A Little Bit of Thai History: Common Sense Among the Common People
So, it is that time of the month again.. The time where I write a post about the history of Thailand. As part of a back payment from a good friend. This time more or less on time!
As I discussed in the previous post, Siam had started modernizing its religion and effectuating a modern schooling system. All part of modernizing the kingdom itself and creating a new standardized class of subjects. however, as many of the measures taken this did not always go after the plan. One problem (seen from the aristocracy’s point of view) was the increasing tendency of ordinary citizens with enough money to send their kids to the elite schools and academies, giving them the education dedicated to royalty and nobility.
A vital piece of knowledge for citizens of a modern state is literacy: The ability to read the public signs, regulations and odd bit of propaganda produced by the Government. The problem often arises when enterprising citizens start to write as well as read. Especially in combination with printing presses. And when the ideas are just dissimilar enough that the “unofficial” view rocks the boat floated by the Party line.
The Wat schools were initially for training up the children of noblemen to become bureaucrats in a modern Siam. Although commoners seldom were outright denied schooling, the tuition fees were purposely set too expensive for commoners. However with the age of steam and trade with the rich Western nations in full swing, more and more common families were amassing wealth comparable to noble families. Also, commoner kids had the drive that noble born boys often simply didn’t have. They suddenly had a magic opportunity to learn, to advance themselves… To equal the field Noblemen were not really familiar with the concept of subjecting to authorities, applying themselves, or the newfangled concept “hard work”. After all they were cut out for estates and offices most likely whatever they did, so they could be mediocre students at times. To the commoner kids this was most likely the only way to advance in society.
This didn’t mean that commoners suddenly popped up everywhere in positions of power. As before, the general staff and the top offices were held by nobles and arisocratic cousins of the royal family. Loyalty and networks were more appreciated than talent alone. However the middle ranks in the military and bureacracy were as good as filled bo commoners who worked their butts of in Officer Training or at the Royal Academy. Beause when it come to actually running stuff, talent alone is really necessary, strangely enough.
But the real problem came when the rich commoners graduated, and started publishing what they had learned. Where commoners and the noble historians agreed was the necessity of a “People’s Movement” rather than of blessings of the gods to make Siam great and avoid the yoke of colonialism. But where the nobles and aristocracy interpreted this as a king followed by his subjects as one united body (basically absolute monarchy) many commoner intellectuals interpreted this as… well, the people (democracy anyone? Just a thought).
Kulap Kritsanon was one such intellectual. The son of a Siamese-born Chinese and the daughter of a minor official, he came from a family rich on trading. Interestingly, as well as a costly education he had had access to tutors in the periphery of the royal court… As well as access to the palace libraries. A Western-oriented man, he “westernized” his name to K. S. R. Kulap and started a magazine with a decent circulation where he literally published copies of texts previously only accessible to royalty. Spreading articles discussing cultural, religious and historical events and ideas, he was arrested and prosecuted. The pretext was that he had made changes in the original texts, but they equally pissed off by his own essays discussing and interpreting the texts and the fact that essentially classified cultural and academic information had been spread from he control of the royal palace to the general populace.
Another troublemaker, Thim Sukhayang, had a similar background and went so far as to publish a poem chronicling a military expedition into the North East region of Siam that had been a fiasco and charged the minister responsible for planning it with incompetence. He was arrested as well, and the court decided that “this really isn’t fit for print now is it?” and had the book he published destroyed. Constructive criticism was apparently well and good as long as it wasn’t directed at anybody. If it was, the powers that be tended to get creally cross.
As they were with Thinnawan Wannapho, a commoner who’d become a lawyer. As well as an education comparable with the gentlemen above, he had taken an education in English and law. As he was already a wealthy trader T. S. R. Wannapho (yep, Westernized name again. Having initials in you name in 19th century Siam was apparently like wearing Buddy Holly-style horned rimmed glasses today) did a lot of work for the poor, fighting abuse of power, being outspoken and generally being a pain for the Government. After one rousing courtroom speech to many, the Siamese version of The Man found a slight irregularity in his practice and sentenced him to prison for life. Eventually they decided he was no longer a threat, and 16 years later he was freed, and lest prison. With the hung sheaf of writings he had made in prison, wher he’d really gotten angry. Later in life he would be a major proponent for modelling Siam after Japan, and creating a true popular movement rather than a national identity narrowly defined by the tiny ruling class.
The western ideas that came with modernization eventually butted up against the traditional Siamese definition of monarchy. And I’ll get more into that next time.