History of Thailand


As they had in the sixteenth century, the Thai made a rapid recovery under a brilliant military leader. Taksin (1767-82) had slipped away from besieged Ayutthaya and, starting with a handful of followers who quickly grew into an army, organized a resistance to the Burmese invaders, driving them out after a long and arduous war. Assuming the royal title, he abandoned the ruined Ayutthaya and founded a new capital farther south in the delta at Thon Buri, a fortress town across the river from modern Bangkok. By 1776 Taksin had reunited the Thai kingdom, which had fragmented into small states after the fall of the old capital, and had annexed Chiang Mai. Taksin, who eventually developed delusions of his own divinity, was deposed and executed by his ministers, invoking the interests of the state. His manifold accomplishments, however, won Taksin a secure place among Thailand's national heroes.

The Chakkri Dynasty

With the death of Taksin, the Thai throne fell to Chakkri, a general who had played a leading role with Taksin in the struggle against the Burmese. As King Yot Fa (Rama I, 1782-1809), he founded the present Thai ruling house and moved the court to Bangkok, the modern capital. During an energetic reign, he revived the country's economy and restored what remained of the great artistic heritage lost in the destruction of Ayutthaya. The king is credited with composing a new edition of the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Ramayana) to replace manuscripts of the Thai national epic that were lost in the conflagration.

In the following years Thai influence grew until challenged by Western powers. In 1795 the Thai seized the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap in Cambodia, where throughout the first half of the next century Chakkri kings would resist Vietnamese incursions. The conflict between the Thai and the Vietnamese was resolved finally by a compromise providing for the establishment of a joint protectorate over Cambodia. The Thai also pressed their claim to suzerainty in the Malay state of Kedah in the face of growing British interest in the peninsula. As a result of the Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), Britain annexed territory in the region that had been contested by the Thai and the Burmese for centuries. This move led to the signing of the Burney Treaty in 1826, an Anglo-Thai agreement that allowed British merchants modest trade concessions in the kingdom. In 1833 the Thai reached a similar understanding with the United States.

Chakkri expansionism had been halted in all directions by the end of the reign of Nang Klao (Rama III, 1824-51) as tributary provinces began to slip away from Bangkok's control and Western influence grew. In 1850 Nang Klao spurned British and American requests for more generous trading privileges similar to those that Western powers had exacted by force from China. Succeeding Thai monarchs, however, were less successful in controlling Western economic influence in their country.

The first three Chakkri kings, by succeeding each other without bloodshed, had brought the kingdom a degree of political stability that had been lacking in the Ayutthaya period. There was, however, no rule providing for automatic succession to the throne. If there was no uparaja at the time of the king's death--and this was frequently the case--the choice of a new monarch drawn from the royal family was left to the Senabodi, the council of senior officials, princes, and Buddhist prelates that assembled at the death of a king. It was such a council that chose Nang Klao's successor.

Mongkut's Opening to the West

Nang Klao died in 1851 and was succeeded by his forty-seven- year-old half brother, Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-68). Mongkut's father, Loet La (Rama II, 1809-24), had placed him in a Buddhist monastery in 1824 to prevent a bloody succession struggle between factions loyal to Mongkut and those supporting Nang Klao (although Nang Klao was older than Mongkut, his mother was a concubine, whereas Mongkut's mother was a royal queen). As a Buddhist monk, Mongkut won distinction as an authority on the Pali Buddhist scriptures and became head of a reformed order of the Siamese sangha. Thai Buddhism had become heavily overlain with superstitions through the centuries, and Mongkut attempted to purge the religion of these accretions and restore to it the spirit of Buddha's original teachings.

Mongkut's twenty-seven years as a Buddhist monk not only made him a religious figure of some consequence but also exposed him to a wide array of foreign influences. Blessed with an inquiring mind and great curiosity about the outside world, he cultivated contacts with French Roman Catholic and United States Protestant missionaries. He studied Western languages (Latin and English), science, and mathematics. His lengthy conversations with the missionaries gave him a broad perspective that greatly influenced his policies when he became king in 1851. He was more knowledgeable of, and at ease with, Western ways than any previous Thai monarch.

