On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28, 1948, the most sensational trial in Thai history got under way. Three men — royal pages But Pathamasarin and Chit Singhaseni and former royal secretary Chaleo Pootomros — stood accused of conspiring to murder King Ananda Mahidol, who was shot dead in his bedroom in June 1946. The prosecution alleged that the plot was masterminded by fugitive former Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong, and that the assassin was his aide, naval Lieutenant Vacharachai Chaiyasithiwet, also on the run. The trial and appeals were to drag on for more than six years.
The trial was a farce: the three accused were scapegoats who had nothing to do with Ananda’s death, and the allegations against Pridi were also without foundation.
The British embassy in Bangkok sent regular progress reports on the trial in cables to London, and some of the most interesting are shared below.
In a February 1949 cable, ambassador Sir Geoffrey Thompson discusses the testimony of Dr Nitya Vejjavivisth, a friend of the Mahidols from their time in the United States, who had been one of the first outsiders to arrive at the scene of the king’s death on the morning of June 9, 1946.
Nitya noted that the wound in Ananda’s forehead had been cleaned before his arrival. He noted that “the present King and his mother were sitting in an adjoining room and the mother’s voice seemed to be raised in anger”, and added that “his first impression was that there had been an accident; any other cause of death seemed out of the question”.
He also recounted a conversation with Bhumibol on the evening of June 9. Bhumibol had told him: “In my opinion, there is no explanation other than accident for my brother’s death.” Bhumibol had then blurted out: “You must help me, Luang Nit. Don’t leave me in a situation like this.”
A cable in early March reports on more of Nitya’s testimony. He had recounted that there was pressure from Pridi Banomyong to declare Ananda’s shooting an accident, and also stated that he did not believe Pridi had anything to do with the king’s death. Nitya had also noted that the position of Ananda’s corpse as he had found it was not necessarily the position it had been in when he had been killed.
Nitya also noted that if Ananda had been shot by somebody, it would have to be an “insider” in the Grand Palace: an outside assassin was inconceivable. He also made a cryptic remark that he had been told to tell Ananda and Bhumibol’s mother that “history relates of younger brothers killing elder brothers and of older brothers killing younger brothers”.
The cable also notes that, following Pridi’s abortive coup attempt on February 26, two of the defense counsel in the trial had been detained by police, and then killed, allegedly while attempting to escape. It was widely known they had been murdered on the orders of toxic police chief Phao Sriyanond.
A May 1949 cable from Thompson drily remarks that following the murder of two defense counsel, another had withdrawn from the trial, “not perhaps uninfluenced by these developments”. That left only one lawyer to defend the accused — the courageous Fak Nasongkhla.
The cable also notes that testimony would be sought from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and from Sangwan, the mother of Ananda and Bhumibol.
The response of officials in the British Foreign Office to the news that Bhumibol would be asked to testify is very interesting: they clearly believed he had crucial information about the cause of his brother’s death, but they also did not expect that he would tell the truth about it. As one wrote in a handwritten comment in June 1949 on the Foreign Office folder containing cables about the trial: “The most important source of evidence, namely the present King (who is in Switzerland) will probably be the least productive.”
A cable in July recounts testimony from Prince Dhani and Prince Rangsit. It is interesting because their testimony that they had quickly surmised King Ananda had been murdered does not fit with their behaviour in the hours and days after his death. Prince Dhani also confirms a conversation with Britain’s Lord Louis Mountbatten in India about Ananda’s death. Mountbatten’s account of this conversation shows he had explicitly told Dhani that Bhumibol’s involvement in the incident needed to be cleared up, since Bhumibol did not appear to have a solid alibi for his whereabouts at the moment of Ananda’s death.
A May 1950 cable records that Bhumibol had given testimony to the trial. Once again, Thompson’s belief that the trial was a travesty, and his doubts about Bhumibol’s honesty, are clearly apparent. As he noted, “Whatever the future course of this sad and sorry trial, it seems unlikely that witnesses still to be called will expose themselves to the risks of ‘lèse majesté’ inherent in contradicting these points which the King has made.”
In September 1950, a cable from British charge d’affaires Richard Whittington notes that Sangwan, mother of Bhumibol and Ananda, had testified in Switzerland.
On September 27, 1951, the court laid down its verdict. Sensationally, Chaleo and But were found not guilty; Chit was declared guilty of murder. Both sides appealed, and the interminable legal process ground onwards. In December 1953, the appeals court gave its judgment: Chaleo’s acquittal was upheld, but the judges ruled that both Chit and But were guilty. The case moved to the supreme court, where a final judgment was given on October 13, 1954. The convictions of But and Chit were upheld, and Chaleo, who had been rearrested two days earlier, was also found guilty. All three men were sentenced to death. They were executed by firing squad on February 17, 1955.
Even the palace has implicitly acknowledged in recent decades that the three men were innocent, and that Pridi Banomyong had nothing to do with King Ananda’s death. The trial was a travesty of justice that cost the lives of three scapegoats and two defense counsel.