King Chulalongkorn was known as the great modernizer of Siam [58]. Besides this role, he was the great builder of an incipient Siamese nation-state. It is the focus of this paper to study his contributions in state-building and nation-building. His roles may be seen as responding to the opportunities and pressures in a changing and challenging international environment, and in the process he transformed the Siamese state and nation [36]. The study draws insights from his reign as to how much an outstanding ruler could or could not do given the constraints imposed by the historical context. Besides his achievements, the paper looks at his legacies.

The King (Rama V, r. 1868 to1910) ascended the throne at the young age of 15 due to the untimely death of his father King Mongkut (Rama IV, r. 1851 to 1868).Footnote 1 The reigns of the two kings coincided with the wave of increasing international commerce and trade, colonial expansionism of European powers, and their “civilizing” mission. In the context of increasing dealings with these powers, the Siamese monarchies and elites practiced selective appropriation and adaptation of Western intellectual, scientific, and material cultures as well as political symbolism.

King Mongkut crafted a policy of balancing between the British and French colonial powers in the buffer zone between these two contending powers. The well-informed among the Siamese political elites were aware of important events around them—Burmese defeat at the hands of the British and humiliation of China in her encounters with Western powers. Being conscious of the need to cope with the changes, he embarked on a wide-ranging program to reform and modernize the state and society. Successful modernization would safeguard Siam’s political independence. He recruited European teachers for his children, and he employed Western advisers in the government. His program encompassed reform of government functions, initial steps to phase out slavery, reform of judicial and legal system, and building the economy and military.

The modernization program was continued in both scope and depth by King Chulalongkorn. He inherited the throne at a time when Western colonialist expansion was becoming more menacing. Like his father, he believed that the way for his country to achieve security and progress was to modernize, which required far-reaching reforms in both the central government and provincial administration. But he had to wait to execute his plan well after he came of age in 1873 [61]. After making sure that his occupation of the throne was safe and secure, he recruited capable persons who shared his views and who had base in the structure of traditional power. He gradually abolished slavery, which released manpower for the export-oriented economy, and improved tax collection. And with the money, he set up a centrally controlled bureaucracy manned by products of a reformed education system; then followed by judiciary reform, construction of transport and communication infrastructure, and military modernization.

The King was proficient in English and French and well exposed to Western culture, science, and medicine. He was keen to learn how other countries manage their affairs. Three years after ascending the throne, he went for a study tour in early 1871 to Singapore and Java, followed by a trip several months thereafter to Delhi and several cities along the way. To understand more about Europe and to cultivate good relationships with European powers to help him counter French expansionism, the King went to Europe in 1897. The visit was an opportunity to see for himself a wide range of western technological and military achievements, which deepened his determination to make Siam modern like the Western countries.

His key strategic moves to build a modern absolute state were the total abolition of slavery, centralization of government administration, great reduction of the power and influence of nobilities and chiefdoms in the provinces, judiciary and legal reforms, centralization of finance and tax collection, construction of transport and communication infrastructure, establishment of a new school system, and creation of a professional modern army.Footnote 2 He introduced electricity, paved roads, cars, photography, and water works. These measures, combined with mapping, mass media, and state schools and including sports and physical education, resulted in consolidation of the kingdom’s control over its people and territory [67, 71, 74]. Together, they provided the material basis for him to carry out his other twin project—nation-building.

His key strategic move to build the Siamese nation was to promote the national identity based on the concept of chat (loosely meant nation), monarchy, and religion.Footnote 3 At the same time, he commissioned the writing of Siamese history, built monuments, national museum, and national library. The education system was also serving as a means to propagate the sense of Siamese national history and to inculcate a sense of collective consciousness. He carried out the policy of ethnic harmony and friendship and allowed some degree of autonomy for the Muslims in southern Siam.

In these two projects, he was quick to grasp of social-cultural and political realities, deployed calculated moves in systematic and sequential fashion within the constraints of his inherited culture and institutions, displayed openness and flexibility in learning from the West, and changed the socio-cultural and political landscape of his country. It is a fascinating series of complex interactions of “structure” and “actions” [20].

In his modernization program, the King employed technical experts and general advisers from Europe and America to assist his administration. Realizing that there was much to learn from the West, he was the first monarch to send well-qualified Siamese youths abroad for general education and specialist training, starting with members of the royal family and high officials. Later, this group was expanded to include young students from other social strata. As it turned out, this policy had immense social and political consequences after the reign of Rama V [5]. In implementing the modernization program, the King changed the nature of the monarchy, the social structure, and unwittingly created some conditions that were to undermine absolute rule in the decades after his reign.

