King Ananda’s death: Remembering the “forgotten round”

Ananda Mahidol, the 20-year-old King Rama VIII of Siam, was killed on the morning of June 9, 1946, shot through the head in his bedroom in Bangkok’s riverside Grand Palace complex with his own Colt .45 automatic pistol. Later that day, in the evening, his 18-year-old brother Bhumibol became King Rama IX, and has been on the throne of Thailand ever since.

It was initially presumed among senior princes and politicians in Bangkok that Ananda had committed suicide. In the hours after his death, at a fraught meeting in the Barompiman Hall building, downstairs from where Ananda’s corpse lay in his bed, Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong, senior royal Prince Rangsit Prayurasakdi of Chainat, and other leading officials discussed how to break the news to Thailand’s people. There was never any serious debate about whether an outside assassin had somehow broken in to Ananda’s bedroom and murdered him — that possibility seemed totally outlandish.

The difficulty facing the government and royal family was how to officially explain Ananda’s death. Sangwan Talapat, the mother of Ananda and Bhumibol, was adamant that she did not want the death to be explained as suicide, and it should instead be described as an accident. Bhumibol too insisted to several people that he was sure the death had been an accident. Testimony from some of those present at the meeting shows they considered the possibility of announcing that Ananda’s death was the result of indigestion or heart disease, without mention the gunshot at all, but that this was rejected. In the end, mainly to protect royal prestige from the taint associated with suicide, an official communique was released stating Ananda had accidentally shot himself in the head while handling his pistol. To preserve the myth of royal inviolability, it was added that he had been suffering form a stomach complaint which may have weakened him — the implication was that had the king been at full strength he would not have made such a mistake with his gun.

Prime Minister Pridi had agreed to this explanation largely at the urging of Sangwan and other royals, and he was to doggedly defend it at great personal and political cost, but the problem was that it did not stand up to scrutiny. Ananda’s Colt .45 had a safety feature, a pressure plate on the butt that had to be pressed in a firm grip at the same time the trigger was pulled. Doing so by accident while inspecting or cleaning the weapon was exceptionally unlikely. Moreover, the position of Ananda’s body suggested he had been shot while lying flat on his back, and his glasses were on his bedside cabinet. Sangwan and Bhumibol insisted this was the position they had found his corpse. It seemed inconceivable that Ananda would have been handling his pistol while lying on his back without his spectacles.

Pridi and other senior officials thought initially that they were covering up a suicide, but as more evidence of what happened began to emerge, they were hit by the shattering realization that the likeliest explanation was that Bhumibol had shot his brother by accident. The two boys often played with loaded guns, and Bhumibol’s account of his exact whereabouts at the time of Ananda’s death conflicted with testimony given by the royal nanny. This made Pridi and his government even more determined to stick to the explanation that Ananda had been accidentally killed — it was, after all, probably true that it had been an accident, just not a self-inflicted accident. It was feared that if the truth was made public, Thailand would be plunged into dangerous instability and ferment.

But because the explanation of a self-inflicted accident was so unlikely and unconvincing, and because it was increasingly obvious that the government was hiding something, Thailand’s people quickly became convinced that they were not being told the truth. This was exploited by Pridi’s royalist enemies who hugely resented his popularity and his leading role in the 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchial rule. They began to spread rumours that Ananda had been assassinated as part of a communist plot masterminded by Pridi himself. Seni Pramoj, a leading royalist who was to become a stalwart of the Democrat Party, was particularly active in using Ananda’s death to smear Pridi: within hours of the tragedy he was already relentlessly exploiting it.

In the feverish atmosphere in Siam following the death of the king, the rumours of foul play were widely believed. Trying to regain control of the situation, the government appointed a special commission of inquiry, which in turn asked a panel of 20 doctors — 16 Thai, two British, one British Indian and one American — to carry out belated forensic work on Ananda’s corpse and give their verdict on whether his death was suicide, accident, or regicide.

The “accident” scenario referred specifically to a self-inflicted injury, while the “regicide” scenario implied that somebody had murdered Ananda. This meant the three options available to the doctors were inadequate because they excluded a fourth possibility — somebody could have shot Ananda by accident. Specifically, he could have been shot by mistake by his younger brother Bhumibol. However, because of the explosive implications of suggesting Thailand’s new king had killed the previous king accidentally, doctors were never asked to determine whether the evidence fit this scenario.

