Gabriel Ernst

In the 1930s, Thailand began a project of mass homogeneity based on western Euro-Fascism. This project was refined by the monarchy in the 1950s, leading to a reactionary consensus lasting a half-century. However, many elements in the recent protest movement, so far, fail to recognise their own deep-seated Euro-fascist tendencies when challenging the contemporary Thai state.

In 1938, European style fascism bloomed in Thailand. The dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) had risen to power. It was on this wave of supposed modernisation, that Phibun spent the next six years reshaping Thailand in his image. Phibun had been educated at a military academy in France, where he was a great admirer of the new fascist powers emerging in Europe. He was particularly fond of Mussolini and supposedly kept a portrait of the Italian fascist leader on his desk when governing Thailand.

Phibun was born in central Siam in 1897 to a farm owning family, he enrolled in the military officer’s academy, and after graduation was sent to France to study artillery tactics. During his time in post-WWI Europe, fascism was seen as a ‘progressive’ force, one that would modernise and strengthen countries, removing the old feudal order and creating a homogeneous ethnonationalist culture with authoritarian top-down rule. It was around this time that Ataturk in Turkey and Mussolini in Italy were at the peak of their respectability. It was this idea and these idols that endeared a young Phibun.

The Thailand (then named Siam) that he returned to in the late ’20s was a far cry from his imagined republican fascistic utopia. The country, which had escaped the ravages of colonisation by western powers, was extremely diverse, wild in parts, due largely to the geographic conditions which made governing large swathes of the land near impossible, particularly the lowlands in the rainy season and the highlands all year round. 

However, European colonisation had a large impact on the shape of the country’s borders, due to French colonies to the east and British colonies to the west and south. Siam did not define its own borders, rather they were imposed on them by colonial powers, and whatever populations ended up landing in those borders, despite escaping European rule, would have the Siamese state to contend with.

After narrowly escaping colonisation the Siamese feudal system had undergone huge liberal reforms decades earlier, there had been efforts at modernisation, in the hopes of keeping up with the western powers that surrounded it. However the state was relatively weak and was yet to undergo any major industrialisation, a huge majority of the population lived rurally and it still took weeks, sometimes even months, to reach some of the fringes of the kingdom from the capital Bangkok.

This allowed many localised communities and ethnic or regional identities to exist across the country without much interference from the state. However, these freedoms of expression or local governance practices were not given benevolently, rather they existed due to the state’s incapability to interfere and the lack of an aggressively homogeneous-nationalist ideological structure at the time. 

This made Siam an incredibly diverse country, with a huge array of localised languages, cultures, practices and governing institutions. Today these diversities still very much remain, there are still around 60 indigenous languages spoken in Thailand and an uncountable number of dialects, historically there were likely far more.

Joining a clique of like-minded military officers who allied with progressives from the civil society, known as Khana Ratsadon (The People’s Party), Phibhun took part in the 1932 coup, which ousted the monarchy, allowing the institution to essentially remain in name only. After six chaotic years, where the progressive factions were essentially banished, Phibhun finally rose to become the de-facto dictator of Siam in 1938, renaming the nation Thailand the next year, in a clear display of his ethnonationalist intent.

Brass plaque placed to commemorate the 1932 coup

During Phibun’s tenure, there were many other hallmarks of fascist regimes. He declared his birthday to be a national holiday, and later extended the same decree to his wife and child. These holidays were typically militaristic, with military parades in the larger cities. He also strongly encouraged everyday people to hang his portrait in their homes. This is ironically the same practise established and continued by Thai monarchs. A militaristic youth wing was also founded, not unlike the Hitler Youth. Generally Phibun was attempting to build a cult of personality, much like his fascist compatriots in Europe. This also included seizing and heavily monitoring media and the cultural sphere.

Phibun era propaganda poster

Thai’ification

Phibuns program of Thai’ification or The Thai Cultural Revolution, was an attempt to codify and enforce what he perceived Thai’ness to be. His definition of Thai’ness would draw entirely from central Thailand, with an emphasis on the Bangkok military elites’ culture, which for decades had been heavily influenced by the west. 

12 enforced cultural mandates were issued, these included a western-style dress code, a standardized Thai language, a banning of declaring regional identity and even codifying how many hours sleep one should have. These mandates, despite their at times bizarre nature, were genuinely enforced whenever possible. The aim was to create a clear, well defined, definition of Thainess and spread it to every corner of the nation.