The most traumatic event in his reign was the Paknam crisis where Siam, unable to match the French navy threats, surrendered large swathe of territory and paid indemnity to France. The loss acted as a catalyst to prompt the King and his group of reformers to speed up the program to centralize the administration and to integrate into the state the diverse parts of the country.Footnote 4 The moves prevented weakness and disorder, which could have induced more Western interventions, perhaps leading to breakaway of chiefdoms and tributaries [61]. By the end of his reign, he had launched the country on the journey to become a modern nation-state.

The paper discusses a few questions that seem specific to Siam. Given similarities between Japan and Siam, why had Siam not followed the route taken by Japan during its Meiji Restoration [62]? Unlike her Southeast Asian neighbors, the Kingdom was never a colony during the period of Western colonial expansionism. To what extent this made Siam unique? To what extent this uniqueness was moderated by the reality of geopolitics and global economic integration? How do we understand the issue of “internal colonialism” whereby the tributary chiefdoms were brought under the control of Bangkok [4]? How valid is the conventional wisdom that Siam/Thailand did not experience a nationalist movement as in other Southeast Asian states [36]? Related to these two questions is the critical observation made by Anderson [3]: the construction of the centralizing “colonial”-style late nineteenth century state stunted the growth of an authentic popular Siamese nationalism, which explained failure of national integration of minorities.

Tortuous Road of Modernization

King Chulalongkorn was groomed by his father for his future leadership duties. He was present when King Mongkut discussed policy matters with the ministers and accompanied the father to many state ceremonies. His father would also use him as a sounding board and sent him to discuss state affairs with the chief minister [79]. He was therefore not a political novice when he ascended the throne in 1868, but the tasks before him were formidable.

His reign witnessed a complex combination of external factors and internal agency [36]. A key external factor was the country’s exposure to the Eurocentric world economy led by Britain. It exposed Siam to the imperatives of new global trade which the King cleverly exploited in his program of building an absolutist state [7, 36]. Such exposure created a significant number of people actively involved with the world economy to constitute an economic base for taxation. The King, actively assisted by his group of able and like-minded group of modern elites, used the opportunities presented by the world economy to reduce the traditional power and position of the great nobles.

The Chulalongkorn reign may be divided into two periods. The first period was from 1868 to 1885 when he wanted to speed up and broaden the modernization project initiated by his late father. But he faced opposition from the conservatives and vested interests. The second period was from 1885 till 1910 when he had a freer hand to set Siam on the path of modernization.

First Period (1868–1885)

What was the situation in Siam when he became King in 1868? It was perhaps best described in his own words:

There was no fixed code of laws; no system of general education; no proper control of revenue and finance; no postal or telegraph service. Debt slavery was not fully abolished; the opium laws were badly administered; there was no medical organization to look after the health of the city [Bangkok]. There was no army on modern lines; there was no navy at all; there were no railways and almost no roads. The calendar was out of step with the rest of the world. The list could be extended [55, pp. 85–86].

It was certainly not a pretty picture. To make matters worse, the national finance was in bad shape. With the growing challenges of western powers, it was urgent to modernize the state and society. The task was not made easier by his position. Being a young king, he had as regent the powerful chief minister. The regent, a seasoned politician, appointed his own family members and friends to state offices and involved in dubious financial transactions [79]. And there were also the old nobles. The result was three factions—the young king and his supporters, the regent faction, and the old nobles. He was in a weak position and had to submit to the regent. Whatever changes he could make was essentially a passive continuation of the program initiated by King Mongkut.

During this period, King Chulalongkorn was planning to transform his country into a modern state by studying Western experiences. In 1869, he initiated a survey of how modern states raised their resources and distributed them [36]. The French model seemed to him the most suitable for Siam. It was an absolute state with full control over its territories and the collection and distribution of resources.Footnote 5 But he had to bid his time.

Another important activity was his two trips overseas. The first was in March 1871 to Singapore and Java, and the second was from December 1871 to March 1872 to Delhi and several cities along the way. The trips opened his eyes to many achievements in these foreign cities.

On coming of age in 1873, he had his second coronation. He used the occasion to announce the abolition of prostration in the royal presence [79]. A most urgent task was pressed upon him. The state finance, normally in balance, had accumulated a debt of 8 million baht during the five years of regency. Though minor reforms had been implemented to streamline tax collection, the situation had not improved. Under the system, tax collection was undertaken by diverse departments, the royalties, or high ranking officials. The collectors were lax in delivering revenues to the Royal Treasury with virtually no system of accountable bookkeeping.

The task presented itself: the fiscal system must be reformed. With the support of his uncle and assisted by three brothers, he carried out a few key changes. He established in 1873 the Royal Treasury as the central agency for revenue collection. And in 1875, he put national revenue management under the jurisdiction of a new institution—the Royal Treasury Department [26].

