The Royal Thai Navy honored 36 sailors who died 78 years ago in the Franco-Thai War’s Battle of Koh Chang.
Adm. Noppadol Supakorn, commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Fleet, presided over the Jan. 17 service at the Koh Chang Naval Battle Monument in Trat with Gov. Prasert Luachathananon and top local officials.
The ceremony included a religious service, release of marine animals to make merit and the floating of a wreath for the sailors aboard the coastal defense ship and two torpedo boats that were sunk by the Vichy French navy off Koh Lim before dawn on Jan. 17, 1941.
While much of the world was engaged in World War II, Thailand still had not entered the war. But after Germany occupied France and installed the Vichy government, then-Prime Minister Maj. Gen. Plaek “Phibun” Pibulsonggram saw France’s weakened state a perfect time to invade French Indochina and reclaim parts of Cambodia and Laos lost to the French in the 1893 Franco-Siamese War.
The larger Thai army and the more-powerful Royal Thai Air Force began trampling the French along the Cambodian border. The war, in fact, was going so badly for the French that Indochina Gov. Adm. Jean Decoux decided the only way to counterattack was a surprise attack on the inferior Thai navy at Koh Chang.
The French caught the Thai navy sleeping before dawn Jan. 17, quickly sinking the two torpedo boats, the HTMS Songkla and HTMS Chonburi, killing a total 16 sailors. A sustained attack upon the Japanese-built HTMS Thonburi left it incapacitated and in flames, with 30 sailors killed.
The French navy suffered only 11 deaths and won the tactical battle, but failed to capitalize on the victory after the Japanese intervened and brokered an end to the war.
Under the accord, Thailand reclaimed six Cambodian provinces, including Siem Reap and Preah Vihear; plus parts of Luang Prabang in Laos and other territories in that country.
However, its gains would be short-lived as on Dec. 8, 1941 – 90 minutes before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor – it invaded Thailand. In the eventual peace treaty with Japan, Thailand was forced to return all its Cambodian and Laos land to France.