Furthermore, according to several doctors on the panel and contemporary diplomatic sources, considerable pressure was put on the medical panel over what their findings should be. Pridi Banomyong initially said it was inappropriate for the doctors to pronounce on the likely scenarios at all, and they should instead confine their work to establishing the forensic details as clearly as possible. When that failed, he tried to press them to declare the death an accident, in line with the official government communiques. Powerful royalists, meanwhile, were pressing the panel to declare that the king had been murdered, as this would allow them to undermine Pridi.

The forensic report was concluded on June 27 and can be read in full here. Of the 20 doctors, 16 declared regicide as the likeliest option, four suicide, and two accident. The discrepancy is because some of the doctors voted for two options as equally likely.

The two British doctors on the panel, Colonel J.D. Driberg and Lieutenant-Colonel Harlan Rees, and the British Indian doctor Captain D.C. Gupta, were told by the British authorities not to express any public opinion on whether the death was accident, suicide or murder. Britain was already well aware that the king’s death case had become hopelessly politicized, and did not want to get dragged into the controversy.

On November 8, 1947, Thailand’s elected government was overthrown in a coup backed by an alliance of royalists and right-wing militarists. Senior Statesman Pridi Banomyong had to flee the country in fear of his life. The new regime declared that Pridi and his aide, naval Lieutenant Vacharachai Chaiyasithiwet — also on the run — were the masterminds of Rama VIII’s murder. And they arrested several alleged co-conspirators including Ananda’s former secretary Chaleo Pootomros and his two royal pages, But Pathamasarin and Chit Singhaseni. These three men were accused of conspiracy to murder Ananda, in a show trial that began on September 28, 1948.

The accusations against all three were totally bogus. Ahead of the trial, the regime put Seni Pramoj’s brother-in-law Pinit Chongkadi, a police major-general, in charge of gathering evidence on Pridi’s alleged communist conspiracy to kill King Ananda. He paid several people to give concocted evidence at the trial. And he also exploited the fact that the forensic evidence overwhelming suggested Ananda’s death had not been self-inflicted. This evidence — which in fact implicated Bhumibol — was instead used against Pridi and the trial scapegoats.

In May 1948, Pinit travelled to London to enlist the help of Keith Simpson, an eminent forensic pathologist who would later become professor of forensic medicine in the University of London at Guy’s Hospital and lecturer in forensic medicine at the University of Oxford. Simpson recounts their discussion in his memoir Forty Years of Murder:

On 13th May 1948, the Major-General came with an interpreter to see me in London. The question was still the same: accident, suicide, or murder?

The King had been keenly interested in small firearms, and had often practiced shooting with Vacharachai. He had kept an American Army .45 Colt automatic in his bedside drawer. Could it have gone off accidentally while he was examining it? Would an intelligent man who knew anything about firearms inspect a pistol with the safety catch off and the magazine fully charged while lying in bed on his back, his head on the pillow and the pistol pointing at his forehead? The idea seemed wildly far-fetched, even apart from the fact that the King’s sight was so defective that he could not have examined anything without his spectacles, and at the time of his death these were lying on the bedroom table.

The position of the body made suicide almost equally unlikely. In twenty years’ experience I had not seen a suicide shoot himself whilst lying flat on his back. No such case existed, so far as I knew. The suicide sits up or stands up to shoot himself.   There were other strong indications against suicide. The pistol found at the King’s side was by his left hand, but he was right-handed. The wound, over the left eye, was not in one of the elective sites, nor a ‘contact’ discharge. The direction of fire was not inward towards the centre of the head. Furthermore the King had never hinted at suicide to anyone and had not been depressed at the time of his death.

That left only murder, for which the evidence was very strong. I thought he had almost certainly been shot while dozing, and that unconsciousness had followed instantly. The muzzle of the pistol had evidently been close to but not against the skin, giving the King no warning or any chance to try to protect himself. ‘This is not a case of suicidal discharge nor of accident, but one of deliberate killing by firearm,’ I concluded my report.

Simpson does not appear to have realized that while the evidence indeed suggested that somebody had shot Ananda, it could have been an accidental killing rather than murder. Like the doctors on the medical panel, he had been given only three scenarios to choose from — suicide, self-inflicted accident, or murder — and had failed to consider the fourth, accidental shooting by somebody else.

