Ayutthayan Siam

   by Charles Kimball

The first king of Ayutthaya, Rama T'ibodi I, did much to make his kingdom the strongest on the Southeast Asian mainland. He took the Tenasserim coast from Pegu, extended his power into most of Malaya, and began to carve up the Khmer empire. At home the country's law code was revised. But many problems were left for Rama T'ibodi's successors to solve. The most persistent of these was Sukhothai, which now wanted the independence it had so cheaply surrendered in 1349. From 1371 to 1438 Ayutthaya had to direct a northern campaign against Sukhothai almost every year. Ayutthaya's chief rival, Chiangmai, supported Sukhothai.

At home there was an almost constant struggle for control of the throne. Without an established formula for succession, any member of the royal family could become king. Many of the early Ayutthayan monarchs were deposed or murdered as a result.

The next important king, Boromoraja II (1424-48), was the third son of the king before him; he never expected to inherit the throne himself, but both of his elder brothers killed each other in a duel fought on elephants. Boromoraja finished the long war with the Khmers that his ancestors had started, by capturing Angkor in 1431. The Khmers abandoned their capital to the jungle and moved their court to the neighborhood of Phnom Penh. A Khmer king continued to rule from there, but tribute was paid to Siam for most of the next four centuries. Never again would Cambodia be more than a third-rate power.

Sukhothai was next on Boromoraja's list. When he took the city, he made its submission permanent by making his son, the future king Trailok, governor of the city. But by no means was the northern conflict ended. Now Sukhothai became the object of aggressive attacks by its former ally Chiangmai. The Siam-Chiangmai conflict persisted, with a few breathing spells, for the rest of the 15th and early 16th centuries, a stalemate because Siam had the advantage of numbers while rugged Chiangmai had extremely defensible terrain.

The greatest ruler of 15th-century Siam was Borommatrailokanat (1448-88), usually called Trailok for short. He completely overhauled the government, dividing the central administration into five departments (interior affairs, the capital city, the royal household, finances, and agriculture), with appointed, not hereditary officers in charge of each. New laws determined the social status of everyone and the amount of land that could be owned, ranging from 4,000 acres for the highest official to 10 acres for the ordinary free man. Since government workers were not paid salaries, this system also designated how much income they could receive. There was plenty of land for everybody at this time, so nobody was in danger of starvation. In the courts, fines and punishments were made proportional to the status of the plaintiff. The purpose of the whole system was to regulate natural human inequality for the sake of the proper functioning of society.

Court ceremonials were greatly expanded, borrowing some ideas from the Khmers; these ceremonies were described in a 718-page book, The Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months , written in the late 19th century. To resolve the question of succession, every member of the royal family was ranked by his relation to the current king; if a family member was removed from royal descent by more than five generations, he was declared a commoner and no longer eligible for the throne. King Trailok also appointed a second or vice-king, called an Uparat (heir apparent), so the people would know who their next king would be long before he actually took the throne.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball