I’m afraid I broke a promise. A month ago, I predicted that future episodes would cover shorter time periods, but today, to get Siam done in one episode, I covered a 157-year time span, from 1782 to 1939. That means this episode will be the longest so far in the podcast series, but fortunately it is still less than an hour; you won’t have to set aside a day to listen, like you would for Dan Carlin’s history podcast. Here you will learn how Siam modernized, why it was the only Southeast Asian country that did not become a European colony, and why it changed its name to Thailand at the end of the period.
Here is a map of Siam in the early 1800s, when the kingdom was at its greatest size. These borders lasted until 1863, when Britain and France started taking parts of the kingdom for themselves. The core territory they left behind became present-day Thailand in 1939.
(Transcript, added 05/31/2020)
This episode is dedicated to Mark N., who made a generous donation a week before this episode went online. A few days ago, I read an article from another history podcaster, which told how making a history podcast demands about as much time as a full-time job, because of all the research required before each recording. I am glad I’m not the only one experiencing that, though in my case, most of the notes were written down before 1990. These days, my research goes into making sure my material is up to date, and that I did not leave anything out. Therefore, a donation not only keeps the proverbial lights on where the podcast is hosted, it is also compensation for my efforts, and it shows that others appreciate all that goes into producing an episode. Mark, thank you for your support, and I hope you will enjoy this episode, where I tell everyone how yesterday’s Siam became today’s Thailand.
Episode 27: A New Siam
or, The Unconquered Kingdom
Greetings, dear listeners! For several episodes we have been discussing how Southeast Asia fell under European rule. First we saw Spain explore and conquer the Philippines, all the way back in the sixteenth century. Most of the other conquests came after 1800. In the nineteenth century the Dutch took over Indonesia, the British annexed Burma, Malaya and part of Borneo, and the French grabbed Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. That left one nation in the middle of it all that managed to keep going strong – Siam. We last discussed Siam in Episode 20, where we learned about their last big war with Burma. Now we are going to learn how the Siamese did something unique – they were the only people in Southeast Asia to avoid becoming a colony.
If you have not listened to the previous episodes in this podcast about Siam, here are the ones I recommend. Episode 10 covers how Siam got started. Episodes 15 and 16 are a two-parter about the wars between Burma and Siam in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. You will especially want to listen to Episode 16, because there I tell the story of the great Siamese king Naresuan. Then in Episode 18 we hear about the strange Phaulkon affair, where one European tried to gain control over the king; you’ll be amazed at how close he came to succeeding. And finally the eighteenth-century events are covered in the episode I mentioned already, Episode 20.
Before we begin, I need to explain the current naming system of Siamese kings. I mentioned this once before, but here I need to explain it again, with a bit more detail. Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok, the general who became king in 1782, founded the dynasty that has ruled Siam and Thailand ever since; he called it the Chakri dynasty. However, most history texts simply call him Rama I. This was the doing of the dynasty’s sixth king, Vajiravudh. Vajiravudh was educated in England, and there he learned that Thai language names are too long for Europeans to pronounce easily. Tell me about it, your majesty – I’m sure I have mispronounced some Thai names over the course of this podcast series for the same reason! Therefore he added the simple name of Rama, followed by the appropriate number, to every king of the dynasty. Under that system, Vajiravudh became Rama VI, and the new king who took the throne last year is Rama X. If you could go back in time and meet Mongkut, the king played by Yul Brynner in “The King and I,” he would probably be shocked to learn that Rama IV was his name, too.
On a personal note, back in the 1980s I read some novels written by Somtow Sucharitkul, a science fiction writer and musical composer from Thailand. Suchaitkul also knew that his name was a jawbreaker, so he took for himself the pen name S. P. Somtow. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s jump into the narrative!
Siam was the strongest nation in Southeast Asia for most of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And after the British cut Burma down to size in the 1820s, it was the largest Southeast Asian state. Besides all of present-day Thailand, Siam held the Shan plateau, in what is now eastern Burma, almost half of the Malay peninsula, and all of Laos. They may have held some territory that now belongs to Vietnam, too; northern Vietnam’s border with Laos was fuzzy, poorly defined, until the 1880s. Finally, Cambodia paid tribute to Siam, so a map that shows Cambodia as part of Siam, like the one I shared on this episode’s Blubrry.com page, isn’t far off the mark.