Mongkut was convinced that his realm must have full relations with the Western countries in order to survive as an independent nation and avoid the humiliations China and Burma had suffered in wars with Britain. Against the advice of his court, he abolished the old royal trade monopoly in commodities and in 1855 signed the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with Britain. (This treaty, commonly known as the Bowring Treaty, was signed on Britain's behalf by Sir John Bowring, governor of Hong Kong.) Under the terms of the treaty, British merchants were permitted to buy and sell in Siam without intermediaries, a consulate was established, and British subjects were granted extraterritorial rights. Similar treaties were negotiated the next year with the United States and France, and over the next fifteen years with a number of other European countries. These agreements not only provided for free trade but also limited the Siamese government's authority to tax foreign enterprises. The elimination of these barriers led to an enormous increase in commerce with the West. This expansion of trade in turn revolutionized the Thai economy and connected it to the world monetary system.

The demand for extraterritorial privileges also convinced the king that unless Siam's legal and administrative systems were reformed, the country would never be treated as an equal by the Western powers. Although little in the way of substantive modernization was accomplished during his reign, Mongkut eliminated some of the ancient mystique of the monarch's divinity by allowing commoners to gaze on his face, published a royal gazette of the country's laws, and hired a number of Western experts as consultants, teachers, and technicians. Long-standing institutions such as slavery remained basically untouched, however, and the political system continued to be dominated by the great families. Conservatives at court remained strong, and the king's death from malaria in 1868 postponed pending reform projects.

Chulalongkorn's Reforms

When Mongkut died, his eldest son, Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), a minor at the time, succeeded him. Under his father's direction, Chulalongkorn had received a thorough education by European tutors. During the regency that preceded his coming of age, the young king visited Java and India in order to witness European colonial administration. Thus he was the first Chakkri monarch to leave the country. At his coronation in 1873, he announced the abolition of the ancient practice of prostrating before the monarch, which he regarded as unsuitable for a modern nation. A number of reform decrees followed, designed to modernize the judiciary, state finances, and political structure. The reforms, however, provoked a revolt by conservatives under Prince Wichaichan in December 1874. Although the revolt was suppressed, it obliged Chulalongkorn to abandon "radicalism" and proceed more carefully with reforms. It was more than a decade before the king and his associates were in a position to enact more significant changes.

One of the most far-reaching of the later reforms was the abolition of slavery and the phrai corvee. Slavery was eliminated gradually, allowing considerable time for social and economic adaptation, and only disappeared in 1905. As a result of the introduction of a head tax paid in currency and a regular army manned by conscription, the corvee lost most of its function, and wage labor, often provided by Chinese immigrants, proved more efficient for public works projects. Likewise, the introduction of salaries for public officials eliminated the need for the sakdi na. These reforms wrought profound changes in Thai society.

In 1887 the king asked one of his princes, Devawongse, to initiate a study of European forms of government and how European institutions might be fruitfully adopted. The following year, the prince returned with a proposal for a cabinet government consisting of twelve functionally differentiated ministries. The king approved the plan, though several years passed before it could be fully implemented. In 1893 Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, acting as minister of interior, began an overhaul of Siam's antiquated provincial administration. The old semifeudal system in the outer provinces was gradually replaced by a centralized state administration. Under Damrong, the Ministry of Interior became immensely powerful and played a central role in national unification.

Like his father, Chulalongkorn fully appreciated the importance of education. He founded three schools on European lines for children of the royal family and government officials, including one for girls. Specialized schools were attached to government departments for the training of civil servants. Study abroad was encouraged, and promising civil servants and military officers were sent to Europe for further education. In 1891 Prince Damrong went to Europe to study modern systems of education. Upon his return he became head of the new Ministry of Public Instruction, though he was obliged to assume the Ministry of Interior post a year later.

The country's first railroads were built during Chulalongkorn's reign, and a line was completed between Bangkok and Ayutthaya in 1897. This was extended farther north to Lop Buri in 1901 and to Sawankhalok in 1909. A rail line built south to Phetchaburi by 1903 was eventually linked with British rail lines in peninsular Malaya.

