The Shaping of Thailand by the Chakri Dynasty


Stanley J. Tambiah
Harvard University

One of the outstanding anthropologists of the 20th century, Tambiah has engaged in basic, long-range ethnographic research on the cultures of South and Southeast Asia and has made original theoretical advances in our understanding of the function of ritual in human society.


A special lecture to celebrate His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Seventy Second Birthday, delivered at Thammasat University in 1999.
Reproduced with kind permission from the author.





1.  Introduction


I feel greatly honoured to be invited to give an address on this memorable occasion organized by Thammasat University to celebrate His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s forthcoming seventy second birthday.  In 1996 Thailand celebrated the Golden Jubilee of His Majesty’s reign, and it is well known and much f?ted that His Majesty’s continuing reign is the longest by far of all the nine monarchs of the Chakri Dynasty.  It is hoped that it will continue well into the twenty-first century, the dawn of which we await.  The joyous acceptance of the invitation that would enable me to return to a country that is very close to my heart was soon followed by the chagrin that whatever I could say on this occasion would be inadequate.  Nevertheless, I chose as an appropriate theme for this occasion: “The shaping of Thailand by the Chakri Dynasty.”  It is of course not possible in the time at my disposal to refer to the achievements of all the nine monarchs.  I have therefore chosen to discuss the following: the foundational acts of King Rama 1 as restorer of the Kingdom of Siam; the encounter with the West in the reigns of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), and their constructive achievements regarding the “modernization” of Thailand; and, finally, some of the notable developments during the reign of, His Majesty, King Bhumipol as constitutional monarch.  I would like my presentation to serve as an act of remembrance and appreciation of the constructive deeds of the dynasty.  The name of the country was changed from Siam to Thailand in 1939, and I shall use both names interchangeably according to context.


2. Rama I: Founder of a Dynasty, Restorer and Reformer


My narrative of the making of Thailand by the Chakri Dynasty has to be prefaced by the devastation caused by the Burmese assault on Ayudhya in the 1760s culminating in the capture, sacking and leveling of the city.  A monk chronicler, Somdet Phra Wannarat described the damage done in his chronicle Sangitiyavamsa (Chronicle of the great councils) in graphic terms: "The populace was afflicted with a variety of ills by the enemy.  Some wandered about, starving searching for food.  They were bereft of their families, their children and wives and stripped of their possessions….  Afflicted with a thousand ills, some died and some live on…."  Moreover manuscripts and records were burnt and treasures looted.

This was a sad ending to a polity which had its beginnings in the 14th century, and had for two hundred years from 1569-1767 attained the status of an imperial power.  During the reigns of King Narai (1657-1688) and King Naresuan (1590-1605) the Ayudhya Central Kingdom of Siam had reached the summit of prosperity.  And only a few decades before Ayudhya's collapse it had been ruled by King Borommakot whose reign was retrospectively viewed as a golden age during which external threats from Burma and Cambodia were held at bay.

As is well known, in the wake of the disarray resulting from the fall of Ayudhya, there emerged for a while a capable warrior, Taksin, who tried to consolidate the kingdom with its center at Thonburi, but whose mind became deranged, and his reign was abortive.  Chaophyraya Chakri, a capable general, was invited to assume the throne in 1782 as King Ramathibodi, and became known later as Rama 1.

The historic role played by Rama 1 can be described in terms of the following expressions.  The words "rupture and rebirth" characterize the gap left by the devastation of Ayudhya which was filled by the creation of a new capital at Bangkok.  The works "restoration and reform" characterize on the one hand Rama 1's stated objective that he wished to recover King Borommakot's edifice, and on the other that he intended that the new edifice will be a reformed version of the past purged of abuses, and oriented to new needs and challenges.  A noted historian has suggested that Rama 1 effected a "subtle revolution" through his twin achievement of restoration and reform, conservation and innovation.

The various activities undertaken by Rama 1 illustrate these assertions.[1]  He moved the capital to a new location situated on the east bank of the Chaopraya river better protected from possible Burmese attack.  "The city soon bustled with craftsman constructing a new palace and imposing new monasteries, while princes and officials constructed homes along the network of canals radiating eastward from the palace [while] Chinese and Indian merchants built their shops and warehouses along the river to the south."[2]  It is said that large quantities of old bricks were dismantled from the walls of Ayudhya and were brought to help build the new capital—an action that while being quite practical and pragmatic also symbolized the resurrection of Ayudhya in Bangkok.

It is reported in The Dynastic Chronicles, Bangkok Era, The First Reign that the construction of the new capital city was begun in 1783, including the Grand Palace and the palace of the heir apparent.  In celebrating the work of the King, his officials and nobles, in building the capital let us also remember the labours of the conscripted labour gangs of phrai luang and phrai som, and other corv?e labour brought from the provinces and from the tributary principalities to do the construction.  The Dynastic Chronicles state that "ten thousand Cambodians were levied to construct" the Ropkrung Canal which extended from Bang Lamphu all the way to the river in the south.  Another large canal was constructed north of Wat Saket, and was named the Mahanak Canal by the king.  After the completion of the canals, a corvee of five thousand Laotians from Vientiane were called up to dig the foundations for the walls around the city and the construction of parapets on the walls.[3]

As the first representative of a new dynasty, Rama I engaged in acts that bear the characteristic marks of an active king achieving legitimacy and stability within the orthodoxy of a Buddhist polity.  These acts are the purification of the sangha, the enactment of new sangha laws, the sponsorship of a revised Buddhist canon and a new version of the historic cosmological work, the Traiphum.

As did famous kings before him who established themselves after a period of political chaos, Rama I found it necessary to reorganize and purify the sangha, which had at first suffered from the ravages of the Burmese war of 1767 and, subsequently, had been embroiled in schismatic dissension during the later years of King Taksin’s reign.  The destruction of the capital of Ayuthya resulted in its eventual abandonment and the fleeing of its population, both monks and laymen.  In the chaotic years following 1767, monasteries were looted, images and texts destroyed or lost, and monks forced to find refuge in the south.

