The Story of Thai Democracy: Royal Origins

This post is the first post in the series ‘The Story of Thai Democracy’, covering the political history of Thailand since the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. You can find the rest of this project here

The year was 103, Rattanakosin era. Only three years had passed since the kingdom marked a century since its foundation. The preceding one hundred years had seen a remarkable national consolidation under a succession of monarchs under the Chakri Dynasty: the new capital city of Bangkok, palaces built, the economy rejuvenated, the borders secured and expanded.

It was a remarkable turn of events for the country then known as Siam. In 1767 A.D., the country was in chaos after an invading Burmese army had burned the previous capital of Ayutthaya, then one of the largest cities in the world, to the ground. The anniversary of a century of prosperity was worthy of celebration.

King Rama V

But the looming clouds ahead were unmistakable. That same year, the British had annexed upper Burma and added it as a province to British India. That what was once the mightiest empire in Southeast Asia could be reduced to a mere British colony was deeply alarming to the Siamese ruling class. A few decades ago, King Rama III had warned on his deathbed that no more wars would be fought against Burma, Siam’s traditional enemy; instead, future conflicts would occur with the West. “Take care,” the dying king had exhorted, “that they do not take advantage. Whatever they do or think, learn and apply accordingly. But do not become totally subservient to their way.”

Thus began the Chakri Dynasty’s long and delicate struggle to preserve Siam’s independence. Most recently, the current monarch, King Chulalongkorn had begun sending royal princes and notable officials to study in Europe, to gain a better understanding of the western colonists. There was a single question on all the aristocrats’ minds: how could Siam preserve her independence?

It was in that year, 103, that one answer was devised. The king asked Prince Prisdang, who was then in France and a graduate of King’s College London, about his perspective on how to defend Siam from the West. The result was a letter written by Prince Prisdang, co-signed by other royal princes.

In the letter, Prince Prisdang noted that the excuse European powers often adopted before colonizing a country was their self-assigned mission to ‘civilize’ backward nations by imposing western systems over them. The current project of emulation of Western powers was insufficient to avoid colonialism, he argued:

The present problem facing Siam is to maintain national independence and a stable government. To resolve this problem, Siam must be accepted and respected by the Western powers as a civilized nation. Hence there is no choice but to bring about a new government modeled after the Western pattern, or at least after Japan, the only country in the East following the European way. According to European belief, in order for a government to maintain justice it must be based on popular consensus.

As such, it was imperative that Siam deprive the European powers of this pretext by adopting deep reforms along western lines. He outlined seven key suggestions. The system of government should be changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. A cabinet should be created. Corruption had to be eliminated by ensuring sufficient official salaries. Equality before the law must be ensured. Outdated traditions, ancient they may be, should be abolished. Freedom of thought is necessary. And finally, reasons for appointment and dismissal from government had to be clearly delineated in legislation.

Despite the fact that the prince stopped short of calling for a parliament, the ideas were radically progressive for a Siam that had barely begun its evolution from a medieval state. King Chulalongkorn agreed that the reforms were needed. What he did not agree with was the speed of the implementation of reforms; it was necessary, he felt, to proceed slowly and ensure readiness for each step of change. He wrote:

…Government reform is the cause which will allow us to succeed in all matters. If we cannot complete this, anything else would be difficult. Therefore, with regards to all of your other proposed reforms, I will save them for later.

Prince Prisdang

Institutions like parliaments and political parties, the king pointed out, had evolved and been practiced in Europe over the course of centuries. Not all countries were ready.

Over the course of his reign, the king would indeed make major reforms to the state. He established the Council of State and the Privy Council and formed new government ministries. This allowed power to be diffused to a greater number of officials, which was not only necessary as the work of government became increasingly complex, but also prepared the country for government beyond one-man rule. But the king still refused to grant a constitution. Transition to a constitutional democracy could only be done slowly, the king said. Furthermore, he argued, even many officials still lacked a complete understanding of parliamentary democracy; how, then, could the citizens be ready for it?

