History of Thailand: Colonialism averted

The new monarch was King Mongkut (Rama IV), the younger son of Rama II, who assumed the throne in 1851. Mongkut had spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk and had used the time in intellectual pursuits, learning Western languages and science. He was well acquainted with the few British and Americans in Bangkok and had much more experience of the lives of common people than had any of his predecessors. Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who reigned from 1868 to 1910, are given much credit for Siam’s conciliation of the West during the next half-century. While this is justified, much credit also is due to their ministers. Together they blunted the force of Western imperialism, which swept over much of the rest of the world during this period.

In 1855 Siam signed the Bowring Treaty, which yielded free trade, extraterritorial rights, and some special privileges to Britain. The treaty served as a model for subsequent treaties with the United States, France, Japan, and many other nations. These treaties were known as unequal treaties because they placed Thailand in a subordinate diplomatic position. However, by upholding these treaties, avoiding offending the imperial powers, and playing those powers against one another, Siam managed to secure its own independence while working to earn the respect of the West.

As modern as King Mongkut might have been in the eyes of the West, he undertook no fundamental reforms during his reign. Such reforms would have been bitterly resisted by Siam’s entrenched noble and bureaucratic families. His successor, Chulalongkorn, was unable to undertake real reform until the leading members of the old families began to retire from public life in the 1880s. Cambodia had come under French control in 1863, and in 1885 France completed its conquest of Vietnam. Britain took the last remaining portion of Burma the same year. When in 1893 Siam mounted a resistance against French troops sent to Laos to press Vietnam’s claims there, France sent gunboats to Bangkok. The Thai capitulated and had to yield to France their sovereignty over Laos and also pay a large indemnity.

Most of Laos then became part of French Indochina, France’s colony in the region. France gained additional territories in Laos and Cambodia from Siam by treaty in 1904 and 1907. In 1909 Siam ceded to Britain the four northern Malay states (Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu), while the British agreed to assist in financing a Bangkok-Singapore rail line and to yield some of their extraterritorial rights.

Meanwhile, between about 1890 and 1910 Chulalongkorn’s government launched a major administrative reform, establishing virtually all of Siam’s modern government. The existing departments were reorganized into twelve ministries, including ministries of war (for a new army), justice, education, interior (for administration of the countryside), and public works, as well as specialized departments for such things as postal services, railroads, and hospitals. Chulalongkorn also established new, modern schools and encouraged study abroad. The kingdom’s new administration made tax collection possible. The government used the tax revenues to finance reforms and to create jobs for the many modern educated people emerging from the kingdom’s new schools. In 1910 Chulalongkorn was succeeded by his son Vajiravudh (Rama VI), who had been educated in England. King Vajiravudh was an active proponent of the idea of the nation, and he popularized the idea of sacrificing, and even dying, for Siam.

Mongkut King of Siam
Mongkut King of Siam. Encarta
In July 1917 he entered Siam in World War I on the side of the Allies, winning for the kingdom a seat at the Versailles peace conference. Vajiravudh hoped to gain a sympathetic hearing for Siam’s wishes to end extraterritoriality. His strategy worked, and in the early 1920s the Western nations and Japan agreed to end their unequal treaties with Siam as soon as Siam completed modernizing its laws and courts.
But King Vajiravudh wastefully spent the nation’s budget on his favorites and on personal pursuits, forcing his younger brother and successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), to institute a massive cutback of expenses. The worldwide economic slump known as the Great Depression, which hit Siam by 1930, intensified the country’s financial troubles. Although Prajadhipok favored modest democratization, he was overruled repeatedly by his elderly uncles. Dissatisfaction grew within the kingdom, especially among young Siamese educated abroad who objected to the tight political control maintained by their country’s rulers. Encarta
Custom Search