Eyes on the Spies in Thailand: New CIA Files Released

Eyes on the Spies in Thailand: New CIA Files Released
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
What you need to know

Andrew MacGregor Marshall gives his overview of some of the CIA files on Thailand that have now been declassified and made widely available to the public for the first time. From tales of tantrums and toilet breaks to kingly admissions of involvement in coups, it makes for eye-opening reading.

Last week, after a long struggle by freedom of information campaigners, the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States finally put 13 million pages of declassified documents online. These documents were already in the public domain, but previously could only be viewed on four computers at the U.S. National Archives in Maryland, available between 9 am and 4.30pm from Monday to Friday. This meant that most people around the world could never see them. Now we all can.

Over the last few days I have been looking at the documents relevant to Thailand, and particularly suppressed information about the Thai royal family, which is my area of specialist expertise.

The following is a brief overview of interesting documents I have found so far that help shed some light on dark episodes in Thai history. This is an ongoing project that I will keep updating via my Facebook page. Please feel free to share anything interesting you find too, either in the comments, or in a private message if you are in Thailand and (justifiably) concerned about the dangers of telling the truth.

A loveless marriage and a rumored abdication

On June 9, 1946, the 18-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej accidentally shot his brother King Ananda Mahidol through the head when they were playing with a Colt .45 pistol in Ananda’s bedchamber in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The distraught Bhumibol became King Rama IX the same day, but soon fled to Switzerland, ostensibly to finish his studies at the University of Lausanne, although he actually never completed his degree. Instead he was sunk in deep depression, and terrified of having to return to Bangkok to cremate the corpse of the beloved brother he had killed.

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Meanwhile, Thai royalists were split about what to do about Bhumibol. Many favored revealing the truth about the regicide, so that Bhumibol would have to abdicate and Prince Chumbhotbongs Paribatra would become monarch instead. Others thought the best solution was to try to support the weak and troubled Bhumibol and train him to play his role as a figurehead and protector of elite royalist interests. One way they tried to do this was by arranging his marriage to the feisty Sirikit Kitiyakara, who was much more audacious and bold than the struggling young king.

According to this document from April 1950, Bhumibol had no affection for Sirikit and was trying to avoid returning to Thailand for the cremation. In the end he was persuaded to return, and ironically he was supported by the progressive faction in the Thai government, because they believed he would be easily manipulated. This was true, but the palace and military manipulated him more cleverly than the progressives, and he ended up ruling for 70 years and doing prolonged damage to Thai democracy.

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The king and his coups
In September 1957, the notoriously corrupt army chief Sarit Thanarat seized power in a coup, deposing Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram. This was the start of a remarkable palace revival in Thailand, because unlike his predecessor Sarit pretended to respect the monarchy and used royalist propaganda to bolster his dictatorial rule.

The palace has always tried to pretend that Bhumibol was above politics and never played any part in the numerous military coups that have disfigured Thailand’s modern history. But overwhelming evidence — including numerous declassified British and U.S. diplomatic cables — suggest otherwise.

This confidential CIA report from September 1957 says that Bhumibol admitted to U.S. ambassador Max Waldo Bishop that he played an “active role in the coup”.

Bhumibol also stated that he “intended to withdraw from the political arena” after a new government was established. This proved to be entirely untrue — the coup of September 1957 was the beginning of a royalist resurgence in which the palace gradually established ever greater influence in Thai politics.

Bhumibol versus democracy

In 1973, a student uprising in Bangkok led to the apparent overthrow of military dictatorship after nearly a quarter of a century. Bhumibol made a public show of support for the students at a decisive moment, and this helped foster a persistent myth — actively promoted by the palace — that he was a “democratic” king.

In fact, Bhumibol was a reactionary figure who never felt comfortable with democracy and who believed that Thailand should be ruled by the royalist elite.

Following the unexpected events of October 1973, Bhumibol quickly became disillusioned with democracy and the palace actively conspired to undermine parliamentary rule.

