By focusing on the friendship between two men vital to Thailand's transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, Rungmanee Mekhasobhon has shown that history is made by people of flesh and blood.
Amnat II By Rungmanee Mekhasobhon Ban Phra Arthit Publishing House, 181 pages, ISBN 978-616-536-079-1
The author of Amnat II hangs her account of the early years of constitutional monarchy on the special relationship between Major (later Field Marshal) Plaek Phibulsongkhram (commonly known as Phibul) and Pridi Banomyong, both of whom were later to serve as prime minister. Previously known only to a select few, the depth of their friendship is traced in fine detail from the time the two men met in Paris in 1926 as students until the field marshal's death in exile in Japan in 1964.
The first example Rungmanee gives is the coup d'etat in June 1933, which enabled Pridi to return from exile nine months later. Citing a book by Phibul's eldest son, Anant Phibulsongkhram, she writes that Pridi was advised to go into temporary exile by the then-Lt Col Phibul and another collaborator and given an assurance that "friends" would make his return possible at a later date. If that coup had failed, not only would Pridi have been unable to come home, as he did in March 1934, but some 60 people involved in the change to constitutional monarchy might have lost their lives.
Pridi had left the country in April 1933 amid controversy over a national economic plan he had put forward which was deemed too socialist for comfort, and allegations that he was a communist _ a dangerous accusation in view of the anti-communist act promulgated that year.
The second example Rungmanee mentions is Pridi returning the favour to Pibul when the latter was on trial as a war criminal at the end of World War II. Rungmanee reprints a letter in Phibul's own hand appealing for understanding from Pridi when the writer was behind bars.
This was after their friendship had been severely tested during the war years when the two found themselves on opposite sides: Phibul was the prime minister who allowed Japanese troops safe passage through Thailand, and Pridi was the covert leader of the pro-Allied Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement.
Several years later, it was Phibul who, having returned to power, extended the hand of friendship to Pridi and encouraged him to return from exile to prove his innocence in court with regard to the mysterious death of King Rama VIII.
Rungmanee's book reprints Pridi's letter to an aide of Phibul's, dated September 1957, affirming his intention to fight the case. But, alas, Phibul was ousted in a coup by Sarit Thanarat less than two months later.
The friends, both compelled by politics to live in exile _ Pridi in China; Phibul in Japan _ were planning a reunion, somewhere in the Middle East, to iron out misunderstandings when Phibul's death put paid to the reconciliation effort. The investigative reporter in Rungmanee has unearthed a wealth of sources to back up her angle. Extant sources include Sirin Pathanothai, daughter of Sangkha Pathanothai, Phibul's aide through thick and thin, and Jitrapee Kanokrat, daughter of Charoen Kanokrat, the go-between who conscientiously kept in touch with Phibul and Pridi.
The book by Major Anant Pibulsongkhram was just one of the many documents she consulted. She also pored over the memoirs of Charoen Kanokrat and articles penned by Luang Vichitr Vathakarn, Supatr Sukhonthapirom na Pattalung, Vorapath Thammayukthi and Natthapol Jaijing.
While friendship is the main theme of Rungmanee's book, also high up is her appreciation of loyalty, illustrated by the space she devotes to Phibul's aide, Sangkha Pathanothai, who attended to the field marshal's needs even when they were both in jail, and continued to dispense advice to him when Sangkha was imprisoned for a second time.
With her nose for detail and her journalist's quest for balance, Rungmanee is careful to not only write about the great men on stage but also the players behind the scenes who were so important to Thailand's nation-building. Hence, the special places for men instrumental to fostering Thailand's relations with China such as Sangkha, Charoen and Luen Buasuwan.
Readers interested in the international politics of this period won't be disappointed. Rungmanee gives an interesting take on the fears expressed by the United States about the communist threat, and the dangers facing Phibul as he tried to steer a path between the Eagle and the Dragon.
The author also offers insights into the brothers Pramoj _ MR Seni and MR Kukrit (both former prime ministers) _ that readers should find memorable.
Of some concern _ through no fault of the author's, of course _ is the extent of deja vu with regard to Thai politics that the book evokes. The military were, and remain, a force to be reckoned with, although they don't solve problems via coups d'etat as often as they used to.
Opponents were quietly put away, sometimes by accident, as they have been in recent history.
But there have been some changes, for the worse rather than the better. Firstly, the large amounts of money "invested" to buy power (and opportunities to make more money by corrupt means) is a relatively new element in the equation. Secondly, the electorate seems to have become inured by vote-buying, with no protests against this practice like there once were against vote-rigging during Phibul's time.
A book about political history with a humanist bent deserves careful reading. Rungmanee's objective treatment of an interesting period makes Amnat II _ subtitled Torsookoochart Ekarat Athipathai ("Fighting for the country's freedom, independence and sovereignty"; unofficial translation) _ a must for everyone interested in Thailand's political evolution.
About the author
- Writer: Anuraj Manibhandu