Rattanakosin Kingdom

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Rattanakosin Period
1782–1932

View of 19th-century Bangkok with the Golden Mount in the background.

Preceded by   Thonburi Kingdom
Followed by   Thailand


Rattanakosin Kingdom (Thai: อาณาจักรรัตนโกสินทร์, IPA: [āːnāːt͡ɕàk ráttanákōːsǐn]) is the fourth traditional centre of power in the History of Thailand. It was founded in 1782 with the establishment of Bangkok as the capital city.

The maximum territorial extent of Rattanakosin Kingdom included vassal states of Cambodia, Laos, and some Malay kingdoms. The kingdom was founded by King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke of the Chakri Dynasty. The first half of this period was a time of consolidation of the kingdom's power, and was punctuated by periodic conflicts with Burma, Vietnam and Laos. The later period was one of engagement with colonial powers of Britain and France, in which Siam managed to be the only southeast Asian nation to escape European colonialism. Internally the kingdom developed into a modern centralised nation state with borders defined by its interaction with the Western powers. Significant economic and social progress was made, with an increase in foreign trade, the abolition of slavery and the expansion of education to the emerging middle class. However, there was no substantial political reform until the absolute monarchy was replaced in a revolution in 1932 by the constitutional monarchy.

Background[edit]

Chao Phraya Chakri later Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke or Rama I.

In 1767, after dominating southeast Asia for almost 400 years, the Ayutthaya Kingdom was brought down by invading Burmese armies.

Despite its complete defeat and occupation by Burma, Siam made a rapid recovery. The resistance to Burmese rule was led by a noble of Chinese descent, Taksin, a capable military leader. Initially based at Chanthaburi in the south-east, within a year he had defeated the Burmese occupation army and re-established a Siamese state with its capital at Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, 20 km from the sea. In 1768 he was crowned as King Taksin (now officially known as Taksin the Great). He rapidly re-united the central Thai heartlands under his rule, and in 1769 he also occupied western Cambodia. He then marched south and re-established Siamese rule over the Malay Peninsula as far south as Penang and Terengganu. Having secured his base in Siam, Taksin attacked the Burmese in the north in 1774 and captured Chiang Mai in 1776, permanently uniting Siam and Lanna. Taksin's leading general in this campaign was Thong Duang, known by the title Chaophraya or Lord Chakri was himself a descendent of Mon people. In 1778 Chakri led a Siamese army which captured Vientiane, also Luang Phrabang, a northern Lao kingdom submitted, and eventually established Siamese domination over Laotian kingdoms.

Despite these successes, by 1779 Taksin was in political trouble at home. He seems to have developed a religious mania, alienating the powerful Buddhist monkhood by claiming to be a sotapanna or divine figure. He was also in troubles with the court officials, Chinese merchants, and missionaries. The foreign observers began to speculate that he would soon be overthrown. In 1782 Taksin sent his armies under Chakri, the future Rama I of Rattanakosin, to invade Cambodia, but while they were away a rebellion broke out in the area around the capital. The rebels, who had wide popular support, offered the throne to General Chakri, the 'supreme general'. Chakri who was on war duty marched back from Cambodia and deposed Taksin, who was purportedly 'secretly executed' shortly after.

Chakri ruled under the name Ramathibodi (he was posthumously given the name Phutthayotfa Chulalok), but is now generally known as King Rama I, first king of the later known Chakri dynasty. One of his first decisions was to move the capital across the river to the village of Bang Makok (meaning "place of olive plums"), which soon became the city of Bangkok. The new capital was located on the island of Rattanakosin, protected from attack by the river to the west and by a series of canals to the north, east and south. Siam thus acquired both its current dynasty and its current capital.

