A New Siam

   by Charles Kimball

Siam was the strongest nation in Southeast Asia from 1767 to 1893. One of its secrets was keeping good relations with China, something the Thais had succeeded in doing since the Nan Zhao era. After 1767 Siam's rulers were part Chinese themselves, which also encouraged this trend. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants came into the country; by 1850 there were 350,000 of them living in Siam. Gradually they gained control of the economy as bankers, managers of public works, and tax collectors; they were also the only Siamese citizens allowed to sell opium legally. When the Dutch East India Company collapsed, the Chinese merchants stepped in to take the Company's place, dominating Southeast Asia's seaborne trade. Before 1850 there was a shortage of women among the Chinese immigrants, so many of them intermarried into Thai families, further blurring ethnic differences.

The first three kings of the Chakri dynasty were mainly interested in restoration. Law codes, religious texts, and works of literature were rewritten. New temples and palaces were built using the patterns, and even the very bricks, of old Ayutthaya. Chakri Rama I (1782-1809) defeated five Burmese invasions, annexed two Cambodian provinces (Battambang and Siem Reap) and reestablished the court rituals of the Ayutthayan era. The next king, Phendin-Klang Rama II (1809-24), was an outstanding poet, producing Thai translations of the Hindu Ramayana and other classical Asian works with a team of court poets. P'ra Nang Klao Rama III (1824-51) put down a rebellion in Laos and made protectorates of four northern Malay states (Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu). In Cambodia he fought several inconclusive campaigns to stop Vietnamese expansion (1833-45); an 1846 treaty made Cambodia a tributary state of both Siam and Vietnam.

Officially Siam had been an isolationist state since the Phaulkon episode in the late 17th century, and the Chinese merchants encouraged this policy to keep competition out. But eventually the West was able to pry open the closed doors of Siam anyway. Treaties signed with Britain in 1826 and the United States in 1833 allowed Protestant missionaries and a small amount of trade into the country. More important was a treaty signed with Britain in 1855, which gave the following to the UK: extraterritoriality, most-favored-nation status, a consulate in Bangkok, and a maximum tariff of 3% on British goods. It also gave Britons the right to sell Siamese goods, lease land, build homes, and travel one day's distance from Bangkok. Before long France and the other Western powers stepped in and demanded similar trade agreements; the king, Mongkut Rama IV (1851-68), agreed to them all, seeing rivalry between foreign powers as the best way to keep one of them from gaining too much influence over his country.

Nobody supported the opening up of Siam with more enthusiasm than the king himself. He had been eligible for the throne as early as 1824, but his father, Rama II, placed him in a monastery, presumably to keep him safe from supporters of his elder, more popular brother, the future king Rama III. The old king died only three weeks later, and Rama III was crowned without opposition.

Mongkut was not idle during his brother's 27-year reign. He tried to be a good monk, but the more he learned about Buddhism, the more he was bothered by the current state of Buddhism in Siam. Monks and lay people alike, he concluded, had blindly followed traditions without thorough knowledge of the original texts. On careful study of texts regarding ordinations of monks, Mongkut was upset to find that modern Siamese ordinations were invalid. He responded by creating his own order of monks, reforming their daily practices, rituals, preaching and even their pronunciation of Pali, the ancient language of Therevada Buddhist texts. Mongkut named his followers the "Order Adhering to the Teachings of the Buddha," and called the order he had once belonged to the "Order of Longstanding Habit." Mongkut's attempts to reform Buddhism found little support, but they showed he was a dedicated reformer. When Rama III was on his deathbed, the Thai nobility concluded that Mongkut was the best man for the throne, whether they liked him or not. In a show of unity, they passed over Rama III's sons and elected Mongkut to be the next king.

In his free time Mongkut learned everything he could about the West. After becoming king he employed about 80 foreign advisors to help him modernize the country. Before long, river steamships and new roads, canals, and bridges were built. Bangkok was linked to Singapore by telegraph. Western furniture and dress were introduced into the palace of the uparat, Mongkut's younger brother, who also set up a modern machine shop to experiment with Western science. An American headed the customs service and a British financial advisor directed the economy. Another foreigner, Anna Leonowens (made famous in the musical The King and I), became the royal tutor. But most of these changes were only felt in the Bangkok area; elsewhere life went on as before, though the Chinese monopoly over trade was broken.

