Every year, on October 23, the Thai nation commemorates the reign of King Chulalongkorn with a national holiday. The Thai people have been truly fortunate in the remarkable monarchs of the Chakri Dynasty, founded over 236 years ago following the sack of Ayutthaya by the Burmese. Of these exceptional rulers a few have been accorded the accolade “The Great”. King Chulalongkorn was one such king, and his helming of the nation at a time of difficult political and economic pressure was largely responsible for Thailand’s independence from colonial rule, for its development as a sovereign state and for its enhanced standing in the eyes of the world.
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 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.
Upon the death of his father, King Chulalongkorn began to travel and observe the countries around him. One of the features of King Rama V’s reign was his thirst for knowledge of other countries. He commenced his travels during the regency period going first to neighboring states in Southeast Asia. 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 power. The Kingdom of Siam was well known (and regarded) by Raj administrators so there was no hesitation in receiving young King Chulalongkorn who enquired about administration, commerce, taxation, medical facilities, army training and so on.
In this way the King learned much about custom and practice of governing European and civil authorities. Such knowledge would help him enormously, and his Kingdom of Siam, in the years to come. 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 look a lot of personal negotiating and diplomatic skills, but King Chulalongkorn was more than able to meet the challenge.
During those first five years, King Chulalongkorn visited most of the major western powers, learning about their cultures, traditions, political organization and technology while in neighboring countries he spent time making political friends, realizing the need for allies in the fight to prevent colonization.
On his return to Siam and absolute rule, King Rama V set about the task of reforming his country, a monumental assignment to bring Siam into the modern world. At that time there were no communication systems, ox carts and elephants were the only form of transport and government was administered in some 20 regional “mini kingdoms”, so-called “Monthon” by Governors whose only loyalty was to themselves. Taxes were collected by ordinary citizens, most of whom were thieves, and law and order was based on “trial by ordeal” the strongest party being declared the winner of the dispute.
King Chulalongkorn re-organized the Government, appointing 12 ministers of Council of State, all were either his sons or loyal members of the nobility, to run the country centrally from Bangkok. Faced with confrontation, he allowed the Governors of the provinces to continue in their posts but skillfully planted people loyal to the crown into positions where they were gradually able to take over.
King Rama V was to become the country’s greatest patriarch, siring no less than 77 children (44 girls, 33 boys). At the time, procreation on a large scale was expected of a Siamese King but like everything else he accomplished, fathering a large family was just another part of the big plan. To implement the necessary changes that would bring Siam into the modern world, absolute control was required and government officials needed to be educated, well traveled and above all, loyal to the king.
Daughters of high-ranking officials were chosen, thus bestowing honor on the father and securing his political support. The resulting offspring were destined to become the future ministers and to this day, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren comprise the present nobility of the Kingdom.
He sent his sons off to the west to study and gain experience, so that upon their return to Siam they would be in a good position to help the Kingdom. He studied the administrative and political systems of these countries in depth, and a very important and long-lasting result was his reorganization and reform of the Siamese system of government.
Abroad, King Rama V continued a diplomatic strategy against the colonizing powers of France and England, one notable exchange being with Queen Victoria. The British Monarch had proposed that the East India Company construct a railroad in Siam but fearful that England would use the project to trick Siam out of its sovereignty, King Rama V sent a message to Queen Victoria saying “Siam is not yet ready for a railroad due to insufficient economy and a relatively low population”. He added a note that the ox cart was the most common form of transport and quite sufficient for the time.
In the meantime, forestalling the British attempt to sneak in by the back door, King Chulalongkorn approached other western nations for their technology and skills, encouraging bidding and plans for a railway system. As these experts arrived from across Europe they discussed plans, argued incessantly and could not agree on a strategy. King Rama V made use of these disagreements to forestall even longer until eventually a railroad could be built by a combination of resources from European countries, giving no single power to any country. Queen Victoria backed off, Siam got its railway and no political power had been compromised
Foreign experts were engaged to assist in various fields and, generally, these were good men with a sincere desire to assist King Chulalongkorn in the development of Siam -- but the hidden agenda of their governments was, perhaps, another matter. The “neighbors” were France to the East (French Indo-China Colonies) and Britain to the West and South (Burma and Malaya Colonies). Britain was nibbling at Siam’s southern territories but France was taking great bites of territory on the left bank of the Mekhong River (present day Laos and Cambodia). During the course of King Chulalongkorn’s reign, Siam had to “give” some 294,000 square kilometers of territory to France; a further 52,000 square kilometers went to Britain.