This, of course, led to the mass decline of regional identities, particularly among Buddhists in the central plains, while many Muslims, particularly the ethnic Jawi-Malay in the deep south, suffered at the hands of the new policies. Madrasas were forced to close and Muslims were banned from wearing Islamic attire. The Jawi community would later form an armed rebellion against the state, which is ongoing to this day. 

The effects of these mandates were also strongly felt in Isaan. This vast Northeastern region of Thailand was populated mostly by Lao people, the descents of a mass forced population transfer a century earlier. Isaan people were, and still are, yet to fully assimilate into the state, as well as a sizable Vietnamese minority population in the area. To this day Isaan is the poorest area of the country and known for its distinct local culture, its restive populace and its distaste for Bangkok governance.

Isaan dress pre-Thaification

The purpose of such assimilation policies was not purely cultural, the program intended to make use of subjects who, prior to assimilation, were not adequately benefiting the imperial core. By capturing them and integrating them into Thai society they were put to use for state-building, conscription and taxation, growing the imperial core.

However, during this period, despite attempts at industrialisation, the same geographic conditions still existed in many areas, with huge populations living almost entirely untouched by the state, particularly the ethnic minority ‘mountain people’ living in the hills around the borderlands. These include The Karen, Lisu, Akha and Hmong—  just to name some of the larger groups. These groups are all completely distinct from Thai people, speaking their own language and practicing their own culture, religion and social institutions.

Expansionism & War

In 1940, Phibun saw an opportunity to flex his fascistic muscles in classic form with an expansionist war. During border treaty negotiations under the previous Siamese feudal regime the Kingdom had ceded land to French Indochina in what is today Laos and Cambodia and when mainland France fell to the Axis powers in WWII, Phibun decided to invade the territories and reclaim them for Thailand. 

This kind of expansionism through war was a hallmark of Phibun’s fascistic counterparts in Europe, particularly Nazi Germany. He was likely inspired by their aggressive actions to carry out his own hostile expansionism. Indeed, Phibun described Hitler and the Nazi Party as “intellectual allies”.

The war itself was widely popular in Bangkok, with Thai forces initially making huge gains against a weakened French colonial force, that had been cut off from its imperial core since the Nazi invasion. 

However, Imperial Japan, which had been rapidly expanding westwards into Indochina intervened, pressuring the two sides to sign an armistice which weighed heavily in Thailand’s favour, setting the stage for the (nearly) bloodless Japanese invasion of Thailand which would take place later that year, resulting with Thailand joining the Axis powers as an ally.

After the armistice with France, Phibun declared victory and constructed the Victory Monument roundabout in central Bangkok, in the style of classic fascist architecture. To this day the monument is an important site in Bangkok. 

Thailand’s alliance with the imperial Japanese allowed Phibun to remain in power during the Japanese occupation. However, towards the end of the war, Phibun was ousted by military men who were secretly loyal to the Allies, as they saw the tide was turning in the war. 

Due to US pressure, post-war, the nation was not considered to be an Axis ally by the west, this was because the west saw Thailand as a useful ally against rising communist sentiment in Southeast Asia.

Return of the King

Phibhun’s regime had spent its time in power trying to malign the royal family, both those abroad (which included the king) and those remaining in Thailand, many of whom were imprisoned. He slashed the royal budget and promoted a Buddhist theology that overlooked the spiritual role of the monarch, which had of course been a staple of the previously feudal society.

On the other side of the world, however, in central Europe, a plan was underway to wrestle the nation out of the clutches of the republicans. After a decade on the fringes of Thai politics, the monarchy was formulating a plan to reassert its control over the still-kingdom from de-facto exile in Europe. Post Phibun they saw an opportunity, when a number of prominent royals were released from prison and King Ananda, just 20 years old, and his younger brother Prince Bhumibol, returned to Bangkok to a royal palace which now stood in the shadows of the militaristic fascist state.

The turbulent post-WWII years saw shrewd manoeuvring by the royal household. In 1946 the progressive democrat Pridi Banomyong took office. Pridi sought to assert his control over the country by cosying up to the newly returned young royals.

