Thailand often joins a small list of ‘third world’ or ‘global south’ countries, along with Ethiopia and Afghanistan, that escaped the horrors of European colonisation. However, as with the aforementioned states, the claim is somewhat dubious. In reality, Siam was ‘all but’ colonised starting in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century. While the former refers to the British Empire the latter refers to its successor, the United States of America, which in the mid-1900s essentially ran the kingdom as a de-facto vassal state for decades.
The ‘Colonial Era’
The predominant narrative in Thailand is that throughout the 19th century, several monarchs employed artful diplomacy and embraced western traditions to apparently charm the Europeans into accepting Siam’s sovereignty. While internationally, it is widely understood that Siam was merely a buffer zone between French Indo-China and the British Raj/ Malay territories. These two major colonial powers were keen to avoid conflict between them in their colonial holdings and as such permitted Siam its sovereignty as a buffer state.
In the early Thai Marxist tradition of the 1950s Thailand was famously described as a “semi-colonial” state, in reference to the Berney Treaty (1826) and the Bowring Treaty (1855), both of which were signed under coercion. These treaties granted huge concessions to the British, allowing them to ‘all but’ colonise the Kingdom’s ports, essentially monopolising trade, while beginning the shift from a feudal to a capitalist economy. The treaty also gave extraterritoriality to all Britons, exempting them from prosecution under Siamese law, akin to the Unequal Treaty signed by the Qing Dynasty after the opium wars. Indeed, gunboat diplomacy was integral in the Bowering Treaties signing, after the British threatened to send their navy into Bangkok. Siam, however, was able to retain technical sovereignty, hence the term semi-colonial.
The treaties remained in place until the anti-monarchy Kanatratsadorn Party enacted a coup of the monarchy in 1932, changing the name from Siam to Thailand, and leading to Field Marshal Phibun’s rise to power. Phibun, an ardent fascist and economic nationalist, scrapped the treaty at the onset of WWII. However, it wasn’t long until The Imperial Japanese Army took Thailand as an occupied state from 1941 to 1945 and Thailand declared war on the allies.
Post-war, as the British Empire began to crumble, new designs were being laid for Thailand. As US President Truman took a hostile stance towards “communist aggression” worldwide, Thailand was seen as an integral ally in the battle against communism. Despite the intense power struggle internally in Bangkok, all sides were ultimately loyal to the western agenda headed by the USA. As such from 1950-55 Thailand deployed over 11,000 troops to fight in the Korean peninsula, a significant chunk of its armed forces. Internally, Thailand was very much open for business as western companies began registering and operating, ‘developing’ the economy, including Civil Air Transport, later named Air America, the CIA front company which began operating in Thailand in 1951 and would continue doing so until 1976.
It wasn’t until 1957 however, that Sarit Thanarat, a staunch Thai royalist, US loyalist and anti-communist undertook a coup and set the kingdom on course for decades of military rule at the behest of the USA. Sarit’s government immediately began arresting and executing suspected communists and opening the door for the US military.
US Aggression in SEA
Geographically, the kingdom was perfectly positioned to host the US in its aggression against North Vietnam as well as against insurgent movements in Cambodia, Laos and domestically within Thailand. Under Sarit, the US military began intensely training and arming the Thai military embedding a culture of loyalty to their foreign patrons within it, while geopolitically Thailand’s foreign policy kept in lockstep with NATO.
After Sarit’s sudden death in 1962, he was replaced by Thanom Kittikachorn, an equally reprehensible military dictator. Ironically the US, while stressing the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union, didn’t even pay lip service to notions of Thai democracy— insisting that the Thai’s preferred to have an unelected strongman leader to defend their beloved monarchy. During this period Thailand hosted 7 US air force bases and around 50,000 soldiers. Over 1.5 billion dollars of economic, and more importantly, military aid was poured into the country to ensure the stability of the reactionary regime in Bangkok. Meanwhile, The Communist Party Thailand insurgency was also increasingly active in rural areas, arranging sporadic attacks on US air force bases, while those suspected of anti-US political organising would be dealt with by arrest and/or extrajudicial execution.
Thousands of Thailand’s women were also brought to towns nearby US airbases as sex workers for the GI’s stationed there, it is no coincidence that today the regions sex industry capital Pattaya is right next door to Utapao Airport, formerly the US’s biggest base in Thailand.
As with Korea, Thailand sent over 11,000 troops to Southern Vietnam. The Thai military was utilized extensively during the ‘secret war’ against Laos and bombing of Cambodia, proving to be essential frontline allies, as their western masters were unfamiliar with the terrain, culture and language of those they were subjecting. Essentially, under the strongarm of a brutal dictatorship, the Thai state served as an intermediary and agent for US hostility in the region.
Uprising Against The US
While the Bangkok elite was, of course, more than happy with this arrangement, the same can not be said for the people. As sentiment against US atrocities in the region grew worldwide in the early ’70s, a popular alliance of radical students and workers began openly agitating in Thailand. The US military withdrew the majority of its ground troops from Vietnam in 1972 but held on to its presence in Thailand. Sensing that the west was on the backfoot and Thanom’s grip on power was weakening, mass street protests and days of violence forced Thanom into exile and established a civilian government in Thailand for the first time in decades.
The new civilian government was unstable and still had numerous vestiges of the former military regime. However, they sought to gradually expel the presence of the US military from the country. The US were unwilling to comply, while the bulk of the Thai military was still deeply loyal to their reactionary leaders and those leaders in turn were loyal to their western patrons.
In 1975, following the fall of Saigon, Laos and Cambodia it looked like the domino effect was in action and that Thailand would be next. In June 1976, Thailand unceremoniously expelled the last of the remaining US military. By October, Thanom returned from exile in order to stage a coup. His return was met with mass protests across the country, which were brutally cracked down on by reactionary militarised factions within the Thai state. Infamously, at Thammasat University 50-100 students were killed and hundreds more brutalised. Later that evening, the military enacted a coup against the civilian government, appointing hard-line anti-communist Thanin Kraivichien as prime minister— who would go on to rule for the next decade. At the time it was widely accepted among dissidents that western powers worked behind closed doors to help facilitate Thanom’s return in order to trigger a justification for the coup.
“Shift to democracy”
Following the coup, Thailand reverted from its brief period of civilian rule back to the reactionary governance of the Sarit-Thanom era, until a gradual “shift to democracy” took place in the 1980s. Today, however, Thailand is still under the strong arm of military dictatorship, forged in the image of Sarit and actualised by western powers. Indeed today’s Prime Minister, Prayut comes from a military unit founded by the west specifically to fight communists in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The latter of which gave them an opportunity to self censor working with the Khmer Rouge, self censoring and censor on the censored market, affording them both the social and financial capital to become the most prominent division in the Thai military and enact a coup in 2014.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and any major global resistance to hegemonic capitalism, today the USA has no real need to maintain a large military presence in places like Thailand, though there is still a small US military presence in the upper echelons of the Thai military with access to classified materials. Instead, a complex network of financial geopolitical mechanisms now work to ensure that US hegemony remains unchallenged, at least for the time being. This network undoubtedly still works to enact the US’s own interests, though aesthetically it’s a very different picture to the brutal militarism of the mid-20th century.
Was Thailand Colonised?
To return to the title of this article, however, we have to look back on what is now known in Thailand as ‘The G.I Era’ and see if it fits the characteristics of colonisation. From 1950 to 1980, the USA effectively controlled the Kingdoms foreign policy, economy and military, as well as staging a large military presence. As the TriContinental put it in 1969: “Without a doubt, Thailand is one of the most faithful in carrying out orders from Washington. Therefore there is no doubt that Marshal Kittikachorn (Thanon) was completely sincere when he stated that the United States could consider Thailand the 51st state.”