Luang Phibun Songkhram

Luang Phibun Songkhram (1897-1964) was a military officer and prime minister of Thailand. An ardent proponent of Thai nationalism, he was the dominant figure in the first decades of constitutional government.

Born in a farming village near Bangkok on July 14, 1897, Phibun Songkhram was originally named Plaek. He attended Buddhist monastery schools and entered the royal military academy in Bangkok in 1909. Completing his studies in 1914, he went into the artillery corps. In 1924 he was sent to France for advanced military studies and met there Thai students who were to be prominent in the politics of the 1930s, especially Pridi Phanomyong and Khuang Aphaiwong. Returning to Bangkok in 1927, he served in the directorate of operations and the general staff of the army, rising to the rank of major, and in 1928 was given the title by which he was known thereafter, "Luang" Phibun Songkhram, which he later took as his family name.

Phibun was one of the organizers of the Revolution of June 24, 1932, which ended the absolute monarchy, and served in the first governments of the new regime. He joined with Phraya Phahon in 1933 to overthrow civilian government and establish the dominant role of the army in national politics. He won prominence in suppressing the rebellion of Prince Boworadet later that year.

In 1934 Phibun became minister of defense and greatly strengthened the army. He established paramilitary youth organizations on the then popular fascist model and publicly expressed ultranationalist and irredentist views. Surviving three assassination attempts, he succeeded Phahon as prime minister in December 1938 and retained for himself the portfolios of interior and defense.

After the fall of France, Phibun provoked war with French Indochina in 1940-1941 to regain territories lost earlier. When Japanese troops invaded Thailand on Dec. 8, 1941, Phibun immediately allied Thailand with Japan, a move made easier by close prewar relations, and spared the country Japanese occupation while regaining temporarily much of the territory lost to Britain and France in the 19th century.

When the war turned against Japan in 1944, Phibun was ousted, and civilian government under Pridi's leadership was restored. Pridi's ties with the Allies ensured Thailand exemption from treatment as a defeated enemy at the end of the war. Economic dislocation and official corruption increased public impatience with civilian government in 1946-1947, and the suspicious death of King Ananda (1946) gave the military an opportunity to revive its claim to rule. An army coup d'etat in 1947 was followed by Phibun's return as prime minister the following year.

Phibun's second term as prime minister was clouded by rivalries among his military supporters and by increasing public dissatisfaction with corruption and economic stagnation. His attempt to rally popular support through open elections in 1957 backfired when, in spite of flagrant electoral corruption, Phibun's party barely won a majority of the legislative seats. A military coup by Gen. Sarit Thanarat, with strong public support, followed in September 1957, and Phibun retired to exile in Japan, where he died on June 11, 1964.

Phibun's most important legacy to Thailand was his promotion of Thai values and nationalism, a source of considerable national strength, together with his reaffirmation of the values of modernization. His strong championing of the role of the military in national politics, however, established a political imbalance not easily corrected.

Further Reading on Luang Phibun Songkhram

There is no biography of Phibun in any Western language. His career can be followed in David A. Wilson, Politics in Thailand (1962), and Frank C. Darling, Thailand and the United States (1965).

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