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Phra Sarasas: Rebel with Many Causes

  • Benjamin A. Batson (a1)


Phra Sarasas, author of My Country Thailand, a historical work critical of the Thai monarchy, claimed to have shaped the 1932 overthrow of the absolute monarchy in Siam. He became Minister of Economic Affairs briefly in 1937, and promoted the pro-Japanese cause in Thailand with sufficient enthusiasm to be accused of war crimes after the Japanese surrender, but escaped prosecution when the Thai Supreme Court ruled that the War Crimes Act was illegal. His limited political career never matched his aspirations and Phra Sarasas remained a marginal figure, but his life and work nevertheless throw an interesting light on events during this formative period of modern Thai history.



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1 Hence, as will be indicated below, the subtitle “Rebel with Many Causes”; the reference of course is to the classic James Dean film of the 1950s, “Rebel without a Cause”.

2 There appears to be no biography of Phra Sarasas in Thai, English, French, or Japanese, although scattered passing references to him can be found in all of these languages — e.g., for one period of his life, Iwaki Seiji's semi-journalistic Menamu no higashi [East of the Menam] (Tokyo: Daini-shobo, 1957).

3 Until 1940, the official Thai New Year fell on 1 April. The 1889/90 date (B.E. 2432) is taken from Mektrairat, Nakharin, Kanpatiwat Sayam Ph.S. 2475 [The 1932 Thai Coup] (Bangkok: Foundation for Social Science and Humanities Texts, 1992), p. 319.

4 Confusion arising from the complexity of the Thai official system was further compounded by the fact that in the 1930s (when titles awarded under the absolute monarchy continued to be used, until temporarily abandoned during Phibun's ultra-nationalist phase), there were two “Phra Sarasas's” active in politics; for a few months in 1934 the two were simultaneously members of the cabinet. The “Phra Sarasas” discussed here was in fuller form “Phra Sarasas Phonlakhan”, who served as Minister of Economic Affairs, while “Phra Sarasas Praphan” was Minister of Education.

5 Information contained in a letter of 8 Jun. 1943 from the Minister of Defence to the Cabinet Secretary (see below), included in the file National Archives (Bangkok), SR. [Office of the Prime Minister] 0201.8/85. The author is much indebted to Professor Nakharin Mektrairat of Thammasat University for kindly providing copies of 1938–48 official correspondence pertaining to Phra Sarasas found in this file.

6 Sarasas, Phra, My Country Thailand (1st edition; Tokyo: Maruzen, 1942), p. 223.

7 National Archives (Bangkok), SR. 0201.8/85, Minister of Defence to Cabinet Secretary, 8 June 1943. The same document notes that while serving in the Ministry of Defence, Phra Sarasas was awarded official decorations in 1909, 1910, 1915, and 1916.

8 Ibid. The 1927 sweepstakes date is taken from Stowe, Judith A., Siam becomes Thailand (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991), p. 374.

9 Phra Sarasas, My Country Thailand, 1st ed., p. 219.

10 The use of pen names, often a series of digits in Arabic or Thai numerals, was common in the Thai press at this time. “555” in Thai pronunciation is haa haa haa, “Phra Sarasas, My Country Thailand, 1st ed., p. 226.

12 Borisut, Manoon, Ruang khana ratthamontri [The Cabinet] (Bangkok: Prime Minister's Office, 1965), pp. 122–26.

13 Thompson, Virginia, Thailand: The New Siam (New York: Paragon, 1957, reprint of 1941 edition), p. 83; Stowe, Siam becomes Thailand, p. 72.

14 The teacher-student relationship was referred to by Phibun himself in a Jan. 1942 conversation with Japanese Ambassador Tsubokami Teiji, at the time of Phra Sarasas’ brief return to Bangkok (see below). Phibun's comments are reported in Tsubokami to Tokyo, 16 Jan. 1942, A700 9–63, Japan Foreign Ministry Archives (Tokyo). [Reference and translation kindly provided by Professor E. Bruce Reynolds, San Jose State University, California.] Phibun began his military studies in Bangkok in 1909, at the age of 12, graduating in 1915 at the age of 18 (and after a period of active service furthered his studies both in Bangkok and in France); Suwannathat-Pian, Kobkua, Thailand's Durable Premier: Phibun through Three Decades 1932–1957 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 12.