The Thai regime was delighted with Simpson’s conclusions, which bolstered their case against the three accused, and against Pridi. In January 1949, with the regicide trial already under way, the authorities sent Dr Songkran Niyomsen, a forensic pathologist who had been on the 1946 medical panel, to London for further consultations with Simpson. Songkran asked Simpson if he would be willing to come to Thailand to testify at the trial.

This development was reported in a secret memorandum by the Foreign Office in London on January 14:

The British authorities were alarmed at the prospect of a British doctor being used as a witness in a politicized and flawed trial, and were inclined to be cautious. As the handwritten addendum to the cable above says, it was decided to ask the advice of British ambassador Geoffrey Thompson in Bangkok.

This telegram was sent to Thompson on January 15, asking for his guidance:

Thompson’s reply came via a telegram “of particular secrecy” on January 18, 1949. His view was that Simpson should be advised not to take any part in the trial. And he also had a very intriguing question for the pathologist:

Thompson’s cable is a significant document. It is clear that he not only believed that the whole “melancholy business” of the trial was unlikely to ascertain the truth, but also believed a likely scenario for Ananda’s death was that he had been killed by accident by somebody who had removed the magazine of the Colt .45 automatic but who had forgotten that one round still remained in the breech. And if this had indeed been how Ananda died, there is only one person who could have been responsible: Bhumibol.

Britain’s ambassador to Bangkok was trying to give Simpson a hint about what had really happened, in order to dampen the wild conspiracy theories about a murder plot.

A few days later, Simpson wrote a formal letter to the Foreign Office, asking again whether he should go to Siam:

By this time, the situation had been complicated by the fact that Harlan Rees, one of the doctors on the medical committee in 1946, had also been asked by the Thai authorities whether he would consider travelling to Siam to testify at the trial. On January 21, a meeting was convened at the Foreign Office in London to decide what advice to give Simpson and Rees. The minutes are below.

The decision was that both men should be strongly discouraged from testifying. Britain did not want to be dragged into the case, as it might be if the doctors were seen as official representatives of the country rather than just private citizens sharing their opinions. And there was a general consensus among British diplomats that the trial was bogus. As one of the handwritten notes states, “The more British subjects can stay clear of this unsavoury subject the better.”

It was also decided not to ask Simpson and Rees the crucial question posed by Thompson — could Ananda have been shot accidentally by somebody who had removed the  magazine of the Colt .45 but left a “forgotten round” in the breech?

Britain’s government had no power to compel the pair not to go to Thailand, only to advise them against it. As a Foreign Office note records on January 24, 1949, both Simpson and Rees promised to call on the ambassador immediately if they did travel to Bangkok.

By February, Thompson had changed his mind about the desirability of Simpson testifying: he now appeared to believe that it could be a good thing, in order to help clear up “the sinister mystery of King Ananda’s violent death”:

The Foreign Office concurred with Thompson’s assessment in a telegram on February 24:

But by March, with two defense counsel murdered by police, and a third withdrawing on the pretext of ill-health, leaving only Fak Nasongkhla to defend the three accused, trial proceedings ground to a virtual halt and Thompson advised Simpson to wait.

Then Dr Songkran Niyomsen began to stall, and in the end Simpson was never called to Thailand to testify. He ends his account of the whole episode in his memoirs with a few more strange stories:

I was sorry not to have been able to go to Bangkok, but I have a beautiful silver cigarette box with the Royal Palace engraved on it to remind me of the case. It was presented to me in London by Major-General Phra Phinik ‘on behalf of the king’. The fee for my services was paid curiously — at night, in cash, carefully counted out under a Cromwell road lamp post near the Embassy — by arrangement! The reason for this strange ceremony I never found out.

In due course Siam became Thailand, and Dr Niyomsen was appointed the first Professor of Forensic Medicine to the University of Bangkok at about the same time that I became the first holder of the Chair at Guy’s. I never met him again; but twenty years after the trial, when I at last went to Bangkok, on a lecture visit to the Medico-Legal Institute, I found myself face to face, so to speak, with him, for on entering the main hall, there, preserved in a position of honour in the Institute in a most beautiful glass case, was — his skeleton! Macabre, yes, but a touching Oriental mark of affection for their late Chief, who had died two years earlier.

I also went to the Barompiman Palace — as an ordinary visitor — and was shown, among other things, the Royal Bedroom in which King Ananda had been shot. ‘Do you know anything about the case?’ asked my university graduate guide. I murmured interest only, and she set out the facts — accurately. I remained silent, merely thanking her for her courtesy: it was, after all, only history.