Pridi Banomyong (11 May 1900 – 2 May 1983)
The Revolutionist, Statesman, Regent, Prime Minister…One of the century’s great leaders
Pridi Banomyong was born on May 11, 1900 in Ayudhya, the former capital of Thailand. He was the eldest son of a relatively well to do farming family. Pridi became interested in revolutionaries when he was very young. At the age of 14, he completed his secondary education. Too young to enroll in any institution for higher education.
Pridi stayed with his family for an extra two years, helping them in rice farming before darting off to law school in 1917. Pridi was a bright student, he finished law school when he was 19, a year short of the minimum age requirement to enter the bar Naeti-Banditya Sapha).
He became a barrister at law and was simultaneously awarded a scholarship to do Master’s and PhD studies in France.
In 1924, he obtained his “Bachelier en Droit”, “Licencié en Droit” and in 1926 a “Doctorat d’Etat” and “Diplôme d’Etudes Supérieures d’Economie Politique” from Université de Paris. Pridi was the first Thai to earn this appellation.
It was during his time in Paris, that he and a few like-minded Thais set up the “People’s Party” (Khana-Rassadorn). They vowed to transform the Thai system of governance from absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The group elected Pridi as their provisional leader.
Later in 1927, Pridi returned to Thailand and joined the bureaucracy and rose quickly through the ranks. He was granted a non-hereditary title of “Luang Pradit-Manudharm”.
At dawn on 24 June 1932, the People’s Party, consisting of government officials, military officers, and ordinary civilians rapidly and bloodlessly took control of the government, changing it from absolute to democratic, constitutional monarchy and installing the 1932 provisional constitution as the supreme law of the land.
Between 1933 and 1947, Pridi held various important positions including.. Minister of Interior, Minister of Foreign affairs, Minister of Finance, Regent and Prime Minister. King Rama VIII officially appointed him a “Senior Statesman” for life. Throughout these years as government official and leader, Pridi assidously worked to realize the Six Principles..
1. To maintain absolute national independence in all aspects, including political, judicial, and economics…
2. To maintain national cohesion and security…
3. To promote economic well being by creating full employment and by launching a national economic plan…
4. To guarantee equality to all…
5. To grant complete liberty and freedom to the people, provided that this does not contradict the aforementioned priciples and…
6. To provide education to the people.
While in power, Pridi succeeded in making a number of changes which radically changed certain aspects of Thai society. Among his notable accomplishments, some of them having long term impacts ,for example:
* The drafting of the nation’s first economic plan.
* The founding of the University of Moral and Politicals Science [Thammasat University].
* The Municipality Act which allowed the people to elect their own local governments.
* The revocation of unequal treaties that Thailand had been forced to sign with foreign powers.
* The reformation of the unfair tax system.
* The compilation of the country’s first revenue code.
* The founding of what ultimately became the Bank of Thailand. Stabilising the country’s financial resources. Prior to WWII, Pridi foresaw an imminent devaluation of the Pound Sterling, and bought 1,000,000 ounces of gold which continue to be used as the country’s foreign reserve.
* Promoting the concept of peace and political neautrality by proposing the 1939 bill on neautrality. On the eve of WWII, Pridi made a film entitled The King of the White Elephant, which urged peace and sought to argue how wars are exploited by rulers to obtain power at the expense of civilians.
During the WWII , once the Japanese had invaded and occupied Thailand, even as Regent, Pridi clandestinely led the “Free Thai Movement” (Seri Thai) to resist such action. In recognition of the brave coorperation and assistance rendered by this movement, the United States government subsequently recognized Thailand as an independent country that had been under Japanese military occupation as opposed to a belligerent state subject to Allied post war control. On 16 August 1945, at the advice of Lord Louis Mountbatten (the Allied SEA commander)
As Regent and Leader of Free Thai Movement, Pridi declared null and void Pibulsonggram government’s declaration of war on the Allied as it was against the will of Thai people. Through the good work of the Free Thai Movement, Thailand had thus worked its passage to peace and pre-war status.
Fifty years later, in 1995, the Thai cabinet gave belated recognition and declared 16 August “Thai Peace Day”.
Throughout these turbulent years, Pridi never lost sight of what ‘democracy as a way of life’ meant He never tired of nurturing and protecting the infantile Thai democracy gurgling in its cradle. Unlike of his genteel contemporaries, Pridi never related to the masses with distrust and trepidation. On the contrary, he had great faith in them.
