Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Thai Wartime Leadership Reconsidered: Phibun and Pridi

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Thai Wartime Leadership Reconsidered: Phibun and Pridi

Article excerpt

Thai politics from 1938 to 1957 were dominated by two leading personalities - Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram and Pridi Phanomyong - the one Prime Minister until 1944, the other the acknowledged leader of the liberal and civilian wing of the People's Party and the dominant force within the cabinet until December 1941. Both were to become prime minister during the postwar era: Phibun between 1948 and 1957; Pridi for a brief spell between April and August 1946. Both leaders shared the "glory" and the decline of the war years and their aftermath. In comparison, the years 1939-42 were Phibun's finest hours while the period from July 1944 to November 1947 represented Pridi's greatest political triumph. In spite of on-going controversy over their roles, there can be no denying that the contributions of these two leaders in maintaining and safeguarding Thai interests both during the war and in the crucial period immediately after the Allied victory over Japan were substantial.

Nonetheless, until recently the treatment meted out to Phibun and to Pridi both by their contemporaries and by the majority of scholars, Thai and foreign, have been miles apart.(1) Much that has been written by Phibun's contemporaries highlights the negative aspects of his character and his administration. A highly controversial figure variously labeled anti-royal, dictatorial, militarist, egoistic, and self-indulgent, Phibun has been blamed for practically everything that went wrong with the country.(2) Pridi, on the other hand, was respected and admired by his contemporaries, with the exception of the conservative royalist party, and has been favourably treated by Thai and foreign scholars, the more so after he was driven out of power by the 1947 coup.(3) At the end of the war, when Phibun was languishing in jail waiting to have his fate decided by a war-crimes tribunal, Pridi was revered as the saviour of the nation and was honoured with the grand title of the "Elder Statesman". Scholars sang his praises while portraying Phibun and his wartime government as total depraved.(4)

It is clear, in retrospect, that the discriminatory treatment of the two wartime leaders in the main tends to overlook or gloss over the undeniable fact that most of the unpopular or inhumane policies and measures adopted by the Phibun wartime cabinet had the approval not only of the People's Party, including Pridi and his supporters, but also of the National Assembly and the Crown, as represented by the Council of Regency. For example, both Pridi and Phibun supported amending the 1932 Constitution to extend the ten-year limit of "guided democracy", the end of which would have introduced a fully elective system for the members of the legislative body, on the pretext of the difficult wartime conditions; yet Phibun alone has been blamed for the lack of progress in the democratic system in Thailand. The fact that Phibun tried hard to exclude the military from politics between 1947 and 1951 has hardly received any serious comment or evaluation from scholars in the field; while Pridi's high-handed silencing of his political opponents during his ascendancy between 1945 and 1947 has likewise been disregarded by writers describing his well-publicised positive contributions to the socio-political progress of the country. Such partisan treatment of these two leaders who, working separately but in cooperation with each other, did much for the socio-political development of Thailand, are a common feature running through the historiography of Thai politics since 1932.

From a historiographic perspective, it is not too strong to state that the controversy surrounding Phibun, and, to a certain degree, Pridi, arises partly because of some internal and external factors such as the world war and the internal power straggle which was intensified in the last years of the war by the so-called pro- and anti-Allied stand of the two leaders concerned. In sum, the historiographic controversy began with black-and-white versions of the contributions of Phibun (mostly black) and Pridi (mostly white) up to around 1970. …

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