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The Great Visionary - King Chulalongkorn of Siam

October the 23rd. commemorates the death in 1910 of King Chulalongkorn, the fifth ruler of the Chakri dynasty, Rama V of Siam; a visionary who was rightly credited with dragging the kingdom of Siam into the modern world.

The king was seen as the driving force behind the modernisation of Siam, although his father, King Mongkut, was the architect of the blueprint from which the young monarch rebuilt his kingdom.
Prince Chulalongkorn had greatness thrust upon him at the age of fifteen when his father died and the boy faced the prospect of becoming absolute monarch of his kingdom. It was deemed that a five-year regency would be put in place while the young man completed his academic studies at home and abroad. This he did, and ever-mindful of his father's devotion to education and modernisation, the teenage-king used his time well by touring the western world and studying the political structure and diplomatic guile employed by the great colonial powers of the day, such as Britain and France.

Bearing in mind his father's advice on how best to take advantage of what the western world had to offer while staving off the threat of colonisation, the young king made visits to the neighbouring countries of Burma, Malaya and Indonesia, then under colonial rule. He saw at first hand the enormous improvements brought by these colonial powers to his neighbours: sound systems of government, modern technology and infrastructure, and improved commerce to name but a few. His dream was to adopt these systems of improved education, transportation, communication, governmental organisation - but to stop short of colonisation at all costs in his vision for a new Siam.

The greatest colonial power in the world at that time was Great Britain, whose monarch, Queen Victoria, proposed that her British East India Company build a railroad in Siam to improve trade, commerce and public transportation. The young king had long studied the creation and operation of the then "British Empire" that covered a major part of the globe, and he knew that he must say "Thank you, but no thank you...." to the kind offer that could result in allowing Siam to become another pink area on the world atlas (pink being the colour used to denote parts of the British Empire in standard world atlases of the day). Instead, Chulalongkorn set about encouraging other European nations to bid for the right to construct a railroad in Siam; took the best qualities from each of the bidders and formed a consortium, thereby avoiding the need to give control to any one foreign country. Siam had its railroad and Queen Victoria put the pink crayon back in its box.

The young king's diplomatic skills improved with every visit to a foreign land and by encouraging reciprocal visits by the representatives of western powers to Siam. Through this, he successfully warded off the threat of colonisation while making firm friends with some of the world's greatest military and commercial powers. True, he conceded more territory to British Malaya and French Indochina during his reign, giving away more land than any king had allowed since before the Sukhotthai era, but perhaps he believed that sharing the pie was more favourable to losing it altogether. In the event, he was proven correct as no foreign power was ever to colonise his country.

If in the realm of foreign affairs the young king displayed wisdom beyond his years, it was through action taken at home that he will forever be revered.

Education featured high on the king's list of priorities during a period of reformation that dragged Siam into line with the modern world. Schools opened throughout the land as the royal proclamation went forth that all children in the country, from his own to the poorest in the land, should have an equal chance of education.
Public hospitals were built nationwide offering modern medicine and medical treatment to a nation of souls who until this point had been dependent solely on traditional remedies.

Communication, transportation, trade and commerce were all areas singled out for modernisation and improvement. A new system of fair and efficient governance at first appeared more like a Utopian dream until the king came up with his own unique answer to what was a nationwide problem.

As is the situation today, the country was divided into a number of individual regions, or provinces. The difference being that during the early years of the king's reign these provinces were the personal fiefdoms of robber-barons posing as governors. Corruption was rife and the rule of law non-existent. These "governors" however, appeared to have a stranglehold on their provinces, and after all, with efficient transportation still in its infancy, they were a long way off from the seat of power in the capital.

King Chulalongkorn devised a unique and very efficient plan to deprive these despots of their power and influence. He chose to take wives and concubines who were the daughters of loyal, high-ranking officials, thereby giving face to their fathers and securing everlasting support. In effect, instead of removing by force the corrupt governors, he bred them out!

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.

He will forever be remembered as the monarch responsible for opening the minds of his people to all that is beneficial from the western world, while keeping the country's borders closed to those who did not have the country's best interests at heart. 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.

See related articles (King Chulalongkorn, Rama 5):

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