In contingent with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the last month of 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Southern Thailand from Malaysia, calling for free passage into the country. Phibun Songkhram, both Commander and Chief of the Royal Thai Army and the Prime Minister at the time, allowed Japanese entry, vowing to maintain Thai independence in lieu of Japan's colonial activities enacted against neighboring Southeast Asian countries. As Japanese troops within the country and demands to utilize Thai facilities and resources increased, Thailand was now fully engulfed by the war. By January 1942, Bangkok declared war on Great Britain and the United States.
On the opposite side of the globe, Thai students studying in the United States were facing a predicament; their country had declared an alliance with an Axis power and they were studying within the confines of a now declared, Allied nation. Thailand’s Ambassador in Washington, M.R. Seni Pramoj, refused the Thai-Japanese alliance. While his colleague in Britain announced Thailand’s declaration of war, Seni Pramoj refused to deliver the declaration to the U.S. government. In response, the U.S. also refrained from declaring war against Thailand.
Through Seni Pramaoj’s leadership, a coalition of overseas Thai was built that would support the Allied war efforts. Thai university students studying in MIT, Harvard, and Cornell were recruited to work with Gen. William Donovan’s United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency that was a predecessor to the CIA. The Free Thai Movement was thus born.
War Time Operatives:
Although the Seri Thai Movement’s activities were mostly done underground, over 50,000 Thai Volunteers underwent excruciating training and dangerous missions and treks to collect and report finding to supporters in China and other areas of Indochina. While some made it back to their designated bases to report on the Japanese Army’s location, others were either captured, killed, or disappeared. Ironically, Thai nationals were walking on thin ice in their own homeland.
The movement’s main base of operations was in Phrae Province, under the jurisdiction of Pridi Panomyong and Thong Kantatham. Pridi, the Regent of Thailand and founder of Thammasat University, was already well known in Thai politics for his involvement with the Siamese Revolution of 1932 which changed the system of government from that of an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Both men led and launched Operation Hotfoot and Operation Numeral, parachuting operations that helped deploy weapons, supplies, and medicine to supporting troop members. The lives of Thai volunteers were constantly endangered, having to navigate around Allied bombing campaigns, rescuing fallen foreign soldiers, avoiding Japanese detection, all while broadcasting findings and weather reports to partners in the U.S.
Fnally, on October 5, 1944, the OSS Detachment in Szemao, China, received an important radio message from Free Thai agents in a safehouse based in Bangkok, allowing Allied forces to be dispatched in strategic locations within the country via submarine, airdrop, or seaplane. By 1945, the war was over in Thailand. Seri Thai not only became a crucial source of military intelligence for Allies hoping to win back the Southeast Asian region, but paved the way for the country’s post-war independence a few years to come.
Due to the contributions of the many volunteers within the Free Thai Movement, the U.S. refrained from prosecuting Thailand as an enemy country in post-war tribunals and peace negotiations. On September 2, 1945, many Seri Thai members received the Medal of Freedom from the U.S. government including: Air Chief Marshall Tavee Julasup, Major General Boonmark Tesabutr, Commander Vimol Viriyavidh, Mr. Piset Pattaphongs, M.C. Yuthisatien Sawadivatana, M.L. Ekachai Kumpoo, Mr. Anond Srivardhana, Dr. Sala Tsanond, Air Marshal Sith Savetsila, Mr. Umnuay Poonpipatana, Mr. Udomsak Pasavanij, Mr. Kusa Punyarchun, and Mr. Somjit Yos-sunthorn.
Various monuments and local attractions were installed to celebrate Seri Thai’s achievements throughout the war. The Free Thai Movement Museum (พิพิธภัณฑ์เสรีไทย) is located on Yantarkitkosol Road, Phrae, Thailand, purposefully as a dedication to the town’s importance as the base of operations for the Seri Thai Movement. The museum highlights military maneuvers and covert operations conducted by both Thais and U.S. soldiers alike. The museum is privately financed by Puchong Kanthatham, son of Thong Kanthatham, the leader of the Free Thai movement in Phrae.
Another attraction includes the Seri Thai Cave located in the province of Sakhon Nakon. The attraction includes the statue of Tiang Sirikhanth, the founder of the Free Thai within the province. The cave is dedicated to the farmers and villagers that sacrificed their lives to swift undergo military training to combat Japanese forces.
More recently in 2017, the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand and his Thailand staff members visited Phrae to learn about growing vocational opportunities as well as to pay respects and celebrate U.S.-Thai relations during the war. While it has been about 74 years since the end of the war, undoubtedly, the continuous bond built between the two nations are growing stronger than ever.
The Thai Resistance Movement During The Second World War, John B. Haseman, Chalermnit Press, Bangkok.