Foundation[edit]

Rama I who was himself of Mon descent restored most of the social and political system of the Ayutthaya kingdom, promulgating new law codes, reinstating court ceremonies[1] and imposing discipline on the Buddhist monkhood. His government was carried out by six great ministries (Krom) headed by royal princes. Four of these administered particular territories: the Kalahom the south; the Mahatthai the north and east; the Phrakhlang the area immediately south of the capital; and the Krom Mueang, the area around Bangkok. The other two were the ministry of lands (Krom Na) and the ministry of the royal court (Krom Wang). The army was controlled by the King's deputy and brother, the Uparat. The Burmese, seeing the disorder accompanying the overthrow of Taksin, invaded Siam again in 1785. Rama allowed them to occupy both the north and the south, but the Uparat, vice-king, his brother, led the Siamese army into western Siam and crushed the Burmese forces in a battle near Kanchanaburi. This was the last major Burmese invasion of Siam, although as late as 1802 Burmese forces had to be driven out of Lanna. In 1792 the Siamese occupied Luang Prabang and brought most of Laos under indirect Siamese rule. Cambodia was also effectively ruled by Siam. By the time of his death in 1809 Rama I had created a Siamese overlordship dominating an area considerably larger than modern Thailand.

Invasion of Vietnam[edit]

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha within the Grand Palace is the new center of the Kingdom.

In 1776 when Tây Sơn rebel forces captured Gia Dinh they executed the entire Nguyen royal family and much of the local population. Nguyễn Ánh, the only member of the Nguyễn family still alive, managed to escape across the river to Siam. While in exile Nguyễn Ánh wished to retake Gia Dinh and push the Tay-Son rebels out. He convinced the neutral King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke of Siam to provide him with support troops and a small invasion force.

In mid-1784 Nguyễn Ánh, with 50,000 Siamese troops and 300 ships, moved through Cambodia, then East of Tonlé Sap and penetrated the recently annexed provinces of Annam. 20,000 Siamese troops reached Kien Giang and another 30,000 landed in Chap Lap, as the Siamese advanced towards Cần Thơ. Later that year the Siamese captured the former Cambodian province of Gia Dinh where, it was claimed, they committed atrocities against the population of Viet settlers.

Nguyễn Huệ anticipating a move from the Siamese, had secretly positioned his infantry along the Tiền river near present-day Mỹ Tho, and on some islands in the middle, facing other troops on the northern banks with naval reinforcements on both sides of the infantry positions.

On the morning of January 19 Nguyễn Huệ sent a small naval force, under a banner of truce, to lure the Siamese into his trap. After so many victories, the Siamese army and naval forces were confident of a surrender. So, they went to the parley, unaware of the trap. Nguyễn Huệ's troops dashed into the Siamese formation, slaughtered the unarmed emissaries and turned on the unprepared troops. The battle ended with a near annihilation of the Siamese force. All the ships of the Siamese navy were destroyed and only 1,000 of the original expedition survived to escape back across the river into Siam.

Peace[edit]

The reign of Rama I's son Buddha Loetla Nabhalai (now known as King Rama II) was relatively uneventful. The Chakri family now controlled all branches of Siamese government — since Rama I had 42 children, his brother the Uparat had 43 and Rama II had 73, there was no shortage of royal princes to staff the bureaucracy, the army, the senior monkhood and the provincial governments. (Most of these were the children of concubines and thus not eligible to inherit the throne.) There was a confrontation with Vietnam, now becoming a major power in the region, over control of Cambodia in 1813, ending with the status quo restored. But during Rama II's reign western influences again began to be felt in Siam. In 1785 the British occupied Penang, and in 1819 they founded Singapore. Soon the British displaced the Dutch and Portuguese as the main western economic and political influence in Siam. The British objected to the Siamese economic system, in which trading monopolies were held by royal princes and businesses were subject to arbitrary taxation. In 1821, the East India Company's Lord Hastings, then Governor-General of India, sent Company agent John Crawfurd on a mission to demand that Siam lift restrictions on free trade — the first sign of an issue which was to dominate 19th century Siamese politics.

Consolidation[edit]

Early territory of Rattanakosin Kingdom
Statue of King Nangklao (Rama III), the King fought massive wars against Cambodia and Vietnam.

