Nation-building and the Pursuit of Nationalism under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram

Nation-building and the Pursuit of Nationalism under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram
(This article is from the website Thailand and the Second World War 1941-45)


Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, the durable premier whose endeavour to civilise Thailand became a national obsession.

Luang Phibunsongkhram's assumption of the premiership in December 1938 ushered in a new era in the history of Siam. It was a five-year period characterised by accelerated modernisation and an upsurge in extremist pan-Thai nationalism, typified by the Field Marshal's nation-building – “ sang chart ” policies.

Among Phibun's chief concerns was the need to consolidate his – and the military's – domination in the running of the country. In order to gain public acceptance of such a move, Phibun sought to stimulate pride in the nation, its military might, and its leader. A favourable public response would also prove helpful in legitimising the increase in political arrests – including that of Prince Rangsit, one of Chulalongkorn's few surviving sons and a favourite uncle of King Ananda – and the continued sidelining of the royal family.

The new premier's intention to transform himself into something of a father-figure soon became visible through a number of moves. The practice of celebrating the King's birthday as the National Day was quietly dropped. The new National Day was June 24, the anniversary of the end of the absolute monarchy.

The first celebration of the new national day was nothing short of a grand affair. In April 1939 the government had property owners along Rajdamnoen, the avenue leading to the royal palace compound, vacate their premises to make way for a prestigious state construction project; for it was Phibun's intention that Bangkok was to have a processional avenue comparable to the Champs Elysees in Paris.

On the evening of June 23, the date usage of the name Siam was officially abrogated, Phibun and his wife held a lavish ball at their residence that was attended by all of the Bangkok elite. The next morning, units of the army and navy paraded through the streets of Bangkok, as did the Yuwachon movement. Overhead, the air force staged an impressive fly-past. The day's central event was Phibun's laying of the first foundation stone of the Democracy Monument, designed to commemorate the promoters' feat in establishing constitutional government.


A scene from the 1943 Cultural Fair. Young women, dressed correctly according to the mandate on dress codes issued by Phibun, line up at one of the fair's many stalls. The sign informs potential buyers that the stall is unsupervised; goods "bought" were to be paid by dropping money into the collection boxes. Honesty was one of the many virtues stressed by the Ratthaniyom policies.

A major theme covered in his speech that evening was the need to resurrect the spirit of patriotism first conceived by King Vajiravhud. Phibun announced his government's plan to introduce Ratthaniyom, a newly-coined word explained as a concept “similar to the proper etiquette observed by all civilised people.” Translated into English as “State Convention” by Luang Wichit, the regime's ideological spokesman, this new doctrine was further described as an expression of patriotic public opinion.

The code, issued in the name of Phibun and never debated in the Assembly, struck a responsive chord from the public. Among the first degrees, or “cultural mandates”, issued under the concept of Ratthaniyom was a patriotic code of behaviour for the Thai people to “prevent danger and discredit failing on their nation”. All Thais were urged to do their duty by “suppressing” anybody responsible for carrying out any action deemed treacherous or dishonourable to their own race. The other six mandates stipulated paying respect to the national flag and the anthem, advocated the use of locally made consumer goods, and dealt with the name of the country, which in mid-1939 was changed to Thailand.

An illustration showing one of the many aspects of Phibun's Ratthaniyom policies. Note the picture the father is removing (a European landscape) and the one the son is holding (a battle scene typical of the military engagements of the Ayutthaya period). The father is saying, "it's about time we had this picture removed. Thailand is now able to produce decorations for the home that are as good as those produced overseas. Any house guest should always be reminded to buy only Thai goods. As for the Leader's portrait... any home that lacks one should be ashamed."

A programme to create a new, civilised Thailand thus began. As the Prime Minister himself put it, “we must be as cultured as other nations otherwise no country will come to contact us. Or if they come, they come as superiors. Thailand would be helpless and soon become colonised. But if we were highly cultured, we would be able to uphold our integrity, independence, and keep everything to ourselves.”

Another six cultural mandates followed between March 1940 and January 1942. Two stressed the importance of working hard and the need to assist aged-people or invalids, while one banned all men from appearing in public bare-chested or with loose shirt-tails. They must wear either uniforms or western-style suits. Women were also encouraged to adopt a more westernised appearance by wearing not only skirts and hats but also gloves with matching handbags and shoes. On September 8, 1940, a cultural mandate emphasising the need to use time efficiently was issued. Thais were instructed to organise their lives by dividing the day into three: between six and eight hours had to be allocated for sleep, the daylight hours to work, and the rest of the time to physical exercise, gardening, cultural pursuits and listening to the radio. It was also decreed that no more than four meals should be eaten per day, and the chewing of betel nut – which blackened teeth - was banned altogether, with provincial governors being instructed to destroy all betel trees unless some industrial use could be found for them.

