The Leader – Por Pibulsongkram

Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsongkram changed Siam or Thailand on a scale never seen before. Beyond a doubt, like it or not, he affected every Thai citizen, right down to their tastes, traditions, ways of life and even their souls.

Jom Phon Por as he was popularly called, dictated social and economic trends through nationalistic policy for two super powerful eras of dictatorship 1938-44 and 1948-57. The people were obliged to adhere to his slogan “Trust your leader and the country is saved!” With this in order, he issued 12 Rattha Niyom (cultural mandates) between 1939-42. Jom Phon Por’s mandates changed the name of Siam to Thailand and brought in the Western Calender (New Year used to begin on 1 April). He ordered Thais to salute the flag twice a day, learn the national anthem by heart and sing it at school, refrain from speaking any dialects (especially Chinese!) in public and to use only Standard Thai. It was asked that the people speak a politer form of Thai by using words such as Chan (I), Than (You) and Jah (show politeness).

Even though Jom Phon Por signed a ceasefire in 1941 which led to a full alliance with The Army of The Rising Sun he was an advocate of many western ways. He encouraged Thais to eat with a fork and spoon, dress like westerners, wear hats and gloves and even shake hands. He brought in new laws which prohibited the chewing of betel nut, spitting, sitting on the street, going bare-chested in public and playing any traditional Thai musical instrument! And just like the government of the present era, they supported a ‘buy only Thai products’ policy.

His government successfully laid down all the guidelines for traditional Thai formal occasions such as Marriage, Ordination and Funeral etc… Along with his wife Thanphuying La-iad, they created The ‘Ramwong’ a popular form of Thai folk dance. The couple very much believed that the family was the most important social institution (they had 14 children). Again, wanting to import some western etiquette into Thailand, Jom Phon Por encouraged Thai men to kiss their wife on the cheek every morning and to call out to her “You are The Flower of the Nation”.

This huge reformation of Thai etiquette made such a striking impact, it still affects Thais and how they behave ’til this present day.

Jom Phon Por was born on 14 July 1897 to a family of durian growers in Nonthaburi province and graduated from military academy in 1914. He went on to win a scholarship to study in France 1924-27 and it was there that he met a group of ‘progressive’ Thais who wanted a democracy, and it was them who led to the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932. In 1934, as Minister of Defense he encouraged books to be printed such as those by authoritarian European leaders, Mussolini and Hitler. After Jom Phon Por obtained absolute power in 1939 he desired to build a completely new nation (sangchat), prohibited any pictures of Rama VII and even sued the king in regards to crown property.

Jom Phon Por seemed to ignore the fact that Thais were of mixed heritage, but instead wished to believe that Thais were of a ‘Pure Race’ and so treated the Chinese immigrants with contempt. Some scholars argue that much of his economic ideology was of ‘self-interest only’ as he took over, by himself, all the Chinese businesses such as salt, tobacco and pork etc…

Jom Phon Por was ‘a leader with many enemies’ and he miraculously survived at least 3 assassination attempts including two, where he was shot at virtually point blank range. It was Jom Phon Por himself, who was center of attraction, in undoubtedly the biggest botched coup d’etat cock-up in Thai history ‘The Manhattan Coup Attempt’ when The Navy took him hostage in the middle of the Chao Phraya River in view of The Grand Palace. Even though Jom Phon Por was aboard when the airforce blew the Manhattan into smithereens, he had once again amazingly survived, by jumping out of the ship’s toilet window at the moment of the blast.

FM Plaek Pibulsongkram was finally deposed and exiled in 1957 by another powerful dictator Sarit Thanarat. Before his death in 1964, he entered the monkhood in Bodhgaya, India. His ashes were returned and laid to rest at a temple he had built for the 1932 victors – Wat Phra Sri Mahathat, in the Bang Khen district of Bangkok.

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