The Songsuradet Rebellion (Thai: กบฏพระยาทรงสุรเดช; RTGS: Kabot Phraya Songsuradet) also known as the Rebellion of 18 corpses (Thai: กบฏ 18 ศพ) was an important Thai historical event in 1939. Phraya Songsuradet (Thai: พระยาทรงสุรเดช) actually did not instigate the rebellion or coup in any way yet it was named after him. The coup was in truth carried out by Luang Phibulsonggram (Thai: หลวงพิบูลสงคราม) or Phibul on 29 January 1939 to purge the country of his political enemies and former rivals (one of them just happened to be Songsuradet).
Background & Phraya Songsuradet
Born in 1892 as Thep Panthumasen (Thai: เทพ พันธุมเสน), Songsuradet received a commissioned in the Royal Thai Army as an Artillery Lieutenant after graduating from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy and furthering his studies in Germany where he studied at the Engineer school he returned to Thailand in 1915. From then on he was given many responsibility especially in the construction of railway tracks. In 1932 he was given the title of Phraya Songsuradet by King Prajadhipok (or Rama VII). He played a crucial role in the Revolution of 1932 and subsequently became an important member of the new Thai constitutional government.
The roots of the rebellion began during the Coup d'état of June 1933, when Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena ousted Phraya Manopakorn Nititada and replace him as Prime Minister. Phraya Songsuradet a supporter of Phraya Mano and many of his companions were barred from politics for life by the new premier. Songsuradet went on exile in Sri Lanka for 2 years.
When Luang Phibulsonggram succeeded Phraya Phahon as Prime Minister of Thailand on the 11 September 1938, there was much resistance to his premiership based on his dictatorial style and cronyism. This coupled with his role in suppressing the Boworadet Rebellion; resulted in three assassination attempt: 2 by gunmen and 1 by poisoning.
In 1938 Songsuradet, by then having retired from politics for 5 years (but not yet from the Army) was Commander of the Military School in Chiang Mai. On the 16 December he was commanding a military exercise (practiced by his students) in Ratchaburi Province, west of the capital. On that date he received orders from Bangkok relinquishing his command of all units, stripping him of all his ranks and titles and forcing him to retire from the army without pension and his expulsion from the country. Under fear of death Songsuradet complied and with his Aide-de-camp Captain Samruad Kanjonsit (Thai: ร้อยเอกสำรวจ กาญจนสิทธิ์) escaped to Cambodia.
The ‘rebellion’ however did not end there, in the early hours of the morning on the 29 January 1939 Phibul, with the help of his Minister of the Interior and Director of the Royal Thai Police, ordered the arrest of a further 51 ‘suspects’ (suspected of being sympathizers of Songsuradet). The persons arrested included inter alia Prince Rangsit, Prince of Chainat (Thai: พระองค์เจ้ารังสิตประยูรศักดิ์) (a son of King Chulalongkorn), General Phraya Thepahatsadin (Thai: พระยาเทพหัสดิน) (a 62 year old former Commander of the Siamese Expeditionary Force during the First World War) and Phraya Udom Pongphensawad (Thai: พระยาอุดมพงศ์เพ็ญสวัสดิ์ ) (former Minister of State). Many others were former politicians such as members of the People’s Assembly and many were military officers and aristocrats. A further 20 ‘suspects’ were arrested by the end of the day including one of Phibul’s own servant.
A special Tribunal was created by Phibul to try those involved in the so-called ‘rebellion’ and the assassination attempts on Phibul’s life. 7 were released under lack of evidence, 25 were imprisoned for life and 21 were to be executed by firing squad. However 3 were pardoned, due to their honorable records and services to the nation, the 3 included Prince Rangsit and Phraya Thepahatsadin, who were instead imprisoned for life. The other 18, however did not share that fate, they were incarcerated at Bang Kwang Central Prison. Eventually they were executed by firing squad in installments of four prisoners a day.
Songsuradet, having escaped to Cambodia, lived the rest of his life in abject poverty, making a living by selling small confectionery in the streets of Phnom Penh; he died in 1944. Many of the other suspects who were imprisoned by Phibul were eventually pardoned by Khuang Abhaiwongse when he became Prime Minister in 1944.
The rebellion was in effect Phibul’s own version of the Night of the Long Knives. By 1938 he had consolidated his power to such an extent that he had become virtual dictator of the country, changing the name of the country from Siam to Thailand in June 1938. He was able to accomplish this using brutal tactics and the absence of any credible opposition; Prajadhipok had by then been succeeded to the throne by Ananda Mahidol, who was only 13 years old and was studying in Switzerland. The tribunal which Phibul had set up to try these suspects was filled with judges appointed by him and his government, there were no lawyers present and no witnesses were called. Historians[who?] agree today that the men executed were mostly innocent and were not a part of real plot to kill Phibul or overthrow his government. Phibul was eventually removed in 1944, however four years later he returned as Prime Minister from 1948–1957, dying in 1964.