man behind the first revolution of 1912.... It was he who had sown the seeds of reform in the minds of his pupil-officers who plotted the overthrow of the regime."(6) If Phra Sarasas was indeed the intellectual father of the "R.S. 130 Conspiracy" his role does not appear to have been an active one and seems to have escaped the notice of the government; he was not among those arrested in connection with the plot, and indeed in 1913 and in 1916 he receiver further promotions in rank, to Major and then to Lieutenant-Colonel. …

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