Japanese occupation of Thailand

Japanese occupation of Thailand

Thailand was occupied by the Japanese during World War II from the 1941 invasion until Japan's defeat in 1945.[1][2] At the start of the Pacific War, the Japanese Empire leaned on the Thais to allow passage of Japanese troops on their way to invade British-held Malay and Burma.[3] This was not popular with much of the population, but the Thai government under Plaek Phibunsongkhram thought it preferable to outright Japanese conquest.

Although Thailand remained independent, with complete control over her armed forces and internal affairs, the Japanese desired a bilateral relationship substantially similar to that existing with the puppet state of Manchukuo, which meant that bilateral relations between the two countries were rarely mutually beneficial.[4] In fact, many of the Japanese troops garrisoned at various points throughout the country viewed Thailand as a "colony" rather than an "ally."[5][6]

A well-organised resistance movement, supported by government officials allied to the regent Pridi Phanomyong, was active from 1942 on. The partisans provided invaluable espionage services for the Allies, as well as performing some sabotage, and in 1944 helped engineer Phibun's downfall.



At the start of the Second World War Thailand was ruled by an authoritarian government dominated by a group of civil servants and military officers. Its prime minister was Plaek Phibunsongkhram, an army officer who shared many of his countrymen's admiration of fascism and the rapid pace of national development it seemed to afford.[4] Consequently, Phibun cultivated and intensified militarism and nationalism while simultaneously building up a cult of personality using modern propaganda techniques.

The regime also revived irredentist claims, stirring up anti-French sentiment and supporting restoration of former Thai territories in Cambodia and Laos. Seeking support against France, Phibun cultivated closer relations with Japan. Faced with American opposition and British hesitancy, Thailand looked to Japan for help in the confrontation with French Indochina.[7] Although the Thai were united in their demand for the return of the lost provinces, Phibun's enthusiasm for the Japanese was markedly greater than that of Pridi Phanomyong, and many old conservatives as well viewed the course of the prime minister's foreign policy with misgivings.

Sporadic fighting between Thai and French forces broke out along Thailand's eastern frontier in October 1940, and culminated in an invasion of Laos and Cambodia in January 1941. Although French forces suffered badly on land, their navy managed to inflict a crushing defeat on the Thai main fleet at Koh Chang, prompting the Japanese to intervene to mediate the conflict.[8]

Japan used its influence with the Vichy regime in France to obtain concessions for Thailand. As a result, France agreed in March 1941 to cede 54,000 square kilometres of Laotian territory west of the Mekong and most of the Cambodian province of Battambang to Thailand. The recovery of this lost territory and the regime's apparent victory over a European colonial power greatly enhanced Phibun's reputation.

But because Japan wanted to maintain both her working relationship with Vichy and the status quo, the Thais were forced to accept only a quarter of the territory that they had demanded, in addition to having to pay six million piastres as a concession to the French.[7][4] Relations between Japan and Thailand subsequently cooled as a disappointed Phibun switched to courting the British and Americans in the hopes of warding off what he saw as an imminent Japanese invasion.[7][4][9][10]

The invasion

On December 8, 1941, after several hours of fighting between Thai and Japanese troops, Thailand had to accede to Japanese demands for access through the country for Japanese forces invading Burma and Malaya. Phibun assured the country that the Japanese action was prearranged with a sympathetic Thai government.


Photograph of Phot Phahonyothin (far left) with Hideki Tōjō (centre) in Tokyo 1942

On December 21, 1941, a mutual offensive-defensive alliance pact between the two countries was signed[4] The agreement, revised on December 30, gave the Japanese full access to Thai railways, roads, airfields, naval bases, warehouses, communications systems, and barracks. To facilitate greater economic cooperation, Pridi was removed from the cabinet and offered a seat on the politically impotent Regency Council for the absent king, which he subsequently accepted.[10][4]

Later on, as a result of Japanese pressure, the Thai government declared war on Britain and the United States on January 25, 1942.[4][10]

Thailand was rewarded for Phibun's close cooperation with Japan during the early years of war with the return of further territory that had once been under Bangkok's control, namely the four northernmost Malay states. In addition, with Japan confirmed, the Thai Phayap Army was permitted to invade and annex the north-eastern Shan States of Burma.[4][10][11] Japan meanwhile had stationed 150,000 troops on Thai soil and built the infamous Death Railway through Thailand using Asian labourers and Allied prisoners of war.

Although the majority of Thais were initially "intoxicated" with Japan's string of brilliant victories in early 1942, by the end of the year there was widespread resentment as a result of arrogant Japanese behaviour and war-induced economic problems.[4] Even during the early stages of the war there was friction over issues such as the confiscation of Allied property, economic and monetary matters, as well as the treatment of Thailand's ethnic Chinese community.

A vicious contest for saw mills and teak logs owned by British companies erupted early on, followed by similar disputes over the control of enemy energy and shipping facilities within the country. Other problems were more severe. For a time Germany continued actively purchasing local products, but once shipping difficulties became unsolvable, Japan became Thailand's sole significant trading partner. Similarly, Thailand had to rely on the Japanese for consumer goods previously imported from Europe and the United States; goods which Japan was increasingly unable to provide as the war wore on. A shortage of commodities quickly developed, with inflation soaring and standards of living dropping. Worse yet, the Japanese had aggressively claimed the right to import goods duty-free, significantly reducing the Thai government's revenues.[4]

Things came to a head in December 1942 when an armed confrontation between Japanese troops and Thai villagers and police escalated into a shoot-out in Ratchaburi. Although the Ban Pong incident was promptly and peacefully resolved, it served as "a warning signal that alerted Tokyo to the seriousness of the problems in Thailand."[4] This led to General Aketo Nakamura being sent to command the newly formed Thailand Garrison Army. Nakamura's ability to understand the Thai perspective, combined with his affable personality, significantly helped to improve Thai-Japanese relations.[12][4][10]

This more conciliatory stance occurred at a moment when the tide began to turn against Japan, something which many within the Thai government recognised. Realising that the Allies had seized the initiative in the war, Phibun, well aware of the troublesome personal predicament his relationship with Tokyo had put him in, started distancing him from the Japanese.[4] In January 1943 he had two of the Phayap Army's divisional commanders arrange the return of a group of Chinese prisoners-of-war as a gesture of friendship designed to open secret negotiations with Chungking.[13]

But the prime minister's star was waning at a much faster rate than he had thought. With the Allies intensifying their bombing raids on Bangkok public confidence in Phibun, already tested by his idiosyncratic domestic policies, was sagging fast. His frequent absence from Bangkok led morale to plummet, while a sudden proclamation for the capital and its inhabitants to be immediately moved north to malaria-infested Phetchabun was greeted with near-universal bemusement and discontent.[10] And it wasn't only the public. The kingdom's ruling elite too was becoming increasingly weary of Phibun, whose intimidation and demotion of dissenters within the government ironically served to further unite his opponents, who were gathering around Pridi.[4]

Even the Japanese were becoming disaffected with Phibun. That a military scheme lay behind Phibun's attempt to relocate the seat of government certainly wasn't lost on the Japanese.[4] Remote, with the nearest rail connection being at Phitsanulok, a half-day's drive away, Phetchabun's main asset was its suitability as a mountainous fortress; moreover, the site was located in a region where the majority of the Thai army was based.[14][4][10]

Coinciding with the beginnings of Phibun's efforts to distance himself – through prolonged trips to the provinces – from the Japanese was the downfall of Benito Mussolini in Italy, an event which sent shock waves throughout the Thai elite, to the point that an emergency cabinet meeting was convened to discuss the European war situation.[4] Analogies with Italy was soon being made by many: while "Badoglio" became an increasingly popular Thai political epithet, the Japanese envoy in Berlin was advised by Reichsmarschall Göring to keep a close watch on the Thai, lest they turn into an "Oriental Italy."[4]

However, in spite of increasing domestic discontent and Japanese distrust, it would not be until the following year that Phibun's political demise would come.


While the Thai ambassador in London delivered Thailand's declaration of war to the British government, the Thai ambassador in Washington DC, Seni Pramoj, refused to do so. Accordingly, the United States refrained from declaring war on Thailand. With American assistance Seni, a conservative aristocrat whose anti-Japanese credentials were well established, organised the Free Thai Movement, recruiting Thai students in the United States to work with the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS). That Seni was able to achieve this was due to the State Department's decision to act as if Seni continued to represent Thailand; a decision which enabled him to draw on Thai assets frozen by the United States.[13]

Despite the reciprocal British declaration of war, a parallel resistance movement was formed by the Thai in Britain. They were organised by two leading students, Snoh Tambuyen and Puey Ungphakorn, and were assisted by members of the self-exiled royal family, including Queen Ramphaiphanni, the widow of King Prajadhipok, and her brother, Prince Suphasawatwongsanit Sawatdiwat.[4]

From the office of the regent in Thailand, Pridi ran a clandestine movement that by the end of the war had with Allied aid armed more than 50,000 Thai to resist the Japanese occupation.

