Siam was the sole Southeast Asian country “unconquered” by the Japanese as Phibun Songgram signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Japan. However, all these were a farce as Siam suffered no less than her neighbours. This added to the tragic element in Thai history for though the Siamese joined the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, she enjoyed no “prosperity”, and worse, was exploited by Japan.
Though the Treaty of Friendship (12 June 1940) was signed, there was no equal footing between Japan and Siam (a.k.a. Thailand). As pointed out by D.G.E. Hall, “she (Japan) was now well placed to bring that country (Siam) under control by means of her technique of infiltration, pressure and menaces.” Siam found her position no better than the conquered countries of SEA, in fact worse because she was obliged to offer Japan her obedience. In fact, the alliance was part of Japan’s plans to capitalize on Siam. Japan had been eyeing on the new naval base which Siam was building at Singora, and Siam was also used as a stepping stone to SEA. Thus, Japan made use of Phibun Songgram’s revisionist ambitions by permitting a mock Thai offensive on Cambodia and Laos, and then offered mediation in January 1941. The Japanese had no intention of considering Siam as an ally, but rather a tool for their conquests in SEA.
However, it remained a fact that they were unconquered, and this was worse for the Thai government. In other SEA countries, resentment of Japanese brutality led to anti-Japanese sentiments. But in Siam, the people had no one to blame but their own government. To worsen matters, Phibun Songgram himself exerted harsh punishments on officials who refused to co-operate. Thus, resentment of Japanese brutality gave rise to anti-government feelings in Siam. While nationalists in SEA sought to drive out the Japanese, nationalists in Siam aimed to oust their own government.
Though preserved their independence, Siam found herself exploited (in terms of resources and labour) by the Japanese. Trade was ceased as a result of the war. As a supposed “ally”, the Japanese not only did not help, but they confiscated materials needed for war efforts, and ceased to supply Siam with textiles and machinery as promised. As Japan’s war efforts decline, exploitation on Siam increased. Allied bombings added to the economic distress, resulting in famine, black market and inflation. In an attempt to solve the problem, the government increased taxes, but it only added to the populace’s burden. Faced with the war conditions, plus exploitation by her “ally”, Siam’s economy suffered under Japanese tyranny.
The worse tragedy was perhaps the building of the infamous Death Railway which saw the death of not only the natives, but some 200000 SE-Asians, 12000 Allied POW as well as Japanese soldiers. The building of the Death Railway turned the whole country into a slave camp, where the labour was forced to finish in 16 months what would have taken 5 to 6 years. The crew was subjected to famine and adverse weather conditions. They were not allowed to rest due to the tight schedule, and many of them actually fell off the cliff. It was a 428 km long railway linking Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Moulmein in Southern Burma, stretching through thick jungle, bridges to be built over streams and River Kwai. It was estimated that a life was lost for every railroad tie laid. Sadly, the construction ended in a tragic irony as the enormous cost in human lives and suffering was foiled when the railway was eventually bombed by the builders themselves in order to stop Japanese advancement in SEA.
Although Siam did succumb to Japanese pressure, she did not benefit much. The alliance merely saved her from Japanese attacks, but did not do much to alleviate exploitation on her. The construction of the Death Railway itself constituted one of the darkest record of World War II, and Siam witnessed the tragedy.
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[Tragedy for Japan]