15 Mektrairat, Nakharin, Khwamkhit khwamru lae amnat kanmuang nai kanpatiwat Sayam 2475 [Thought, Knowledge, and Political Power in the Thai Coup of 1932] (Bangkok: Social Science Association of Thailand, 1990), p. 204, citing the memoirs of Prayun Phamonmontri, a Phibun confidant and anti-Pridi source not always completely reliable.

16 Chaloemtiarana, Thak (ed.), Thai Politics: Extracts and Documents 1932–1957 (Bangkok: Social Science Association of Thailand, 1978), p. 385. Pridi went on to say that after the 1932 coup, “it was decided to reorganize the [administrative] system. At that time [Phra Sarasas] was doing research on economics and should be able to help the country. We decided to call him back.”

17 Thompson, Thailand: The New Siam, pp. 616–17. No names are mentioned in this passage, but the timing and description could only apply to Phra Sarasas.

18 Sunthari Asawai, “Phra Sarasas Phonlakhan kab tamra setthasat wa duai setthakit kankha” [Phra Sarasas and the “Economics of Commerce” text], Chulasan Thai Khadi sylcsa [Thai Khadi Research Institute Bulletin], Aug. 1991, pp. 8–10; Nakharin Mektrairat, Khwamkhit khwamru, ch. 8, esp. p. 204.

19 The vote rejecting the treaty was 73 to 25. For details concerning the episode and the subsequent government reshuffle, see Bangkok Times, 14 to 28 Sep. 1934; Manoon, Ruang khana ratthamontri, pp. 126–28.

20 In later testimony, Pridi said that he had thought that Phra Sarasas intended to go with him only as far as Nakhon Pathom (on the railway line about 50 kilometres west of Bangkok) but that Phra Sarasas went on with him to Singapore where “he informed me that he could not stay in Thailand. He felt he would be harmed since he was against dictatorship....” Thak (ed.), Thai Politics, pp. 385–86.

21 Flood, E. Thadeus, “Japan's Relations with Thailand: 1928–41” (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1967), p. 124.

22 Ibid., pp. 124–25, ns. 49, 50; Sarasas, Phra, Money and Banking in Japan (London: Heath Cranton, 1940), pp. 5, 9, 12. The text of Money and Banking runs to 305 pages, followed by nearly 250 pages of appendices.

23 Sunthari, “Phra Sarasas Phonlakhan kab tamra...”, pp. 8–10, which quotes some excerpts from the introduction (dated Tokyo, 14 Jul. 1937) in which Phra Sarasas outlined his reasons and objectives in publishing the text.

24 National Archives (Bangkok), SR. 0201.8/85. In his letter to the police chief, Phra Sarasas pointed out that although he had not been one of the “Promoters” of the 1932 coup, he had advocated a constitutional system “before anyone else” and as a result had suffered under the old regime. A brief note in the same file indicates that earlier, in October, Phra Sarasas had submitted economic proposals to the government, but no details or correspondence are included.

25 Ibid. In the complimentary closing of the draft reply, in the Thai equivalent of “With highest regards”, the word “highest” has been conspicuously crossed out.

26 For some details regarding accusations of Phra Sarasas’ alleged involvement in political intrigues at this time see Suwannathat-Pian, Kobkua, Nayobai tangprathet khong ratthaban Phibunsongkhram Ph.S. 2481–2487 [Foreign Policy of the Phibun Government, 1938–1944] (Bangkok: Thai Khadi Research Institute, Thammasat University, 1989), pp. 1213, 75–76 n.16; and the same author's Thailand's Durable Premier, p. 183.

27 Sarasas, Phra, Whom the Gods Deny (London: Heath Cranton, 1940).

28 Sarasas, Phra, My Country Thailand (1st ed., Tokyo: Maruzen, 1942), pp. 219–35; the quotation is from Claude Sarasas' introductory note on p. 219. The first edition of this work is apparently rare; there is a copy in the library of The Australian National University.

29 Sarasas, Phra, My Country Thailand (2nd ed., Bangkok: Chatra Press, 1950; 6th ed., Bangkok: Golden Service Co., 1960).

30 Presumably this is the same as the “Mitsui-Thai Room” mentioned as a “research organization” in Swan, William L., “Japanese Economic Relations with Siam: Aspects of Their Historical Development” (Ph.D. diss., Australian National University, 1986), p. 90.

