207th Meeting – March 2001

The Thai in Keng Tung during World War II

A talk by M.R. Rujaya Abhakorn

From the 16th Century the balance of power in this region had been disputed. Keng Tung was on one of the main trade routes between Burma, China, Laos and Thailand and vital for access to the sea, achieved via Chiang Mai and thence to Moulmein and down the Chao Phraya River to the Gulf of Thailand. There was a big demand for imported goods, which were used by local power centres to redistribute wealth and keep their populations under control.

The region was very dynamic and this made it a centre of conflict. The disputes were in some ways equivalent to the European Wars of Succession, with much quarrelling and external interference. Eventually the Burmese established control and ruled the area, occupying Chiang Mai for 200 years and in conflict with Ayutthaya. Eventually the Thai Chakri dynasty, allied with Chao Kawilla of Lampang, reclaimed Chiang Mai and Keng Tung, which had a common cultural heritage.

In 1885, the British arrived in the area from Burma. It is noteworthy that they regarded Keng Tung as different from Burma and referred to the region as the Cis-Salween States. The British grouped together the Thai speaking and the Shan states. They brought peace to the area and gave some autonomy to the Shan rulers.

On June 24th 1939 Siam, under Phibul Songkhram, changed its name to Thailand. The Japanese were already very influential in Southeast Asia, having occupied French Indochina since September 1940. It was still uncertain whether Phibul was aware of Japanese long-term intentions, but it is strongly suspected that there was at least connivance between Phibul and the Japanese.  Following this, the Thais claimed back land in Laos and Cambodia that they had lost during the French occupation of Indochina at the end of the 19th Century. The Japanese agreed to this at the end of 1940, and a Thai army was created to re-occupy parts of Laos and Cambodia.

The Japanese moved into Thailand on the same day that they bombed Pearl Harbour, a move planned for some time. Phibul agreed to co-operate with the Japanese to avoid the destruction of Thailand, and the Thai army was charged with protecting the Japanese flank against the Chinese as they moved north into Burma. Keng Tung was captured by Japanese and Thai troops in 1942, assisted by the Thai air force operating out of Chiang Mai. Thai administrators showed a great deal of interest in the customs of the region. Shortly after the occupation had been established, the Thais organised local beauty contests as an extension of Thai culture, helping to create a wall against Japanese culture, and replace Shan-ness with Thai-ness.