Songgram, Luang Pibul

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Luang Pibul Songgram

Pibul Songgram (1897-1964) was known as the founder of the modern Thai nation. His political career began in 1932 when he took part in an overthrow that replaced the Thai absolute monarchy with a constitutional regime. He was field marshal and prime minister of Thailand from 1938 to 1944 and from 1948 to 1957.

Born Plack Khitasangkha on July 14, 1987, Pibul Songgram came from a farming family in the town of Nonthaburi in the Thai province of Nakorn Nayok; he was the second child in a family of four sons and one daughter. His parents considered him difficult, so they gave him up for adoption to the abbot of the Paknam Buddhist temple. This was a common practice among Thais at the time; they believed that if a child was often irritable or difficult, he might be possessed by evil spirits, who would be driven out if the child were given to a respectable, spiritual person such as a monk. Songgram was raised by the monks at the Chumani Temple, and later his parents sent him to study at the Wat Khemaphitaram School in Nonthaburi. In 1909, when he was twelve years old, he went to the Bangkok Infantry Cadet School, and graduated from military training when he was eighteen. He then joined the 7th Artillery Corps in Phitsanulok.

Joined People's Party

In Phitsanulok, he met and married his wife, Thanphuying La-iad, a teacher at a missionary school. In 1919, Songgram went back to Bangkok to undergo four more years of military school; he graduated at the top of his class and earned a scholarship to study artillery in France. He went to France in 1924, studied at Poitier and Fontaineblue, and returned to Thailand in 1927. On his return, he was given the title of Luang Phibunsongkhram and was promoted to captain in the artillery corps. By 1932, he had reached the rank of major and was a supervisor in the ministry of defense.

Also in 1932, Songgram became a member of the "1932 Promoters," later called the People's Party, which had been formed in 1927. This party was dedicated to the overthrow of Thailand's ancient and absolute monarchy. According to Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian in Thailand's Durable Premier, however, Songgram "paid little attention to the intellectual side of the revolution and was happy to undertake any operational assignment allocated to him. He demonstrated a refreshing and symbolic naivety in politics by refusing to follow other People's Party leaders in attending the 'begging for His Majesty's forgiveness' ceremony, on the grounds that he was not involved in…denouncing the Chakri Dynasty in harsh and disrespectful terms and thus had committed no wrong against the King and the royal family."

Nevertheless, after a successful coup in 1932, Songgram was appointed a minister in the new government, headed by Phraya Mano, and was also named deputy commander of artillery. In June 1933, after a conflict between the progressive wing of the People's Party, which included Phibun, and its conservative wing, Phibun and some allies staged another coup and successfully demanded that Phraya Mano resign. From then on, Songgram continued to become more prominent in both politics and military affairs. By 1934, he was appointed deputy commander-in-chief of the army and minister of defense. In 1934-1935, he also became a group captain of the air force and a naval captain.

Prime Minister of Thailand

In 1938, when Praya Phahon gave up his post as premier of Thailand, the National Assembly chose Songgram to succeed him as both prime minister and commander-in-chief of the army. He presided over a cabinet of twenty-five men, fifteen of whom were members of the military. Within a month, in order to prevent any opposition to his rule, Songgram had forty people arrested on charges of plotting against the government. These included members of the royal family, bureaucratic nobles, elected members of the assembly, and army rivals. After a series of trials, Songgram had eighteen of these people executed, the first political executions in Thailand in more than a century.

In 1939, as part of his efforts to build what he considered a new and modern nation, Songgram changed the country's name from Siam to Thailand. He also began a sweeping series of actions against Chinese settlers in Thailand. The Chinese were considered to be profiting from various businesses that many Thais believed should be theirs, and many Thais resented the Chinese because they were so prosperous. Songgram began a "Thailand for the Thais" campaign and instituted heavy taxes, regulations, and restrictions on non-Thais. At the same time, Thais were encouraged to behave in nationalistic ways, adopting clean and modern clothing, avoiding imported goods, speaking the Thai language instead of local dialects, and staying informed about current affairs. In addition, Songgram made sure that his photograph appeared everywhere, and that his slogans were repeated in newspapers and on billboards and the radio.

New Guidelines for Thai Life

In Thailand: A Short History, David K. Wyatt wrote that during Songgram's first premiership, the Thai government "was thoroughly shaped by his power and personality, much as absolute kings had done a generation earlier." However, Wyatt added, this period was also "a period of mass nationalism, not just elite nationalism, a social and political phenomenon that was more nearly egalitarian in its implications than it could have been earlier under a monarchist psychology."

As prime minister, one of Songgram's objectives was to mold the Thai people into what he considered a modern, civilized, and cultured nation, without giving up their essential culture and character, in order to earn respect from other nations. At times, the government's prescriptions of what Thai people should or should not do "overlooked the delicate dividing line between social obligations and individual preference in personal matters," according to Suwannathat-Pian.