Rama I underwent two coronation ceremonies, the second one occurring three years later being the full-scale one replete with brahmanical rites.  It would appear as though he was aware of the need to earn his legitimacy and win his credentials as a ruler by first establishing internal order and reestablishing claims over tributary states.  It was during this period that he passed most of the decrees that sought to urge the monks to observe the Patimokkha disciplinary norms of the sasana, to eschew unbecoming occupations, to not claim the possession of supernatural powers, and to subject themselves to proper registration rules of residence and supervision.[4]  We may finally note that the king called upon his civil officials and the relatives of monks to observe the laymen’s share of the code of conduct that would help maintain the sangha’s integrity, and himself deferred to the supreme patriarch’s prior authority to pronounce on disputes and issues of doctrine and sangha kamma (acts of procedures).

Another royal act of Rama I in the classical tradition was the production of a new edition of the Buddhist canon, for which purpose he convened a council of monks and scholars in 1788.  Upon being informed that the last revisions had been done in the fifteenth century under the aegis of King Tilokarat of Chiangmai and that the extant Lao and Mon and Khom translations were defective and differed from one another, the king directed the council to restore “the original text” of the canon.

Thus the king convened the Ninth Council and completed the ninth revision of the Tripitaka accomplished in Theravada Buddhist history, and in doing so he was conscious of his effort to stay the progressive decline of the religion in its allotted span of 5000 years as was predicted in the famous prophecy that was consciously invoked in times of crises when the decline of the polity was seen to be intertwined with the laxness of the sasana and the attrition of the dhamma.  Religion and polity indexed each other’s health.

Another appropriate act at this time of restoration of polity and religion was the king’s commissioning of the compilation of a new Traiphum, the great cosmological work composed in 1345 by the prince who was to become King Li-Tai and which among other things propagated the ideas that kingship was necessary for the maintenance and transmission of dhamma and that as a universal monarch (cakkavatti) the king, placed at the apex of the world of men, guaranteed a ranked social order of merit-making opportunities, which order in turn took its place in the larger cosmos of the three worlds.

Craig Reynolds’ description of the events leading to the compilation of the new Traiphum reminds us of older accounts: A year after his accession Rama I addressed certain royal questions to the monks (phraratchaputcha) in an audience composed of ministers, pundits, and all the monks of te Phra Ratchakana class headed by the supreme patriarch.  The king apparently questioned the monks on a number of matters including ways of reckoning time, miracles of the Buddha, the destruction and re-creation of the world, and other cosmological issues and discovered that they were insufficiently familiar with the contents of the Traiphum.[5]

What this account puts us in mind of is the story of Emperor Asoka’s asking questions of monks, before expelling the ignorant ones, at the Third Council, with the thera Moggaliputta Tissa sitting by his side.  According to the Mahavamsa account, the king asked the royal questions while the thera pronounced on the doctrinal adequacy of the answers, a pattern that was replicated in the account also of Parakrama Bahu I’s conduct of the purification of the sangha in twelfth-century Ceylon.  Rama I’s questioning, though it does not exactly parallel the classical models yet confirms the tradition of the royal questioning of bhikkhus, an event at which he establishes his own knowledge of the dhamma (although a layman) at the same time as he actively ensures the sangha’s pursuit of learning.

Hitherto we have represented Rama I as a king who lived the ideology of a Buddhist king; he appears to have been deeply infused with it and at the same time knew how to manipulate it.  His rule was an orthodox expression of the concept of dharmaraja.  At the same time, he was aware that in doing so he was able to stabilize his rule and the dynasty of which he was founder.  In such an instance it is futile to separate the living of an ideology from its manipulation.  As the founder of a new dynasty he legitimated his own accession to the throne, and he proved his worthiness to occupy it by performing the deeds characteristic of classical righteous kingship.

But there was a sphere in which Rama I was something of an innovator.  Perhaps for the purpose of this study the most significant of the purification acts of the new king was his command that a new codification be made of the laws transmitted from the Ayudhya era.[6]  What appears to be particularly significant about this episode is that it leads us not only to an appreciation of the traditional conception of the king as the embodiment and dispenser of dharma (dharmaraja) but also illustrates that strong kings do creatively interpret sacred traditions, which are alleged to be transmitted unchanged from the past.  The very belief and assertion that an uncontaminated pure expression can be discovered by searching back into the past allows for forging new interpretations attuned to the standards of truth, relevance, and veracity of the later period.

The circumstances leading to the new codification briefly stated are as follows: Apparently on the basis of disagreeing with a particular judgment on a woman’s right to take away her own property on divorce initiated by her in spite of the fact that it was she herself who had committed adultery–a judgment it was found did indeed accord with the available legal texts (the three authentic versions of which were kept in the law court, the royal apartment, and the assembly hall for the ministers)–the king declared the laws corrupt and appointed a committee to examine them and codify them anew.

One of the fascinating aspects of this endeavor is that the king directed the committee that the laws “be examined with regard to their agreement with the Pali Canon, and in cases where they did not agree they were to be altered accordingly in order to restore what was believed to be the original text” (Wenk p. 36).  This directive was an innovation.  It illustrates how changes can be legitimated in self-consciously Buddhist polities by using the Pali canon as a “charter” in the Malinowskian sense to introduce legal innovation.

Thus, for instance, the Burmese document called Manugye, written around 1752, and the Siamese law of the Three Seals, promulgated by Rama I a few decades later in the early years of the nineteenth century, shared the same myth that placed Manu, the discoverer of divine law, as the minister and servant of the first elected king, Mahasammata, considered an embryo Buddha who performed works of the purest benevolence.  Indeed, as Lingat (1950)[7] demonstrates, while in Burma the notion of dhammasattham as an absolute moral law was considered prior to, and kept separate from, rajasatham (the individual acts and practical application of law by the king), in Thailand, it would seem with Rama I providing us with the first supporting evidence, there was a further evolution of dhammasattham in the direction of positive law, whereby royal decisions were directly connected with dhammasattham rules.  This amalgamation of rajasatham with dhammasattham, which accepts the principle that the king can himself legislate because he embodies dharma, is no doubt historically connected with the development of powerful and stable dynasties.  It is exemplified in Thailand by the Chakri kings, particularly Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, who were the agents of much change in the nineteenth century.

