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’Saharat Tai Doem’

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’Saharat Tai Doem’

Thailand in Shan State, 1941–45

Text by Andrew Forbes and David Henley

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Two decades ago Khun Sa, leader of the separatist Maung Tai Army and reputed heroin kingpin of the Golden Triangle, declared his intention that Shan State should secede from Burma and develop close economic links with Thailand.

Speaking from his base at Ho Mong, Khun Sa, also known by his Chinese name of Chang Si-fu, expressed his concern at the planned transportation network linking Thailand, Burma, China and Laos in the so-called "Golden Quadrangle" development, saying that the Burmese military junta (SLORC) would use the new road system to transport men and arms to wage war against the minorities. The half-Shan, half-Chinese warlord said that Shan State had more to offer Thailand than did the SLORC in terms of a developing market, natural resources and cheap labour. Finally, he appealed to the Thai monarch for assistance, emphasising that "all Shan people have full respect for the Thai King and the Royal Family."

In the no nonsense world of Southeast Asian realpolitik, the likelihood of Thailand taking up Khun Sa's suggestion and establishing formal links with a secessionist Shan State must be regarded as nil. Yet, as with the Lao people and the Tai of Sipsongpanna in southern Yunnan, a special family relationship does exist between the Shan and the Thais, who really do regard each other as brothers. Moreover, it is not so long ago that Thailand really did try to absorb Shan State – with consequences which could have been disastrous for Thailand's independence, had it not been for conciliatory US pressure on the outraged British.

Few now remember the circumstances of Thailand's last invasion of the Shan States, and it seems likely that those who do would prefer to forget, drawing a discreet curtain over the whole unfortunate business. Still, before taking Khun Sa's appeal too seriously, it might be wise to consider what happened last time Thailand became embroiled in Shan State.

On December 8, 1941, Japanese troops invaded Thailand at nine separate points: by land, from Battambang in Cambodia, by air at Don Muang airfield, and by sea in seven amphibious landings between Hua Hin and Pattani on the gulf coast. Despite fierce fighting at points in the south, organised resistance lasted only a few hours. Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, then Thai ruler, ordered a cease-fire, his government having agreed that to fight the Japanese would be suicide. At this point Britain and the United States regarded Thailand as an enemy-occupied country and the innocent victim of Japanese aggression.

Unknown to the Allies – and to most of his own cabinet – Phibun had other ideas. Influenced, perhaps, by the sinking of Britain's two capital ships, Repulse and Prince of Wales, within sixty hours of the outbreak of war in the Far East, he determined to seek an alliance with Japan. On December 14 he signed a secret agreement with the Japanese committing Thai troops to participate in the invasion of Burma, One week later, on December 21, 1941, Phibun signed a formal treaty of alliance with Japan in front of the Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Keo, considered the most sacred object in all Thailand.

Phibun's reward for entering into this alliance was a secret Japanese guarantee to return to Thailand the Malayan provinces ceded to the British in 1909, as well as – with no comparable historical justification – the "lost territories" of Burma's Shan State. In pursuit of these aims, because he believed the Allies beaten, and because it was an auspicious day, on January 25, 1942, Phibun declared war on Britain and the United States.

As is well known, Phibun's action was opposed by most Thai people as well as by Thailand's ambassador to Washington, Seni Pramoj, who simply refused to deliver the declaration of war to the US Secretary of State. Phibun, however, was determined that Thailand should both be on the winning side, and that it should benefit from the spoils of victory. Thailand, he announced, was a nation of great warriors who had to learn to adapt and make sacrifices. Part of this process was to recognise who the country's true friends were. Britain could no longer be counted as such a friend, as it had long deprived Thailand of some of its territory. And so... let loose the dogs of war!

In addition to his territorial aspirations, it is probable that Phibun was worried about the morale of the Thai regular forces, now that they had been faced down by the Japanese and had no obvious role in defending the country. As a result, he conceived the idea of creating a new Northern Army which would invade Burma and seize control of Burma east of the Salween River – a territory then known as the Eastern Shan States. Since Thailand had already been promised parts of Burma which were regarded as "lost territory" in the secret protocol, the Japanese did not object in principle, though they were not prepared to allow Thai claims on Burma's Karen State, insisting that Phibun limit his territorial ambitions to Shan State. The Japanese also seem to have realised, as apparently the vainglorious Phibun did not, that a campaign of conquest in north-eastern Burma would be no walkover.

Command of the new Northern Army was given to Luang Seri Roengrit, well-known in Bangkok for his patronage of the Royal Turf Club, but who had also successfully organised the transport of military equipment to the Cambodian border during the struggle with French forces in Indochina in 1940–41. The logistical problems Luang Seri faced in Shan State were quite different, however. The Thai railway system only reached as far north as Chiang Mai (as, indeed, it still does), and from there the troops of the Northern Army, carrying their supplies, had to slog their way along rocky mountain tracks to the Burmese frontier. Many of the soldiers involved came from the north-east, and were not equipped to cope with the climate in the northern mountains. They were inadequately armed, poorly motivated – and they had no real idea who they were meant to be fighting.

Shortly after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, Chiang Kai-shek cabled Roosevelt and Churchill offering China's full cooperation in the Southeast Asian theatre. In particular, he suggested that Chinese Nationalist (KMT) troops should move into northern Burma to help protect the vital supply routes between Rangoon and Chungking. This offer was accepted, and units of the 93rd Division of the KMT army based in Yunnan moved south down the Salween Valley. Early in 1942 these KMT troops arrived in Shan State where, facing no immediate prospect of a Japanese attack, they settled down to live off the land. This peaceful existence was shattered on May 3, when planes of the Thai airforce bombed Kengtung as a prelude to the arrival of the Northern Army several weeks later.

