The Thai conception of international relations (7)

The Thai conception of international relations (5)


Emilio de Miguel Calabia

May 24, 2024




(Prepared to recover lost territories)

When World War II broke out, Thailand declared itself neutral. Like many other countries, including Spain, Thailand preferred to stay completely out of it. It was a purely European matter and it was better not to get involved while the ball was in the court. In any case, like a troubled river, fishermen gain, Thailand began to pressure for a redelimitation of the borders. The United Kingdom, this time, sided with Thailand. The reason was on the Thai side and could be an opportunity to separate it from Japan and increase British influence. After being persuaded, France accepted the redelimitation in principle, but by then it was too late. The German panzers had already penetrated the country and it was a matter of weeks until the final defeat.

The French defeat of June 1940 left French Indochina in a strange limbo. She was still dependent on Paris, but she had to allow Japan to treat her like a vassal. France was forced to recognize Japan’s political and economic interests in East Asia and allow them to use Indochina as a platform for their war with China. This situation kept Thai decision-makers awake at night. Sooner or later Japan would take over all of Indochina and if by then Thailand had not achieved the border changes it desired, perhaps the opportunity would pass forever. The optimists, among whom was Phibul, considered that French weakness was too good an opportunity to miss. Perhaps everything given by Rama III could even be recovered.

Phibul had been agitating irredentist sentiments for years, which had especially permeated the Army. On November 23, 1940, Thai troops made their first raids into French Indochina, taking advantage of the distraction offered by a rebellion in Cochinchina. The French colonial troops offered greater resistance than expected and by mid-January the situation had become bogged down. On January 17, 1941, a small French naval force managed to sink one ship, set another on fire, and sink two torpedo boats. Japan, not wanting to see its Thai ally humiliated, forced an armistice which was followed by a peace conference in which it served as mediator. The conference awarded Thailand all of Battambang province and parts of Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces and two Lao provinces on the west bank of the Mekong. Despite everything, the Thais were not completely satisfied; They had aspired to more. In political terms, the winner had been Japan, which had asserted its hegemony and influence over Thailand and French Indochina. The move seemed to have gone well for Phibul, who with a brief and not very bloody war had obtained enough of what he wanted. However, Phibul was suspicious. He was increasingly subjugated to the Japanese and was aware that he could not resist their armies.

For mid By 1941 things were already heating up between Japan and the Allies and Thailand was caught in the middle, a situation that historically Thailand has always sought to avoid. Thailand entered the calculations of both the Allies and Japan. The British hoped to establish a defensive line on the Kra Isthmus, in Thai territory, in the event of a Japanese invasion. The Japanese, for their part, wanted to attack British Malaya and Burma through Thai territory.

Thailand tried to navigate those troubled waters, giving in to many of the Japanese demands, while asking the Allies for help in resisting the Japanese. The traditional policy of using one great power to manipulate the other on this occasion did not work. The Japanese were too strong and the British had too many resources committed to Europe. Claims of neutrality were increasingly hollow. It was obvious that it was leaning more towards the Japanese side partly in response to pressure from that country, and there were important voices in the government advocating rapprochement with Japan, since they believed it would win the war. The main one of these voices was that of Phibul himself, who was guided by the fear of Japan and the greed to recover lost territories when Japan won the war. On the other hand, other examples in Europe showed that protests of neutrality led nowhere when the great powers were determined not to respect them.

On December 8, 1941, Japanese troops entered Thailand. The Thai Army resisted for five hours that must have seemed eternal, but those five hours would later be very useful to show that Thailand had made an effort to maintain its neutrality. The Japanese made three requests to the Thais: free passage through Thai territory, a Treaty of Alliance to defend Thailand, and an offensive and defensive alliance against the US and the United Kingdom. The reward, if Thailand agreed to the third request, would be the return of all the lost territories. Thailand initially only agreed to the first of the requests, but on December 21 it would also agree to the third. When talking about this episode, Charivat Santaputra, a Thai historian who has studied this period, recalls the old Thai saying, which has guided his foreign policy: “While the big trees fall, the small trees that lean in the direction of the storm choleric will survive.”

On January 25, 1942, Thailand declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom. From this moment on she was forced to collaborate even more closely with Japan. Ironically, Thailand was forced to grant Japan the same extraterritorial rights that it had struggled to get rid of just a few years earlier. On the military front, Thai troops attacked Shan, in eastern Burma, a region inhabited by a people of Thai extraction, who Thailand hoped would stay when the war was over. Finally the collaboration with Japan bore fruit. On August 20, 1943, Japan transferred administration over four Malay States and two Shan States to Thailand.

A chance that would greatly help the Thai cause at the end of the war was the attitude of the Thai Ambassador in Washington, Seni Pramoj, who was favorable to the Allies, telling them that the Thai people were pro-Allied and that only Phibul and his clique They were pro-Japanese. He suspected that this was a slight exaggeration and that the Thai people were mostly pro-nothing. He also told them about the existence of the “Free Thai” movement, which could serve as a rallying point for all anti-Japanese elements. The fundamental role of the Free Thai was to provide information to the Allies. Thanks to Seni, the US declared in December 1941 that it would treat Thailand as a country that had been occupied by enemy forces, a most favorable status for Thailand. By the way, there is a legend that Seni refused to deliver the declaration of war to the Americans. The reality is that this movement would have been useless, since the Thai government had transmitted it through the Swiss Embassy, ​​which represented US interests in Bangkok. What happened was simply that the US chose to consider it not received.

In this way Thailand achieved something that only Italy achieved in Europe: starting the war on the side of the Axis and ending it on the side of the Allies. If that is not flexibility and opportunism… This, by the way, was helped by the fact that the pro-Japanese Phibul was no longer in power. At the end of World War II, the United Kingdom wanted Thailand for having facilitated the Japanese invasion of Malaya, for having accepted the Japanese gift of territories that belonged to the British Empire, and for the damage caused to British businesses in the country. But in the post-war international order, it was no longer the British Empire that had primacy but the US, and the US viewed Thailand’s cause with sympathy. In this way, Thailand joined the post-war international order as an allied country. The price he had to pay was the return of the territories annexed during the war, something that was practically inevitable.


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Emilio de Miguel Calabia

May 24, 2024




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