The most momentous criminal trial in Thailand’s history began on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28, 1948, in a courthouse inside the Ministry of Justice beside the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The three men in the dock were accused of conspiracy to murder King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII of Siam, who had been found dead in his bed in the Grand Palace on June 9, 1946, shot through the head. He was 20 years old.
Two of the accused, But Pathamasarin and Chit Singhaseni, were royal pages who had served Ananda since he was a child. The third, Chaleo Pootomros, was Ananda’s former secretary. Also accused in absentia were Pridi Banomyong, former senior statesman of Thailand and leader of the Free Thai resistance movement against Japanese occupation during World War II, and Pridi’s aide, naval Lieutenant Vacharachai Chaiyasithiwet. Both men had fled Thailand in November 1947, fearing for their lives after the military seized power in a coup.
The junta that masterminded the coup, led by Field Marshal Phibun Songkram, had justified their actions by making the sensational claim that Pridi had masterminded the murder of the king, and his aide Vacharachai had been the shooter. Chaleo, But and Chit had been arrested for allegedly being involved in the conspiracy.
All five men were innocent. They had nothing to do with any plot to kill Ananda, and indeed no reliable evidence has ever emerged that anybody ever conspired to murder the king. The trial was a political stunt staged by the regime to give spurious justification for the coup and destroy the political aspirations of Pridi Banomyong, widely regarded then and now as a visionary statesman and the father of Thai democracy.
The trial dragged on for three years. Among those to testify were Ananda’s younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had become King Rama IX after the shooting, and Sangwan Talapat, mother of the two monarchs. During the trial, two defense counsel for the accused were murdered by police.
The verdict came on September 27, 1951. It took five hours for the judges to read the document. Sensationally, Chaleo and But were found not guilty. Chit was found guilty and sentenced to death. No verdict was given on Pridi or Vacharachai.
Both sides appealed the verdict, and in December 1953 the Appeals Court ruled that But was guilty along with Chit. Chaleo’s acquittal was upheld. The case moved to Thailand’s Supreme Court, the Dikka, which gave its judgment on October 13, 1954. All three men were found guilty and sentenced to death. They were executed by firing squad on the morning of February 17, 1955.
Contrasting with the inhumanity of the treatment the three men suffered was the compassion and courage shown by many who tried to save them. Fak Nasongkhla, a young lawyer, volunteered to defend the men when nobody else would, showing immense bravery given the risks. Chaleo’s 23-year-old daughter also joined the defense during the trial, having studied law so she could help her father. Several officials made an effort to save at least some of the three accused from a fate that was widely known to be a travesty of justice. In the end, they all failed.
A full English translation of the 1951 verdict, made by Bangkok firm International Translations, is below. It is in the British National Archives in London among other documents on the king’s death case. The document is not secret — the full verdict was read in public — but the translation is useful for those who, like me, cannot read Thai.
(Note: Apologies for two small glitches — one page is copied in a different style to the rest, and on one page I accidentally copied part of my hand too. This will be fixed on my next visit to the National Archives in London. The text remains fully readable.)