Thonburi and Bangkok period (1768-1932)

History of Thailand - part 3/5

Indochina in 1886
Indochina in 1886.

Taksin the Great (1769-1782)

Despite its complete defeat and occupation by Burma, Siam made a rapid recovery. The resistance to Burmese rule was led by a noble of Chinese descent, Taksin, a capable military leader. Within a year, he had defeated the Burmese occupation army and re-established a Siamese state with its capital at Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya. In 1768 he was crowned as King Taksin (now officially known as Taksin the Great). He rapidly re-united the central Thai heartlands under his rule, and in 1769 he also occupied western Cambodia. He then re-established Siamese rule over the Malay Peninsula, as far as Penang. Having secured his base in Siam, Taksin attacked the Burmese in the north in 1774 and captured Chiang Mai in 1776, permanently uniting Siam and Lanna.

Rama I (1782-1809)

General Chakri succeeded Taksin in 1782 as Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty. In the same year he founded the new capital city at Bangkok. Rama I restored most of the social and political system of the Ayutthaya kingdom, promulgating new law codes, reinstating court ceremonies and imposing discipline on the Buddhist monkhood. The Burmese invaded Siam again in 1785. They occupied both the north and the south, but were defeated in a battle near Kanchanaburi. This was the last major Burmese invasion of Siam, although as late as 1802 Burmese forces had to be driven out of Lanna. In 1792 the Siamese occupied Luang Prabang and brought most of Laos under indirect Siamese rule. Cambodia was also effectively ruled by Siam. By the time of his death in 1809, Rama I had created a Siamese Empire dominating an area considerably larger than modern Thailand.

Rama II (1809-1824)

During Rama II’s reign, western influences again began to be felt in Siam. In 1785 the British occupied Penang, and in 1819 they founded Singapore. In 1821 the government of British India sent a mission to demand that Siam lift restrictions on free trade – the first sign of an issue which was to dominate 19th century Siamese politics.

Rama III (1824-1851)

Wat Pho in Bangkok
Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Rama II died in 1824, and was peacefully succeeded by his son. In 1825 the British sent another mission to Bangkok. They had by now annexed southern Burma and were thus Siam’s neighbours to the west, and they were also extending their control over Malaysia. The King was reluctant to give in to British demands, but his advisors warned him that Siam would meet the same fate as Burma unless the British were accommodated. In 1826, therefore, Siam concluded its first commercial treaty with a western power. Under the treaty, Siam agreed to establish a uniform taxation system, to reduce taxes on foreign trade and to abolish some of the royal monopolies. As a result, Siam’s trade increased rapidly, many more foreigners settled in Bangkok, and western cultural influences began to spread. The kingdom became wealthier and its army better armed.

A Lao rebellion led by Anouvong was defeated in 1827, following which Siam destroyed Vientiane, carried out massive forced population transfers from Laos to the more securely held area of Isan. In 1842-1845, Siam waged a successful war with Vietnam, which tightened Siamese rule over Cambodia. Rama III’s most visible legacy in Bangkok is the Wat Pho temple complex, which he enlarged and endowed with new temples.

In 1850 the British and Americans sent missions to Bangkok demanding the end of all restrictions on trade, the establishment of a western-style government and immunity for their citizens from Siamese law (extraterritoriality). Rama III’s government refused these demands, leaving his successor, his brother Mongkut, with a dangerous situation.

Rama IV (1851-1868)

Mongkut came to the throne as Rama IV in 1851. He was determined to save Siam from colonial domination, but he lacked real power and had to yield to the British, by signing a treaty which restricted import duties, abolished royal trade monopolies, and granted extraterritoriality to British subjects. Other western powers soon demanded and got similar concessions.

The King soon came to consider that the real threat to Siam came from the French, not the British. The British were interested in commercial advantage, the French in building a colonial empire. They occupied Saigon in 1859, and established a protectorate over southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia. Rama IV hoped that the British would defend Siam if he gave them the economic concessions they demanded. In the next reign this would prove to be an illusion, but it is true that the British saw Siam as a useful buffer state between British Burma and French Indochina.

King Chulalongkorn – Rama V

King Chulalongkorn - Rama V
King Chulalongkorn – Rama V.

King Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese king to have a full western education. He created a Privy Council and a Council of State, a formal court system and budget office. He announced that slavery would be gradually abolished and debt-bondage restricted. He established Cabinet government, an audit office and an education department. The semi-autonomous status of Chiang Mai was ended and the army was reorganised and modernised.

In 1893 the French authorities in Indochina used a minor border dispute to provoke a crisis. French gunboats appeared at Bangkok, and demanded the cession of Lao territories east of the Mekong. The King appealed to the British, but the British minister told the King to settle on whatever terms he could get, and he had no choice but to comply. Britain’s only gesture was an agreement with France guaranteeing the integrity of the rest of Siam. In exchange, Siam had to give up its claim to the Tai-speaking Shan region of north-eastern Burma to the British.

Territorial losses of Siam - 1867-1909
Territorial losses of Siam – 1867-1909.

The French, however, continued to pressure Siam, and in 1906-1907 they manufactured another crisis. This time Siam had to concede French control of territory on the west bank of the Mekong opposite Luang Prabang and around Champasak in southern Laos, as well as western Cambodia. The British interceded to prevent more French bullying of Siam, but their price, in 1909, was the acceptance of British sovereignty over four Malayan provinces (Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu). The treaty also made the modern border between Siam and British Malaya by securing the Thai authority on the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun, which were previously part of the semi-independent Malay sultanates of Pattani and Kedah.

By 1910, when the King died, Siam had become at least a semi-modern country, and continued to escape colonial rule. It is a widely held view in Thailand that the diplomatic skills of these monarchs, combined with the modernising reforms of the Thai Government, made Siam the only country in South and Southeast Asia to avoid European colonisation.

Since that time, Rama V has become the object of worship. Nowadays his picture can be seen in many houses and shops, and many Thai people believe he can bring good fortune. His death is commemorated on October 23, a national holiday in Thailand.

Rama VI (1910-1925)

Vajiravudh (Rama VI), with his British education, applied his observation of the success of the British monarchy, appearing more in public and instituting more royal ceremonies. But he also carried on his father’s modernisation programme. Polygamy was abolished, primary education made compulsory, and in 1916 higher education came to Siam with the founding of Chulalongkorn University, which in time became the seedbed of a new Siamese intelligentsia.

In 1917, Siam declared war on Germany, mainly to gain favour with the British and the French. Siam’s token participation in World War I gained it a seat at the Versailles Peace Conference, and Foreign Minister Devrawongse used this opportunity to argue for the repeal of the 19th century treaties and the restoration of full Siamese sovereignty. The United States obliged in 1920, while France and Britain delayed until 1925. This victory gained the King some popularity, but it was soon undercut by discontent over other issues, such as his extravagance, which became more noticeable when a sharp postwar recession hit Siam in 1919.

Rama VII (1925-1935)

The initial legacy that Prajadhipok (Rama VII) received from his elder brother were problems of the sort that had become chronic in the Sixth Reign. The most urgent of these was the economy: the finances of the state were in chaos and the budget heavily in deficit. The King managed to restore stability to the economy, although at a price of making a significant amount of the civil servants redundant and cutting the salary of those that remained. This was obviously unpopular among the officials, and was one of the trigger events for the coup of 1932.

On June 24, 1932, while the King was holidaying at the seaside, the Bangkok garrison mutinied and seized power. Thus ended 150 years of Siamese absolute monarchy.

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