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Ayutthaya, Capital of a Kingdom, Part 22
King Mongkut, Rama IV of Siam
The King and His People

Co-King Pinklao built up the modern navy of powerful steamships that were converted to naval warships. A modern weaponary arsenal was introduced to the army. Co-King Pinklao translated waponary books from English to Siamese.

To an Absolute Monarch the people of a kingdom are mere chattels. Be they nobles, servants, soldiers, laborers, scribes or scholars they are all subject to the Majesty, Power and Justice of the Monarch. So it had been in Siam for many centuries some Kings were great, some benign and a few despotic and the people, as subjects of the King, had to obey his every command or whim.

So it was when King Mongkut, Rama IV, came to the Siamese Throne in 1851. He ruled as an Absolute Monarch. But King Mongkut was different to any of his predecessors; for 27 years he had served as a devoted Monk and Abbot to the Buddhist Faith. King Mongkut was extremely well educated, versatile in several languages, progressive, thoughtful and caring. Under his Kingship, Siam would retain and cherish its unique culture while opening its doors to Western commerce plus advances in printing and medicines and the university of international debate. With King Mongkut as a benign and educated Absolute Monarch, the people of Siam would enjoy progress as never before.

Co-King Pinklao
Although accustomed to the humility of a monastic background, King Mongkut was also assertive and disciplined when promulgating new decrees. He was interested in all manners of Siamese activities and now that he was Monarch He got things done! The King personally gave advice on matters as diverse as "throwing dead animals into the waterways" to "the proper construction of an oven". A Royal Decree was invariably headed with the King's regal titles and, like a trumpet fanfare, the words "By Royal Command Reverberating Like the Roar of a Lion".

Then would follow the Royal Words of Wisdom! During his long, 27 years as a monk, King Mongkut was constantly in direct communication with the people of his parish and with those he met during foot weary pilgrimages throughout the land. As Monarch, King Mongkut was determined not to lose that direct contact with his people by allowing protocol and tradition to shut him away. Officials, seeking to exercise their own power, would order common people that they were not allowed to look at the King but must hide themselves from his eyes. King Mongkut countermanded this practice by declaring "People gathered along the route of the Royal Procession shall not be chased away, but all householders shall be permitted to appear before the sight of His Majesty, so that he may speak to those he knows and gladden their hearts".

In 1852 and 1853, King Mongkut sent an army under his younger brother, Prince Wongsa Thiraj Sanit, to liberate Chiangtung and provide effective protection tot he small kingdom of Shan from the Burmese influence. It was the last time Simese and Burmese looked at each other through that buffer zone, later Burma was colonized by Britishsince 1885.

Tradition had it that commoners could petition their King by sounding a huge drum located at the gates to the Grand Palace. However, beating the drum had long since fallen into disuse, as people feared the consequences of summoning their Monarch. However, King Mongkut restored the practice but found his subjects were either too shy or too reluctant to "take a chance". The drum remained silent! King Mongkut therefore routinely came out of the palace at preset times and personally talked with his subjects and accepted their petitions. The King, wise to the goings on in Bangkok, and outlying regions (where many Government officials and vassal princes were often corrupt and abusive of their powers) began to introduce progressive changes. It could not be done in one go lest the aristocracy become too startled but gradually King Mongkut's reforms removed many of the special rights of the Nobility which, previously, they had enjoyed before the law. At the same time, the King encouraged his ordinary subjects when they had genuine concerns to appeal directly to their Monarch.

On judicial matters King Mongkut also introduced change. Judges had traditionally been appointed directly by the Monarch but, aiming at tolerance in all political matters, King Mongkut widened the judicial selection process by decreeing that members of the Nobility and Government should also participate in the "electing" of judges. On the matter of electing judges the King said, "No one is obliged to confine their choice to servants of the Crown. any person, even though he be a slave, who is believed to possess sufficient wisdom and restraint to be able to give clear and satisfactory judgement in accordance with truth, justice, and the law, may be elected a judge...".

King Mongkut wrote a letter to his friend in New York ordering the lithographic press, which was later imported to Bangkok for printing Lord Buddha's Teachings.

Other Royal decrees concerned slaves about those who could be sold as a slave and closing loopholes regarding the transfer of slaves from one owner to another. "Slave" is perhaps the wrong word to use they were more servants and, in most cases, treated as integral members of a family. Slavery in Siam never had the terror, notoriety or hardship associated with other slaving nations. As is the responsibility of any reigning monarch to his people, a successor to the Siamese Throne had to be provided. After 27 years of celibacy, King Mongkut eventually father eighty-one children (to twenty-seven mothers) so an "heir and a spare" was no difficulty.

In keeping with his own education and knowing that many of his children would later occupy important positions, King Mongkut was adamant that his offspring be given a good, modern education especially in understanding the English language. To this end a governess was appointed Miss Anna Leonowens and ratification of this appointment was, perhaps, an error. Miss Leonowens taught the King's children, but not particularly well, so she was let go after 5 years. However, during her time in Siam, Miss Leonowens managed to let her imagination run riot and, later, wrote two books which were low on fact and high in fiction.

Trading steamships and naval warships were firstly assembled in the kingdom during King Rama 4 era with the import of parts from abroad. A Siamese business man also imported the first iron steamship from England and it was put in to service between Bangkok and Singapore.
Like tabloid journalists of today, Anna Leonowens invented what she did not actually know. Both books are in the exotic, romantic style of Barbara Cartland and are a rainy-day read for those who like this light type of book. Hollywood moguls, much later, presented the Miss Leonowens' stories in the film "The King and I". The Government and people of modern Thailand have long resented the misinformation of both books and film!

King Mongkut, Rama IV, of Siam an innovator, a reformer, an educator and a friend to many of his Siamese subjects as well as Western diplomats and missionaries. Our next issue

See related articles (History of Ayutthaya):

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