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History: The Thai army’s struggle for power over the navy

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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PHUKET: Thailand has witnessed many attempted and successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. In 1938, Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram, a military strongman, rose to power and became Thailand’s prime minister. Phibunsongkhram, or as many Western historians prefer to call him, Phibun, was a controversial figure. He led Thailand into the Second World War by openly siding with the Japanese against the Allied Powers. Phibun, a nationalist and Fascist sympathizer, created a leadership cult through propaganda and military dictatorship.

After being ousted from power in 1944, Phibun was able to stage another coup against the civilian government of Prime Minister Thawal Thamrong in 1947. Phibun declared himself prime minister once again in 1948. The years that followed his second premiership would be plagued by several attempted coups against him.

During his second premiership, Phibun changed his attitude drastically. Once a staunch supporter of fascism and Japanese imperialism in the region, Phibun maintained a façade of democracy during his post-war premiership in order to attract the large amount of American aid that was being poured into war-torn South East Asia.

Despite a show of solidarity, there was still a bitter rivalry between different factions in Thai politics during the post-war years, especially among the different armed forces. The Thai navy during that time had a bitter grudge against Phibun’s government. In 1947, when Phibun staged a coup against the civilian government, important naval officers who were in command attempted to retaliate against the army’s coup. Luang Thamrong, Luang Sangwon and Admiral Thahan were important naval officers who openly supported Pridi Phanomyong, Phibun’s arch rival in government. When the coup proved successful and Phibun came to power in 1948, these top naval officers were prosecuted and dismissed from the navy, as punishment for their role in resisting the coup.

With top naval officers dismissed, command of the navy fell to young radical officers, who felt humiliated and dishonored by the actions of Phibun. They were fearful that dismissal of their senior officers would pave the way for the army to control whatever was left of the Thai navy. In order to reclaim the honor and prestige of the navy, the junior officers felt they needed to get rid of Prime Minister Phibun. They began planning a coup against him.

On June 29, 1951, Phibun attended the transferring ceremony of an American-donated dredger ship named the Manhattan. During the ceremony, in full view of foreign diplomats and high-ranking Thai officials, Phibun was arrested by a group of armed navy men, led by Lt Commander Manat Charupha. The navy announced the seizure of power over the radio and declared Capt Anon Puntharikapha the coup leader.

Capt Anon immediately ordered all naval units to converge on Bangkok to fight with opposing government soldiers. In the meantime, Phibun was ushered onto a small navy boat and transferred to the navy’s flagship, the Si Ayutthaya. Smaller navy vessels attempted to capture strategic positions on land, but were quickly routed by the army. The navy therefore retreated to their stronghold onboard the Si Ayutthaya, with their prized captive, Phibun.

Onboard the Si Ayutthaya, the naval officers forced Phibun to broadcast a message over the radio, asking the army to exercise restraint. Despite the message, the army prepared to put into effect its drastic plans to destroy the navy. Negotiations went nowhere as both sides were willing to use their firepower to destroy each other.

The next morning, while Phibun was still being held onboard the Si Ayutthaya, a combined force of the army, the police and the air force attacked. The army, under the command of Gen Sarit Thanarat, used cannons to bombard naval installations. Air force planes attacked gasoline dumps and bombarded naval positions. Despite the fact that Phibun was still onboard the vessel, the air force bombed the naval flagship mercilessly. The Si Ayutthaya, overwhelmed with little room to maneuver, soon sank in the Chao Phraya River. Miraculously, Phibun was one of the few who survived the bombing. He managed to swim away from the wreckage to the bank of the river safely.

With the destruction of their flagship, the naval forces lost hope and abandoned the coup attempt. Hostilities quickly ended. The failed attempt of the navy to take power in 1951 would thereafter be known as “The Manhattan Rebellion”.

Following the Manhattan Rebellion, the rivalry between the army and the navy was ended once and for all. With the rebels defeated, the army moved to reduce the Thai navy to its bare essentials. Phibun ordered the dismissal of every top naval officer along with those he suspected of having taken part in the attempted coup.

Through government decrees, the navy suffered a massive reorganization imposed upon it by the army. From then onwards, the navy was restricted to sea operations only. Any land territories it controlled were seized. Prior to the coup, coastal provinces like Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon, Samut Songkhram, Chantha Buri, Chon Buri and Rayong, were controlled by the navy. After the failed rebellion, the army moved to monopolize territorial command of the entire country. The navy’s headquarters was moved out of Bangkok to Samut Prakan to keep it away from the government’s headquarters. The navy’s battle fleet, which was once stationed in the Chao Phraya River near the heart of Bangkok, was moved to Sattahip in Chon Buri province.

Seized naval weapons and armaments were given to the army. Naval aircrafts were seized as well and given to the newly-formed Thai air force. Even the navy’s prestigious musical band was transferred to the control of the armed forces headquarters. The navy was allowed to maintain only a minimum level of manpower, while the rest of its men were distributed among the victorious army, air force and police. The Thai navy, once a powerful rival to the Thai army, was thoroughly crippled and Phibun made sure they would never rise to challenge the authority of the Thai military generals again.

— Anand Singh

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

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