During this brief period, efforts by the royal household, particularly those of Prince Rangsit, were greatly successful in promoting the monarchy and the young King was widely popular. The royalists were able to successfully synthesise Phibun’s Thai nationalism with adoration to the royal family, particularly through religious clout, intrinsically linking the monarchy to ‘Thai’ness’. 

However, just four months into Pridi’s tenure, King Ananda was dead. He supposedly shot himself at home while playing with a pistol (though many conspiracies surrounding the death remain to this day). With rumours abound in Bangkok, Pridi ultimately took the blame for the king’s death, resigning shortly after, while Prince Bhumibol was crowned King.

In November of 1947, another coup led to Phibun regaining his premiership. However, this tenure would be markedly different to the last, as he now had the monarchy to contend with. Phibun was never able to assert full control of the Kingdom, as he had to walk a fine line between appeasing the newly empowered monarchy and his republican former allies. This led to a number of attempted coups, including a dramatic hostage-taking, where Phibun was captured on a warship by mutinying Thai navy officers, resulting in him having to swim back to land to escape.

The Bhumibol Consensus and Royal Realism

Phibuns second tenure, which lasted a decade, saw numerous power plays and realpolitik maneuvers by both the civil government, the military and the royal household. Publicly these efforts were focused around Thai’ness and who supposedly best represented ‘The Thai People’.

Ultimately though the monarchy came out on top when an ardent royalist general, Sarit Thanarat, ousted Phibun in a coup in 1957, setting the stage for this new blend of Thai nationalism, which placed upholding the monarchy as an elemental ingredient of Thai’ness, with King Bhumibol as the head of state.

This is the beginning of what has been dubbed ‘The Bhumibol Consensus’ era, wherein any republican sentiments were considered heresy and ‘anti-Thai’. Old Les Majeste laws, which forbid any insult to the monarchy, began to be utilised against political dissidents and the royal household started a huge public relations push, initially targeting Thai subjects, but gradually focussing on those remote minority groups who had been living on the fringes of the imperial core for centuries. 

The Bhumibol Consensus era lasted right until the king’s death in 2016. During his 60 year tenure, there were never any real challengers to Bhumibol’s authority and at no point was the monarch at all threatened in any real way.

We’ve previously written extensively on this phenomenon in Royalist Realism & Les Majeste.

During this era, despite the change in leadership, the Thai imperial core continued its process of expansion and Thai’ification, only with the face of King Bhumibol as the figurehead. To put it bluntly, regarding policy, there was not a whole lot of difference between Phibun and the newly empowered monarchy. Both were militaristic, expansionist, nationalists who enforced central Thai hegemony. The 12 cultural mandates policy was even explicitly revived in name with the ‘Thai Niyom’ policies of 2018, after the death of King Bhumibol, now called the 12 Core Values. 

The New Era

While there are many groups, mentioned earlier, that have been hostile to the state for centuries, in recent years there has been an increase in resistance from within the imperial core. Since the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, there has been a growing hostility towards the Thai state among Thai people, particularly the younger generations. 

Pro-democracy/republican leaning protests have ignited in the past year and many of those taking part in the movement are finally rejecting Thai’ness as defined in the Bhumibol consensus era. Indeed royalists often accuse the protestors of “Not being Thai”. 

Many have already been jailed for Lese Majeste and for organising the protest movement, the aim of which is to reign in the power of the monarchy and the overtly militaristic state, and bring a semblance of democracy to the country.

Notably one of the largest factions of the current protest movement has named itself Khana Ratsadon (The People’s Party) in reference to the group that initially overthrew the monarchy in 1932, of which Phibun was a key member and later leader. 

This goes to show that even within the supposedly progressive protest movement, it still harbours elements of deeply reactionary and even fascistic tendencies. Indeed, rather than challenging these pathologies, they’ve been quietly embraced by the overt worship of Phibun. One popular Twitter hashtag even read “We are the children of Phibun”. Certain factions in the movement would rather look backwards, adoringly, to a time where reactionary fascism was rampant and unchallenged in the kingdom, simply because it reinforces their republican agenda, rather than attempting to forge a new progressive path forward.  

Brass plaque placed to commemorate the 2020 protest movement

The roots of Eurofascism run deep in Thailand. For decades it was disguised by its Thai characteristics of Theravada Buddhism and adoration of the monarchy, but these foundations still very much remain in the kingdom, from their origins in 1920’s Europe to Thailand a century later, be they royalist of republican.