Remembering Siam's Forgotten Hero- The Legacy of Pridi Banomyong.

    By Farish A. Noor.

    This year marks the centenary of the life and work of Pridi Banomyong, the Siamese lawyer and politician who paved the way for constitutional democracy in Thailand. In Bangkok and other parts of the country, celebrations marking the legacy of Pridi Banomyong were held throughout the month of May. Yet many of us who live in the neighbouring countries of ASEAN have forgotten the man who came so close to laying the foundations of democracy and the rule of law in Siam.

    Pridi Banomyong was born on 11 May 1900 in Ayudhya, the former capital of the kingdom of Siam. His family background was a modest one and his father was a fairly wealthy farmer. Pridi's early education was in Thailand but in 1917 he began to study law and was later sent for further studies in France by the Ministry of Justice. In 1926 he became the first Siamese citizen to obtain a doctorate in law from the Universite de Paris.

    In 1927, the same year that Sukarno launched the Partai Nasionalis Indonesia (PNI), Pridi along with six other Siamese students and civil servants met to form the nucleus of the Thai People's Party. The movement sought to address the problem of corruption and abuse of power by the ruling elite of Siam and to work towards a new society based on constitutional democracy as well as Buddhist principles of spiritual living and right conduct. Later in the same year Pridi returned to Siam to work at the Ministry of Justice. Through his contacts in the bureaucratic, legal and educational establishments, he managed to build the strength of his People's Party. On 24 June 1932, the People's Party peacefully took over the government of the country.

    Under Pridi's direction, the new government installed the 1932 provisional constitution which changed the mode of government from an absolutist one to a democracy. The office of the King was reduced to the status of a constitutional Monarchy. For the first time in Siamese history, sovereignty lay in the hands of the Thai people. Among Pridi's other notable accomplishments were the 1933 Municipality Act (which allowed for the election of local governments) and the formation of the University of Moral and Political Science (later renamed Thamassat University).

    These positive developments were, however, checked by the rise of Japanese militarism during the late 1930s and the emergence of an increasingly powerful and conservative military elite in Siam itself. Eventually there came to the fore Field Marshal Phibun Songkram and his military government. Phibun Songkram changed the name of Siam to 'Thailand' and introduced a number of radical social reforms that weakened the traditional system of values and beliefs upon which Siamese culture was based. He also paved the way for the militarisation of Thai society, which grew increasingly bellicose and aggressive during his time. During the Second World War, Pridi refused to co-operate with the Japanese or the Thai military establishment under the leadership of Phibun Songkram.

    As Regent of Thailand, Pridi clandestinely led the 'Free Thai' Movement and worked with the Allied forces instead. After the war, Pridi managed to ensure that Thailand would not be condemned as one of the Axis powers by declaring null and void Phibun Songkram's declaration of war. His conduct both during and after the war established Pridi as one of the leading statesmen in the region and a man of peace and personal courage. The governments of the West in particular were thankful for the part that he had played during the War, and the President of the United States Harry Truman even awarded Pridi the medal of friendship.

    In 1946 Pridi helped to draft the new constitution of Thailand, regarded as the most democratic in the country's history. In November 1947 however, Pridi's government was toppled by another coup led by the armed forces. Pridi was forced to go into exile in Singapore after being accused of being involved in the mysterious death of the young King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII). He later attempted a counter-coup in 1949, but failed. Between 1949 to 1970 he was banished to China.

    During his time in exile, Pridi found that his 'friends' among the American establishment were among the first to desert him. Due to the changing political fortunes of Thailand and the development of the Cold War between the Eastern and the Western blocs, the governments of the United States and Britain grew increasingly desperate to ensure that Asia and Africa would not fall into the hands of the Communists. To check the advance of the Communist forces, the governments of the Western bloc were quite willing to put into power authoritarian, conservative and even militarist governments in other parts of Asia, Africa and the Arab world- as long as they remained faithful to Western interests, of course.

    It was due to this sad twist of history that Pridi Banomyong, as an advocate of democracy and people's rights, suddenly became a suspicious and unreliable figure in the eyes of the West. Rather than risk the prospect of allowing popular democracy to flourish in Thailand (and other parts of Asia), the West turned a blind eye and allowed the military government of Phibun Songkram to hold on to power instead.

    During the time of Marshal Phibun's rule, Thailand was brought even closer within the orbit of American and Western interests. American military aid was pumped into Thailand, which Phibun and his generals used to bolster their own position and status. Corruption and abuse of power by the Thai generals was ignored by the West then, for the simple reason that these generals were also pro-Western at the same time. This pattern of Western support and patronage of militarist and authoritarian governments in the so-called 'Free world' was not unique to Thailand alone. When the Indonesian government of Sukarno was toppled after the failed coup of 1965 which led to the rise of General Suharto, the West was equally indifferent to the need for democracy in the country. Western powers like the United States and Britain continued to support the military government known as the 'New Order' as long as it remained firmly anti-Communist, regardless of how it governed the country or the human rights abuses that it committed.

    The fate of Pridi himself was left to the vicissitudes of history and politics. Forced to leave his country, the man who helped to lay down the foundations of constitutional democracy in Siam was not even allowed to travel abroad in peace. When he tried to travel from China to Mexico via San Francisco, the American vice-consul in Shanghai cancelled the American visa given to him earlier. The Americans were, by then, anxious to show to the military government of Thailand that they would not help this exiled politician in any way. All the medals and decorations bestowed upon Pridi by the Americans and Europeans had, in the end, proven to be worthless. Travelling from one country to another, Pridi finally settled down in Paris, France. There he died in exile on 2 May 1983.

    Today, in the wake of the Asian Economic crisis of 1997 there are still many powerful figures from the West who lay the blame for the crisis entirely on the feet of Asians. Asian societies, we are told, have not evolved democratically, have not developed open and transparent systems that are accountable and efficient. We have been lectured from on high by the doyens of the IMF, World Bank, UN as well as the governments of the West about our various short-comings, deficiencies and inadequacies. Yet how many of these self-styled Western 'experts' have cared to look at the conduct of their own governments and asked the painful but necessary question: Could things have been any different had the development of Asia been allowed to take its own pace, peacefully?

    Had the dream of Pridi Banomyong and others like him not been so rudely shattered thanks to the realpolitik manoeuvrings of the West, we might be living in a different world altogether today. True, things might not have gone as they planned and their ambitions might have been thwarted anyway. But the fact remains that long before the later-day moral crusaders of the IMF descended upon us in the wake of the 1997 crisis there was already a tradition of democratic thinkers and leaders in Asia whose cries for reform were cut short by the very same Superpowers that are lecturing us about human rights today.


    Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is currently writing a book about the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS.

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