A Little Bit of Thai History: Thai Monarchy – Now NEW and IMPROVED!
So, for new readers: As part of my repayment on a debt I plan to write a little piece about Thai history once every month, for a year. It’s mainly my little way of showing gratitude to my friend. Also: It’s a great way to learn about the history of another country. Which I like to do. Cause I’m a nerd.
As I promised last time, we are going to look at how the Siamese monarchy did its own makeover as Siam slowly metamorphosed into Thailand. The royal family has always been an essential icon to Thailand, from its start as Siam to the present. Earlier I wrote about how the Siamese kingdom was revamped from a system or racist classifications of different peoples in the kingdom to a slightly less racist unification of all the ethnicities, the reforms of Buddhist practice and Thai language trough textbooks and public schooling.
These reforms did not extend to democracy. Well come on, this was an Asian kingdom in the late 19th century! Baby steps, OK? The king still ruled everything, and “being somebody the king could trust” still was top requirement for getting jobs like, say, Army Chief or head of the National Treasury. The people the king could trust at this point being… Well his relatives, mainly.
So, in the ongoing modernization of Siam foreign experts were hired as advisers and key officials, but that could only be taken so far. The foreigners were a resource, king Chulalongcorn noted that “to hire foreigners is like having readymade textbooks”… But they were limited in number. Siam only had 52 of them, and they needed more.
Earlier the royal family had largely been absent from the actual ruling of the kingdom, officials from the nobility had traditionally done the tasks of administrating the country. However that was before the railway and steam engines made their way to Asia. Siam could jump on the train that was coming, or get run over by it. Malaya and Burma were already colonies, and France had made an effort in 1893 to acquire Siam as a colony in their empire.
So, the privy purse – that is the personal fortune of the royal family – was expanded (they decided to give themselves a bigger part of the national budget. In a monarchy, kings can do that.) and invested in trading companies, railroads, steamship companies… Generally modenr stuff. Also, Royal schools.
The previously mentioned King Chulalongcorn had a council of 12 advisers. 9 of them were his brothers or half-brothers. So what he needed was royalty that knew their stuff: Hence the Suan Kulap School. This school specifically trained future civil servants, and was meant for “Only the members of the royal family and the highest of nobles”. Some rich kids got in without having the proper birthrights, but this was solved later by simply raising the schooling fees even more.
But as well as training new generations of rulers in Siam, the king sent four of his oldest sons to Europe to study. Having visited Europe himself, Chulalongcorn was impressed by Western nations’ often millennial history, and the importance of cultural traditions to anchor a national identity in. So while modernizing, Siam was rediscovering its past. The king and several of the princes started archaeological expeditions, rediscovering old ruins and compiling historical texts on the history of Siam and the Thai people. The previous monarch Mongkut insisted that the king was human, rather than divine. “To attribute good kingship to divine powers detracts fro mthe merits and abilities of the man”, he said, just before pointing out that kings were people – SPECIAL people. Still, the previous tradition that had banned common people from even looking at the king during public processions was changed to allowing his visage to be put on coins, stamps, official paintings and photographs to be made, even select crowds of noblemen to mingle with him at public festivals. The king was becoming a visible figure, driving around Bangkok in his open automobile.
Next time I will write a little about the commoner intellectuals… The ones who weren’t noble and somehow still scraped together an education.