King Chulalongkorn visited Europe twice, 1897 and 1907. He built up close friendly relationships with the state heads: Russia, England, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Those friendships greatly benefited Siam.
King Chulalongkorn’s learned education and fluency in English allowed him to communicate easily with visiting diplomats so they were usually welcome guests -- as were other visiting Royalty. An important visitor to Siam was the Tsarevitch Nicholas who thoroughly enjoyed his visit while staying at the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace north of Bangkok. An easy, genuine friendship sprang up between the visiting Tsarevitch and King Chulalongkorn. It was especially appreciated as Russia had no territorial eyes on Siam. Another visitor, in 1881 (the same year as telephone services began in Siam), was His Majesty King Kalakaua of Hawaii.
So began an arduous, nine month overseas journey with much of its success being credited to Tsar Nicholas II and the inherent “likability” of King Chulalongkorn. The Tsar had spoken highly of the Siamese King to Austrian Emperor Franz-Josef who had, in turn, spoken to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. The road for successful visits was, accordingly, paved as was, most importantly, King Chulalongkorn being accepted as a royal equal.
The royal European progress began in Italy on May 14, 1897 and, after meeting with the Italian King and His Holiness the Pope, King Chulalongkorn moved on to Switzerland, Austria and Hungary before catching up with his friend Tsar Nicholas II at the Peterhof. Throughout his journey, European Crowned Heads and Presidents of Republics welcomed the Siamese King royally, graciously and warmly. Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal were all captivated by the slightly built Siamese Monarch. The Prince of Wales officially welcomed King Chulalongkorn for his five week visit to Great Britain during which he toured extensively and called on Her Majesty Queen Victoria at her Isle of Wright residence (the elderly Queen was preparing for her Diamond Jubilee). Another call was to visit his son who was being educated at Harrow -- a noted English “public” school.
As it happened, such were the strains between Siam and the French Republic, France had not been included in the Royal itinerary. However, having heard of the magnificent receptions accorded to King Chulalongkorn by other European Heads of State, President Faure of France sent his presidential train to Brussels (where King Chulalongkorn had been visiting King Leopold II) to invite and embark the Siamese King. The reception in France, on 11 September 1897, was magnificently regal and wherever he went King Chulalongkorn was cheered by the French people -- Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and, indeed, Longchamps horse races were all graced by visits from King Rama V. The ordinary people of France were heartwarmed by King Chulalongkorn (and by his gifts to the poor of Paris) but the Government of France never returned the Siamese territory it had taken. But, thanks to these eminently successful State Visits, France could not risk censure and the embarrassment of further bullying tactics. Siamese territorial losses were stemmed!
At the time of his coronation, some 30% of the Thai people were slaves, but Rama V was aware of the problems inherent in abolishing slavery. He set out to gradually change the system of ownership and value of the slaves over a period of time until suddenly there were none left, much to the surprise of all. Of course abolition caused other problems such as the host of newly unemployed people needing work, but the King had been wise enough to anticipate this, and had prepared jobs with state enterprises. Here his wisdom in gradual abolition was apparent, for only a small proportion of the former slaves would get their freedom in any given year.
During his 42 year reign, King Chulalongkorn established a government based on the western system, paving the way for today’s democracy. The rule of law was reformed and a just and fair judicial system put in place. He introduced the baht as the country’s official currency and devised a system of tax collection that removed the corrupt middlemen by having citizens pay their taxes directly to the government. Compulsory military service was introduced to bolster the country’s defence against any incursions by foreign powers. But above all, King Chulalongkorn placed emphasis on education and personal advancement for the good of family and country.
Education featured high on the King’s list of priorities. Schools were opened throughout the country. Public Hospitals were built nationwide for those were had only known traditional folk remedies.. Communication, transportation, trade and commerce were all areas singled our for modernization using the King’s own unique answer to what then was a nationwide problem..Thailand has had 16 different constitutions during the last 76 years of quasi democracy. If these constitutions had been based on King Chulalongkorn’s political system -- the country could have been more progressive, Thai people could have gained proper democracy, and there would no need to write a new constitution so often. A common sight today, particularly in shops, offices, homes and schools throughout the land is the portrait of King Chulalongkorn sharing a wall with a portrait of today’s equally esteemed ruler, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Men of vision. Men of the people.
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