The treasury could collect enough revenue for the King to carry out reform in non-controversial areas such as education, defenses, and communications [36]. The reform of tax collection reduced the powers of semi-independent aristocrats, powerful families, and provincial chiefs, making them dependent upon the state for income. These steps resulted in 50% increase in state revenue in two years [79]. Not surprisingly, such reforms encountered strong resistance from groups with vested interests, but they could not torpedo the reform.

Luckily, the King faced less resistance when he tried to abolish slavery and corvee. Partly because the whole matter was articulated in moral language in a country with Buddhist traditions; partly because he handled it skillfully with conciliatory and gradualist approach. This reform was happening in a fortuitously favorable milieu when the rice export trade boosted the value of land while slave ownership yielded less returns [16]. In 1874, he issued a decree stipulating that the prices for children of slaves born after October 1868 (his first coronation) would gradually decrease and would be free when they reached twenty-one years old. As gambling debts landed the debtors and their family in slavery, he issued a decree in 1883 to ban gambling dens. No further decree was issued till 1890. The institution of slavery was completely abolished in 1905 when the King was in firm control.

Reform in education was less successful. The King and his supporters attempted a few initiatives to transform education with three goals in mind, namely training children from the political elites to improve the performance of the civil service, education for religious enlightenment, and education for its own sake [79]. The three goals were only partially attainable.

Two other reforms, namely judiciary and composition of highest policy organ, also faced opposition from the conservative forces. The trial of strength taught the young King the importance of patience, which he urged upon his young enthusiastic supporters.

The first period ended when all the major political figures of the old order either died or retired. The modernization agenda during this period, especially in its first decade, was dominated by domestic politics and to a much lesser degree by foreign pressures and influences.

Second Period (After 1885)

The old order was replaced by a corps of young men with a new spirit of innovation and a sense of national loyalty [79]. Some of them had been educated abroad. Moreover, many of the King’s younger brothers had grown to maturity and could render assistance in state administration.

The begin of the second period saw a group of returned students submitting a petition to the King to move toward constitutional monarchy and to reform like Meiji Japan [67]. The students were princes sent by him to study in Europe, where they had come under the influence of liberal concepts of democracy and constitutional rule. The King was acutely aware of the colonial threat to the Kingdom’s independence and was impressed by Japanese nationalism [76]. But he strongly objected to the introduction of Western political ideas which would limit his power [43]. He therefore refused their petition, arguing that the country was not yet ready for the change and that he himself was making reforms. His responses suggested his belief that the concentration of power within the administrative structure of the absolute monarchy was the most reliable surety for modernization and against external threat.

His plan of reform was set up in a speech delivered on 8 March 1888 at the first meeting of his inner cabinet. “This speech can be regarded as the starting point for the introduction of a modern bureaucracy in Siam, for it was following this speech that the centralization and functional differentiation of the administrative system gradually came into being and the so-called cabinet system (with the king as premier) began to function. It cannot be denied that these were fundamental reforms in Thai history….However, these reforms were limited to only the administrative structure and no fundamental change in political principles took place [43].”

It was a time when the Siamese political elites could sense the urgency of countering the colonial threat. In response to it, Siam established a basic administrative infrastructure in the North with commissioners appointed to most of the large towns [64]. At first, it proceeded slowly because the royal court wanted to not antagonize the British and French (who were nearby in Burma and Indochina). It also wanted to avoid stripping away the powers of local princes too quickly in order not to alienate them and make them vulnerable to colonial inducements. However, by 1899, a more assertive Siamese approach had emerged, partly because of concerns that maintaining a system of tributary states might encourage French or British penetration into areas over which Bangkok could not demonstrate direct control [64].

In a series of rapid reforms, a modern system of territorial administration was implemented, the Siamese state’s legal powers were enhanced, and a range of measures greatly reduced the powers of the local princes and central Siamese officials actively limited their decision-making powers. The tax system was re-designed to transfer taxation out of the hands of local officials to the central government and revenue increased from year to year. After the tax reforms, local aristocrats, powerful families, and provincial chiefs came to depend on the state for their income [14]. The transformations were aimed at total control of the government over the tributary states and outer provinces [64]. Direct collection of taxes enabled the state to establish a strong centralized bureaucracy and to finance education, military, and infrastructure.

The most critical event to occur during this period is the Paknam Crisis in 1893 when the country came under threat of French gunboats. Though the kingdom had by then a professional army, trained by European advisers and equipped with modern weapons, it was not strong enough to stand up to the French military might. The British had major political and economic presence in Siam. The King had hoped that Britain could act, out of its own interests in the region, as a counterbalance to French ambition and would pressure France. However, British response was very disappointing.Footnote 6 Meanwhile, the King’s request to Tsar Alexander of Russia to intervene also came to naught [56]. The French ambition and the imbalance of power between France and Siam are colorfully captured in the title of the book by Patrick Tuck—The French Wolf and the Siamese Lamb [70]. In the face of French raw military power, Siam gave up vast swathe of periphery territories and a payment of three million franc to France. The loss was traumatic for him. He was reported to be so depressed and sick, to the point of almost taking his own life [79]. (More on the Paknam crisis in a separate section later.)

