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King Chulalongkorn

OCTOBER 23 EACH year is celebrated joyfully by the people of Thailand of it is day set aside to commemorate King Chulalongkorn, Rama 5, one of the nation's most revered monarchy. Ironically the date is that on which this great king passed away in 1910, for he was born on the 20th September 1853. He was the son of King Mongkut, Rama 4 and Queen Thepsirinthara. He succeeded his father as king when Rama 4 passed away in 1868, but as he was only 15 years old, Siam was ruled by a group of regents until King Chulalongkron reached his 20th birthday.

One of the features of King Rama 5's reign was his thirst for Knowledge of other countries, and he commented his travels during the period of the regency going first to neighboring states in Southeast Asia, and later to British - ruled India. He learned much about the thinking of other peoples and also their ambitions, knowledge that was to stand him in good stead later.

Later in his rule he made two extended trips to Europe to cultivate relationships with the western powers and to understand their colonial desires. He learned much that helped him play on nation off against another, and thus kept Siam free from the colonial yoke. He found much that he liked in Europe and sent his sons there for education and experience.

Also during the last days of the regency, King Chulalongkorn became ordained into the monk hood, the first monarch of the Chakri Dynasty to do so during his reign, leaving the monastery just days before his attaining absolute power on October 16th 1873.

King Chulalongkorn had been impressed during his visit to India by the value and importance of structure and organization in the affairs of state and gradually began to impose structure during his reign. He broke down the large and unwieldy departments of government into smaller and more specific units, some of which further evolved into ministries, and gave structure to the military, realizing their vital rule in defending and maintaining sovereignty of the Kingdom.

At the time of this coronation, some 30% of the Thai people were slaves, a situation that the King felt was unjust , but Rama 5 was aware of the problems inherent in abolishing slavery. He setout 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 lost 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.

King Chulalongkorn realized the importance of being close to his people and after travelled by boat to visit and listen to their hardships and grievances. In his retinue were royal physicians, and public tealth in the provinces began to improve as a direct result of these trips. The King also had the chance to see the handicrafts and other products made in various parts of the country, enabling him to decide whose which had markets else where in the country or were suitable for export.

The nation had long lacked unity, with some 20 almost autonomous provinces under the control of powerful local governors interested only in feathering their own nests through tax collection. King Chulalongkorn reduced the power of these self - seeking individuals and brought them into line with his new structures of government through two cunning acts.

King Rama 5 took many of the daughters of these high ranking officials as wives or concubines, thus winning their loyalty through bestowing honor. He fathered on less than 77 children, of which 33 were sons. He gave them the benefit of as fine an education as possible and sent many overseas to learn. As they matured they would learn the arts of governing and statesmanship and guaranteed the King a generation of blood relatives that could hold key posts with total loyalty. The children, grandchildren and great - grandchildren of the King's family are the present day nobility of Thailand instantly recognizable by name or title.

The second means of increasing his influence in the provinces was communication. With much transport being by ox-cart, boat or elephant, many of the provincial capitals were rather remote and hard to visit frequently. Transport in Europe during the late years of the 19th century was very much dominated by trains and King Chulalongkorn determined that he should initiate the building of a railway system to speed travel to the provinces.

Expertise was needed from Europe, but the King's wisdom and the time he had spent studying the methods of the western powers paid off handsomely. He realized the danger of giving the task to just one nation and instead spread the responsibilities to many different countries. As experts came from different lands, spoke different languages and thought different thoughts, they found it hard to agree on anything, and ultimately King Rama 5 got his railway, free of any loss of political power.

King Chulalongkorn's 42-year reign was a remarkable one. He laid the framework for a democratic government, freed the slaves, created a nobility, developed lasting links with the great powers of the time, preserved Siam's sovereignty, unified the nation and started to build a railway (though that task was left to his successor to complete). He had gained wisdom from his learned father and passed it on to his children as a great gift.

The Thai nation has much to thank King Chulalongkorn for and they display it every year in their display of gratitude to him. They are proud of him for he has given them pride.

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