This post is the first post in the series ‘The Story of Thai Democracy’, where I’ll be covering the political history of Thailand since the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy. You can read the introduction to this series here.
The year was 103, Rattanakosin era. Only three years had passed since the kingdom marked a century since its foundation. The past one hundred years had seen a remarkable national consolidation under a succession of monarchs under the Chakri Dynasty: a new capital city at Bangkok had been founded, palaces built, the economy rejuvenated, the borders secured and expanded.
It was a remarkable turn of events for the country then known as Siam. Only a hundred years prior, 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.
There were, however, looming clouds ahead. 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. Indeed, this had been predicted; King Rama III, on his deathbed, had warned a few decades back that no more wars would be fought against Burma, but there would only be conflicts with the West. Thus began the Chakri Dynasty’s long and delicate struggle to preserve Siam’s independence. Most recently, the current monarch, King Rama V (also known as 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 everyone’s mind: how could Siam preserve its independence?
It was in that year, 103, that the answer arrived. The royal princes and embassy officials had signed a letter written by Prince Prisdang, a graduate of King’s College London, about what they had learned in their years of study in the west. Prince Prisdang noted that the excuse European powers often adopted before colonising a country was their self-assigned mission to ‘civilise’ backward nations by imposing western systems over them- the so called “white man’s burden”. As such, it was imperative that Siam deprive the European powers of this pretext by adopting deep reforms along western lines. Prince Prisdang then outlined very clearly what he felt was needed: King Rama V should draft and grant a constitution, transitioning Siam from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. A government cabinet should be formed. Liberty and freedom of expression should be expanded. The prince, however, stopped short of calling for a parliament.
Indeed, the ideas were radically progressive for a Siam that had barely begun its evolution from a medieval state. King Rama V 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. The king, however, did made clear in his reply letter that he had no desire to cling to absolute power.
And thus the king delivered. Over the course of his reign, the king would establish the Council of State and the Privy Council and built 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. Slavery was abolished, immediately making Siam a much more equal country. But the king still refused to grant a constitution, despite the many requests from his officials to form a parliament. Transition to a constitutional democracy could only be done slowly, the king said. Furthermore, the king argued, even many officials still lacked a complete understanding of parliamentary democracy; how, then, could the citizens be ready for it?
King Rama V did express one wish before he died: that despite his refusal to grant a constitution during his reign, his successor would do so. And it was not improbable to feel that this would happen. King Rama VI, also known as King Vajiravudh, 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?
First others would try to force through change. King Rama VI duly became the next absolute monarch of Siam. This absolutism, however, dissatisfied the increasing numbers of people who had gone abroad for study, and had seen how democratic institutions worked. A group of army officers, in particular, 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 King Rama VI during the Thai new year, and to afterwards declare a constitutional monarchy. Captain Yut Khongyu was selected to assassinate the king.
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 Rama VI 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. With such a progressive, experimental monarch, surely a constitution could be granted during his reign?
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. What is remarkable and unique, though, is the degree to which the initiative to democratise the nation came from royalty, for the Chakri monarchs recognised that change was needed in an ever-changing world. What no one knew yet, however, was that even more dramatic change would soon arrive.
In the next post, I’ll be covering the 1932 revolution which ended the absolute monarchy.