Rama II died in 1824 and was peacefully succeeded by his son Prince Jessadabondindra, who reigned as King Phra Nangklao, now known as Rama III. Rama II's younger son, Mongkut, was 'suggested' to become a monk, removing him from politics.

In 1825 the British sent another mission to Bangkok led by East India Company emissary Henry Burney. They had by now annexed southern Burma and were thus Siam's neighbours to the west, and they were also extending their control over Malaya. The King was reluctant to give in to British demands, but his advisors warned him that Siam would meet the same fate as Burma unless the British were accommodated. In 1826, therefore, Siam concluded its first commercial treaty with a western power, the Burney Treaty. Under the treaty, Siam agreed to establish a uniform taxation system, to reduce taxes on foreign trade and to abolish some of the royal monopolies. As a result, Siam's trade increased rapidly, many more foreigners settled in Bangkok, and western cultural influences began to spread. The kingdom became wealthier and its army better armed.

A Lao rebellion led by Anouvong was defeated in 1827, following which Siam destroyed Vientiane, carried out massive forced population transfers from Laos to the more securely held area of Isan, and divided the Lao mueang into smaller units to prevent another uprising. In 1842–1845 Siam waged a successful war with Vietnam, which tightened Siamese rule over Cambodia. Rama III's most visible legacy in Bangkok is the Wat Pho temple complex, which he enlarged and endowed with new temples.

Rama III regarded his brother Mongkut, who was said to be very popular among the British, as his heir, although as a monk Mongkut could not openly assume this role. He used his long sojourn as a monk to acquire a western education from French and American missionaries, and British merchants, one of the first Siamese to do so. He learned English and Latin, and studied science and mathematics. The missionaries no doubt hoped to convert him to Christianity, but in fact he was a strict Buddhist and a Siamese nationalist. He intended using this western knowledge to strengthen and modernise Siam when he came to the throne, which he did in 1851. By the 1840s it was obvious that Siamese independence was in danger from the colonial powers: this was shown dramatically by the British First Opium War with China in 1839–1842. In 1850 the British and Americans sent missions to Bangkok demanding the end of all restrictions on trade, the establishment of a western-style government and immunity for their citizens from Siamese law (extraterritoriality). Rama III's government refused these demands, leaving his successor with a dangerous situation. Rama III reportedly said on his deathbed: "We will have no more wars with Burma and Vietnam. We will have them only with the West."[citation needed]

Economically, from its foundation, Rattanakosin witnessed the growing role of Chinese merchants, who were chased out before by king Taksin. Beside merchants, Chinese who were farmers, endlessly came to seek fortune in the new kingdom. The Rattanakosin's rulers welcomed the Chinese, due to their source of economic revival. Some ethnic Chinese merchants became the court officials, holding crucial positions. Chinese culture such as literature was accepted and promoted. Many Chinese works were translated by ethnic Chinese court dignitaries.Siam's relationship with the Chinese Empire was strong. Rama I claimed his blood-relation with Taksin, worrying that the Chinese court might reject his approval. The relationship was guaranteed by the tributary missions, continuing until the Rama IV's reign. Thus Chinese played a very crucial role in the revival of Rattanakosin kingdom.

Enlightenment[edit]

Photograph of King Mongkut (Rama IV) in western style uniform

Mongkut came to the throne as Rama IV in 1851, determined to save Siam from colonial domination by forcing modernisation on his reluctant subjects. But although he was in theory an absolute monarch, his power was limited. Having been a monk for 27 years, he lacked a base among the powerful royal princes, and did not have a modern state apparatus to carry out his wishes. His first attempts at reform, to establish a modern system of administration and to improve the status of debt-slaves and women, were frustrated.

Rama IV thus came to welcome western intrusion in Siam. Indeed the king himself and his entourages were actively pro-British. This came in 1855 in the form of a mission led by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, who arrived in Bangkok with demands for immediate changes, backed by the threat of force. The King readily agreed to his demand for a new treaty, called the Bowring Treaty, which restricted import duties to 3%, abolished royal trade monopolies, and granted extraterritoriality to British subjects. Other western powers soon demanded and got similar concessions.