A major emphasis of the new guidelines for behavior was personal hygiene, but the guidelines went far beyond cleanliness to specify how people should sit or stand, what they should eat, and when they should sleep, exercise, or rest. In 1939, the government also began a campaign encouraging everyone to maintain a vegetable garden and raise poultry. The intent was to make it possible for even the poorest families to have good food. In addition, contrary to the ancient Thai custom of eating with the hands, which the government considered unclean, people were encouraged to use forks and spoons; if people ate with their hands, they were required to wash them thoroughly first. In addition, many old delicacies were forbidden, and people were told to eat balanced meals of vegetables, meat, eggs, chicken, pork, and fish. Women were told of the proper way they should raise their children, and both men and women were told to behave in a dignified manner in public. Anyone who behaved in a way that would bring shame to the Thai people was punished.

The government also insisted that the people become physically and mentally strong. An individual's day was divided into three parts of eight hours each, for working, for personal activities, and for rest. Each period had certain prescribed activities assigned to it; for example, the encouraged forms of recreation included, according to Suwannathat-Pian, "physical exercise by playing games and undertaking long-distance walks or other such exertions; they were to spend some time in their kitchen gardens and in tending to their poultry; and they were to spend other times in reading, listening to the radio, and attending the religious sermons."

In addition to regulating matters of health and hygiene, the government also regulated the status of men and women. Songgram believed that women were an important part of society, so he decreed that they have equal status at home and on the national level. Husbands who worked for the government were penalized if they did not honor their wives. They were ordered to kiss their wives before going to work and when they came home from work. Also, the government set up a women's corps in the army, as well as a women's cadet academy and a woman's non-commissioned training school.

Songgram also instituted a social welfare state, which took care of its citizens' mental and physical well-being. Unemployed workers were told to report to the authorities, who would find jobs for them. Beggars who could not be employed and who did not have family or friends to care for them fell under the care of the state. It was the first social welfare program ever to exist in Thailand.

As Suwannathat-Pian commented, however, these heavy-handed and controlling changes most often "reflected the authorities' concern for the exterior aspects of Thai society and its positive impression upon foreigners, especially Westerners, rather than the interior or mental strength of the society."

Fell from Power, Returned

In 1941, Songgram became supreme commander of the armed forces, and later that year, after winning the Indo-Chinese war against the French, he became field marshal. As World War II progressed, Thailand's relations with the West deteriorated as it allied itself with Japan.

In 1944, Songgram's first premiership ended with the impending defeat of the Japanese. After the war, Songgram fell from favor; he was arrested and charged with war crimes against the Allied forces. He was also kept under surveillance by the new Thai government. As Wyatt commented, however, "Public opinion on the whole was favorable to Phibun. He was thought to have done the best that could be done to maintain Thai interests in the face of overwhelming Japanese pressure. Phibun and the military were, in effect, exonerated, but they were still reluctant to take an active political role in the face of possible negative reactions from the Western powers on whom Thailand so depended at this point."

In 1947, another coup led by General Phin Chunhawan and others brought Songgram back into power. From April 1948 to September 1957, he was again prime minister of Thailand. He began his rule with another anti-Chinese campaign, and he also came down hard on dissidents and rebels, fearing another coup would topple him. Many potential rivals or opponents were arrested and were tortured and even killed without trial. Newspaper editors who described these events were beaten up and frightened into silence. During this period, Thailand remained a constitutional democracy only on paper. In 1949, elections for government representatives were rigged so that Songgram had a majority in the House of Representatives.

On June 29, 1951, Songgram was attending a ceremony on board an American ship, which the American government was presenting to Thailand, when he was taken by naval officers and their men, who imprisoned him on another ship. By the next day, the government was in chaos, with fierce fighting in Bangkok. The Thai air force eventually bombed the ship holding Songgram, but he managed to swim away as it sank. Eventually he linked up with friendly forces and made a radio appeal to the navy to stop fighting. The coup ended, but with a cost of more than 1,200 fatalities, most of whom were civilians. Following the coup, Songgram cut the navy to one-fourth of its previous strength and arrested many people he suspected of opposing him.

Although the Thai economy improved greatly during the 1950s, Songgram's position remained unstable, as he had many rivals and enemies. By 1955, perhaps sensing this and wanting to seek favor among them, Songgram went on a long tour of the United States and returned professing a deep love for democracy. He began relaxing his previous authoritarian controls on political parties, free speech and the press. However, when an election was held in 1957, it was marred by blatant vote rigging, fraud and tampering. This led to public outrage and a state of national emergency. Songgram was harshly condemned, and on September 13, 1957, was forced out of office.

Songgram went into exile in Cambodia and later in Japan. While in exile, Songgram fulfilled a long-held wish to become a Buddhist monk, which he did at the Buddhagaya Temple in India in August of 1960. Although he wished to return to Thailand, the government there would not allow him to enter the country because they believed that if he did, it might spark another coup, or at the least, a burst of political unrest. He died in Japan on June 11, 1964. His ashes were returned to Thailand with great fanfare and were interred at the Si Mathahat Temple, which he had built as a symbol of the 1932 victory over the conservative wing of the People's Party.


Suwannathat-Pian, Kobkua, Thailand's Durable Premier, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Teed, Peter, Dictionary of Twentieth-Century History, 1941-1990, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Wyatt, David K., Thailand: A Short History, Yale University Press, 1984


Times (London), June 13, 1964.