31 Perhaps his leading “invisible” counterpart was Wanit Pananon, a confidant of Phibun and go-between in various secret dealings between Phibun and the Japanese. On Wanit, see Batson, Benjamin A. and Hajime, Shimizu, “The Tragedy of Wanit”: A Japanese Account of Wartime Thai Politics (Singapore: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Special Publications Series No. 1, 1990), and also the short “Prawat” [Life] of Wanit published on the occasion of his “second” cremation as a preface to a reprinting of Part 39 of the Collected Chronicles series (Bangkok, 1947). The latter provides considerable information on Wanit's youth, his education, and his business career, but is virtually silent on his political activities, his relations with Phibun and the Japanese, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death in 1944. (This document was kindly brought to the writer's attention by Murashima Eiji; a copy may be found in the National Library, Bangkok.)

32 Phra Sarasas' eldest son, Captain Somwang Sarasas, also had close relations with the Japanese in this period, particularly in the field of economic cooperation. Information regarding a mission undertaken by the younger Sarasas to inspect industrial facilities in Japan, Manchukuo (a segment of the trip which was ultimately cancelled), and Japanese-controlled areas of China is contained in Japanese diplomatic despatches of September to December 1944 found in United States National Archives, Record Group 457 (”Message Intercept Translations”; hereafter RG 457, USNA) [reference and texts kindly provided by Professor E. Bruce Reynolds].

33 Reynolds, E. Bruce, Thailand and Japan's Southern Advance, 1940–1945 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), p. 67. This effort seems to have had only limited success; ironically two of the paper's columnists who were most critical of the Phibun policies and, indirectly, the Japanese, were Phra Sarasas' eldest daughter, Ngarmchit, and her husband H.H. Prince Prem Purachatra. Translations of a number of Japanese Bangkok-Tokyo diplomatic exchanges of this period regarding Japanese efforts to use Phra Sarasas to gain control of the Chronicle are to be found in RG 457, USNA.

34 Correspondence, with handwritten margin notes by Phibun, in National Archives (Bangkok), SR. 0201.8/85. Japanese accounts of the controversial broadcasts are contained in Tokyo to Bangkok, 8 Apr. 1943, SRDJ 33998, Tsubokami to Tokyo, 2 Jun. 1943, SRDJ 37949-A, and Tokyo to Bangkok, 9 Jun. 1943, SRDJ 38492, RG 457, USNA. Tokyo expressed fears that Phra Sarasas' highlighting of strains in the “alliance” could “be utilized by the enemy to create a split between Thailand and Japan”, and ordered that future broadcasts be limited to discussions of “Japanese history, geography, and culture” (quotations from 9 June despatch).

35 Bangkok Times, 29 Dec. 1941; Stowe, Siam becomes Thailand, pp. 228, 253 n. 42; Reynolds, Thailand and Japan's Southern Advance, pp. 188–89, 285 n.72 (which indicates that in early 1942 Phra Sarasas was receiving 1000 baht per month from the Japanese government); Pridi's 1946 testimony in Thak (ed.), Thai Politics, pp. 379–81, where Pridi however claimed that it was on his initiative that Phra Sarasas visited Bangkok, where Pridi sounded him out with the hope (unrealised) that he might be persuaded to join the anti-Japanese faction. Pridi's testimony, as recorded here (esp. pp. 379–80) confuses and conflates events from 1941–42 and 1944.

Stowe describes Phra Sarasas as “[the] head of the Thai-Japanese propaganda unit in Tokyo”; the phrase “agreed to disagree” was used in reference to Phra Sarasas and the war by his son-in-law Prince Prem Purachatra, scholar, writer, publisher, diplomat, and (together with his wife) activist in propaganda work for the underground Allied cause in Bangkok.

36 Translations of despatches Bangkok-Tokyo, Dec. 1941 to Feb. 1942, RG 457, USNA; Tsubokami to Tokyo, 16 and 19 Jan. 1942, A700 9–63, Japan Foreign Ministry Archives (Tokyo).