The king soon came to consider that the real threat to Siam came from the French, not the British. The British were interested in commercial advantage, the French in building a colonial empire. They occupied Saigon in 1859, and 1867 established a protectorate over southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia. Rama IV hoped that the British would defend Siam if he gave them the economic concessions they demanded. In the next reign this would prove to be an illusion, but it is true that the British saw Siam as a useful buffer state between British Burma and French Indochina.

Reformer[edit]

Siamese Governor and Burmese prisoner of war in British newspaper Illustrated London News in 1885.
King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in Saint Petersburg 1897.

Rama IV died in 1868, and was succeeded by his 15-year-old son Chulalongkorn, who reigned as Rama V and is now known as Rama the Great. Rama V was the first Siamese king to have a full western education, having been taught by a British governess, Anna Leonowens - whose place in Siamese history has been fictionalised as The King and I. At first Rama V's reign was dominated by the conservative regent, Chaophraya Si Suriyawongse, but when the king came of age in 1873 he soon took control. He created a Privy Council and a Council of State, a formal court system and budget office. He announced that slavery would be gradually abolished and debt-bondage restricted.

At first the princes and other conservatives successfully resisted the king's reform agenda, but as the older generation was replaced by younger and western-educated princes, resistance faded. The king could always argue that the only alternative was foreign rule. He found powerful allies in his brothers Prince Chakkraphat, whom he made finance minister, Prince Damrong, who organized interior government and education, and his brother-in-law Prince Devrawongse, foreign minister for 38 years. In 1887 Devrawonge visited Europe to study government systems. On his recommendation the king established Cabinet government, an audit office and an education department. The semi-autonomous status of Chiang Mai was ended and the army was reorganised and modernised.

Territorial claims abandoned by Siam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

In 1893 the French authorities in Indochina used a minor border dispute to provoke a crisis. French gunboats appeared at Bangkok, and demanded the cession of Lao territories east of the Mekong. The King appealed to the British, but the British minister told the King to settle on whatever terms he could get, and he had no choice but to comply. Britain's only gesture was an agreement with France guaranteeing the integrity of the rest of Siam. In exchange, Siam had to give up its claim to the Tai-speaking Shan region of north-eastern Burma to the British.

The French, however, continued to pressure Siam, and in 1906–1907 they manufactured another crisis. This time Siam had to concede French control of territory on the west bank of the Mekong opposite Luang Prabang and around Champasak in southern Laos, as well as western Cambodia. The British interceded to prevent more French bullying of Siam, but their price, in 1909 was the acceptance of British sovereignty over of Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu under Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. All of these "lost territories" were on the fringes of the Siamese sphere of influence and had never been securely under their control, but being compelled to abandon all claim to them was a substantial humiliation to both king and country (historian David K. Wyatt describes Chulalongkorn as "broken in spirit and health" following the 1893 crisis) and is the basis for the change in the name of the country; with the loss of these territories Great Siam was now no more, the king now ruled only the core Thai lands. In the early 20th century these crises were adopted by the increasingly nationalist government as symbols of the need for the country to assert itself against the West and its neighbours.

Meanwhile, reform continued apace transforming an absolute monarchy based on relationships of power into a modern, centralised nation state. The process was increasingly under the control of Rama V's sons, who were all educated in Europe. Railways and telegraph lines united the previously remote and semi-autonomous provinces. The currency was tied to the gold standard and a modern system of taxation replaced the arbitrary exactions and labour service of the past. The biggest problem was the shortage of trained civil servants, and many foreigners had to be employed until new schools could be built and Siamese graduates produced. By 1910, when the King died, Siam had become at least a semi-modern country, and continued to escape colonial rule.

From kingdom to modern nation[edit]

King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), supported nationalism and modernization

One of Rama V's reforms was to introduce a western-style law of royal succession, so in 1910 he was peacefully succeeded by his son Vajiravudh, who reigned as Rama VI. He had been educated at Sandhurst military academy and at Oxford, and was an anglicised Edwardian gentleman. Indeed one of Siam's problems was the widening gap between the westernised royal family and upper aristocracy and the rest of the country. It took another 20 years for western education to extend to the rest of the bureaucracy and the army: a potential source of conflict.

There had been some political reform under Rama V, but the king was still an absolute monarch, who acted as the head of the cabinet and staffed all the agencies of the state with his own relatives. The new king Vajiravudh, the son of Rama V, with his British education, knew that the rest of the 'new' nation could not be excluded from government forever, but he had no faith in western- style democracy. He applied his observation of the success of the British monarchy in ruling of India, appearing more in public and instituting more royal ceremonies. However Rama VI also carried on his father's modernisation plan. Polygamy was abolished, primary education made compulsory, and in 1916 higher education came to Siam with the founding of Chulalongkorn University, which in time became the seedbed of a new Siamese intelligentsia.

Bangkok became more and more the capital of the new nation of Siam. Rama VI's government began several 'nation-wide' development projects, despite the financial hardship. New roads, bridges, railways, hospitals and schools mushroomed throughout the country with national budget from Bangkok. The newly created Viceroys were appointed to the newly restructured 'Region', or Monthon (Circle), as the King's agent supervising administrative affairs in the provinces.

Another solution he found was to establish the Wild Tiger Corps, or Kong Sua Paa (กองเสือป่า,) a paramilitary organisation of Siamese of "good character" united to further the nation's cause. He also created a junior branch which continues today as the National Scout Organization of Thailand. The King spent much time on the development of the movements as he saw it as an opportunity to create a bond between himself and loyal citizens; volunteer corps willing to make sacrifices for the king and the nation. It was also a way to single out and honor his favorites. At first the Wild Tigers were drawn from the king's personal entourage (it is likely that many joined in order to gain favour with Vajiravudh), but an enthusiasm among the population arose later.

Of the adult movement, a German observer wrote in September 1911:

This is a troop of volunteers in black uniform, drilled in a more or less military fashion, but without weapons. The British Scouts are apparently the paradigm for the Tiger Corps. In the whole country, at the most far-away places, units of this corps are being set up. One would hardly recognise the quiet and phlegmatic Siamese.

The paramilitary movement largely disappeared by 1927, but was revived and evolved into the Volunteer Defense Corps, also called the Village Scouts (ลูกเสือบ้าน.)[2]

Vajiravudh's style of government differed from that of his father. In the beginning of the sixth reign, the king continued to use his father's team and there was no sudden break in the daily routine of government. Much of the running of daily affairs was therefore in the hands of experienced and competent men. To them and their staff Siam owed many progressive steps, such as the development of a national plan for the education of the whole populace, the setting up of clinics where free vaccination was given against smallpox, and the continuing expansion of railways.

However, senior posts were gradually filled with members of the King's coterie when a vacancy occurred through death, retirement, or resignation. By 1915, half the cabinet consisted of new faces. Most notable was Chao Phraya Yomarat's presence and Prince Damrong's absence. He resigned from his post as Minister of the Interior officially because of ill health, but in actuality because of friction between himself and the king.

The Siamese Expeditionary Force during World War I in Paris, 1919.

In 1917 Siam declared war on German Empire and Austria-Hungary, mainly to gain favour with the British and the French. Siam's token participation in World War I secured it a seat at the Versailles Peace Conference, and Foreign Minister Devawongse used this opportunity to argue for the repeal of the 19th century treaties and the restoration of full Siamese sovereignty. The United States obliged in 1920, while France and Britain delayed until 1925. This victory gained the king some popularity, but it was soon undercut by discontent over other issues, such as his extravagance, which became more noticeable when a sharp postwar recession hit Siam in 1919. There was also the fact that the king had no son; he obviously preferred the company of men to women (a matter which of itself did not much concern Siamese opinion, but which did undermine the stability of the monarchy because of the absence of heirs).