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This led to a savage massacre of student protesters at Thammasat University by ultra-royalist forces in October 1976. Bhumibol’s complicity in the destruction of democracy in this period is well established, but this CIA document from February 1974 is interesting because it suggests that within six months of the student uprising the monarch had already given his permission to crush progressive forces in Thailand if necessary.

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Worries over royal succession and political awakening

Even after the withdrawal of US troops from Thailand in the mid-1970s, America continued to consider the kingdom a key Cold War ally, but was perpetually worried that Thais might be growing more receptive to other ideas. There were also concerns about the widely despised successor to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

An intelligence assessment by several U.S. agencies in November 1981 explicitly raised worries about royal succession as a destabilizing factor in Thailand, stating:

The current monarch’s great popularity and personal qualities enable him to play a key role in moderating national crises. The lack of an equally capable successor, however, suggests that the power of the monarchy and its stabilizing influence will decline with succession. Moreover, the independence of the Palace from the military is likely to decrease. and the Army‘s political power will probably grow despite the wishes of certain junior officers that the military remain aloof from politics.

The analysis also presciently forecast that increasing political engagement among ordinary Thais would become a significantly destabilizing factor for the sclerotic Thai elite and their shaky status quo from the 1990s onwards.

Prem and the prince

Between 1980 and 1988 Thailand was a faux-democracy in which royalist general Prem Tinsulanonda served as prime minister on behalf of Bhumibol’s faction among the royalist elite. Meanwhile, the king’s marriage to Queen Sirikit was unravell=ing, and army factionalism was rife. Sirikit became close to generals who wanted to replace Prem, and also sought to pressure Bhumibol to abdicate in favor of Vajiralongkorn, who had his own favorites among the political and military elite.

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In April 1984, several U.S. intelligence agencies produced a secret joint report on Prem’s political prospects. The report mentions that Vajiralongkorn was regarded as erratic and irresponsible.

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The report also noted that Vajiralongkorn supported a right-wing rival of Prem. This was notorious ultranationalist politician Samak Sundaravej. Meanwhile, Sirikit had a favorite of her own — the ambitious General Arthit Kamlang-ek.

These factors destabilized the country throughout the period of “Premocracy”.

Nature first, protocol second

By 1986, pressure from Sirikit and her faction for Bhumibol to abdicate had become intense. The monarch shocked the nation on his 59th birthday in December that year by hinting that he would soon step aside to make way for Vajiralongkorn to rule Thailand.

“The water of the Chao Phraya must flow on, and the water that flows on will be replaced. In our lifetime, we just perform our duties. When we retire, somebody else will replace us,” Bhumibol intoned. “One cannot stick to a single task forever. One day we will grow old and die.”

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This caused panic among the more liberal elements of the royalist elite, who began desperately trying to prevent Vajiralongkorn taking over. In the end it was Vajiralongkorn himself who did the most to sabotage an early succession, with a spectacular meltdown during an official visit to Japan in September 1987. Furious that his mistress Yuvathida Polpraserth had not been allowed to accompany him for reasons of protocol, Vajiralongkorn behaved petulantly throughout the trip, and eventually cut it short three days early, claiming he had been shown an unacceptable level of disrespect.

One of the incidents that apparently enraged the crown prince was that at one stage his Japanese chauffeur had to stop the car to pee en route to an official engagement.

Here is a CIA summary of the debacle. Note the handwritten comment that a U.S. official added to the document: “Nature first, protocol second.”

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Inappropriate behaviour

Bhumibol marked his 60th birthday in December 1987. Compounding the embarrassment of the crown prince’s calamitous visit to Japan, the king’s birthday was marred by several anonymous leaflets that denounced the behavior of Vajiralongkorn and his mother Sirikit.

This episode has been covered in detail by journalist Paul Handley in his seminal biography of Bhumibol, The King Never Smiles. As Handley explains (and as the CIA apparently failed to realize) the leaflets were actually sponsored by members of the extended royal family — the relatives of Vajiralongkorn’s abandoned first wife Soamsawali.

This article was first published at New Mandala ­– a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The original can be found here.

A longer version of this article was originally published on his Facebook page, and can be viewed here.

TNL Editor: Edward White