Thai History - The Bangkok Period
Shortly before the Burmese siege of Ayutthaya ended in its demise as the capital of the nation in the Ayutthaya era of Siamese history, a young general called Phaya Taksin gathered some men in the city, broke out through the Burmese lines and escaped the subsequent fall and sacking of the city. The Burmese had to withdraw some of their forces to counter a threat on another of their borders and, when Phaya Taksin returned at the head of an army seven months later, he was able to expel the city's weakened garrison. After proclaiming himself king he looked for a more defensible place in which to establish his capital. After noticing that the French had, before their expulsion in 1688, fortified a village to the south of Ayutthaya across the river from modern Bangkok, he examined its merits and then proclaimed it as his capital, changing its name from Bangcok to Krung Thep.
King Phaya Taksin's reign was a difficult one, as most of Siam's vassal states declared independence after the fall of Ayutthaya, and it fell upon Taksin to reunite them. He relied heavily on a general called Chao Phaya Chakri in a successful series of wars to win back the lost territory and then to conquer Chiang Mai, Cambodia and most of Laos. He seems to have become somewhat unhinged in the process, and a reign that started benignly turned into one of cruelty and paranoia, in which he flogged monks and tortured even his own children, in order to get them to reveal supposed plots against him. Eventually he was forced to abdicate and, proclaiming himself a bodhisattva or future Bhuddha incarnate, retired to a monastery. The military council which took over regarded him as a threat to state security and he was subsequently executed in the royal fashion, which was to be beaten to death with a club made out of a special aromatic wood.
His right-hand general Chao Phaya Chakri was then proclaimed king and took the name Ramathibodi, founding the still-reigning Chakri dynasty. After his death he was given the name Rama I. The current king, HRH Bhumibol, is also called Rama IX and is the ninth king in the dynasty. Rama I won further wars with the Burmese before the seemingly interminable conflicts between these nations came to a close when the Burmese had to concentrate their military efforts on a new enemy, the British. His son Rama II, who was known for his poetry, built numerous temples and personally translated large sections of the Indian Ramayana epic into Thai as well as carving Wat Suthat's exquisitely intricate doors, disposing of his special chisels afterwards so that his work could never be equaled. His ascetic successor Rama III opened Siam's doors to the West in order to improve his country's agriculture and medicine.
Thais who are old enough to have seen it find the Hollywood movie 'The King and I', in which Yul Brynner plays King Mongkut (Rama IV), extremely offensive in its portrayal of the king as a frivolous and cruel man. Middle-aged readers may remember the patronizing but admittedly amusing way in which the scriptwriters often put the words 'etcetera etcetera' in his mouth, as the best descriptive text his dim-witted brain could conjure up. Mongkot was actually a highly intelligent and visionary monarch who astutely studied languages as well as the social and physical sciences, especially astronomy, at which he became so adept that he was able to accurately predict a solar eclipse in 1868, an astonishing achievement for a largely self-taught man. This was a huge success in that it not only showed the Western powers that the Thai monarch was a brilliant as well as far-sighted ruler, it also helped banish some of the superstitions to which Thailand was still prone - certain monks in the king's eclipse sighting party believed that the sun had been swallowed by a monster, who would only regurgitate it if they banged loudly on metal gongs.
Unfortunately the eclipse was to be the king's undoing as well as his triumph, as he caught malaria on the way home and died. During King Mongkut's 27 years as a monk, prior to ascending the throne, he spent many hours every day examining the nature of his own motivations and consciousness, which was to prove invaluable training for the politically delicate task he managed to pull off during his reign, which was to skillfully play the imperial powers Britain and France off against each other and thus preserve Thai suzerainty. A bit like Queen Elizabeth I of England 300 years before, he tried to avoid offending ambassadors, but never allowed any foreign power to pin him down too specifically, so staying ahead of the era's diplomatic game. King Mongkut tolerated Christian missionaries in his country, but only for the free educational services they provided; in a memorable quote, he once told one of them "what you teach us to do is admirable, but what you teach us to believe is foolish". He left the throne to his fifteen year old son Chulalongkorn, who as the visionary Rama V is revered for the schools, hospitals roads and railways he had built.
His profligate Oxford-educated successor Vajiravudh (Rama VI) sent forces to fight on the allied side in WWI, so earning Thailand a seat in the League of Nations. When his country's flag was raised at Versailles, however, delegates from other countries thought the elephant on it was a household rodent, mortifying King Vajiravudh and prompting him to change the design to the current red, white and blue striped one. King Vajiravudh's younger brother Prajadhipok, as Rama VII, succeeded him as king. Conscientious and hard-working, King Prajadhipok was stripped of absolute power by a military coup in 1932, accepting a constitution that decreed that he should cease to rule but continue to reign. When he abdicated and moved to England, Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) ascended the throne, but after reigning less than a year was found shot to death in his bedroom, victim of a shooting that has been variously blamed on suicide, murder and a tragic accident.
The current King Bhumibol, the world's longest-serving, came to the throne in 1946 and has devoted his life to improving agriculture and the lot of the rural poor. In a cynical world it is hard for many to appreciate the reverence and adulation with which He is regarded. Thai people refer to Him as 'my King', as if he was part of their family. They admire, love and adulate Him to a degree that seems to many foreigners at first as only quaint, but which many later come to realize is engendered by appreciation for a life which could have been spent on sense-gratification but has been instead spent in the service of his subjects. It is especially difficult for many British people to comprehend this, as their own monarchy has descended from a tourist attraction to a soap opera and into a farce, in which royalty talk to trees and have their photos taken sucking their lovers' big toes. No mere figurehead, King Bhumibol has on many occasions used his moral authority to resolve some of the worst political crises into which the country has been repeatedly plunged during his reign, most notably in 1992. After rioting on the streets which left dozens dead, the king summoned the two main protagonists to an audience. The world watched on television as the two men crawled into the chamber on hands and knees and were instructed on how they would end the crisis.
Thai politics since the 1932 revolution have been a sad story of vote-rigging and military coups, of which there have been fully 11 successful ones, out of a total of 21 attempts. At present, in October 2008, there has been a democratically elected civilian government in power for five months; those who love Thailand fervently hope that this government will meet with more success than its predecessors.
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