to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

10.3 Thai Monarchies

Thais trace their myriad of reigning kings back to the early 13th century with competing Kingdoms in the central (Sukhothai) and northern regions (Lanna, Chiang Mai and Nan). A century or so later (1350s), the power base shifted south to Ayutthaya, Thonburi and Bangkok.

The current reigning dynasty (Chakri) was founded in Bangkok in 1782. But like all the monarchs who preceded him, King Rama I (Phra Phutthayotfa) ruled over an insular kingdom. Over those four centuries, as wars with the Burmese and eastern neighbors were won and lost, the territorial size of those kingdoms expanded and shrank but the direct influence of any one man and his royal family were still rather limited. In point of fact, there were declared and recognized kings with seats of power in the northern regions up until the 1930s!

It wasn’t until the reign of Rama IV (King Mongut) that Thailand had any real contact with anything but its Asian neighbors, of whom China was the dominant trading partner. By the mid-19th century, the British, French and to a lesser extent the Dutch were establishing colonies across Asia. Each in turn, made overtures to the Thai Kings. Mongkut was the first to recognize the potential for trade and foreign relations with these superpowers even though there were some obvious draw-backs. He tried to walk a fine line between contact and colonization.

The Chakri Kings were also able to utilize education (literacy) and modern communications (first newsprint then radio) to extent their influence to all corners of the territory. Slowly, this territory was growing into a nation. Another way that these Kings ensured that their word was known and spread was via their enormous royal families. For the most part, all of the highest level officials across the land were of royal blood.

King Rama IV (Mongut) had a clear preference for his eldest son Chulalongkorn to succeed him. But by the late 19th century, Rama V’s successor was less well defined. Chula had 4 official wives and a host of ‘royal consorts’ by whom he fathered 77 children; 7 of them sons by those official wives. Rama VI (Vajiravudh) complicated matters in that he had a clear preference for the company of men. He came to power in 1910 as the stated heir of Chula who issued a proclamation favoring the children of his Queen Saowapha as the line of succession. Rama VI delayed his marriage to a member of the opposite sex until the early 1920s. He died in 1925, days before his only child (a girl) was born. The early 1920s were not kind to the Chakri lineage. One after another, potential heirs – Vajiravudh’s brothers; sons of Chula – died. Until on that fateful day in Nov 1925, there was only one left: 32yo Prince Prajadhipok. He, himself, had only recently returned from many years of study and military education in England. Suddenly, he found himself proclaimed King Rama VII; a job that he never envisioned and for which he had never prepared!

He quickly found that he had inherited a throne beset by multiple difficulties not the least of which was that his brother had run the royal household’s expenditures up to 10% of the Kingdom’s total government outlay. The post-war years of the 1920s also saw the expansion of a variety of new political ideas: raging nationalism, fascism and communism among them. The European powers were also riding the post-war economic wave by expanding their colonial ambitions. The well-educated Prajadhipok even expressed concerns for the ability of the Chakri Dynasty to continue to exist.

By 1927, he was openly – openly, that is, within the royal household – discussing the concepts of a Thai Democracy and searching the systems of Europe to find a political system that would work in Thailand – which by the way was still officially named Siam, so had not embraced the “Land of the Free” concept as yet.

No matter which direction of the compass he looked, he found political foment as well. Nationalist movements were growing in all of the surrounding colonies and his efforts to remain the only un-colonized state in SEA were faltering. The growing communist movements in China and Vietnam (Ho Chi Min was based in NW Siam) were also of concern.  

So we have now set the stage for one of the most dramatic moves any King can ever make: abdication. That will be discussed in Section 10.4.