King Chulalongkorn - Rama V
The Modernizing Monarch
On 23 October, Thailand commemorates the lifetime achievements of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who opened the doors of Thailand to positive Western influences and the basics of democracy. In doing so, he is remembered with great affection and pride by all Thai citizens.
King Chulalongkorn acceded to the Siamese Monarchy, in 1868, as a boy of 15 years, however, a Regent was appointed to govern until the Boy-King was 20 years of age and mature enough to reign on his own. The gift of achievements which Rama V eventually bestowed upon the people of Thailand were largely grounded in the education and teachings of his late father King Mongkut (Rama IV). So it is also worth looking at, and honoring, King Mongkut and the knowledge which he passed to his son.
King Mongkut (Rama IV) was a naturally talented, intelligent and inspirational Monarch who had an inquiring mind. He wanted to know about the sciences of the day and about the European Powers which dominated the world-scene. The King cultivated diplomatic and friendly relationships with great Britain, France and other European nations. He was widely read, a scholar of languages and had a great interest in astronomy. In fact, during 1868, King Mongkut invited many Western dignitaries to view the Solar Eclipse which was best viewed from Thailand. Guests included Colonel Sir Harry Ord (Governor of Singapore), the United States Acting Ambassador and a large party of French and European scientists.
It was in such a background that young King Chulalongkorn grew up and, upon the death of his father, he began to travel and observe the countries around him. Malaya, Singapore, Java and Bali (presently Indonesia), Burma, India and Indonesia were all visited and the King was able to see firsthand the influence of the controlling, colonial powers. King Chulalongkorn could see and understand the benefits of European technology, government systems and commerce which would greatly assist in developing Thailand. So the King wanted to maintain the closest of links with the colonial powers especially Great Britain but not so close that Thailand could be swallowed up and become another colony. Siamese independence was to be treasured at all costs even if that meant a slower growth of change. It took a lot of personal negotiating and diplomatic skills, both at home and abroad, but King Chulalongkorn was more than able to meet the challenge.
One of the King's great skills was making haste slowly and striking a guiding balance between opposing interests. Possibly His Majesty's most gratifying achievement, at home, was freeing his subjects from slavery. Unfortunately, many of his people were born into serfdom but the King made it his business to introduce legislation which gradually freed his subjects from lives of unpaid servitude. So that such persons would have proper work and income, King Chulalongkorn introduced many new government schemes, including health programs, which began to raise standards for the ordinary people.
Another skillful piece of fancy-footwork, on the part of the King, was the introduction and development of the railway network within Thailand. As a hovering colonial power, Great Britain was anxious to secure railway-building contracts and, of course, France was to Thailand's eastern borders in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (French Indo-China). King Chulalongkorn listened to advice from these quarters, and agreed to some involvement, however, to maintain the balance (and Thailand's independent choice) railway construction work was largely contracted to German companies (Germany not having any colonial interest in the S.E. Asian area). This was all done without ruffling too many feathers of the colonial powers so goodwill and cordiality was maintained with Queen Victoria in England and, likewise, with the French Republic.
King Chulalongkorn passed away in 1910 and, having also been diligent with his many wives and concubines, left a total of 77 children (33 boys, 44 girls) to further the task of modernizing Thailand. Without a doubt, one of Thailand's great achievers and great Kings so, on 23 October, remember the reign of King Chulalongkorn - Rama V and his contributions to the Nation.