One of the secrets to Siam’s success was keeping good relations with China, something the Thais were good at doing even before they moved from China to their present-day locations. What’s more, every Siamese king after 1767 had Chinese ancestry, and this also encouraged good relations. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants were allowed to enter the country; by 1850 there were 350,000 of them living in Siam. Gradually they gained control over 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, 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.
If you know much history, you have learned that while many countries, probably most of them, have chosen their leaders from a few specific families, ability and talent are not hereditary, so membership in the right family does not guarantee the new candidate will be a good ruler. In fact, the odds are that he won’t be good if he does not get proper training beforehand, or if the ruling family is inbred. In Western civilization, we have an excellent example of that with the Roman emperors of the second century; we call this the time of the “Five Good Emperors” because Rome had five emperors in a row that were not related to each other or to the emperors before them, but they did a very good job anyway. The last of those emperors, Marcus Aurelius, is considered one of the best Roman emperors because he was both a fine military leader and a Stoic philosopher, and the book he wrote on philosophy, Meditations, is still widely read today, but then he undid much of his good work by giving the throne to his son Commodus, and that son became one of the worst emperors. Go see the movie Gladiator if you haven’t heard of those emperors; the contrast between the wise Marcus Aurelius and the foolish Commodus is the real history behind an otherwise fictional story.
In the case of the Chakri dynasty, one good king was not followed by several bad ones. Siam has been blessed in that among the eleven kings it has had since 1767, most were very competent rulers. In fact, the only one I would call incompetent, in the period before the kings lost their absolute power, was Rama VII. Today the king is a constitutional monarch, like the kings and queens remaining in Europe; he is a national symbol, honored by the entire population, but he isn’t allowed to do much that would change the country. Later in this podcast, when we get to recent history, we will see that modern-day Thailand has experienced political instability for decades, but that is the fault of the prime ministers and generals who have the power now; many of them leave something to be desired.
The first three kings of the Chakri dynasty were mainly interested in restoring the country; they saw the previous 400 years, when Ayutthaya was the capital, as a golden age. In that sense, they were more conservative than the kings who came after them. Last year, the United States elected a president who campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” and these kings would have understood that sentiment perfectly; perhaps one of them said, “Make Siam Great Again!”
Chulalok Rama I’s ancestry was less than 50% Thai; he had a Mon father and a part-Chinese mother. I said I was done talking about the Mons when the Burmese reconquered the last Mon state, in the mid-eighteenth century, so by producing the first king of Siam’s current dynasty, the Mons may have had the last laugh. He became king on April 6, 1782 and ruled until 1809. Under him, law codes and religious texts were rewritten, and works of literature in the Sanskrit, Chinese, Mon, Persian and Javanese languages were translated into Thai. He also did most of the work of building Bangkok from scratch; here the new temples and palaces were built using the same architectural designs, and sometimes even the very bricks, of old Ayutthaya.
Because he was a former general, Rama I had his share of military accomplishments, both before and after he became king. In 1784 he sent 50,000 troops and 300 boats to help Nguyen Anh, a Vietnamese prince. However, this campaign was defeated by the current rulers of Vietnam, the Tay Son brothers. We saw in Episode 19 that Nguyen Anh did eventually win, but it happened eighteen years later and he did it with aid from the French. Rama I did better when he defeated the last major Burmese invasion, which we call the Nine Armies War; go back to Episode 24 if you don’t remember that conflict. And in 1795 he put a pro-Siamese prince on the throne of Cambodia, and the new king paid him back by giving him two Cambodian provinces, Battambang and Siem Reap. Those provinces would change hands more than once in the nineteenth century, between Cambodia, Siam and France.