Thus when Rama VI died suddenly in 1925, aged only 44, the monarchy was already in a weakened state. He was succeeded by his younger brother Prajadhipok.

The end of absolute rule[edit]

King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), unexpectedly came to the throne in 1925.

Unprepared for his new responsibilities, all Prajadhipok had in his favour was a lively intelligence, a certain diplomacy in his dealings with others, a modesty and industrious willingness to learn, and the somewhat tarnished, but still potent, magic of the crown.

Unlike his predecessor, the king diligently read virtually all state papers that came his way, from ministerial submissions to petitions by citizens. Within half a year only three of Vajiravhud's twelve ministers stayed on, the rest having been replaced by members of the royal family. On the one hand, these appointments brought back men of talent and experience, on the other, it signalled a return to royal oligarchy. The King obviously wanted to demonstrate a clear break with the discredited sixth reign, and the choice of men to fill the top positions appeared to be guided largely by a wish to restore a Chulalongkorn-type government.

The initial legacy that Prajadhipok received from his elder brother were problems of the sort that had become chronic in the Sixth Reign. The most urgent of these was the economy: the finances of the state were in chaos, the budget heavily in deficit, and the royal accounts an accountant's nightmare of debts and questionable transactions. That the rest of the world was deep in the Great Depression following World War I did not help the situation either.

Virtually the first act of Prajadipok as king entailed an institutional innovation intended to restore confidence in the monarchy and government, the creation of the Supreme Council of the State. This privy council was made up of a number of experienced and extremely competent members of the royal family, including the longtime Minister of the Interior (and Chulalongkorn's right-hand man) Prince Damrong. Gradually these princes arrogated increasing power by monopolising all the main ministerial positions. Many of them felt it their duty to make amends for the mistakes of the previous reign, but it was not generally appreciated.

With the help of this council, the king managed to restore stability to the economy, although at a price of making a significant amount of the civil servants redundant and cutting the salary of those that remained. This was obviously unpopular among the officials, and was one of the trigger events for the coup of 1932.

Prajadhipok then turned his attention to the question of future politics in Siam. Inspired by the British example, the King wanted to allow the common people to have a say in the country's affair by the creation of a parliament. A proposed constitution was ordered to be drafted, but the King's wishes were rejected by his advisers, who felt that the population was not yet ready for democracy.

Revolution[edit]

Group of soldiers standing on Royal Plaza waiting for orders during the Revolution on 24 June.

In 1932, with the country deep in depression, the Supreme Council opted to introduce cuts in official spending, including the military budget. The King foresaw that these policies might create discontent, especially in the army, and he therefore convened a special meeting of officials to explain why the cuts were necessary. In his address he stated the following:

I myself know nothing at all about finances, and all I can do is listen to the opinions of others and choose the best... If I have made a mistake, I really deserve to be excused by the people of Siam.

No previous monarch of Siam had ever spoken in such terms. Many interpreted the speech not as Prajadhipok apparently intended, namely as a frank appeal for understanding and cooperation. They saw it as a sign of his weakness and evidence that a system which perpetuated the rule of fallible autocrats should be abolished. Serious political disturbances were threatened in the capital, and in April the king agreed to introduce a constitution under which he would share power with a prime minister. This was not enough for the radical elements in the army, however. On June 24, 1932, while the king was holidaying at the seaside, the Bangkok garrison mutinied and seized power, led by a group of 49 officers known as "the Promoters". Thus ended 800 years of absolute monarchy since its origin.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wales, H. G. Quaritch (Digitized April 14, 2005) [First published in 1931]. Siamese state ceremonies. London: Bernard Quaritch. Retrieved April 25, 2012. 
  2. ^ "Southern Thailand: The Problem with Paramilitaries," Asia Report, N°140 23 Oct 2007.
  • Greene, Stephen Lyon Wakeman. Absolute Dreams. Thai Government Under Rama VI, 1910–1925. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1999
  • Wyatt, David, Thailand: A Short History, Yale University Press, 1984