It has been remarked that the cosmopolitanism of the court at Bankok was represented not only by the powerful noble families whose origins were in Persia and India, together with many persons who spoke other languages than Thai, and professed religions other than Buddhism, but also by the varied literature that was patronised.  The central text was the “Ramakien, the complete Siamese version of the Indian epic which Rama I and his courtiers set to verse in 1797.”[8]  It recast the Indian classic to suit Siamese traditions and aesthetic preferences.  It was fitting that an expresion of complementary aesthtic taste was manifested by the translation of the Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sam Kok) which apparently served as a “model for the public behavior of rulers, counselors, and soldiers.”[9]  Among the other translations of the period are the chronicles of the Mon kings of Pegu (Rachathirat), the Dalang and Inao from Java, the Unarut based on a portion of the Mahabharata from India, and the Mahavamsa chronicle composed in Sri Lanka.

In the same year 1783, Rama 1 ordered the temple-Wat Phra Kaeo-built within the compound of the palace to house the Emerald Buddha (Phra Phutthapatimakon Kaeomorakot), which is considered the paladium of the country.  The Emerald Buddha had a rich mytho-history attached to it.  The chronical Jinakalamali composed by a Thai monk of Chiangmai named Ratana panna in the early sixteenth century, relates how the Pali Tipitaka scriptures and the Emeriald Buddha statue which got separated, finally came together in the possession of the King Tilok of Chiangmai.  The Dynastic Chronicles of the Bangkok Era refer to the chronicle Ratanaphimphawong as describing the further travels of the Emerald Buddha until it came to Vientiane, and it was from there that the general conducting a campaign, no other than the future king of Thailand Rama 1, despatched the Emerald Buddha to Thonburi.  Later when he was crowned king he installed the image with pomp and honour in Wat Phra Kaeo, and deposited in it also a full copy of the Pali scriptures; it is said that this conjunction signifies that it was Thailand’s destiny to become the receiver and protector of the pure and complete religion,[10] and that the possession of the Emerald Buddha in turn legitimates both the kingship and the polity.



3. Mongkut: Integrating Religion & Science


The illustrious career of Mongkut, first as a prince who spent twenty seven years as a monk between 1824 and 1851 during which time he initiated the Thammayut reform movement within the sangha, and subsequently as King from 1851-68, is said to be the time when the Bangkok court and elite experienced a decisive encounter with the European and American missionaries who came to proselytize, and travellers who came to trade.  Their increasing numbers and influence was manifested by the commercial treaties that the Siamese court signed with several western nations.[11]

It is significant that Mongkut’s reform of the practices of the sangha with regard to ordination ritual, method of robing, assembling and learning the canonical texts in their “pristine” formulation in the Pali language–in other words his fundamentalist and rationalist reforms for the purification of Buddhism by stripping away “unorthodox” accretions coincided with this period of intensified contact with Westerners.  Mongkut conducted meetings, dialogues, and correspondence with personages such as Jesse Caswell an American missionary, and Bishop Pallegoix, from whom he learned English, French and Latin, and with both of whom he vigorously discussed Christian and Buddhist doctrine and acquired knowledge of Western empirical scientific techniques and findings.  Later, when he became monarch, astronomy became a serious hobby and he used astronomical instruments in his studies of planetary motion.  It would seem that in particular many members of the royalty and nobility whose official duties brought them into contact with foreigners in growing numbers sought out their company to quizz them “from steamboat construction to Christianity.”  By mid-century the steam engine and printing press had arrived and “found acceptance among commoners and officials alike,”[12] who were likewise entranced by mechanical gadgetry such as electrical and optical instruments and the actions of chemical substances.

One momentous intellectual exchange of that time was that between the Siamese minister chaophraya Tiphakorawong (Kham Bunnag) and Westerners such as Henry Alabaster (later to become British consul), Adolf Bastian (a German visitor), and the American missionary D. B.  Bradley, during which, among other things, there was the critical consideration of the adequacy of the traditional Traibhumi cosmography’s explanations of natural phenomena—planetary movements, weather, biological and embryological processes.  A question posed was to what extent their rejection in the face of Western scientific experimental knowledge also eroded the meaningfulness and validity of Buddhist social ethics and Buddhist philosophical and soteriological principles of karma (action and reaction), rebirth, precepts of virtuous practice (sila) and causes of suffering (dukkha) and its eradication.  Such were the questions posed and answered in Tiphakorawong’s famous first printed book Kitchanukit [A book Explaining Various Things] published in 1867.  The asking and answering of those questions was also an exercise in comparative religion.  The twofold sophisticated and self-assured conclusions by Mongkut and other inquirers like Tiphakorawong, were firstly that the Buddhist formulations regarding theodicy (the problem of suffering and coping with it), soteriology (salvation), the operations of karma as cause and effect of intentional action, do stand up well to Christianity’s alternative formulations and were in no need of replacement, and, secondly, that “worldly matters and religious matters are not the same” (as Tiphakorawong concluded).  Although in matters regarding natural processes such as meteorology, geology, and the etiology of disease, the traditional Thai understandings of them as set out in the Traiphum could no more be sustained, yet Buddhist social ethics were subjectively meaningful and productive and could continue to be realized through traditional institutions, of which the centre piece as foregrounded in the Traiphum was the conception of the cakkavatti as the ideal universal monarch and the epitome of righteous rule, and his lesser manifestations, such as the ecumenical Emperor Asoka as dhamaraja who made the transition from conquest by force to the rule by non-violence.  I would like to propose that the manner in which Thai Buddhism as religious doctrine, precept and practice and modern science as a system of empirical knowledge and technological practice were aligned some 140 years ago in Mongkut’s time be considered a statement of sustainable modernity that is an alternative to the dominant Eurocentric debate on the relation of science and Christianity.[13]

In the gallery of Chakri monarchs, Mongkut as first monk and then monarch has a special place as an extraordinarily innovative and engaged great man(mahapurisa).  He embodies a special amalgam: to use two European model analogies, he was on the one hand a Reformation figure in so far as he went in search of the true religion in alleged original pristine textual sources to establish a new religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and on the other hand he was also an Enlightenment figure in that he was forward looking and embraced in a rationalist mood the new  empirically based technological knowledge and mode of reasoning.  Both facets of his achievements are importantly his reactions to Siam’s encounter with the West.  He serves in Thai history as a preparer of the path for Siam’s major transformation in the Chulalongkorn epoch.