Because Mongkut Rama IV had been a monk until the last 17 years of his life, his son Chulalongkorn Rama V (1868-1910) was only 15 years old when he was crowned. Thanks to trips abroad and Anna's teaching, Chulalongkorn was even more of a xenophile than his father, and he pushed for progressive reforms vigorously. The institution of slavery, which had previously held up to one third of the population in bondage, was gradually phased out (1874-1905). In 1878 a modern secular school was set up in the palace as an example of the kind of education the king wanted. The government subsidized the college educations of about 300 students in Europe and America every year. A government printing press turned out textbooks and a weekly newspaper, The Royal Gazette, and freedom of the press and religion were guaranteed by law to encourage the development of other periodicals. Modern buildings were erected in Bangkok, and an arsenal and drydock were built to modernize the military. The first railroad was built, extending 200 miles into the interior by 1900. In 1897 Siam began to overhaul the entire law code to satisfy Western ideas of justice, which the West demanded before the unequal treaties could be renegotiated.

To pay for all of this, rice exports were increased, reaching half a million tons per year when they leveled off in 1893. Only one fourth of the potential farmland in the Menam valley was being cultivated, but the government could not get the people to produce any more than this. The reason was a shortage of labor, caused by the termination of slavery. Other hindrances to modernization came from the upper class, which saw reforms as a threat to their status, and from the Buddhist clergy, which was offended by the open toleration of Christian missionaries. And Chulalongkorn's policy of giving out free vaccinations and modern medicines alienated the traditional "spirit doctors" who enjoyed great influence among the people. All in all, the modernization of 19th century Siam was a singlehanded effort by two enlightened kings, who succeeded only because they enjoyed absolute power over their subjects.

Despite the best efforts of the kings, Siam suffered at the hands of the West. An early example was the loss of Cambodia to the French in 1863. After the French conquered Vietnam, they made an issue over the Siamese troops stationed in Laos, which had been used to keep order in that region since 1829. The French announced that any troops on the east bank of the Mekong River constituted an unacceptable threat to their new colony. In 1893 a French fleet sailed into the mouth of the Menam River and blockaded Bangkok. The Siamese offered to negotiate, but the French were not in a negotiating mood; before the French withdrew Siam was forced to give up all of Laos to them. In 1904 and 1907 the French demanded, and got, further territorial concessions on the Mekong's west bank. The British got a concession of their own in 1909, taking away Siam's four vassal states in northern Malaya in exchange for revoking the 1855 treaty. Siam was saved from total conquest, however, by Anglo-French rivalry; Britain and France could not agree to a partitioning of the country, and both preferred an independent Siam to one dominated by the other side. Siam entered the twentieth century clipped, but was able to keep its freedom, an accomplishment no other Southeast Asian state could match.

Chulalongkorn's policies were continued by his sons Vajiravudh Rama VI (1910-25) and Prajadhipok Rama VII (1925-35). Vajiravudh opened Siam's first university and made primary education compulsorily. In 1917 he brought Siam into World War I on the side of the Allies, and the Western powers rewarded him by revoking the last of the unequal treaties. Prajadhipok, however, was a weak monarch, who turned over many affairs of state to his relatives and cut back government spending, believing that the projects of his predecessors cost too much. When the Great Depression hit Siam in 1930, the price of rice dropped by two thirds, land values fell 85%, and the king got all the blame for the misery that caused. A group of 114 Western-educated middle-level officials plotted a coup, convinced that absolute monarchy could no longer meet the challenges of the modern world. On June 24, 1932, while the king was vacationing, they acted with lightning speed, seizing power before the military could react. The rebels proclaimed themselves the People's Party, set up a parliamentary body called the National Assembly, and declared Siam a constitutional monarchy, a political system that the king seems to have wanted all the time.

The new government, despite its proclamations, was hardly democratic, and soon quarrels broke out between its civilian, military, and royalist factions. When it appeared that the National Assembly would accept a socialist economic plan presented by the civilian leader, Pridi Phanomyong, the king dissolved it. Fearing that the king was regaining control over the government, the military ordered the Assembly to remain in session. This was followed in 1933 by an unsuccessful royalist countercoup; two years later the king abdicated, when he could not do anything about the Assembly's undemocratic behavior. After that the military took control of the government completely, and has stayed in power for most of the time since.

In 1939 Field Marshall Phibun Songgram became premier and launched a policy that favored irredentism and Japanese-style militarism. At home he invented a code of personal conduct that borrowed much from Japanese bushido. One of his first acts was to change the name of Siam to Muang Thai, meaning the "Land of the Free" we call the country Thailand.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball