Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Seri Thai - Thailand's World War 2 Resistance Movement
Thai Armistice with Japan memorial
On December 8th, 1941, only hours before the highly successful attack on the American Naval base of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Imperial forces invaded Thailand on an 800 mile wide front, with the intent of forcing the Thai government into a quick, some say pre-negotiated submission. Thailand, for the Japanese, was of great vital strategic importance since it offered a direct land route to invade both Burma and British Malaya, both of which the Japanese saw as keys to breaking the Allied war effort in the east. The British, and to a lesser extent the Americans, Australians and New Zealanders, relied on both manpower and raw materials from the British colonies surrounding Thailand, in order supply its ongoing war effort against Nazi Germany and her Axis allies. Furthermore, the Japanese knew that key naval bases being utilized by British Commonwealth forces could be taken much easier by land forces rather than by naval forces since, the Japanese foresaw it’s already stretched Navy focusing its effort on the Americans in the Pacific.

Japanese Soldiers entering Burma
From Burma, the Japanese would stage several army bases, to which they could attack British controlled India as well as China and its allied forces. China had in fact, already been at war with Japan since the early 1930’s, and Nationalist forces under General Chiang Kai-Shek, his American allies under General “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell, and later Chinese Communist forces under Mao Zedong, posed not only a danger to the Japanese southern supply line, but also a threat to its newly established bases in the puppet state of Manchukuo. Burma also offered a more accessible route to attack India, to which the British forces relied heavily for manpower, almost 1 million soldiers by wars end, and also as a source of goods and trade routes for war materials. Furthermore, the Axis powers viewed India as a potential ally, whose relations with its British occupiers had been sour for some time; much in the same way the Germans viewed the disenchanted ethnic states of the Caucasus region, as potent allies against the Soviet Union. British Malaya was also a key to Japan’s plan to overrun the main British base of Singapore, which was seen as the gateway to the crucial east-west trade route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Towards this end, the Japanese thought of Thailand as a generally easy military pushover, albeit a necessary and extremely vital stepping stone to the Axis powers overall strategy. What the Axis powers didn’t plan on was a subversive military opponent in Thailand, in the form of very effective and motivated Thai guerrillas, who also happened to be all Buddhists. By wars’ end in 1945, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) has supplied over 50,000 anti-Japanese Thai guerrillas, via Cambodia, Burma and Laos, who played just as important a role in the eventual defeat of Japan as the British Chindits and their Burmese counterparts in northern Burma and eastern India. However, history has all but forgotten these Thai guerillas and the havoc they played on the Japanese forces, and never received the same recognition or due accolades that the Karen Burmese guerrilla counterparts have.
Seri Thai OSS Trainees - Chicago 1944
In the Franco-Thai War of 1940-41, Thailand was able to retake a good chunk of land on its eastern border with Laos which it had lost decades before, to the French in the 1893 Franco-Siamese War. The Thai military was able to take advantage of the desperate military and political situation France found themselves in, after their sound defeat to the Nazi's blitzkrieg in 1940. With some breif but hard fought battles, but more importantly behind the scenes arm twisting by the new Axis member Japan, Vichy French forces conceded the territory to Thailand in May 1941. Previous to the May victory, Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Plaek Pibulsonggram, better known as ‘Phibun’, conducted secret negotiations with both the Japanese and British, looking for guaranteed support and continued sovereignty for Thailand in the event that the ongoing global conflict spilled over Thai borders. While British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did pledge his fully support for Thailand in case of a Japanese attack, it was Japan’s influence and support over the Vichy French in the Franco-Thai War that won the Axis a verbal promise of Thailand’s support.
General Plaek Pibulsonggram