4. The Revolution from Above: The Achievements of the    Chulalongkorn Era


Thailand experienced and manifested in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth very profound changes which have been characterized as the initiation of a “revolution from above” by the monarchy, royal princes, and certain members of the nobility, and as the launching of a program of modernizing transformation.

These are the interrelated strands that impacted on this transformation:

1.      The increasing contact with and penetration of Western influences combined with the demands of the colonial powers, particularly the British and the French, who wished to expand their territorial claims on Thailand’s western, eastern and southern frontiers, and to extract certain privileges favorable to their economic interests.

2.      The reactive program of administrative reform and territorial protection launched by King Chulalongkorn and his associates, which brought its own benefits but also had to cope with certain resistances from the northeastern and southern peripheries.

3.      Part and parcel of this reform was also the initiation and fostering of an economic transformation in technology and relations of agrarian production, all of which resulted in Thailand’s intensified participation in export trade and in the world economy.

4.      All these above features, combined with the launching of a national education program accompanied by the increased dissemination of the central Thai language as a standardized literary medium of education, had implications for the project of nation-state making and national integration.

      Thailand’s economic and political development and transformation in the nineteenth century is the main subject of this part of my narrative.      Compared with other Southern and Southeast Asian principalities – located in Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and so on – the impact of colonialism on Thailand was double edged in a special way.  On the one hand, although not directly colonized, the Thai economy of the time came to have some of the features of a neo-colonial economy – in that its industrial development was limited, while export in agricultural products (especially rice and teak) and minerals (tin) provided the bulk of the revenue.

On the other hand, the colonial impact – though indirect – did result in a marked expansion of the economy, especially in rice production for export, which provided the financial fuel for the program of administrative overhauling initiated by King Chulalongkorn in the 1890’s. The Bowring Treaty negotiated in 1855 with Great Britain is considered one of the decisive turning points in Thai history.

The main features of the Bowring treaty (and subsequent treaties) included extraterritoriality for Western subjects in Siam, and their right of residence in Bangkok, fixed import and export duties, the end of government monopolies, and most favored nation clauses under which additional privileges granted to one Treaty power could automatically be claimed by all.[14]

Although an enforced free trade resulted in an immediate loss of royal customs dues and other revenues, in the long run it was a stimulus to expansion in production, imports, and trade (with the Chinese especially playing an important role in the commercial sector). The vast unexploited arable lands were developed by the intensification and extensification of agriculture. Ultimately, through the application of new kinds of fiscal policy and taxation measures, the monarchy had access to economic sources on a scale previously unknown with which to sustain a centrally controlled bureaucracy with centrally dispensed salaries and to undertake programs of modernization.[15]

It has to be borne in mind that a loose political structure of vassal states and graded provinces, obtained until the implementation of Prince Damrong’s administrative reforms.  Until the end of the nineteenth century hereditary succession to the governorships was clearly the practice in many first-, second-, third-class provinces (and even in some of the fourth-class ones to which, in theory, governors were appointed from the capital every three years).[16]  The hereditary governors or rulers (chao muang) enjoyed relative autonomy and they replicated the courts and officialdom of the center.

However throughout the country the expansion in the agricultural sector was accompanied by a gradual change in the traditional politico-economic relations between the princes (chao) and the office-holding nobles (khunnang or nai) on the one side and the freemen-commoners (phrai) and slaves (that) on the other, the latter being the personal dependents and retainers and laborers of the former.

Since the foundation of the Chakri dynasty the traditional master-servant relation was slowly transformed by an interesting chain of measures.  Long before the Bowring Treaty of 1855 the first three Chakri kings had begun to appropriate more revenue and power than was accomplished by their predecessors.  Both Rama I and II had began to earn a large part of their revenues from foreign trade, the king (and some of the princes and nobles) either directly participating in it or later selling monopolies to trading interests. Of particular importance during the second and third Bangkok reigns (1809-1933) was the thriving sano-Siamese Junk trade.[17]  “During this period, the country was gradually opened up for foreign trade.  Trade agreements were made with the Portuguese in 1818, with the East India Company in 1826, and with the United States in 1833.”[18]

The first Chakri kings attempted to make inroads into the power of provincial governors and princes by weakening the latter’s control of manpower.  They sought to keep their own royal commoners (phrai luang) and slaves by requiring them to perform corv?e or pay a sum of money in commutation.

This loosening up of the personal relations of dependents on princes and nobles and turning them into the king’s subjects reached its peak with the influx into the county of an alternative supply of labor in the form of Chinese immigrants, who could be engaged on royal irrigation and other projects on a wage basis.  Their availability made possible the reduction of corv?e service and the encouragement of the commoners to commute their service into cash payments.  By 1872 the time was opportune for the abolition of slavery as well: thus the traditional forms of manpower control and exploitation were superseded by more viable ones. Nevertheless, the ranked social categories of princes (chao), nobles (khunnang/nai), and commoners were to persist and remain important in Thai society, as did the institution of patron-client and leader-follower relations on an informal basis.  This might be the right place to acknowledge the critical contribution of this wave immigrant Chinese labour to the social and economic transformation of Thailand and its adaptive incorporation into the society at large.

Parallel to and interrelated with the loosening of the old system of dependency relations and the embracing of immigrant Chinese wage labour there occurred the remarkable overhauling and restructuring of the administrative system of the country.

Initiated into kingship in 1868 as a youth of 15 years of age it was really in the 1880s that King Chulalongkorn came into his own, and initiated a program of administrative reforms that has been described as a “revolution from above.”[19]  While previously Rama III, and even more transparently, Rama IV (Mongkut) felt somewhat constrained by the power of the noble families with whom they were intimately connected through marriage and concubinage,[20] now by a turn of the wheel of history, Chulalongkorn found it possible to rely closely on his royal princely brothers to carry out an ambitious program of centralization of power and administrative reform.

The Chulalongkorn era is deservedly acclaimed for its achievements whose heroes were, besides the king, his own royal siblings.  It is indeed a remarkable phenomenon that the colonial threat was not only resisted in Siam by such a royalist minority but rarer indeed that the same minority creatively initiated its country into the compelling tasks of the twentieth century, when not to have modernised in certain respects would have meant colonial conquest and bondage.  The ever-present challenge of the British and the French in Siam’s adjacent territories lent an urgency in the 1890s to the administrative reforms of King Chulalongkorn and Prince Damrong, which had as one of their major purposes the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity and claims.  These times were the finest hour for a small royalist aristocracy whose legitimacy was ascribed but whose trophies were achieved.

Chulalongkorn’s administrative reforms are described by one writer as having achieved “the functionalization of bureaucracy” (Riggs 1967), that is by the creation of functionally specialized ministries and departments.  The loose relations between the center (and its domain) and the satellites and provincial principalities ruled by chao muang had to be tightened and substituted by a centrally controlled and allocated regional and provincial salaried officialdom.

It is precisely these two transformations that Chulalongkorn and his princely ministers and a number of foreign advisers— British, French, Danish, and American—largely attempted and succeeded in achieving in good measure.  The colonial threat was met by astutely exploiting the knowledge, machinery , and personnel of the Western imperial powers.

Although the king had already launched his program of forming new central administrative units in 1875,[21] the breakthrough, followed by an intensified reorganization, is said to have begun in 1892.  The spearhead of the reorganization was the new Ministry of Interior under the direction of Prince Damrong.  Chulalongkorn urged Damrong (who previously was much engaged in educational reform) to take over the formation and direction of this ministry because it was critical in meeting the invasion threat of the imperial powers, since all the outlying provinces were under its control.  Apart from its serving as the agent for bringing the provinces under the control of the center, the Ministry of Interior also served as the model of a functionally specialized bureaucratic organization that incubated a number of new departments that in due course, after gaining strength, were transferred to another ministry of specialized function.

The Forest Department and the Mines Department, which were important in negotiating and regulating the commercial agreements with foreign lumbering and mining companies (which had previously made their own agreements with the provincial rulers, e.g., the ruler of Chiangmai and the European teak firms), had their effective existence within the Ministry of Interior and helped in the political process of centralization and establishing national territorial claims.

The Interior Ministry’s aggregating and unifying tasks were matched by other ministries: Thus the Ministry of Finance consolidated all the revenue functions hitherto distributed among many chambers; similarly, the military and judicial functions likewise dispersed in several chambers were consolidated into the Ministries of Defense and Justice.[22]

The most critical effort of Damrong was the creation of a network of officials.  The hierarchy began with the Senabodi at the capital, followed next by the high commissioners of regions (monthon) formed by combining provinces, then the provincial governors, and concluding with the district officers at the amphur level, charged with the task of territorial and local government administration (tesaphiban).[23]  Damrong effectively used his commissioners and district officers to curb and draw the old-type provincial governors into a national framework without actually displacing them.  The older functions of the relatively autonomous provincial governors—judicial, revenue collection, and police duties—were disaggregated and entrusted to officers sent out by the Ministries of Justice and Finance and by the police department within the Ministry of Interior.  And progressively specialized field officers (dealing with irrigation, forestry, fisheries, agriculture, rice, etc.) were placed within the provincial territorial grid manned by the generalist administrative officials of the Interior Ministry who were placed in charge of the district and who were provincial headquarters.

A unique feature pertaining to Thailand that constantly draws the appreciation and envy of all the countries of South and Southeast Asia is that it alone successfully resisted being colonized by the Western Imperial Powers, namely the British, French, and Dutch, while India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, Indo-China (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam) all went under.  This miraculous survival has been sought to be explained by certain features, chief among them the vigilance, diplomatic skills, and pragmatism of the Thai authorities, the administrative overhauling of the country, and the creation of an army that could deter deep penetration and conquest.

At the same time, we have to understand how much the regimes of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn were deeply concerned with the aggrandizing designs of the colonial powers, the asymmetrical power relations signified by the unequal treaties imposed on them, and the nibbling at the outer vassal territories over which Siam had exerted its own imperial authority.  These outer territories had not in precolonial times been defined by firm boundaries according to European cartographic notions of spatial mapping and exclusive control.  Thus the trauma of Western colonial pressures was compounded by the misunderstandings during diplomatic negotiations of what was implied in treaties that stipulated that territories be “ceded” permanently.

In the precolonial relations between Siam and neighboring kingdoms and principalities there were no rigid conceptions of bounded space signified by borders, but there were certain overlappings of territorial control between adjacent polities and frequent changes of control according to the fortunes of war.  As Westerners moved into the region in the nineteenth century, their colonizing projects were accompanied by the technology of surveying and mapping and their legalistic predilection for boundaries.  Hence the misunderstandings in the conduct of diplomatic relations, accusations of bad faith and the occasional military clashes.[24]

The competitions and collusions between the British and French powers as the British extended their reach in Burma, and the French their parallel expansion in Indo-China, are well known.  The spectacular incident of French gunboats coming up the Chaophraya to Bangkok in 1893, was also the occasion for Britain and France to agree formally or informally on what David Wyatt has called the doctrine of “compensatory advantage”: that is to establish a balance of power between Britain and France that would render their rivalry less competitive, and the granting of permission for France to acquire as much empire in mainland Asia as Britain had acquired.  By 1896 Britain and France agreed on the Mekong as the boundary between British Burma and French Laos.  At the same time they also tacitly reserved their rights to claim portions of Siam outside the Chaophraya Valley, Britain in respect of the Malay Peninsula, and France in Western Cambodia and in the provinces on the Gulf of Siam southeast of Bangkok.[25] 

The outcomes of these strategies of expansion were inscribed in the Treaties.  Previously in 1904 territories opposite Luang Prabang and the remainder of Champassak in Southern Laos had been ceded by Bangkok to France.  And by the 1907 treaty the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Sisophon in Western Cambodia which together comprised the Eastern province of Siam were ceded to France.