Because Rama I got so much done, in 1982, 200 years after his reign began, the Thai Cabinet awarded him an additional title, Maharat, meaning “the Great.” So if you hear modern Thais talking about Rama the Great, this is the Rama they mean. He left some big shoes to fill, but his son, Itsarasundthorn, was up to it. This king, better known to us as Phutthaloetla Naphalai Rama II, ruled from 1809 to 1824.
There was a small war with Burma as soon as the Burmese heard that Rama I was dead, in which they captured and destroyed the Indian Ocean port of Phuket, but then a Siamese army drove them back across the border again. Also in 1809, Prince Kshatriyanuchit, a son of the former king Taksin, announced that the throne belonged to him, and Rama put his twenty-one-year-old son, Thap, in charge of the army that put down that rebellion. Finally in 1821, Siam annexed the state of Kedah in northern Malaya. But even when you count those conflicts, the reign of Rama II was much more peaceful than that of his father. Today Rama II is mainly remembered as a poet. A number of commoners skilled in verse became the king’s favorites, forming a team of court poets. To make sure the country was administered properly, he brought back several ceremonies that had not been practiced since the fall of Ayutthaya, starting with his father’s funeral service. The first formal visits by Westerners in more than fifty years took place while he was king, with a diplomatic mission from Portugal in 1818, and one from Britain in 1820. Also, a missionary introduced the printing press to Siam in 1819.
A succession crisis was narrowly averted at the end of Rama II’s reign. His first son died shortly after birth, in 1801, but fortunately, he had many more children after that. The next son of Rama II and the queen, Mongkut, was born in 1804, and when Mongkut reached the age of 20, his father put him in a monastery, because young Siamese men are expected to become monks for a while. However, Rama II died only three weeks later, and there was an elder half brother, the previously mentioned Thap; the son of the king and a concubine. Since the late king had not declared which son would succeed him, the senior nobility got together to elect the next king. Because of the time when he led an army, Thap was given the title Chetsadabodin, and he served for several years as the minister of trade and foreign affairs. By comparison, Mongkut was too young to have any practical experience at running the country, so the nobles chose Chetsadabodin, though he was an illegitimate son of the previous king. To stay out of messy politics, Mongkut allowed this election to stand, and the nobles crowned Chetsadabodin as King Nangklao Rama III. Foreign observers saw the elevation of Rama III as a usurpation, since Mongkut had the better claim, but they also chose not to protest.
Rama III ruled for twenty-seven years, from 1824 to 1851. The beginning of his reign coincided with the First Anglo-Burmese War, and three hundred years of bad relations between Burma and Siam meant it was a no-brainer for Siam to enter the war on Britain’s side. For their first campaign together, Britain said that Siam could have Mergui, a town in southern Burma that Siam had ruled before 1765. But when Siam occupied Mergui, the general on the spot ordered the removal of everyone living in the town. This was a common practice in Southeast Asian wars, but the British thought this was too much, and that civilians should be left alone. After some intense arguments over the matter, Rama III ordered Siamese troops to leave, so that tensions could cool down. Thus, Siam did not participate in the war after that, Mergui fell under British rule when the war ended, and today Mergui, now called Myeik, is part of Myanmar instead of Thailand.
We saw in previous episodes that Rama III put down a major rebellion in Laos between 1826 and 1828, and fought two wars with Vietnam over Cambodia in the 1830s and 1840s. To the south, he reduced the three remaining states of northern Malaya – Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu – to vassal status. Finally, we saw that the last war between Siam and Burma began in 1849, and ended during the reign of the next king, in 1855.
Officially Siam had been an isolationist state since the Phaulkon affair in the 1680s, 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. Because of the king’s already proven skill at managing trade and foreign policy, he could make sure the treaties did not give too many concessions or compromise Siam’s independence.
The first three kings named Rama had succeeded in making Siam great again, but by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a new challenge – how would the Siamese deal with bolder, more aggressive Europeans? What Siam needed now was a different kind of king, a reformer to modernize the country. Rama III knew this, and said as much when he was on his deathbed. I gave you these words a few episodes back, but they are worth repeating because in a nutshell, they explain what most Southeast Asians had to face at this time. Quote:
“Our wars with Burma and Vietnam were over, only the threats of the Westerners [are] left to us. We should study their innovations for our own benefits but not to the degree of obsession or worship.” End quote.