In the essay “Which direction should Thailand take in the future” , Pridi vividly and passionately reiterated his conception of participatory democracy, one that guide him all his life. He wrote, “Any system favoring a small section of a community will not last. In any community the majority must shape its future. The majority including the deprived people, poor farmer, low-budget entrepreneurs, and patriotic capitalists who place the public the public interest above their own…and who want a new social system which provides a better living standard to the majority of people…social injustice [must be] abolished or reduced”.
Pridi realize that a society is more democratic to the extent that fewer people are denied human rights and opportunities. He knew that political freedom without socioeconomic opportunities is a devil’s gift. He tried to reduce and eventually to remove hierarchies of reward, status, and power in order to improve the society. He wanted to foster solidarity and compassion among his compatriots, enabling them to develop themselves, come to care about, promote, and benefit from one another’s well being as opposed to embarking on a cutthroat competition- a completely wasteful energy. Pridi envisioned a society where all citizens helped contribute to the enrichment of the lives of all.
As Pridi neatly put it, “A society exists because of the participation of its members, and a social system which enables most people to legally influence decisions and move society forward is a democracy.” He added that since every society has political, economic, social, and cultural dimentions. It is essential for a democratic society to not only promote political democracy but also “Economic democracy” (e.g. fewer people are being denied economic opportunities) and democratic thinking (e.g compassion).
For instance, to promote economic well being, Pridi advocated the creation of local cooperatives to undertake economic activities for the benefits of their members. The people should have direct control over their livelyhood rather being dependent on the ruling circles charity or philanthropy, he believed. Not infrequently, magnificent philanthropy makd brutal economic exploitation and charity becomes a pretext for maintaining laws and social practices which ought to be changed in the interest of justice and fair play, Pridi implied.
Pridi and his colleagues deemed it necessary for the people to fully understand the system of democratic governance and to be aware of their new rights and, hence, responsibilities under hte newly-found system. As a result, in 1934 , Pridi, Minister of Interior, founded the University of Moral and Political Science. He was also appointed its first rector. Reflecting his ideals, Pridi, in the speech made at the University’s opening, declared “…A university is, figuratively, an oasis that quenches the thirst of those who are in pursuit of knowledge. The opportunity to acquire higher education rightly belongs to every citizen under the principle of freedom of education…
Now that our country is governed by a democratic constitution, it is particularly essential to establish a university which will allow the people, and hence the public, to develop to their utmost capability. It will open up an opportunity for ordinary citizens to conveniently and freely acquire higher education for their own benefits and for development of our country…” Indeed Thammasart University has been a leading institution in helping to promote and protect democracy in Thailand.
On June 9, 1946, the King Ananda Mahidol or Rama VIII was found mysteriously dead in his chamber with a bullet in his forehead. After visiting the palace and the scene and having consulted with leading members of the Royal Family, as prime minister, Pridi publicly declared this an “accident”. Intending to undermine his popurality and power, Pridi’s political opponent opportunistically trumpeted that the late King was murdered and that Pridi was involved in the regicide.
On the night of 8 November 1947, a group of military leaders staged a coup d’etat, using the regicide as one of the pretexs to destroy Pridi. (Numerous court decisions had since proven Pridi innocent.) Their tanks stormed Pridi’s residence in Bangkok, forcing him to flee to Singapore. On February 1949, Pridi, aided by a number of nava; officers and Thais who favored a democratic government, unsuccessfully staged a counter-coup
Once again, he was banished from Thailand this time never to return. Between 1949 -1970, Pridi resided in China. He then lived an ordinary life joined by his wife and daughters in Paris. There he died peacefully on 2 May 1983.
While in exile, he wrote profusely and gave numerous speeches, continuing to share with later generations his conceptions of democracy, peace and social justice. The seeds of democracy that Pridi planted in thailand more than six decades ago are beginning to sprout. Whether or not his tree of liberty will continue to grow and branch out, to some extent, depends on how the Thais apply and learn from his thinkings.
To commemorate the upcoming centenary of the birth of Pridi Banomyong, a cabinet resolution was issued on May 13, 1997, to submit the statesman’s name to the UNESCO. Eventually on 16 November 1999, the 30th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO in Paris officially approved the nomination of Professor Dr.Pridi Banomyong to the list of Celebration of the Anniversaries of Great Personalities and Historic Events, 2000-2001. Pridi’s become the ninth Thai and third commoner, to recieve such an honour.