In the south the British expansion was equally assertive.  In 1909 the Siamese authorities transferred to the British their rights of suzerainty over the Malay states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah, and Perlis.  In return the British agreed to transfer their consular jurisdiction over all British subjects to the Siamese courts as soon as modernised law codes were promulgated.[26]

Though these skirmishes and encounters with the colonial powers had diminished Siam’s control of the above mentioned outer regions, the good news was that Siam’s frontiers were now unambiguously settled, and the central government in Bangkok had taken administrative measures to strengthen its control over the core territories drained by the Chao Phraya system.  Moreover the new sense of a firmly bounded kingdom of Siam also helped to foster the self conscious project of Siam as a putative nation state taking shape through the reforms put into effect by Prince Damrong, Prince Devawongse, Prince-Patriarch Wachirayarn and other dedicated statesmen.  This self conscious project was later given its ideological formula, coined by King Chulalongkorn’s successor, Vajiravudh, that Siam was symbolized by the unity of nation (chat), religion (sasana), and king (pramahakasat).  The multiple implications of this trinitarian slogan will be commented upon later.

This discussion of the transformation of Thailand will be incomplete without the inclusion of King Chulalongkorn’s effort to promote widespread primary education in the provinces and his entrustment of this task to Prince Damrong, Minister of the Interior, and Prince Wachirayan, then abbot of Wat Bowonniwet and head of the Thammayut Sect.  Wachirayan’s appointment was described as organizer of religion and education of the Buddhist population, and the agents of this new program to spread literacy were chosen from the Thammayut Sect.  Among the achievements of this program while it lasted was the training program which produced teacher monks, and an improved textbook called the Rapid Reader.  The program however terminated after some years because of Wachirayan’s realization that the sangha could not adequately act as a long term agency for the propagation of country-wide secular elementary education.[27]  However, his overhauling and upgrading of monastic schools was an enduring achievement, and the curriculum he forged is consulted to this day.  There was also one other development that has come to have a long term effect.

The implementation of an elementary education system in the provinces directed from Bangkok automatically demonstrated the need for a country-wide hierarchical ecclesiastical organization with lines of communication and authority.  Moreover, the program inevitably necessitated the closer working of the monk-directors and teachers with the lay officials of the government at all levels.  This, in turn meant a closer relationship between the state and the sangha.  And what better model for ecclesiastical organization was there, spreading from the capital to the outer territories, but that of the civil administration itself.  Indeed the monk-directors of the provinces also became the agents for the promotion of an ecclesiastical organization.  But while lending the sangha’s assistance for a national task, Wachirayan also wished to maintain the sangha as an entity in its own right, not merely a subordinate creature under the control of the Ministry of Public Education.  He was at the same time a conformist supporter of the thesis that the support of the state was necessary for the maintenance of the health of Buddhism.  And in fact the 1902 Sangha Act was a measure of the effective regulation of the sangha achieved by the political authority in pursuance of the policy of national integration.


5. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej: The People’s Monarch


I must now take a leap in time from about 1910 to the end of the Second World War to arrive at the moment when our present monarch, having already in June 1946 undergone the investiture ceremony for accession to the throne, followed by the coronation ceremony held on May 5, 1950, returned to Thailand in the following year to assume his royal duties.

The year 1932 signaled what many scholars refer to as Thailand’s transition from “absolute monarchy” to “constitutional monarchy” by means of a peaceful “revolution.”  It might be said that from a long term perspective what happened was made possible by the very success of the chain of modernization policies and institutional changes that had been introduced from the 1880s onwards: in particular the expansion and rationalization of the administrative bureaucracy, the expansion and professionalization of the army, and the higher education of growing numbers of civilians both at home and abroad that produced a new elite which aspired to enlarge its participation in the governance of the country.

While the center of gravity of the country’s politics moved after 1932 to the negotiations between certain members of the armed forces and the civilian bureaucracy, the eruption of the Second World War further destabilized the life of the country until its ending in 1945.  What has been termed a “bureaucratic state” continued until the time when certain developments in the sixties which brought the monarchy into the public sphere, reestablished its significance to the country.  That the authoritarian regime of Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat (1959-63) committed excesses and irregularities is public knowledge and they need not be considered here.  What however deserves to be recalled is Sarit’s program of “national development” (kaan phathana prathet), which while suppressing constitutional democratic politics and civil liberties, did make a positive contribution to the post war economic development of Thailand in the form of public projects such as highway construction, irrigation, rural electrification, agricultural research and extension which built up the infrastructure of the country.  This program of economic development which invited both private and foreign investment accorded with a proposal by the World Bank, and its implementation required the employment of a new generation of qualified Thai experts and technicians who had been trained abroad.  The economic planning was entrusted to a centralized National Economic Development Board which designed five year development plans which on the whole stimulated a remarkable rate of economic growth.[28]

What is notable in Sarit’s advocacy in contrast to the 1932 “revolutionary” rhetoric was the linking of the “national development” program with the sanctity of king and religion as the enduring symbols of national identity.  Public ceremonies, and cosmic rituals for the regeneration of the polity and the people were restored.  The King’s public attendance and participation, as well as his tours of the provinces, and his opening of national projects, his very accessible presence among his subjects earned for him the accolade the “People’s King.”.  Thus this “neo-traditionalist” innovation that fused modernizing economic development with the aura of potent traditional symbols was a distinctive Thai mode of combining tradition and modernity, for gaining legitimacy and support for governance.  The result was the restoring of the monarchy to an active public, role in Thai society.  And the institution of constitutional monarchy, as enacted by His Majesty King Bhumipol, became a unifying authority around which all elements of the Thai nation could rally whatever their internal differences and aspirations.

At this point let me insert myself into the narrative.  I came to Thailand in 1960 as a UNESCO expert to participate in the teaching and research at an institute jointly established by the Government of Thailand and UNESCO.  It was a heady and euphoric time, because in addition to the other development efforts I have mentioned, Thailand was launching what I consider to be its most important modernizing program under the leadership of Mom Luang Pin Malakul, the Minister of Education, and in which His Majesty himself took an active interest and made his presence felt.  I am referring to the expansion of education at a national level and its lasting and ongoing effects on Thailand.