After the founding of the Chakri dynasty, the Siamese started giving names to the reigns of their kings. They called the era of Rama I “the First Reign,” and that of Rama II “the Middle Reign,” so many called the reign of Rama III “the Late Reign.” However, this also suggested that there would not be any more reigns after the third one. Along that line, Rama III had several concubines, but he never married, so none his children were eligible to succeed him. However, his half-brother Mongkut, now forty-seven years old, was still waiting on the sidelines; because he was the legitimate son of a king, he had the best claim to the throne again, and he would not be passed over a second time.
So what was Mongkut doing while his brother was king? 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 checking the original texts to see if they agreed with their practices. In 1829 he met a monk who did know the scriptures and followed them strictly, and that inspired him to do likewise. When he carefully studied the texts that told how to ordain monks, Mongkut was upset to find that modern Siamese ordinations were invalid. He responded by creating his own order of monks in 1833. In so doing he reformed their daily practices, rituals, preaching and even their pronunciation of Pali, the ancient language of Therevada Buddhist texts. He even changed their uniforms; whereas Siamese monks usually wear orange robes that leave one shoulder bare, monks in the new order dressed in the Mon style, with dark red robes that covered both shoulders. I am guessing Mongkut did this because the Mons were the first Southeast Asians to become Buddhists. Mongkut named his followers Dhammayuttika Nikaya, meaning 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 – his order was not recognized as an authentic Buddhist sect until 1902 – but his activities showed he was a dedicated reformer. At the end of Rama III’s reign, the Siamese 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, Rama IV. Can you imagine today’s politicians putting aside their beliefs in such a way, for the good of their country?
While Mongkut was a monk, he sought out Western missionaries and learned as much as he could from them. Besides Christian doctrine, they taught him English, Latin, science and mathematics. That, and his constant exposure to ordinary people during that time, meant he understood other points of view better than the previous kings, and that helped him a lot when he became King Rama IV. As king he ruled from 1851 to 1868, and in 1855 he signed another treaty with Britain, the most comprehensive yet. This document gave the following privileges to the British: extraterritoriality (meaning British citizens were exempt from Siamese laws), 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 agreed to them all, because he saw rivalry between foreign powers as the best way to keep one of them from gaining too much influence over his country.
To modernize Siam, Rama IV hired eighty foreign advisors. Before long, river steamships and new roads, canals, and bridges were built. A telegraph line from Singapore linked Bangkok to the world’s most advanced cities. Western furniture and dress were introduced into the palace of the uparat, or heir apparent. The uparat was Pinklao, Mongkut’s younger brother, and he 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. 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.
One more foreigner deserves special mention. This was Anna Leonowens, the wife of Thomas Leon Owens, a clerk for the British government. Over the course of their marriage, Anna and Thomas lived in India, Western Australia, Singapore and Penang, before Thomas died suddenly. To support herself and her two children, the widowed Anna set up a school for the children of military officers in Singapore, and this made her eligible for the job which made her famous; from 1862 to 1867 she served as tutor for the Siamese royal family. Rama IV was looking for a teacher who could provide an education that was both modern and secular, something the missionaries couldn’t do. Afterwards, Anna wrote her memoirs in two volumes: The English Governess at the Siamese Court in 1870, and Romance of the Harem in 1873. Her story was rewritten in the form of a fictionalized novel in 1944, Anna and the King of Siam, and in 1951 this became the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I; both versions of the story were later made into movies. By the way, when I read the obituary of King Rama IX last year, the article said the late king didn’t like The King and I, because it portrayed the Siamese court as semi-barbaric, and a more playful place than it really was. I guess he would know, since the king played by Yul Brynner was his great-grandfather.