In October 1940 the National Cultural Development Act was promulgated, and all Thais were required to comply with the aspirations of the national culture and to “foster and promote national progress”. By 1941 it was unlawful to make unnecessary noise and use improper language, while disorderly behaviour such as pushing on to buses or sitting on the street was punishable by way of fines. Even people who ridiculed those who promoted the mandates were liable to be fined. In the same year a campaign to promote the compulsory wearing of hats in public was launched, to the consternation of many.

The dress code for women: "Goodness me! Phrim, how well and proper you look with that hat on! But why are you barefoot? You'd look beautiful with some shoes on. And the ground is so dirty and scorching! Come, I'll accompany you to buy a pair of shoes!

Phibun's idosyncratic degrees increased in number throughout the war years. The Prime Minister had another obsession: he wanted the population increased. Group weddings were introduced, punitive taxes were imposed on bachelors, and all babies born on January 1, 1943 were designated "Greater Asia Children" with a right to free education. It was decreed that husbands should treat their wives with respect, and those who beated them were to be severely punished. Men were instructed to kiss their wives upon leaving for work and returning home.

In trying to popularise these measures, Phibun turned to Luang Wichit's Bureau of Propaganda. Its most popular and effective programme was a series of dialogues between two characters, one acting the simple peasant and the other the informed official, Nai Man and Nai Khong – Mr Steady and Mr Strong.

Naturally, the mandates attracted much criticism. Some thought the Prime Minister had gone mad in concentrating on such trivialities when Asia was on the brink of war. Many resented Phibun's simplification of the Thai script, and many more the hat edict. One princely scholar pointedly put hats on his four Great Danes to take for their morning walk, while going bare-headed himself. At the same time the Queen Grandmother was reported to have retorted she would sooner have her head cut off than pose for a photograph of herself wearing a hat to promote the Field Marshal's campaign. Others questioned how the poor could find the money to buy hats and shoes at a time of constantly increasing prices. In a soon-censored column penned jointly with his wife, Prince Prem Purachatra made barbed comments on the regime's cultural innovations, while an Assemblyman allegedly remarked that all the emphasis being placed on civilising the nation was more likely to make foreigners think of the Thais as being very backward.

The discouragement of impolite behaviour: "Use the ashtray, Wacharinth! Look how you've dirtied my floor. Use the ashtray and you'll become a polite, cultured man!

Phibun's attention was not only limited to etiquette and dress codes though. By 1940 Thailand had the trappings of a fascist state, an image reinforced by the presence of the Yuwachon Movement. Founded in 1934 and headed by the Berlin-born Major General Prayoon Pramornmontri, this “Youth Movement” was modelled on the Hitler Youth. Its male members - the Yuwachon Thaharn, schoolboys between twelve and twenty years of age – were given basic military training, while the girls – the Yuwanari – had courses on nursing. King Ananda was the official patron of the movement; he and his brother Prince Bhumibol having been invested with the uniform personally by Phibun on their visit in 1938.

Another peculiar move was the banning of certain traditional musical instruments which were deemed un-Thai, a reason used also for the prohibition of staging likays, centuries-old comedic plays that were very popular in rural areas. In contrast the ramwong was popularised to the extent that officials were ordered to spend every midweek afternoon practicising the folk dance.

A personality cult of the leader was also gradually built, with Phibun becoming increasing referred to as “ phu nam ” – the Leader. In 1942 Phibun's birthday on July 14 was marked a national holiday, with Luang Wichit composing a special play to mark the occasion. The display of ex-King Prajadhipok's portrait was prohibited by the government, and cinemas were ordered to show a picture of Phibun at the end of every performance. The audience in turn were required to rise and bow. Similarly Phibun's birth colour, green, was used in official decorations.

The ideal family: how to eat, sleep, and dress. The title reads "For the Great Thai Nation".

The rise of Thai militarism went hand in hand with nationalism – chartniyom – of which Luang Wichitwatakarn was its main proponent. The changing of the country's name itself was a nationalistic gesture - Luang Wichit claimed that Siam was a name invented by the Khmers, from whom the Chinese and later the Europeans had adopted its use. A name of such alien provenance could hardly be used any longer, since the Thais were “one of the greatest nations on earth” comprising not only the thirteen million in the country, but all the Tai-speaking people scattered throughout southern China, French Indochina, and the Shan States of British Burma. In order to “unite them all and focus their loyalty” the adoption of Thailand was thus necessary. Indeed, the regime's slogan was “Thailand for the Thai”.

How Thais should and should not dress.