A major step was the expansion and improvement of primary education, and the target of extending primary education from four to seven years.  Next the number of students in secondary schools was increased between 1958 and 1962 by some 63 percent, while simultaneously extending vocational training.  A major achievement was the establishment of many new teachers’ colleges, and the impressive annual increases of new teachers in the same period.  A further landmark achievement was the opening in the provinces of the new universities of Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen; some years later saw the founding of the Songklar University in the South, a notable step in addressing the needs of the south and its Thai Malay people.  I should also draw attention to the fact that this opening of the door of education and literacy to the youthful generations who were destined to become the backbone of the nation acted as a stimulus for greater demands for higher education.  In Bangkok itself, the pressure for access to higher education resulted in the establishment in due course of the new open-admissions university of Ramkhamhaeng whose student enrollment ballooned from 10,000 in 1971 to more than 40,000 in 1973.

The King’s active interest in and appreciation of this effort was evident in his energizing visits to educational institutions, and especially his regular presiding over university and teachers college commencement exercises and his distribution of diplomas to graduates.

It was inevitable that these educational achievements and the proliferation of institutions of learning would inevitably generate a large constituency of students within the body politic who would become in due course occupied with national concerns, with gaining a voice in the shaping of the country, and with organizing themselves collectively to realize their goals.  It was as a remarkable gesture of concern for students and the new graduates, and of empathetic understanding of their constitutional movement that the King moved in 1973, when the “October revolution” occurred, to protect and shield the student activists from official repression.  What was notable in 1973 was that at the critical moment all parties in confrontation turned to the king for a solution and his Solomonic intervention placed him, as one scholar has remarked, “at the apogee of his reign.”[29]

Of course, political dynamics have continued to unfold with their twists and turns from 1973 up to the present time.  A society, that is as dynamic and in motion as Thailand is, will continue to generate internal social differentiation, contestation and debate, and external impacts like the present economic down turn.  Such developments will have destabilizing as well as reformative effects.  But what I wish to suggest is that the events of the recent decades have established His Majesty’s constitutional monarchy as an equilibrating institution, invested with the expectation that he be above particular interests, and that in the tradition of righteous kingship, he acts benevolently as the healer and reconciler of sectarian divisions and conflicts that threaten to be destructive if not resolved.  Moreover, he serves as a primary sponsor of philanthropic activities and charitable foundations.

Thailand achieved such dramatic economic expansion and prosperity in certain sectors of its economy in the 1980s and early 90s that it was internationally recognized as a member of the club of the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICS).  One enormously significant outcome not only of the educational revolution which enlarged the presence and roles of teachers and the educated youth, but also of the expansion of the private sector - in banking and commerce, manufacture and exports - was the concurrent enlargement of the professions which included lawyers, doctors, business executives, journalists, and writers and so on.  Together these segments of the new intelligentsia and a visibly enlarged and self-conscious middle class have dramatically changed the shape, profile, and weight of Thailand’s Public Sphere and Civil Society.

If we many identify an “Official Sphere” consisting of the Governmental Bureaucracy and the Army as a significant continuing sector of Thailand’s polity, then the Public Sphere and Civil Society may be viewed as separately constituted by the burgeoning middle class and intelligentsia and private sector personnel.  To this civil society also of course belong the majority of Thai society, the farmers and rural dwellers and the urban working classes and wage earners.

If I understand the modern trends correctly and sympathetically the conception of “nation” as constantly invoked in the political discourse of Thailand today encompasses the composite union as well as the interests and voices of both the official sphere and the civil society/public sphere.  It is the sign of an engaged and productive discourse that all the sides and groups engaged in the defining and shaping of Thailand’s steady march toward constitutional participatory democracy presided over by an enlightened constitutional monarchy - be they liberals or conservatives, student activists and youth movements of different orientations, bureaucrats and army officers - they all speak and act within the scope of their collective identity as a “nation.”

Moreover, the conception of “nation” and “national integration” has been progressively and productively stretched and expanded since the early decades of the twentieth century to entertain the notion of unity in diversity.  The nation state making project twinned with the goal of “modernization,” and also influenced by concerns of “national security” had in past years espoused policies of “homogenization” of all citizens through majoritarian policies that have been characterized in scholarly literature as “Thai-isation.”  As we approach the close of the twentieth century there is much more self assured and liberal appreciation in Thailand of a worldwide trend towards the benefits of multiculturalism, of the need for the accommodation and acceptance of different religious and ethnic identities, and cultural practices, of the viability and efficacy of institutional arrangements for devolution of power to regions as well as constitutional arrangements that empower minority participation in the work of the central government.  These considerations particularly apply to the task of voluntary nondiscriminatory incorporation of the Thai Malay populations of Southern Thailand, of the “hills peoples” of the North, and whatever other minorities that are present today.  His Majesty by his visits to the northern and southern and other provinces conveys, in the noblest Asokan traditions, that an ideal Buddhist monarch is also a patron and protector of all the religions within his realm, and that he is king of all his people without distinction.  Such exemplary conduct is in line with the conviction of the majority of the people of Thailand as indeed of many other countries of Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) that religious commitments and conceptions cannot be divorced from politics, that a Western so-called “secular conception of politics” that prescribes that religion and politics, church and state, be kept separate is unacceptable. 

It seems to me that if the declaration made many decades ago by King Vajiravudh (r. 1910-25) - that nation, religion, and kingship constituted the totality of Thailand[30] - has relevance for present day political discourse, it is because the meanings and applications and scope of that trinity, originally defined in narrow jingoistic terms have been capaciously expanded and transformed to keep pace with dynamic societal changes and goals, and together they signify the distinctive features of Thailand as it seeks to reach a sustainable modernity on it own terms.





[1] I refer the reader to the ample discussion of Rama 1's reign in David Wyatt.  1982.  Thailand A Short History, New Haven: Yale University Press, ch. 6., and his essay "The 'Subtle Revolution' of King Rama I of Siam'" Moral Order and the Question of Change: Essays on Southeast Asian Thought, Edited by David K. Wyatt and Alexander Woodside 1982.  Yale University Southeast Asia Studies.  Also see Stanley Tambiah.  1976.  World Conqueror and World Renouncer.  Cambridge University Press, 1976. Ch. 10.

[2] Wyatt. 1984. op.cit. pp. 145-146.

[3] The Dynastic Chronicles, Bangkok Era, The First Reign, Chaophraya Thiphakorawong Edition, Translated and edited by Thadeus and Chadid Flood. Vol. 1. 1978.  The Center for East Asian Cultural Studies, Tokyo, pp. 58-59.