Mongkut Rama IV used his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to predict a total eclipse of the sun in southern Siam on August 18, 1868. He invited several Siamese and European officials to come with him when he went to see the eclipse, and because his prediction turned out to be more accurate than those of the court astrologers and French astronomers, this eclipse is called “The King of Siam’s Eclipse” in modern Thailand. I found this interesting because on August 21, 2017, five days after this episode goes online, a total eclipse will be visible here in America, about 200 miles west of my home. I plan to go see it, and I’ll probably think about what the king of Siam saw as I do so. Unfortunately the king and his son, Chulalongkorn, caught malaria on that trip, and while the son recovered, the king died six weeks later.
Because Mongkut Rama IV had been a monk until the last seventeen years of his life, and only married after he became king, his son Chulalongkorn was only fifteen years old at the time of the king’s death. We mentioned earlier that the king’s brother Pinklao was his heir, but Pinklao had died in 1865, so like it or not, the throne had to go to a son of the king, and Chulalongkorn was the eldest son of the queen. Rama IV’s prime minister, Somdet Chao Phraya Si Suriyawong, acted as regent for the next five years, and then in 1873 Chulalongkorn was crowned as King Rama V. His reign would be the longest Siam had seen so far, from 1868 to 1910. As for the office of uparat, that went to a son of Pinklao, Yingyot, the new king’s cousin.
Thanks to several trips abroad and Anna’s teaching, Chulalongkorn liked foreigners even more than his father did, and he pushed for progressive reforms vigorously. He started with the institution of slavery. A lot of people had sold themselves into slavery to escape economic hardship, or they became slaves when they could not pay their debts, and the children born to slaves became slaves as well. Consequently, by 1867 up to one third of the population was held in bondage. However, Rama V had heard how bloody the US Civil War was, figured the abolition of American slavery was the cause of that conflict, and chose to phase out slavery gradually, to avoid a bloody civil war in Siam, too. He started by passing a law in 1874 that lowered the price of freedom for the children of slaves born in 1867, and automatically freed them when they reached the age of twenty-one. Then he waited for the ex-slaves to find new jobs, either in the cities or on farms, and it wasn’t until 1905 that he passed a law banning slavery completely.
In the meantime Rama V overhauled the government to make it run more like those of Western nations. These changes were needed, because the organization of the government had not changed much in the four hundred years since King Trailok set up the system being used. The practice of prostration before officials was done away with first, since in Europe, nothing more than taking a bow was needed to show respect. A new tax collection office replaced the previous tax collectors, who were corrupt members of the noble families. The Council of State was set up as a legislative body, and the king’s personal advisors were enrolled in a British-style privy council; the king appointed members for both councils. Naturally there was opposition to these moves from the nobility, because they saw the reforms as threats to their wealth and status. The opposition was led by the uparat and the former prime minister and regent, and since a chunk of the army was more loyal to them than they were to the king, Rama V had to stop making political reforms for a decade. Fortunately time was on his side; by 1885 most of his opponents had died of old age, and he could resume making the changes he felt Siam needed. Since the uparat had been strong enough to threaten his rule, the king abolished that office; henceforth the heir to the throne would be a picked crown prince, usually a son of the king, like what the monarchs of Europe did.
The king’s non-political reforms can be listed quickly, and you will probably find them more interesting. 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; this included several sons of the king. 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 extended 200 miles into the interior by 1900. In 1897 Siam began to overhaul the entire law code, making it less arbitrary and more impersonal. This was done 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. Moreover, there was a shortage of labor, caused by the termination of slavery. Another hindrance to modernization came 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. There was some talk about turning the king into a constitutional monarch, but even Rama V didn’t think the country was ready for this yet.
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. We saw in the previous episode that Chinese bandits turned Laos into a lawless zone, and when Rama IV and Rama V sent more troops to restore order, the result was a long conflict called the Haw Wars, that lasted for most of the late nineteenth century. In response, the French announced that any troops on the east bank of the Mekong River were an unacceptable threat to their new colony. Then in 1893 came the Franco-Siamese War, which we also learned about in the last episode; three French warships sailed into the mouth of the Menam River, won a minor battle, and threatened Bangkok, until Siam gave up nearly all of Laos. Then in 1904 and 1907 the French demanded, and got, further territorial concessions on the Mekong’s west bank; in return Siam renounced the extraterritorial privileges French citizens enjoyed in Siam. 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. One more concession came as a result of this: to get British support in keeping France from taking any more territory, Siam had to drop its claim to the Shan plateau of eastern Burma, an area Britain had occupied in the late 1880s. Siam entered the twentieth century clipped; it had lost half its land, more than half if you count Cambodia. Even so, the core territory remained independent, and it had been modernized; no other Southeast Asian state could match those achievements.