After brief, but bloody fighting, on December 8th, Phibun ordered all Thai military forces to cease resistance to the massive Japanese invasion, and entered into an official armistice and eventual alliance with Japan. On January 25th, 1942, Phibun’s government, urged on by the Japanese high command, declared war on Great Britain and the United States. Phibun ordered his ambassadors in Britain and the US to deliver the declaration to each of the respective governments. Seni Pramoj, the ambassador to Washington, however, refused to obey Phibun’s orders, deciding instead to organize a resistance movement to the Japanese “occupation” (though it was never technically called that) using his embassy staff as his administrative core. After lengthy consultations with the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, the US State Department, with the urging and blessing of the Roosevelt administration and the US military high command, chose to officially acknowledge Ambassador Pramoj as the legal representative of Thailand resistance movement. A second Thai resistance movement sprouted in Britain as well, spear-headed by two members of the former royal Thai family in exile, Queen Ramphaiphanni and her brother Prince Sawatdiwat.
Prime Minister Seni Pramoj
In Thailand itself, a third, underground movement took shape, headed by various former political rivals of Phibun as well as a number of Thai families who still supported the Thai royal family in exile. These three bases of resistance formed the organization that was to become known as the “Khabuan Kan Seri Thai.”With the backing of the royal loyalists in Britain, and lead politically by Pramoj in Washington, the group was seeking a third leader, inside Thailand to organize the actual military and intelligence operations against Japan. Pramoj decided on Pridi Banomyong, who was a fervent socialist and one of the key figures of the succesful 1930's anti-royalist political reform that swept Thailand. Pridi was a part of Phibun’s government at the onset of hostilities, however, when the declaration of war was issued against the allies, Pridi refused to sign it, considering both the alliance with Japan and declaration of war illegal and unjustified. Phibun subsequently dismissed Pridi from his ministerial position and was relegated to a meaningless figurehead post within the Thai government.
Pridi Banomyong
American OSS agents began to coordinate with Pridi and other members of the underground Seri Thai movement, code named ‘Ruth’, building secure communication and supply lines to friendly forces outside Thailand. The OSS and Pridi also started a recruitment campaign, which found tremendous initial success with University students and by 1943 spread to individual soldiers, including some high ranking officers of the official Thai Phayap Army. Many of the Seri Thai operatives found support within the monastic Buddhist communities, who allowed their agents to use various temples as safe houses to hold clandestine meetings. Indeed, vital intelligence gathered by Seri Thai agents about Japanese movements and intentions were passed through Buddhist monasteries and temples, to reach the British military operating in Burma, and American forces operating in China.
Japanese invasion routes into Burma
One of the greatest contributions made by the Seri Thai was the intelligence gathered about Japanese intentions and movements, which resulted in direct allied military efforts at critical points of the war. As the Japanese began their Burma campaign in 1942, perhaps the most important military operation in South Asia during the war, information followed freely from the front lines back to communication points established by Seri Thai operatives in the north and west frontiers of Thailand. Intelligence was gained about Japanese supply lines, base locations, troop size and strength and military objectives.
Japanese troops stop to admire Shwethalyaung Buddha in Bago, Burma
In early 1942, Gen. Stillwell and Chiang Kai-shek were able to use the intelligence gathered by both the Seri Thai and Burmese Karens to counter the first Japanese threat to the Indian frontier by hastily sending Chinese forces to oppose four divisions of Japanese troops. Although this allied campaign was a failure, it bought enough time for the seasonal monsoon rains to begin, which thwarted the Japanese effort by making the roads impassable. Again in 1943, British General Wingate and his guerilla band known as Chindits, operating in Burma and India, formed a three way communication intelligence link with the Chinese/American forces and Seri Thai operatives. By 1944, the Japanese undertook another concerted effort to invade India, in hopes of creating a general uprising against their British colonial forces. They were soundly turned back at the Battles of Kohima and Imphal, forcing a general retreat from the Chinese border to its supply bases in North and Central Burma. The allies relentlessly pressed the issue with the weakened Japanese, both in the air and on the ground in several bloody engagements fought well into early 1945. Again, Seri Thai operatives provided solid intelligence that the USAF and RAF used to restlessly strike the Japanese troop and supply lines during this phase of the Burma campaign.
Japanese Prime Minister Tojo visits Thailands leadership - Bangkok- 1943