[4] See His Highness Prince Dhaninivat “Monarchical Protection of the Buddhist Church of Siam.” Published by the World Fellowship of Buddhists 1964.  Printed by Choom Noom Chang Ltd: Bangkok. 1964. 

Also see K. Wenk. 1968.  The Restoration of Thailand Under Rama I, 1782-1809.  The University of Arizona Press. 1968.

[5] C.J. Reynolds. 1972. The Buddhist Monkhood in Nineteenth Century Thailand.  Unpublished Ph.D Thesis.  Cornell University, pp. 56-57.

[6] For details see Wenk (op.cit 1968) and importantly, Prince Dhani, “The Old Siamese Conception of the Monarchy.”  The Journal of the Siam Society.  Bangkok 1947, vol. 36, pt 2.

[7] R. Lingat. 1950. “Evolution of the conception of Law in Burma and Siam.”  The Journal of the Siam Society. Vol. 24, pp. 1-27.

[8] Wyatt. 1984. op. cit. pp. 153-154.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Accounts of the Emerald Buddha are also found in these texts: Ratanabimba vamsa written in Sukothai some time after A.D. 1450; Amarkatabuddhaupinidane probably composed in Vientiane in the late 16th century.  For a comprehensive essay on this topic see Frank Reynolds “The Holy Emerald Jewel” in Religion and the Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos and Burma.” Bardwell Smith (ed) Anima Books, 1918.

[11] On King Mongkut’s career, see: R. Lingat. 1926. “La Vie religieuse du Roi Mongkut.”  The Journal of the Siam Society, vol. 20: 129-148; A.B. Griswold. 1957. “King Mongkut in Perspective.” The Journal of the Siam Society, vol. 45; A.L. Moffat. 1961. Mongkut the King of Siam. Ithaca. NY.: Cornell University Press.

[12] I am particularly indebted to Craig Reynolds: “Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth-Century Culture Change.”  Journal of Asian Studies vol 35, No. 2, 1976 pp. 203-220.  The quotes are taken from pp. 211-213.

[13] As a footnote, it has to be noted, that despite the partial critique of the Traiphum by certain modernists of the late nineteenth and of the present century, its influence and presence has persisted to the present day in the form of architectural monuments, as a component of royal, elite, and commoner rituals, as a source for homilies and sermons, and even as a resource among present day intellectuals who are seeking to formulate a Thai approach to social ethics and moral philosophy.


Mount Meru continues to figure in architecture and in rituals, both at the royal court and in the villages.  The Golden Mount still dominates the center of Bangkok, and Mount Meru is a central point of reference in all contemporary Buddhist mortuary rites.  I have myself documented the cosmological dimensions of village rituals and urban cults in contemporary Thailand.


See for example my Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in Northeastern Thailand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), and “The Cosmological and Performative Significance of a Thai Rite of Healing through Meditation,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 1 (1977): 97-132.

[14] Benjamin Batson, The End of Absolute Monarchy in Siam.  Singapore: Oxford University Press: 1984.

[15] For economic change see: J.C. Ingram. Economic Change in Thailand since 1850.1955. Stanford: Stanford University Press.  For administrative reform and centralization, see (among others): W.F. Vella. 1955. The Impact of the West on Government in Thailand. Berkeley: University of California Press.  F.W. Riggs. 1967. The Modernization of a Bureaucratic Polity. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.  W.J. Siffin. 1966. The Thai Bureaucracy. Institutional Change and Development. Honolulu: East West Press.  D.A. Wilson. 1962. Politics in Thailand. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.  D.K. Wyatt. 1966. The Politics of Reform in Thailand: Education in the Reign of King Chulalongkorn. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.  T.Bunnag. 1968. The Provincial Administration of Siam from 1892 to 1915.  M. Vickery. 1970. “Thai Regional Elites and the Reforms of King Chulalongkorn.” Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 29, no. 4.: 863-881.

[16] For example, the inner provinces of Chonburi, Samut Songkhram, Ratburi, and Phetburi.

[17] See the important study by Sarasin Viraphol. 1977. Tribute and profit: Sino-Siamese Trade 1652-1853. Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University.

[18] A. Rabibhadana. 1969.  The Organization of Thai Society in the Early Bangkok Period, 1782-1873.  Data Paper, No. 74.  Southeast Asia Program Cornell University, p. 140.

[19] David Wyatt.  “Family Politics in Nineteenth Century Thailand.”  Journal of Southeast Asian History 9, 1968, pp. 208-228.

[20] The family providing the royal family with the mother of a king is called rachinikun.  The Bunnak, Bang Chang, and Singhaseni families—who ruled the inner provinces—not only provided these women but also made first-cousin marriages in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

[21]  In 1875 the Revenues Development Office was established, which began the work of unifying tax collection and consolidating revenue that was largely realized in 1892 with the formation of the Ministry of Finance.  The following statement tells us a great deal about the administrative involution of the traditional polity: “...according to a report complied in 1872 some ten different krom shared in the collection of the main taxes, most of which were farmed out to Chinese agents” (Riggs 1967, p. 116).

[22] Other departments formed between 1875 and 1892 were the Royal Telegraph Department (1875), the Department of Survey (1881), the Department of Foreign Relations (1885), and the Department of Public Instruction (1887).

[23] The concept of monthon already existed, in the form of five monthon in the northern, northeastern borders and in Phuket—but they were created for defense on tax collection purposes.  Damrong’s monthon were devised to draw tight the reins of control over the provinces by means of the royal commissioners who would coordinate the administration of the member provinces and report directly to the Interior Ministry.

[24] See Thongchai Winicharkul. 1994. Siam Mapped. University of Hawaii Press.

[25] David Wyatt, p. 205.

[26] Wyatt, op.cit. p. 206.

[27] See David Wyatt.  1969.  The Politics of Reform in Thailand: Education in the Reign of King Chulalongkorn.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

[28] It is reported that the gross national product double in the decade 1959-69 and the rate of growth accelerated to 8.6 percent a year (see Wyatt 1984 pp. 282-83)

[29] John L.S. Girling, 1981.  Thailand, Society and Politics.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 193.

[30] See Walter F. Vella.  1978.  Chaiyo!  King Vajiravudh and the Development of Thai Nationalism.  The University of Hawaii Press.