Having a formal diplomatic relationship with communist China in 1950s was unthinkable when Thailand was under THE leadership of nationalist Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram.
It was known then to only a few people that Marshal Phibun’s close aidE Sang Phathanothai conducted a backdoor policy, dispatching his children Wanwai and Sirin to secretly bridge ties under THE care of then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Wanwai was 12 years old while Sirin was EIGHT. They LIVED AND grew up through troubleD times, notably the CulturAL Revolution in China. now elderly, they shared their unique experiences at a forum commemorating THE 60th anniversary of relations between the Phathanothais and China. Former PM Anand Panyarachun also joined the panel moderated by The Nation’s Suthichai Yoon, a digital journalist AT the Nation Multimedia Group.
Wanwai and Sirin Phathanothai, first and second from right, recall their childhoods spent in the People’s Republic of China in a panel commemorating 60 years of relations between their family and the PRC. The panel was joined by former PM Anand Panyarachun, second from left. and Suthichai Yoon, digital journalist for the Nation Multimedia Group.
For background information, how were ties between Thailand and China construed?
Anand: Records of bilateral relations actually occurred as far as five or six centuries ago. Through generations of marriages and trade exchanges, people of the two lands gradually and naturally absorbed the relations in their veins. However, the ties were later obliged to be set up following China’s rising power after World War II, as a permanent member to the United Nations Security Council. As a country who let Japanese troops march through during the war, Thailand felt pressed to open a diplomatic channel with China so as to smoothly remain in the UN. It succeeded doing so in much in later years [in 1975], far after the Phathanothais proceeded with their backdoor strategy.
Now that you mention the Phathanothais, what were your first impressions with them that you can recall?
Anand: I was used to hearing Sang’s name since a very young age. He was a very popular radio host on one side, while on the other side he was a heavy propaganda mouthpiece for Plaek. Though never meeting him personally, I could observe he was an independent thinker with insights that went much further than people of his time. Sang’s eldest child, Mun, was also made to be educated on the side in the US. I must say Sang’s wife [Wilai] was the most empathetic and enduring [figure] there.
[Turning to Wanwai and Sirin] what do you think made your father so brave in making such a decision?
Wanwai: It was thought through by my father and Plaek, who hung out with each other almost every evening. As my father told me, Plaek was very politically minded and prudent, viewing that it would not be safe for Thailand to be a rival against a big and nearby country like China. The field marshal then assigned my father to take care of all Chinese affairs, with him pretending to not have the slightest idea. All military forces also knew about it except the police, who seemed to be really close with the US then.
Sirin: In later occasions, I got to see some classified documents and it seemed that the US ambassador also had no idea about the movement. I supposed the CIA learnt about it much later on.
Anand: With Sang contacting China and Plaek openly siding with the US, forcing Chinese descendants to use Thai surnames and closing some Chinese schools here, I could say this is what they call “Siamese talk”. Thailand was capable of this two-sided strategy.
Would you recall some memories when you were made to part with your family to go to China?
Wanwai: It was a very brave and sacrificing move. My mother was also very decisive. We knew that once in China, we could not send letters, make any calls, or might not be able to return to Thailand again. To me it was the world’s wonder. How could any PM of a powerful country accept alien children from an ordinary person whom he never even met before?
Sirin: I recall that the then-president Mao Zedong also asked: “Why accept the children? They would want to go home in a couple of weeks.” And PM Zhou replied: “Please accept them, especially given that they were from a rival country.”
Wanwai: There was also one time that I was forced to read a script cursing my father on the radio in Beijing. He told me later that he was glad I did so, that we all could go through it.
Your stories were also included in televised documentaries of PM Zhou, which were accepted by the Chinese government. So it could be said that you two ARE part of history?
Sirin: My younger sister even assisted in finding the cast member for my role.
Anand: Children being sent to another county was done several times in Thai history. For instance, when King Rama V sent his children to study in Russia. However, Sang’s case was the first time that children were sent to a rival country and, despite all hardship, kept a good bond with his children.
While Zhou was apparently prudent, it is still essential to question how really important were the children, given that Sang had no political influence. However, I note that China is very elaborate in every bit of policy and relations, coupled with detailed strategic thought and handiness in equipping soft diplomacy.
If Sang was still living today, what do you think he would say now?
Sirin: He would be glad to see his goals accomplished. Elevated diplomacy between Thailand and China is one thing, the other is the presence of social security, a subject that my father went to study in Oxford after Plaek returned for his second rule [in 1948].
Wanwai: My father and Plaek were jailed together as war criminals after the World War [II] ended. I recalled visiting them, and they did not regret past decisions for Thai interests. However, since Plaek joined with Japan in 1945, two years before the criminal war laws were legislated, Plaek and his bloc were eventually acquitted. My father was asked to be a minister of public information. However, intrigued by the changing post-war world order, he wanted to study in UK, where labour became dominant.