Chulalongkorn Rama V was succeeded by his son Vajiravudh, who ruled from 1910 to 1925, and as we saw earlier, was also named Rama VI. He was also a reformer, but he didn’t accomplish as much as his father, mainly because his reign was shorter. In 1917 he opened Chulalongkorn University, the first university in Siam, and in 1921 he made primary education compulsory. Also in 1917, he led Siam into World War I, declaring war on Germany and sending an expeditionary force of Siamese soldiers to the Western Front. They barely saw any action – the troops did not arrive on the Front until the middle of September 1918, less than two months before the war ended. The number of Siamese casualties was exactly 19; two died before they went to France, and the rest fell victim to accidents and disease; none were killed in action, in a war notorious for its body counts. That minimal involvement gave Siam the respect it wanted from the Western nations – soon they would revoke the last of the unequal treaties they had made Siam sign in the past – and Siam got to take part in the Versailles Peace Conference after the war, and become a member of the League of Nations. When not running the government, the king wrote dozens of novels, short stories and plays, and translated important works of English, French and Sanskrit literature into Thai.
Rama VI gets the credit for creating the flag of present-day Thailand. Back in the Ayutthayan era, the Siamese flag was a plain red banner, and in the nineteenth century, the flag was still red, but now it featured a white elephant in the middle. That was an appropriate symbol, since Southeast Asians have always been fond of white elephants. According to one source I was not able to verify, in 1916 the king visited a part of the country that had recently experienced flooding, and he saw the flag flying upside down; in Siam, as in most other places, an upside down flag is a sign of distress. The king didn’t like the idea of the national flag being used this way, so he designed a new flag that was symmetrical; it would look the same whether it was rightside up or upside down. The new design had five horizontal bars; from top to bottom the colors of the bars were red, white, blue, white and red; the blue bar in the middle is twice as thick as the others. Vajiravudh reportedly chose those colors because most of the Allied nations used them in their flags: France, Russia, Britain and the United States all have red, white and blue flags. The new flag was adopted on September 28, 1917, so it was available to go with the Siamese unit when they went to the war.
Finally, Vajiravudh was the last Siamese king to have more than one wife. He did not marry until his reign was nearly over, in 1921, and his only child, a girl, was born just two days before his death. Since the royal family was getting smaller, now that it was switching to Western-style monogamous marriages, he changed the succession law in 1924, so that women could inherit the throne, should the dynasty ever run out of men. So far that hasn’t happened, but the Thais will be ready if it does happen at some future date.
Of course a newborn baby girl couldn’t rule, so the crown went to a brother of Rama VI; we call him Prajadhipok Rama VII. He was the youngest son of Rama V, and since he wasn’t expected to become king some day, he pursued a military career. Like Rama VI he attended college in England, and eventually he became an officer in both the British and Siamese armies. When World War I broke out, Prajadhipok wanted to go to the Western Front with other British soldiers, but Siam was neutral at this point; it would not enter the war for another three years. Rama VI forced his brother to resign his British commission, an order which greatly annoyed Prajadhipok. It’s a good thing he did not go; at the beginning of the war, most Europeans believed the war would be like the wars of the late nineteenth century – short and not very bloody. Little did they know that new military technology would turn the Western Front into a meat grinder, that devoured men as fast as they could be sent to the Front. Listen to Dan Carlin’s “Blueprint for Armageddon” series if you want to know how bad World War I really was.