The Crisis of 1893

The steady encroachment of the two most aggressive European powers in the region, Britain and France, gravely threatened Siam during the last years of the nineteenth century. To the west, Britain completed its conquest of Burma in 1885 with the annexation of Upper Burma and the involuntary abdication of Burma's last king, Thibaw. To the south, the British were firmly established in the major Muslim states of the Malay Peninsula.

Even more than Britain, France posed a serious danger to Siamese independence. The French occupied Cochinchina (southern Vietnam, around the Mekong Delta) in 1863. From there they extended their influence into Cambodia, over which Vietnam and Siam had long been struggling for control. Assuming Vietnam's traditional interests, France obliged the Cambodian king, Norodom, to accept a French protectorate. Siam formally relinquished its claim to Cambodia four years later, in return for French recognition of Siamese sovereignty over the Cambodian provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang.

The French dreamed of outflanking their British rivals by developing a trade route to the supposed riches of southwestern China through the Mekong Valley. This seemed possible once France had assumed complete control over Vietnam in the 1880s. The small Laotian kingdoms, under Siamese suzerainty, were the keys to this dream. The French claimed these territories, arguing that areas previously under Vietnamese control should now come under the French, the new rulers of Vietnam.

Auguste Pavie, French vice consul in Luang Prabang in 1886, was the chief agent in furthering French interests in Laos. His intrigues, which took advantage of Siamese weakness in the region and periodic invasions by Chinese rebels from Yunnan Province, increased tensions between Bangkok and Paris. When fighting broke out between French and Siamese forces in Laos in April 1893, the French sent gunboats to blockade Bangkok. At gunpoint, the Siamese agreed to the cession of Laos. Britain's acquiescence in French expansionism was evident in a treaty signed by the two countries in 1896 recognizing a border between French territory in Laos and British territory in Upper Burma.

French pressure on Siam continued, however, and in 1907 Chulalongkorn was forced to surrender Battambang and Siem Reap to French-occupied Cambodia. Two years later, Siam relinquished its claims to the northern Malay states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah, and Perlis to the British in exchange for legal jurisdiction over British subjects on its soil and a large loan for railroad construction. In terms of territory under its control, Siam was now much diminished. Its independence, however, had been preserved as a useful and generally stable buffer state between French and British territories.

Chulalongkorn's son and successor, Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910- 25), had received his education in Britain. As much as the theme of modernization had typified the policies of his father, Vajiravudh's reign was characterized by support of nationalism. The king wrote extensively on nationalist themes. He also organized and financed a military auxiliary, the Wild Tiger Corps, which he looked on as a means of spreading nationalist fervor.

Thai nationalist attitudes at all levels of society were colored by anti-Chinese sentiment. For centuries members of the Chinese community had dominated domestic commerce and had been employed as agents for the royal trade monopoly. With the rise of European economic influence many Chinese entrepreneurs had shifted to opium traffic and tax collecting, both despised occupations. In addition, Chinese millers and middlemen in the rice trade were blamed for the economic recession that gripped Siam for nearly a decade after 1905. Accusations of bribery of high officials, wars between the Chinese secret societies, and use of oppressive practices to extract taxes also served to inflame Thai opinion against the Chinese community at a time when it was expanding rapidly as a result of increased immigration from China. By 1910 nearly 10 percent of Thailand's population was Chinese. Whereas earlier immigrants had intermarried with the Thai, the new arrivals frequently came with families and resisted assimilation into Thai society. Chinese nationalism, encouraged by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese revolution, had also begun to develop, parallel with Thai nationalism. The Chinese community even supported a separate school system for its children. Legislation in 1909 requiring adoption of surnames was in large part directed against the Chinese community, whose members would be faced with the choice of forsaking their Chinese identity or accepting the status of foreigners. Many of them made the accommodation and opted to become Thai--if in name only. Those who did not became even more alienated from the rest of Thai society.

To the consternation of his advisers, who still smarted from Siam's territorial losses to France, Vajiravudh declared war on Germany and took Siam into World War I on the side of the Allies, sending a token expeditionary force to the Western front. This limited participation, however, won Siam favorable amendments to its treaties with France and Britain at the end of the war and also gained a windfall in impounded German shipping for its merchant marine. Siam took part in the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and was a founding member of the League of Nations.

Thailand History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress