Follow this link to the Issan Record website article on ‘Rediscovered Heroes of Democracy in Sakhon Nakhon’ and a credit to this article.
The town of Sakhon Nakhon is 200 miles north of Ubon. In 1945 it was the home town of Assemblyman (member of parliament) Nai Tiang Sirikhandra, a close associate of Luang Pridi. He was a natural leader and a firm supporter of the Seri Thai. Luang Pridi made him leader of the Seri Thai Movement for the north-east of Thailand. Sakhon Nakhon was relatively distant from troublesome Japanese activity.
Major Smiley from the British Special Operations Executive was parachuted into the countryside close to Sakhon Nakhon and rendezvoused with Nai Tiang. He was accompanied by Sergeant Collins and two British SOE trained Thai agents, Sushi Sudisakdi and Santa Sintavi. You can read about their hair-raising exit from the Liberator aircraft in my book Ubon: The Last Camp Before Freedom.
The operational area under Major Smiley’s control was code-named Candle. Its western boundary was the north-south railway between Korat and Udon Thani continuing north to Nong Thai on the river Mekong. The north and eastern boundary followed the river Mekong and the southern extent was the railway between Korat and Ubon. It was a huge area.
Nai Tiang recruited thousands of men into the north-eastern branch of the Seri Thai and it was Major Smiley’s responsibility to train them ready to fight against the Japanese when required. Major Smiley proposed 2 battalions of men based on each town of Ubon, Sakhon Nakhon, and Korat and one battalion at each town of Mahasarakham, Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan. This made 11 battalions and a total of 5,500 men. SOE HQ agreed his proposal but failed to deliver anywhere near the quantity of arms, ammunition and explosives required for training. In part this was due to monsoon weather conditions at the time of scheduled air drops, but nevertheless very disappointing for Major Smiley and the Seri Thai. In his final report Major Smiley stated that 16,000 guerrillas had been trained in the Candle region.
Khamma and I travelled to Sakhon Nakhon in the hope for finding remnants of the Seri Thai. I had previously studied a map and found a reference to the site of a ‘Seri Thai Cave‘ on road 213 leading south-west out the town. We set off with high expectations and as we left the centre of Sakhon Nakhon we spotted a crossroads named after the Seri Thai. It’s quite unusual to find places named after groups or associations and this little nod to the existence of the Seri Thai made me feel we were in the right area.
The road wound its way steeply uphill and we drove around some spectacular switchback hairpin bends (or curves as they call them in Thailand) not quite alpine but a welcome change from the flat straight roads around Ubon. A sign told us we were in the Phupan National Park. On either side of the road there was thick forest with sunlight glimpsing through the high branches. Occasional streams ran by the side of the road creating deep culverts.
We eventually arrived at a road sign pointing to the Seri Thai camp. The atmosphere along the rough road felt a little intimidating, especially as we had been warned against local kamoeys (Thai for thieves). We wondered how far we had to go before an ambush! To our relief we soon arrived at the entrance to the site. The guard house was occupied by a single guard who was asleep. We apologised for waking him as he raised the barrier and entered the empty car-park. We had the whole place to ourselves.
It was a very pleasant and well maintained area dominated by a statue of Nai Tiang and an exhibition centre. There was also a signed path leading to the cave and some well maintained toilets!
At the side of the statue lay two plaques explaining the importance of Nai Tiang and the Seri Thai to the community. The first inscription reads’ “Tiang Siri Khan, The Phuphan Warrior. Born in 1909 a native of Sakonratwitayanukul School Udornpitayanukul Schooland Chungalongkorn University.
Master Tiang Sirikhan served his country as a teacher five times as a congressman and three times as a ministry of the cabinet. During World War II he led the Free Thai Movement in the northeast of Thailand. In 1952 he was abducted and slain by those barbaric in power. Master Tiang Sirikhan was a model of an ideal teacher, and honourable congress man who dedicated his heart and soul to democracy and sacrificed himself to his country and his fellow countrymen. Named The Phuphan Warrior, he is our common folk hero, the highest pride of Sakon Nakhon. (sic)”
The feeling of admiration held by the people of Sakhon Nakhon through the generations was tangible and for me it put into context his importance to the Ubon story. A remarkable man full of energy and determination who had views counter to the establishment and paid the ultimate price.
The second plaque gave a moving explanation of the Seri Thai: “Free Thai of the Phuphan. The Free Thai Movement of the Phuphan mountains was a united force of
farmers, village and sub-district headmen, elementary school teachers and other civil servants who under Master Tiang Sirikhan, named the Phuphan Warrior, and coded Pluto’s leadership, campaigned against the Japanese troops in Thailand during World War II. Their first camp was set up at Ban Nonhorm in 1942 and followed by other camps. These people were armed with modern weapons provided by the allies some of which were kept in a cave, now called Free Thai Cave in Ban Lad Kacher on The Phuphan. The Free Thai Movement Phuphan Mountains is the story of heroic deeds by the patriotic common folks to preserve Thailand’s independence and sovereignty. (sic)” (The reference to Pluto is the code-name given to him by the SOE.)
The monument was proposed in 2005 with a budget of 2,281,000 baht. (In those days that would be about £30,000 – today it is about £57,000 – but that’s another story!!!) Work began on 1 May 2010 and was completed on 16 August 2011. It was officially opened exactly one year later.
The exhibition centre housed some very interesting items. An exhibition board explained that the Seri Thai Movement was formed by Luang Pridi following the Japanese entry into Thailand on 8 December. This was exactly the same as my detailed research sources had revealed and I was delighted with the confirmation. There was even reference to Nai Thongin Phuriphat the Ubon Assemblyman and father of Orain Phuriphat who I had previously interviewed in Ubon. In addition there was a couple of familiar photos of Major Smiley and Sergeant Collins posing with Nai Tiang. Finally there were two photographs of a Seri Thai training camp, I am not sure of the location but historically they are very significant.
After leaving the exhibition centre we followed the path to the cave. It was a very pleasant walk of about 800 metres through dry woodland. My imagination wandered as I thought of Seri Thai guerrillas walking up the path to a meeting in the cave and guards hiding in the undergrowth waiting for uninvited guests.
We soon arrived at the cave. An information board explained it was previously camouflaged and with it being a hole in the ground rather than a hole in a wall, it was easily hidden from view. I ventured into the cave wary of snakes and other creatures – but only saw a shy lizard scampering away as I disturbed its peace.
The Phuphan Seri Thai Monument recognises the importance of the Seri Thai to Sakhon Nakhon’s heritage. There are so few references to the Seri Thai Movement in Thailand, but in this area they have not forgotten.
Later that evening we met Khamma’s cousin and her partner and visited the elegant Wat Phra That Choeng Chum Worawihan temple in Sakhon Nakhon. Well worth a night-time visit.