By 1944, public opinion of Phibun decreased dramatically due to the increased resentment of the Japanese presence and casualties Thai troops were sustaining in operations abroad. In a watershed moment of the Seri Thai movement, Phibun was forced out as Prime Minister, and was replaced by a the Seri Thai member Khuang Abhaiwongse. Abhaiwongse had a publicly warm relation with the Japanese, and gained their trust as a friendly ally. However, Abhaiwongse, behind the scenes, fervently supported the now enormous Seri Thai resistance and played to the growing public anti-Japanese sentiments. By January 1945, the Seri Thai had no less than 50,000 operatives and guerilla soldiers, operating from the Burmese border in the north and west to the Laotian and Cambodia frontiers to the east. As the Japanese struggled to extricate themselves from their dire situation in Burma, several bands of Seri Thai guerrillas began the armed phase of the resistance, by ambushing hundreds Japanese posts and patrols over the course of 6 months.
Siddhi Savetsila - OSS trained Seri Thai officer
In July of 1945, British and American operatives began coordinating an invasion plan of Thailand with the Seri Thai. The allies emphasized the importance that the resistance movements not initiate a general uprising against the Japanese in Thailand until the allies had pushed the remains of the Japanese out of Burma, and were ready to assist. This was to maximize the invasions concentration of force, but more importantly, to avoid an outbreak of civil war with Thai forces who remained loyal to the Japanese. During this time, several OSS trained Seri Thai soldiers acted in conjunction with British and American commando raids in southern Thailand, Burma and northern Malaysia, in preparation for an attack to cut off the Japanese line of retreat. However, by August 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending Japanese resistance and the war.
A group of Seri Thai gather for a picture in celebration - Bangkok - 1945
Thailand was still officially allied with Japan at war’s end, and like many of the other countries aligned with the Axis powers, were subject to harsh post war allied concessions and reparations. However, due to the enormous contributions by the Seri Thai, and leadership of Seni Pramoj, Pridi Banomyong, Puey Ungphakorn and Siddhi Savetsila Thailand was spared the types of severe punishments, which both Japan and Germany had to endure. Furthermore, British Thai nationals servered honorably with UK forces in Europe and with the British Home Guard. Both Seni Pramoj and Pridi Banomyong went on to become prominent figures in post war Thailand, both serving respective terms as Prime Minister. The post war times weren't all good for Thailand however, as the country underwent a series of coup d'├ętats, military dictatorships and bloody communist insurgencies until the mid 1980’s. Nevertheless, through-out the post war era of 1945 to 1975, Thailand has remained strong allies with the United States and Great Britian, especially during the cold war, supporting the efforts of both wars in Korean and Vietnam. During the American war in Vietnam, Thailand played a key role in support of US forces, by hosting a dozen air bases from which the US staged its massive air campaigns against the NVA and Vietcong.
British SOE trained Seri Thai soldiers
Thailand was the scene of one of the more brutal POW atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War 2, known as the Burma or Death railway. The railway was built, though never fully operational, to supply the Japanese forces invading Burma, from its bases in southern Thailand. The construction project was every bit as brutal as the Bataan death march, and caused the deaths of some 90,000 Asian laborers, and 15,000 allied POW’s, almost half of which were British. The Death Railway was immortalized in the Pierre Boulle book and subsequent classic 1957 film, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai.’ Today, you can find the graves of some 20,000 men who perished during the project outside the village of Kanchanaburi, in western Thailand.

Today in Thailand, the Seri Thai resistance movement is remembered fondly by many, as a symbol of courage shown by many thousands of Thai men and women. The movement has been memorialized in Bangkok at a place called the Seri Thai Memorial Hall and Museum, which houses many documents and artifacts relating to the Free Thai movement. In addition, there have been many parks and buildings through-out Thailand named for the Seri Thai and several of its key leaders. Many have argued that the Seri Thai movement probably shortened the war with Japan, notwithstanding the atomic bomb, due to the invaluable intelligence gathered for the allies. No one knows how many Seri operatives died during operations, or were executed by the Japanese, but some estimate the number is in the thousands. These men and women may have been devote Buddhists, who were dedicated to a peaceful non-violent life, but had the courage and tenacity to know when it was time to pick up a rifle and fight for an honorable and virtuous cause.
Memorial in Thailand commemorating the Japanese invasion

Books about the Seri Thai movement:

The Thai Resistance Movement During The Second World War, - John B. Haseman
Free Thai, compiled by Wimon Wiriyawit
Thailand's Secret War: OSS, SOE and the Free Thai Underground During World War II by E. Bruce Reynolds

Some additional links:

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