Prajadhipok did not get training for the job of king until 1924, less than a year before he became Rama VII. That lack of training may help explain why he was a weak monarch. Rama VI had lived extravagantly, and the government was spending too much money when Rama VII took charge, so the new king ordered layoffs at the beginning of his reign. Another round of layoffs was ordered when the Great Depression hit Siam in 1930. The personnel cuts caused severe economic hardship for many government officials and their families. But wait, there’s more! During the Great Depression, the price of rice fell by two thirds, land values fell 85%, and the king got all the blame for the misery that caused. On top of all that, the king’s practice of filling job vacancies during the Depression years with members of the royal family led to growing discontent with the monarchy, especially from the middle class, which was no longer willing to let a few families make all political decisions.
Now that Siam had freedom of the press, those who were unhappy with the current system had a voice. These included the students who had been educated abroad during the 1920s and early 1930s; some of them became politically radicalized when they saw how the Western Nations worked. One of them was Pridi Phanomyong, a brilliant young lawyer studying in Paris, and he became leader of an organization of overseas Siamese students. He teamed up with Phibun Songgram, a career artillery officer studying military science in France, and in 1927 they formed the People’s Party, a revolutionary group that believed absolute monarchy could longer meet the challenges of the modern world. Remember those two men, Pridi Phanomyong and Phibun Songgram; one or the other of them would run Siam until the late 1950s. When they returned to Siam, they and their associates became known as the Promoters, as they recruited students, non-royal government officials, and military officers to join their revolutionary group.
By 1932 the Promoters had 114 members. On June 24, 1932, while the king was on vacation, they staged a bloodless coup, seizing power before the military could react. They became a new State Council, set up a parliamentary body called the National Assembly, and declared that henceforth Siam would be a constitutional monarchy. Since the king accepted these changes without making a fuss, it appears that he wanted to be a constitutional monarch all along.
The new government, despite its proclamations, was hardly democratic. It kept some members of the old government in their posts, and they turned out to be quite conservative. Soon quarrels broke out between the civilian faction, led by Pridi, the military faction, led by Phibun, and the royalist faction, led by the king. In early 1933 Pridi presented an economic plan for the country that was downright socialist. Many members of the new government refused to accept the plan, and arguments in the National Assembly became so heated that the king dissolved it. Fearing that the king was trying to regain control over the government, the military ordered the National Assembly to remain in session. This was followed by an unsuccessful royalist counter-coup in October 1933, led by the king’s cousin. Although there was no evidence that the king was involved in this, he never could get along with the other factions afterwards. In 1934 Rama VII decided to get out of politics completely, and went to England again; in the following year he abdicated. Since England had become his home away from home, the ex-king stayed there until his death in 1941.
We won’t talk about Siam’s next king here; he will have to wait until the next time this podcast does an episode about Siam. In the meantime, I’ll let you guess what his name was.
Back in Siam, the military was now the strongest faction. It took over the government completely, and it has run Siam for much of the time since the 1932 revolution. The officers saw militant Japan as their role model, so during the 1930s they tripled the military budget, started a paramilitary youth movement with fascist overtones, like the Hitler Youth in Germany, and improved relations with Japan.
In December 1938 the prime minister, General Phraya Phahon, was forced to retire because of a government scandal, and Field Marshall Phibun Songgram took his place, declaring himself both the new prime minister and Commander of the Royal Siamese Army. He launched a policy that was strongly nationalist, anti-Chinese, irredentist and pro-Japanese, his goal being to recover the lands lost to Britain and France. At home he invented a code of personal conduct called wiratham, the “code of the warrior,” that borrowed much from Japanese bushido, the code followed by the samurai. One of his first acts, in 1939, was to change the name of Siam, as a reminder to the world of how much Siam had changed in just a few years. The new name he chose was Muang Thai. In the Thai language, Muang means “Nation” and Thai means “Free Men”, so Muang Thai meant “Land of the Free.” In English, that name became Thailand.
Look at how much we covered! Our narrative is up to the beginning of World War II, so this is a good place to break off. Next time we will go east across the South China Sea, and see what is happening in the Philippines. Can you believe we haven’t talked about those islands since Episode 14? I estimate it will take two episodes to catch up on that archipelago, as we discuss the rise of the Philippine nationalist movement, and the United States takeover of those islands.
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