By the beginning of 1945, preparations were actively being pursued for a rising against the Japanese occupiers. Plans for an anti-Japanese uprising relied on the success of a quick, surprise strike by a special police unit against the Japanese command structure. The residences of leading officers and the Japanese communications facilities were kept under surveillance. The police assault was to be coordinated with a general attack by the partly mechanised Thai 1st Army against Japanese troops in Bangkok. Fortifications, in the guise of air raid shelters, had been dug at key street intersections, and additional troops had been brought into the city in small groups in civilian clothes. The task of Free Thai forces elsewhere would be to thwart Japanese efforts to reinforce their Bangkok garrison by cutting communications lines and seizing airfields.

Pridi had to take into consideration that the Japanese were building up their forces in Thailand, which was likely to become a battlefront in the near future. Previously most Japanese soldiers stationed in Thailand had been support troops, but in December 1944 the local command had been upgraded from garrison status to a field army. The Japanese were gathering supplies and constructing fortifications for a last ditch defensive effort at Nakhon Nayok, about one hundred kilometres northeast of Bangkok.

End of the occupation

The new government was headed by Khuang Aphaiwong, a civilian linked politically with conservatives like Seni. The most influential figure in the regime, however, was Pridi, whose anti-Japanese views were increasingly attractive to the Thai. In the last year of the war, Allied agents were tacitly given free access by Bangkok. As the war came to an end, Thailand repudiated its wartime agreements with Japan.

The civilian leaders, however, were unable to achieve unity. After a falling-out with Pridi, Khuang was replaced as prime minister by the regent's nominee, Seni, who had returned to Thailand from his post in Washington DC. The scramble for power among factions in late 1945 created political divisions in the ranks of the civilian leaders that destroyed their potential for making a common stand against the resurgent political force of the military in the postwar years.

Postwar accommodations with the Allies also weakened the civilian government. As a result of the contributions made to the Allied war efforts by the Free Thai Movement, the United States, which unlike the other Allies had never officially been at war with Thailand, refrained from dealing with Thailand as an enemy country in postwar peace negotiations. Before signing a peace treaty, however, Britain demanded war reparations in the form of rice for shipment to Malaya, and France refused to permit admission of Thailand to the United Nations (UN) until Indochinese territories annexed during the war were returned. The Soviet Union insisted on the repeal of anticommunist legislation.


  1. ^ Thailand. State.gov (2011-01-28). Retrieved on 2011-03-18.
  2. ^ War in the Pacific NHP: Park Brochure. Nps.gov. Retrieved on 2011-03-18.
  3. ^ Jackson Travel Journal – Thailand: Bangkok. The-silk-route.co.uk. Retrieved on 2011-03-18.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s E. Bruce Reynolds. (1994) Thailand and Japan's Southern Advance 1940–1945. St. Martin's Press ISBN 0312104022.
  5. ^ James F. Dunnigan. The World War II Bookshelf: Fifty Must-Read Books. Kensington Pub Corp, 2005 ISBN 0806526491, p.16
  6. ^ Keat Gin Ooi Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East ..., Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2004, ISBN 1576077705, p. 514
  7. ^ a b c Richard J. Aldrich (1993) The Key to the South. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195886127
  8. ^ Martin Stuart-Fox (1997) A History of Laos. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521597463
  9. ^ Charivat Santaputra (1985) Thai Foreign Policy 1932–1946. Thammasat University Press. ISBN 9743350918
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Judith A. Stowe. (1991) Siam becomes Thailand: A Story of Intrigue. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824813936
  11. ^ Young, Edward M. (1995) Aerial Nationalism: A History of Aviation in Thailand. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1560984058
  12. ^ Direk Jayanama. (2007) Thailand and WWII. Silkworm Books.
  13. ^ a b E Bruce Reynolds. (2005) Thailand's secret war: the Free Thai, OSS, and SOE during World War II. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521836018
  14. ^ John B. Haseman. (2002) The Thai Resistance Movement during World War II. Silkworm Books.


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