It’s incredibly difficult to believe that for a brief period Thailand, a country which has strong cultural, religious and civilisational links with India, was in a state of war with the country that gave it Buddhism and the Ramayana. With support from Tsar Nicholas II and the Russians, the kingdom formerly known as Siam had managed to stave off colonial Britain and France, which had occupied its neighbours Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. However, the Second World War changed everything.
Siam’s official policy of neutrality did not survive a five-hour-long invasion by the Japanese Empire on December 8, 1941. Unable to resist the Japanese, the Thais signed an armistice and formed a military alliance with Tokyo. In return, Thailand was promised Japanese help in regaining territories it had lost to the French colonisers in Laos and Cambodia. On January 8, 1942, Thailand declared war on Britain and by default India.
The new geopolitical equation left Thailand and British India on opposite sides of the global conflict. All at once, India faced a threat from Thailand, which facilitated the Japanese entry into Burma. Bringing the threat closer, a railway was built from Thailand to Burma – immortalised in the 1952 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai – to supply troops and weapons in the Burma campaign.
After the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the British Indian 7th Infantry Division landed in Thailand. Negotiations for a peace treaty between Thailand on one side and India and the United Kingdom on the other began in the last months of 1945. It was considered a fait accompli that India would be granted independence in the near future, so the treaty was drafted for India and Britain as two separate entities.
On New Year’s Day in 1946, representatives of Thailand, Britain and India gathered at the Government House in Singapore to sign the peace treaty. This was the first such treaty signed by Britain and India after the end of the war. Media reports from the time suggest that there was little pomp and pageantry at the event. Madhav Shrihari Aney, a freedom fighter, poet and educationalist who would go on to become a Lok Sabha MP from Nagpur in 1962, represented India at the ceremony. Britain was represented by ME Dening, who was the political advisor to Louis Mountbatten, while Prince Viwat Anajai Jayant was the Thai envoy.
“Like all small countries, Siam is jealous of her political independence and anxious about her economic reconstruction,” the Thai prince told the small media contingent. “That her independence is now assured and that reconstruction can be faced with hope is a testimony to the friendly feeling entertained towards Siam by the three countries, a feeling that Siam gladly reciprocates.” By three countries, he meant India, Britain and Australia, since Australian representatives were present to sign a preliminary agreement for a peace treaty with Thailand.
“The ceremony was a simple one, witnessed only by press correspondents,” The New York Times said on January 2, 1946. The governments handed copies of the treaty to the press in Singapore and Reuters wired it to newspapers around the world. In it the kingdom was referred to as Siam, even though the Thai government had started using the name Thailand in 1939.
The treaty, which was drafted in English and Thai, had 24 articles covering a whole range of areas. Heavily favouring the victors, Britain and India, it called on Thailand to withdraw from any territories that it occupied in the British Empire after January 1942. It also called for the Thais to pay for damages caused by the war in the said territories and return property that was taken during the war.
Two articles in the treaty concerned security. One called for Thailand to take the permission of the British government before building a canal connecting the Gulf of Siam and the Indian Ocean through Thai territory. The other centred on Thailand’s proposed entry to the United Nations and the course of its foreign policy. It said, “The Siamese government recognise that the course of events in the war with Japan demonstrates the importance of Siam to the defence of Malaya, Burma, India and Indo-China and the security of the Indian Ocean and South West Pacific areas and the Siamese Government agree to fully cooperate in all international security arrangements approved by the United Nations Organisation or its Security Council, which may be pertinent to Siam and especially such international security arrangements as may relate to those countries or areas.”
Under the treaty, India and Britain promised to support Thailand’s membership to the United Nations. That moment came in December 1946, when the kingdom formally pledged to uphold the UN Charter and the body agreed to accept Thailand. Four months later, when the kingdom was formally accepted, it received the General Assembly’s greetings from Indian, Chinese and Danish delegates, who escorted the Thai representative to his chair. M Asaf Ali, who was India’s Ambassador to the UN, said Thailand was “an old member of the cultural family of India”.
The peace treaty also called for the reestablishment of trade ties between Thailand and India. As a follow-up, in September 1946, the Indian government made its first loan to a foreign country by lending Thailand Rs 50 million (or $15 million at the prevailing exchange rate). The loan, which was for a period of 20 years, carried an interest rate of 3% per annum and the main aim behind it was to lay the foundation for closer bilateral trade ties. Although India was not independent at the time, the loan could not have been extended without the nod of Indian leaders. The loan approval on September 4, 1946 was one of the first steps taken by Jawaharlal Nehru, who was sworn in as interim prime minister of India two days earlier. Over time, Thailand became one of India’s most important trading partners in Asia. By 2018, bilateral trade between India and Thailand crossed $12 billion.
Another article in the peace treaty provided for the establishment of civil air services between Thailand and members of the Commonwealth. This took a while to pan out. It was only in 1954 that Air India launched a direct flight from India to Bangkok. But before long, the Thai capital became a popular stopover for flights from Delhi and Bombay to Tokyo and Hong Kong. For its part, Thai Airways International, which was founded in 1960, made Calcutta one of its first destinations before expanding services to other Indian cities. With the 2000s aviation boom, when low-cost carriers started flying tourists (and TV smugglers) from India to Thailand, traffic to the kingdom grew, making India one of the largest sources of visitors. In 2019, two million Indians visited Thailand.
One of the overlooked parts of the peace treaty was the article related to the maintenance of war graves. The article said, “The Siamese Government undertake to enter into an agreement with the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of India for the mutual upkeep of war graves with a view to the permanent establishment and future care of the British and Indian war graves and of Siamese war graves in their respective territories.” Proof of how meticulously the Thais have maintained Commonwealth war graves is visible in the leafy provincial town of Kanchanaburi.
Unlike Phuket, Pattaya and Krabi, which attract holiday revellers and destination-wedding tourists, Kanchanaburi, through which the River Kwai (Khwae Yai) flows, is visited mainly by those who are interested in the Second World War. The horrors of the war and the loss of countless lives are not lost on the town where the Indian tricolour and the British Union Jack fly with Thai and other Commonwealth flags. Visitors can travel on the bridge that was the subject of the 1952 Alec Guinness film, while also paying homage to those who died in the war. The maintenance of the sites associated with this unfortunate chapter is a testament to post-war Thailand’s commitment for friendly ties with India and Britain.
The peace treaty between India, Britain and Thailand was seen as an important blueprint for the other Allies looking to end the state of war with the erstwhile Axis powers. Lessons had been learned from the humiliations imposed on Germany at Versailles, and the aim was to build a world where there would not be another world war. And although it may seem today that world peace is teetering, at least the 1946 New Year treaty ensured a long-lasting friendship between Thailand and its temporary adversaries.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.