Monarchy and Political Change: Thailand Under Chulalongkorn (1868-1885)

Adams, David Benjamin Jacob

     This study "is a detailed examination of a brief, but critical, period in the modernization of one society," namely, the early part of the reign of Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) of Thailand. "My approach is to view that process [of modernization] as a series of discrete and proximate responses, worked out in the context of a specific setting and in the fact of various pressures -- both internal and external." The "core chapters of this study are devoted primarily to a descriptive and narrative account of events and forces viewed from the perspective of the actors involved." The study thus describes how "Chulalongkorn believed that not only his own political survival, but the survival of his nation depended upon the concentration of power at the center in a stronger, modernized monarch. He could not and did not achieve this objective without opposition and struggle; his strategies had a significant effect on modern Siamese political life. Initially, direct confrontation and flanking maneuvers were injudiciously combined, provoking the Wang Na crisis. For a time, affairs lapsed into a state of suspended animation. Then, slowly, cautiously, Chulalongkorn once again asserted himself. He successfully maintained his office and strengthened himself by preventing the Bunnag family from perpetuating its power in the central government. Not fully considering the long term effect, he placed his brothers in the highest offices and relied on a powerful, modernized bureaucracy to achieve governmental reform. In my view, this long struggle with its attendant dangers taught Chulalongkorn to be conservative. This was no where more apparent than in his increasing reservations about the appropriateness of legislative institutions to the Siamese situation. I refer specifically to his attitude towards parliamentary and party government. But, at the same time, what I . . . suggest is the fact that the great reforms of the 1890s did not include any means by which people could express dissent from the policies of the bureaucracy or convey a desire for action. The king expressed a need for such a possibility in 1874, but by the latter part of his reign, Chulalongkorn did not appear so sensitive to this need. For these reasons, I . . . argue that the roots of the 'bureaucratic polity' lie both in Siam's long-term political tradition and in the first part of the Fifth Reign.