That King Chulalongkorn should have felt apprehension about democratizing Siam so quickly was natural. Over the course of his forty-two year reign, he had already done much to transform Siamese society. Slavery and the corvée system was abolished under his reign, doing away with a feudal system that had existed since time immemorial. The mandala system of city-state rulers paying nominal homage to their overlord in Bangkok was transformed into a hierarchical system of centrally-appointed governors, bringing Siam at once into the Westphalian world order. Democracy, in light of all the changes that had already occurred, probably felt like a step too far.

Yet one could feel the winds of change approaching. Prince Vajiravudh, the crown prince, had very western ideas; he delighted in reading and translating Shakespeare, for example. But was he ready to take the country to a fully Western style of government? King Chulalongkorn may have thought so. It has been recorded that the king had suggested that Prince Vajiravudh, on his ascension to the throne, grant a parliament and a constitution.

First others would try to force through revolution. King Vajiravudh duly became the next absolute monarch of Siam, after King Chulalongkorn’s death in 1910. But there was no constitution granted. This situation increasingly dissatisfied the ever-greater numbers of people who had gone abroad for study and had seen how democratic institutions worked. A group of army officers decided to attempt to change the country’s system of government by force. In 1912, a group of army officers, led by Captain Khun Thuayhanpitak, perhaps inspired by the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in China that same year, launched a plot to attempt to assassinate the king during the Thai new year, and to afterwards declare a constitutional monarchy. Captain Yut Khongyu was selected to assassinate the king.

King Rama VI

But the would-be assassin’s will faltered as he pondered the possible consequences of his actions. Instead, fearful of the reprisals that would follow if he were caught, the officer duly informed the commander of the king’s bodyguard about the plot. All those involved were immediately arrested, with some sentenced to death and others sentenced to life imprisonment. King Vajiravudh would later pardon all of them, saying that no one had yet been hurt as a result of the plot.

The irony is that the king himself was also deeply interested in democracy. This led him to launch an experiment in his own palace: the building of a model city, a ‘theatre-experiment’ named Dusit Thani. The model was built complete with palaces, army barracks, government buildings, shops and even a movie theatre. Those who registered to become ‘citizens’ of Dusit Thani and bought ‘land’ were granted full freedom of expression and could also participate in debating public affairs in the city. Two political parties were established: the Blue Party and the Red Party. A constitution was promulgated. Newspapers were published regularly. Such was King Rama VI’s enthusiasm for his own experiment that he chose to participate himself. Adopting the name ‘Mr. Rama’, the king became a regular participator in the civil debates of Dusit Thani.

The king described his own experiment as such, in a speech to open the government house of Dusit Thani:

How we run this city is an experiment for what benefits can be derived…The way in which this small city is run is representative of how I wish for Siam to one day be run as well.

With such an experimental monarch, could a constitution could be granted during his reign?

Dusit Thani

The answer turned out to be no. King Rama VI stood by his predecessor’s thoughts: that the country was not yet ready for democracy. The only constitution drafted and granted was the experimental constitution for Dusit Thani; there would be no actual constitution for the rest of the country. The impetus for change would, however, soon fall out of the control of the royalty.

Sources and further reading:

Murashima, Eiji. “The Origin of Modern Official State Ideology in Thailand.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 19, no. 1 (1988): 80–96.

Jumsai, Sumet. “Prince Prisdang and the Proposal for the First Siamese Constitution, 1885.” Journal of the Siam Society 92, (2004): 105-116.

เครือทอง ปรามินทร์. “จินตนาการประชาธิปไตย ‘ที่แท้จริง’ ของกษัตริย์สยาม : รัชกาลที่ 5.” ศิลปวัฒนธรรม, March 17, 2010. (Link)

อนันทนาธร กษิดิศ. “แนวคิดเรื่องการมีระบอบรัฐธรรมนูญในประเทศสยามก่อน 2475.” สถาบันปรีดี พนมยงค์, June 1, 2021.

“พาชมดุสิตธานี: คำบรรยายของหม่อมหลวงปิ่น มาลากุล
ณ ห้องประชุมหอสมุดแห่งชาติ ในงานพระบรมราชานุสรณ์พระบาทสมเด็จพระมงกุฎเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว ๑๐ พฤศจิกายน ๒๕๑๓.” มหาวิทยาลัยศิลปากร, n.d. (Link)