Half a century later a senior Shan monk still living in Kengtung recalls the occasion: "The Thais sent 27 aeroplanes and most of the bombs were dropped at the market where the Chinese troops stayed." The bombing caused the KMT soldiers to retreat from the centre of Kengtung. A few weeks later Thai infantry led by Field Marshal Pin Choonhavan reached Kengtung and raised the Thai flag there. General Chatichai Choonhavan, the former Thai prime minister and current head of the Chart Pattana Party, then a young man with the rank of second lieutenant, was amongst the victorious Thai forces.

Phibun Songkhram was predictably delighted. He announced that the victory of the Northern Army had vindicated the reputation of the Thai armed forces, and that the capital of the eastern Shan States had been liberated from "the enemy". He also announced that the new name of the eastern Shan States – that is, Shan State east of the Salween – would be the "Original Thai State". Thailand's acquisition of these territories, together with the return of the northern Malay states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Perlis and Kedah which King Chulalongkorn had ceded to the British in 1909, was confirmed by treaty with Japan in August, 1943.

Meanwhile, in Shan State itself, the KMT soldiers withdrew to the hills and forests surrounding Kengtung, whilst the Thais set up a basic local administration in the city. Although the onset of the rainy season in mid-1942 brought a halt to the fighting in the area, it only increased the hardships the Thai troops had to suffer. They were seriously deficient in food and medical supplies, so deaths from malaria and dengue fever far exceeded those in battle. Phibun eventually turned his attention to the problem in January, 1943, when he ordered ten tons of quinine to be sent to the Northern Army.

When Phibun actually visited the north some weeks later, he sent orders flooding back to Bangkok for uniforms, staff officers, sugar, money, doctors and a hundred ox-carts of bananas to be sent to the troops in Shan State. With Japanese backing, he also ordered the construction of hundreds of kilometres of unsurfaced roads to link Chiang Mai with Shan State – the present northern loop road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son through the settlement of Pai dates from this period.

By this time Phibun and his war cabinet were becoming distinctly uneasy, however. January, 1943 – the same month in which Phibun travelled north – brought news of shattering German defeats at Stalingrad and in North Africa. These were first clear signs that Phibun might have led Thailand into the war on the wrong side. He responded by banning all aliens from residing in Thailand's six northern provinces. Meanwhile the Northern Army continued to announce new victories – spurious claims, treated with skepticism by most Thais, who were well aware that the Japanese had already completed the conquest of Burma.

For the remainder of the war Shan State remained a largely forgotten backwater. Those Thai troops who fell ill and were returned to Bangkok for treatment were shocked that nobody seemed to know or care about the hardships the Northern Army was suffering. Meanwhile the surviving forces of Chiang Kai-shek's KMT 93rd Division hid out in the jungles, occasionally clashing with Japanese forces who had followed the Thais into Shan State and were now behaving with their usual bestiality, completely destroying, for example, the prosperous Chinese Muslim settlement at Panglong, butchering ethnic Chinese, and making it quite clear to the dispirited Thais just who the real masters of "Original Thai State" were.

Meanwhile, back in Bangkok, the Thai authorities were understandably anxious to placate the victorious Allies. Phibun had started out with the stated objective of ensuring that, whoever won the war, Thailand would be on the victorious side. In this, as in so much, he had miscalculated badly. Early in 1944 the British moved to the offensive on the Burma front. Thailand – and especially the Klong Toey docks at Bangkok – came under increasingly frequent bombing raids, supplies were short, the Japanese arrogant and increasingly harsh in their treatment of their Thai "allies".

At home, Phibun was increasingly disliked not just for involving Thailand in an unpopular war and for the rampant inflation, but also for his unpopular domestic policies – his attempts to simplify Thai spelling, to enforce unpopular dress codes, and to forcibly assimilate Thailand's various cultural minorities. On July 24, 1944, taking advantage of Tojo's fall from power a week earlier in Tokyo, an alarmed Thai legislature refused to pass two government bills, and Phibun – widely regarded as Tojo's protege – was forced to resign.

His successors, under the nominal leadership of Khuang Aphaiwong but strongly influenced by the Free Thai movement of Pridi Phanomyong, were well informed about Allied wartime thinking on the desirability of punishing Thailand for its alliance with Japan. Britain, in particular, sought to impose retribution and controls on Thailand which would reduce the country to near-protectorate status.

In an attempt to forestall this eventuality, the post-Phibun Thai authorities discretely contacted the Allies and let it be known that they were prepared to turn against their former Japanese partners whenever the Allies gave the word. They also made it quite clear to the British that they renounced all claim to Shan State and northern Malaya, and that they would return these territories to Britain immediately on the cessation of hostilities. Despite these gestures, the British were not disposed to treat the Thais leniently. They felt stabbed in the back by Japan's use of Thai territory to invade Burma and Malaya, and only strong American pressure prevented a vengeful Churchill from implementing punitive measures against the Thais.

Meanwhile, in distant Shan State, Thailand's Northern Army remained in occupation of Kengtung and the surrounding areas until Japan's unexpectedly swift surrender following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Even before this time some Thai troops had been straggling back to northern Thailand. With the surrender and departure of their Japanese allies, most returned home, though some stayed on amongst their Shan fellows, married, and settled down in Kengtung. The descendants of some of these soldiers still live in Shan State today. Interestingly, elements of the KMT 93rd Division also stayed on, allying themselves first with new Nationalist refugees from China following the communist seizure of power in 1949. After being driven out of Burma in 1956, some eventually settled in the 93rd Division's final base camp at Doi Mae Salong, in Chiang Rai Province, where they and their descendants remain to this day.

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Text by Andrew Forbes and David Henley

© CPA Media, December 2015