The monarchy institution in Thailand, is in many ways, unique. Not only does it have an extensive history, going back to more than seven hundred years, but it has also managed to preserve its vitality and relevance in the ever-changing contemporary world.
The monarchy, in its absolute form, ended in 1932, but the institution itself continues to command deep, universal respect and serves as a unifying element for the country. The reverence many Thai people have for the King is rooted in attitudes that can be traced to the earliest days of Thailand as a nation, and especially in some of the past rulers who continue to serve as models of kingship.
The Roots Of Monarchy
Thai concepts of monarchy originated in Sukhothai, which was founded in the early part of the 13th century and is generally regarded as the first truly independent Thai kingdom.
The Sukhothai Kingdom in the area surrounding the city of Sukhothai in north-central Thailand, and was founded in the mid-13th century when a local Tai ruler led a revolt against the Khmer rule. It remained a small, local power until its third ruler, Ramkhamhaeng inherited the kingdom in 1275 and expanded its power until 1317.
Under the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng, particularly, was born the idea of a paternalistic ruler alert to the needs of his people and aware that his duty was to guide them, a view markedly different from the divine kingship practiced by the Khmers.
Following this rule was the Ayutthaya period, which lasted from the 14th century until the 18th century, during which the History City of Ayutthaya was founded, growing to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas at the time. The paternalistic ideal was, at times, lost during this long period, as the Khmer influence regarding kingship and the monarch being an inaccessible figure, rarely seen by citizens, reappeared.
Nevertheless, the four-century era witnessed the reigns of some remarkable rulers whose achievements were far-reaching, making the city an important center of commerce and global diplomacy.
The Establishment of the Chakri Dynasty
Like everywhere in the world, when a royal dynasty is constituted, it’s because the previous had disappeared. There can be several reasons for this, whether it be a legal reversal, revolutions, or popular uprisings; but in the case of the Chakri dynasty, it was a military defeat that triggered the process, and a political coup that ended it.
Prior to this, the ruling dynasty of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya held power in a city that was 60 kilometers north of what is now Bangkok, and took roughly current Thailand, with some regions of the North and East near. Ayutthaya, however, had constant struggles with its Burmese neighbors, later provoking what is now known as the Burmese-Siamese War, or the War of the second fall of Ayutthaya in 1765 until 1767.
The Burmese seized the capital of Ayutthaya and partly destroyed it in 1767. The Ayutthaya King was killed, however, Taksin, his son, managed to escape. When the kingdom was cut into six parts, Taksin became the king of Thonburi, a town west of Ayutthaya. Although Taksin was able to unify and develop the country’s economy, he was executed in 1782, succeeded by Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok.
The Legacies of the Chakri Kings
Later to be known as Rama I, Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok took control of Siam and moved the capital to the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya River, an area that is now Bangkok.
His ascension into power established the Chakri Dynasty, which continues to be the reigning dynasty of the Kingdom of Thailand.
Under his dynasty, Siam expanded, attacks from the Burmese were repelled, and influence over the neighboring states of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia grew.
Although Rama I was responsible for the establishment and strengthening of the Kingdom of Siam, it was Rama II who was coronated in 1809 and fostered the Siamese civilization. Inheriting a relatively stable kingdom with not much conflict, Rama II was able to focus on improving business and develop the arts in Thai culture.
Following the passing of Rama II, his son, Nangklao, later Rama III, became king in 1824. Under his rule, Thailand fought against Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. His tenure also marked the first contract signed with Western colonial powers and following their invasions into nearby countries, it became clear that new threats were arising to the kingdom.
In 1851, Rama IV took to the throne. Following his ascension, there was a deliberate shift towards Western ideals that symbolized the influence of the British and French in the region. Treaties were signed with Britain, however, Thailand still retained its independence despite the growing pressure.
Rama V came to power in 1868 and it is argued he did the most to ensure Thailand retained its independence. His creation of a professional army and removal of power from the local elites put him in a stronger position than his predecessors.
The Monarchy and the World Wars
In 1910, Rama VI became king who created a fierce sense of Thai nationalism, declaring war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Thai soldiers made their way to Europe to fight, meaning that the country had a seat at the table when it came to negotiations following the war.
The Chakri Dynasty’s seventh king, Prajadhipok, became the first king to abdicate the throne. Under his rule, Thailand underwent political upheaval in the form of a coup, which saw the shift from an absolutist monarchy to a constitutional one. Prajadhipok felt the move towards democracy in 1932 was a premature one, and in his absence, nine-year-old, Ananda Mahidol became Rama VIII, despite his age and living in Switzerland at the time. Twelve years later, King Rama VIII returned to Thailand at twenty-one-years old, but was murdered in his bed six months after his return.
Thailand was thus governed by Prime Minister Phibun and the acting regent, and under their watch, Thailand was occupied by and formed an alliance with Japan during the Second World War, declaring war on the Allies. Because of Thailand’s Seri Thai, or Free Thai resistance movement against the Japanese, Thailand was not treated as an enemy in the post-war negotiations.
King Rama IX became the world’s second longest reigning monarch after France’s King Louis XIV. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, King Rama IX was crowned when his brother was shot to death. As one of the most beloved monarchs throughout Thai history, King Rama IV established more than 3,000 agricultural, education, health and environmental programs during his reign. His love for photography and music also made him relatable to local Thai people. When he passed away in October 2016, the entire country was in mourning for an entire year.
Presently, Thailand continues to be a constitutional monarchy with a democratic form of government. Since 1932, Thai kings have exercised their constitutional legislative powers through a bicameral National Assembly, their executive powers through the cabinet, headed by a prime minister, and their judicial powers through the law courts.
While not directly involved in Thailand’s political life, the King exerts a storing moral influence on carefully selected issues.
The Monarchy in the 21st Century
Since 2000, the role of the Thai monarchy has been increasingly challenged and questioned by the media, students, and scholars. Many deemed that a series of laws and measures relating to the lèse majesté in Thailand have acted as hindrances to people’s freedom of expression, as dozens of arrests and hundreds of criminal investigations and imprisonments have been made based on these laws.