Such demagogic nationalism became apparent with the introduction of various restrictions on the country's minority ethnic groups. The Chinese, who had often been described as the Jews of the east for their dominant role on the Thai economic stage, were targeted especially. For instance, the Ministry of Economic Affairs issued in 1939 an act which established a government monopoly over the slaughter of all livestock, a task which had always been carried out primarily by the Chinese. In early 1942 the government issued a degree reserving twenty-seven professions exclusively for Thais. These ranged from the legal profession to the makers of Buddha images. A ban on alien food vendors, again many of them Chinese, peddling their wares in the grounds of public establishments, including schools, deprived many Thais of the snacks and soft drinks they enjoyed taking at all times of the day. Another measure to “reclaim” the economy was the creation of the Thai Rice Company, a state enterprise set up with the intention to bypass Chinese middlemen and millers in the trade. Its business faced a sudden boost when government agencies were instructed to procure rice solely from state enterprises.

Racial discrimination increased with the creation of the cultural mandates. Silk Chinese pyjama-style trousers, popularly worn for the sake of comfort in the hot season, were banned, while Indian women wearing saris were barred from entering buses and public buildings. Chinese schools were closed and the Malay language and customs of the deep south forbidden. Non-Buddhists were soon prohibited from serving in the government or military, and many were forced to convert. Further resentment was caused when Phibun banned aliens from living within the vicinity of positions deemed strategically important, causing many Chinese and Indians to abandon their homes and businesses at great financial costs.

One of the most enduring pictures of the Great Flood of 1942: a policeman and schoolboy, standing in knee-high waters, saluting the National Anthem.

The pan-Thai nationalism espoused by Luang Wichit soon took an irredentist turn in 1940. Inspired by the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and encouraged by the Fall of France earlier in the year, Phibun turned his eyes to the Mekong frontier. To him and many Thais, the collapse of the metropolitan government in Paris provided a golden opportunity for the territories lost in Chulalongkorn's reign to be regained. An anti-French campaign quickly gained momentum after the French rejection of Thai demands in September. In that same month Luang Wichit toured the north-eastern frontier provinces, where he had no difficulties in getting his thesis that the Thai and Lao people were brethren accepted. In Bangkok, a group calling itself Thai Blood staged rallies calling for the revenge of a Thai trader shot dead in Vientiene. The press made popular the irredentist view by picturing Thailand as having its territory snatched away just as a poor man might lose a beautiful wife, and sensational reports of Buddhist temples in Indochina being desecrated were accepted without questioning.

Already the Yuwachon had become very useful in gaining support for the regime. At its annual parade on October 5, Prayoon justified the Thai demands in a speech addressed to the 10,000 people present. He also echoed Wichit's racial theory and urged the people to join the struggle. His audience responded enthusiastically by chanting patriotic songs, many of which were composed by Wichit.

A march led by the Yuwanari demanding the return of the lost territories, 1940.

Irredentist agitation spread like wildfire throughout the schools and colleges of Bangkok. Marches suddenly became a feature of daily life in the capital as an unprecedented wave of popular enthusiasm gripped everyone from schoolchildren to transport workers. Cyclo drivers and stevedores soon followed the example of the Yuwachon, joining the demonstrations to demand the return of the territories. Even Thammasat University students participated in a determined attempt to outshine their rivals at Chulalongkorn, to the dismay of Pridi, who viewed the prevalent attitude as nothing but short-sighted opportunism. All these marches led to one final destination: the Ministry of Defence, where Phibun appeared personally to greet them and express his gratitude for the support his government and policies have been receiving.

The demonstrations were not restricted to Bangkok, however. Officials travelled upcountry and convoked mass meetings in rural areas. When the French-Thai War began, Thai Blood organised a rally to voice wholehearted support for the armed forces. A boycott of all French nationals and merchandise was proclaimed, and groups of self-styled patriots similar to Thai Blood vowed to knife anyone violating the ban.

The Roman Catholic Church bore the brunt of the anti-French campaign, and the bishop of the diocese of Thailand, who was French, was repeatedly subjected to personal attacks by Bangkok newspapers despite his public appeals for Vichy to acceed to the Thai demands. A church was forced to close down, while the Annamese living in Bangkok were suspected of being fifth columnists.

While dreams of a Greater Siam were quickly shattered by the worsening war situation following the signing of the Thai-Japanese Alliance, it was only after the fall of Phibun in 1944 that the twelve cultural mandates were finally abolished. Nevertheless, the many social trends dictated by him remain in use today, most notably the compulsory act of saluting the national anthem twice a day.

Sources From Siam To Thailand Charnvit Kasetsiri Siam Becomes Thailand Judith A. Stowe Thailand's Political History Barend Jan Terwiel
© 2004-2006 P. Klykoom
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