37 Bangkok Chronicle, 12 Jan. 1942.

38 For elaboration on these complex events, see Reynolds, Thailand and Japan's Southern Advance, ch. 7, “The Downfall of Phibun”; Batson, Benjamin A., “The Fall of the Phibun Government, 1944”, Journal of the Siam Society 62, pt. 2 (Jul. 1974): 89120. Former Kempeitai officer Horii Ryoji, in an interview with E. Bruce Reynolds (11 Jul. 1989), indicated, in the words of the latter, that at the time of the change in government Phra Sarasas' son, Captain Somwang Sarasas, “had organized an anti-Phibun party of young [Thai] military officers who manoeuvred against Phibun in collaboration with the Kempeitai.”

39 Thak (ed.), Thai Politics, pp. 380, 388, 401–02.

40 Stowe, Judith A., “Japan's Relations with Thailand in 1945”, in 1945 in South-East Asia (Part One) (London: London School of Economics and Political Science, 1985), p. 31; Stowe, Siam becomes Thailand, pp. 314–15.

41 In a press conference for Thai reporters on 7 April, Phra Sarasas praised newly appointed Japanese prime minister Suzuki Kantaro and the resoluteness of the Japanese people, warned against the “insidious effect of wild rumours”, and blamed the recent Japanese takeover of the administration in Indochina on the situation created by the French. Bangkok to Tokyo, 10 Apr. 1945, SRDJ 97581, RG 457, USNA.

42 For detailed discussion of these events, see Numnonda, Thamsook, “Atchakorn songkhram Ph.S. 2488” [The 1945 War Criminals], pp. 5980 in Kanmuang lae kantangprathet naiprawattisat Thai [Politics and Foreign Affairs in Thai History] (Bangkok: Thai Wattana Panich, 1981).

43 Pridi's testimony translated in Thak (ed.), Thai Politics, pp. 370–404, quotation from p. 382.

44 The text of the Supreme Court decision nullifying the War Crimes Act and ordering that Phra Sarasas be freed is given in the biography of Phibun by his eldest son, Phibunsongkhram, Anan, Chomphon P. Phibunsongkhram [Field Marshal P. Phibunsongkhram], vol. 4 (Bangkok: Sun kanphim, 1976), pp. 590601.

45 Phra Sarasas to “Field Marshal and Prime Minister” [Phibun], on “Commerce College” letterhead, 8 Jun. 1948, 5 pp., in National Archives (Bangkok), SR. 0201.8/85.

46 Phibun letter of 22 Jun. 1948 in Ibid. Unlike in the 1939 case of the Cabinet Secretary mentioned previously, Phibun closed with the Thai equivalent of the full “With highest regards”.

47 Phra Sarasas, My Country Thailand, 2nd ed., 1950; 6th ed., 1960.

48 Sarasas, Phra, Outlaws against Outlawries, 2 vols. (Bangkok: Chatra Press, 1960). Chatra Press was owned by Prince Prem Purachatra, Phra Sarasas' son-in-law.

49 Interview with Captain Somwang Sarasas (eldest son of Phra Sarasas), Bangkok, September 1984; Captain Somwang was a participant in the 1957 Sarit coup which resulted in Phibun's ouster and exile, ultimately to Japan where he died in 1964. The 1966 date (B.E. 2509) is taken from Nakharin, Kanpatiwat Sayam, p. 319.

50 Phra Sarasas, My Country Thailand, 6th ed., pp. 66, 75, 98.

51 Ibid., p. 93.

52 Ibid., p. 130.

53 Prince Mahidol, theoretically at least a potential heir to the throne, had died at a relatively young age in 1929, leaving behind his widow (the future Princess Mother) and a young daughter and two infant sons. Prince Mahidol, a medical doctor by training, had spent many years studying i n the United States, and was credited with (or criticised for) espousing what in most Bangkok royalist circles were seen as radically liberal concepts of democracy and constitutionalism.

54 Ibid., p. 158.

55 Ibid., p. 159.

56 Ibid., p. 164. While these are arguably plausible comments for the time when Phra Sarasas was writing, the role of the monarchy would undergo significant modifications in the decades to come.

57 Ibid., Preface and pp. 161–64; as noted above, Captain Somwang Sarasas had, according to his own account, been a participant in the 1957 Sarit coup (in addition to his alleged involvement i n the 1944 overthrow of Phibun; see n. 39 above).

58 Ibid., pp. 75, 65.

59 Ibid., p. 133.

60 Sunthari, “Phra Sarasas Phonlakhan kab tamra setthasat”, p. 10.

Phra Sarasas: Rebel with Many Causes

  • Benjamin A. Batson (a1)


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