A little bit of Thai history: Same same but different

by gonzotrooper

So, every month I post a little piece about Thai history. This is partly a down-payment of a debt I have to a dear friend, partly something I do to teach myself Thai history. This post was supposed to be the 15th december, but was delayed due to a computer crash. My apologies!

So, in my last post about the history of Thailand I covered the birth of the Siamese city states, particularly the glorious capital of Atutthaya until it was destroyed by Burmese invaders. This was a blow for the Siamese empire, and the city was literally abandoned by its citizens, the land literally laying fallow until a century later, when settlers returned to the region and gradually grew into villages. It never grew into its former glory however, and today is mostly an archaeological attraction, its glorious ruins in the jungle not unlike Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

However, Siam had been a great power for some time, and the sacking of Atutthaya could not erase the traditions of rule and of trade established through long practice. The local rulers previously bound by personal bonds to the ruling dynasty kept on as well as they could in the surviving towns and provinces. And after the Burmese threat waned they began struggling for power over what was left of Siam. One of these was a man named Phaya Taksin.

There is not much we know about his origins, or what he did before he entered the power struggle over Siam. We think he may have been the child of a Chinese trader and his Thai wife, and that he was a  cart trader who accumulated enough wealth to bribe his way to governorship over a small border town. He did not have any formal claims to the throne, but he had charisma, and that counts for a lot when anarchy and chaos is the rule. He managed to emerge victorious from the power struggle, and the first thing he did was to establish a new capital at a village near a Chinese trading post, called Bangkok. He used his connections with Chinese traders to get rice imported to the growing city, as the land in 1782 still was decimated after war. As the city grew and physical defences (like digging a channel across one of the meandering  turns of  the river, effectively turning Bangkok into an island) were laid down, the spiritual and legalistic foundations were laid down by compiling all surviving documents and compiling them into law texts, religious and historical official texts and manuals on how to behave at court, rule justly, and so on. In essence every effort was mad e to make it look like the Capitol essentially was Atutthaya reborn, and the royal traditions reborn after an interregnum of chaos. The reality however was different.

For one thing Taksin did not put people in charge because they were nobility. As he built up a military force (which he often led from the front, by example) and incorporated separated provinces into the reconstituted kingdom, frequently he would let the de facto rulers in place as long as they swore fealty to the throne and did what they were told. Most of these petty rulers were not nobility at all, but commoners, Buddhist monks, even influential merchants. After all the kingdom had been down for generations, and many noblemen of old had been taken as hostages by the Burmese. The ones resisting Taksin were crushed, but those who stood down and acknowledged his kingship would most often be confirmed as rulers and later elevated to nobility. Also, personal merit counted for more than birth privileges in his entourage and bureaucracy as well. He did appoint two brothers of the foremost Mon nobility lineage as generals, but then they became among his best commanders so that was very likely the reason they got their jobs.

As the state solidified into a kingdom again, Siams military power grew. This was used first to secure Siam against Burma, then to expand its borders. After regaining the last outlying districts of the old kingdom, neighbouring Cambodia and Laos were invaded and much of their lands made colonies of Siam. This was not at all like the mueang patronage bonds of old, but outright conquest. As well as plundering of riches and capturing of royal family members as hostages, thousands upon thousands of people were forcibly moved from Laos and Cambodia and resettled around Siam to aid the growth of its population and working the land.

What fell Taksin eventually, was when he elevated himself above the Buddhist monkhood, claiming extraordinary spiritual powers and abilities. The old nobility staged a coup d’etat and executed him on grounds of insanity, and put one of the Mon nobleman generals, Chao Praya (later king Rama 1) in his place. Officially things were business as usual, but stuff was starting to happen. The feudal system with systematic pressed labour service for the king and nobility was losing ground. See, there was several ways to get relieved of corvée service: Insanity, possession of evil spirits, being a slave, being a Buddhist monk, there were several ways. Slavery, sadly, was an institution in Siam until sometime in the nineteenth century. As well as slavery being a hereditary status people could actually sell them selves into slavery to raise capital for venture projects. Conveniently, they then only worked for their owner, and could not be called up.  So with the number of people belonging to Buddhist monasteries and slave owners (at least until they had bought themselves free again) you still had a system of feudal labour: However, in the 1860s only a fifth of the working population were actually covered by it.

Trade also was changed radically. During the Atutthaya era there was trade as well and a huge source of revenue. But the royal family had monopoly. After the blooming of Bangkok, trade was more and more widespread, and a market economy (helped a lot by Chinese connections) grew up in Siam. As a consequence of this, other religions than Buddhism were allowed(particularly Chinese beliefs and traditions). So, in a country officially the same as always (Bangkok was officially named Krung Rattanakosin In Ayothaya after the old capital, and only foreigners used the name Bangkok ) there were great changes.

So why insist on that everything was as it had always been when everything was changing? Well, it is the thing to do if you want to reform society. Today we talk about “progress” but that is technological. Every time in history some-one has implemented a new form of rule, mounted uprisings to reform society og just raised taxes, the rule of thumb is to point to historical or traditional precedence. It makes everything go smoother, and gives a feeling of security. Like turning Siam over from a feudal state to a market economy. Like building a new capital from scratch. Same same, but different.

Today Bangkok is still called Krung thep by its inhabitants, meaning “City of angels”. Siam grew in wealth and power, and again it established contact with Western powers. This was seen as a mixed blessing: On the one hand, the science and technology Western contacts gave access to was invaluable, and a great potential for renewing and enriching Siam even more. On the other hand the Western powers were immensely powerful militarily, colonizing neighbour after neighbour as Siam watched. How this situation was addressed by Siam will be the subject of my next post, due in January.