Having seen various weaknesses of the state exposed by the crisis, the King realized that more serious changes were called for [63]. The event strengthened his resolve to speed up and broadened the program of state-building. He wanted to consolidate the state power in the periphery areas inside his nominal jurisdiction. He traveled extensively to the chiefdoms and tributaries to consolidate the integration of these regions into the Siamese state. In this, he was assisted by Prince Damrong [68].

The scope of reform was expanded and the process accelerated; a new generation of leaders very different in outlook and attitude took charge [79]. He moved the best talents to take charge of key positions and gave them a free hand and resources. The range of reform was broad, covering education, judiciary, military, finances, administration, and communications. Various Western technologies were introduced, including weaponry, as well as organizational and institutional structures [34]. The Government undertook a number of major public works notably the construction of railways linking Bangkok with distant provinces of the Kingdom. A key objective was to strengthen central control of troublesome provinces and to improve the development of their resources. Another objective was to bring Siam closer to the practices of Western powers and secure her a place in the community of modern nations.

The King adopted the European trend of nationalism and centralization that was then prevalent and actively implemented it in Siam. Popular election of village and sub-district chiefs was introduced, and central government officials were running the lower levels of the provincial and district administrations [74]. The hereditary court officials and the provincial elites who had made the local governorships their family preserves were replaced with the representatives of the Bangkok-based bureaucracy under the control of the Western-educated brothers of the King. New officials were recruited from the Bangkok elites and from among the children of provincial families which were willing to accept education and modern roles in the bureaucracy in exchange for their loss of hereditary privilege. The new system was very successful in its purpose of unifying the country and consolidating central control [74]. The political landscape was transformed from a fragmented and localized sprawl into a centrally controlled, regular, and compact hierarchy [14].

Two other major reform achievements in this period were in education and legal systems. The country took more than a decade from late 1890s to figure out how to create effective educational services and meaningful syllabi to serve the needs of the nation. It was able to use traditional educational role of the village monasteries to spread the standardized script and literature of “Bangkok Thai” as well as Western-style mathematics and science [69]. The reform was lucky to have the leadership of Prince Damrong and Prince Wachirayan, who were able to manage deeply traditional institutions on modern lines. By 1910, the kingdom had an integrated system of education that was truly national [79]. The schools were staffed with trained teachers, provided with professional supervision, and followed curriculum with modern content. (An excellent and detailed account of reform in education can be found in the book devoted to the subject by Wyatt [79].)

The trained manpower was mainly directed to serve the growing bureaucracy, which quadrupled in size between 1892 and 1905. “Such a bureaucracy could not be manned exclusively by Siam’s traditional nobility, and into its lower ranks flooded ambitious young commoners, some of whom studied abroad on government scholarships and returned infected with liberal, meritocratic, and egalitarian ideas [3].” In carrying out his program of modernizing the country, the King inadvertently sowed the seeds that were to challenge the absolute rule a few decades later [3, 5, 36].

Another reform was the legal system. The reign of Rama V was also a period of modern codification of Siamese laws. “The impact of the treaties with the Western nations, the Western advisors and the Thai legal specialists educated in the West brought enormous changes to the Thai legal the law codes [12].” Asserting that Siamese traditional judicial system was barbaric and hence not applicable to Westerners, Western powers insisted on extra-territoriality clauses in their treaties, which exempted their subjects in Siam from local laws. To get rid of these humiliating conditions, it was imperative for Siam to reform its judicial and legal system to western standards. The reform implemented a version of the Napoleonic code, while borrowing to a lesser extent from Britain, India, Japan, China, and the USA. Its core, however, remained Siamese and retained much of the local customs and usages. It was an exercise well executed. For example, even the current Criminal Code contains many of the provisions of the Penal Code of 1908 which was the first major legal reform [12]. Much progress was made, and Britain was persuaded to abandon the extra-territoriality conditions in 1909 [21].

The long-term results of the series of reforms have been most striking, especially when compared with the situations in French Indochina and British Burma. It changed not only the face of Bangkok and other major urban centers but also the lives of rural folks. The Siamese peasantry became a sturdy and independent class, owning land, keeping money in bank, and thereby acquiring a stake in the country [22].

The reforming zeal of the King extended to hygiene in public life and some aspects of culture. The King stopped unhygienic habits of the past such as leaving dead bodies unattended to rot on the side of streets and the open disposal of raw and untreated sewage. In addition, he curbed old tradition such as the preponderance of women walking in Bangkok with the upper body uncovered [10].

He promoted a creeping western modernity among the elites and waited for the new ways of life to trickle down slowly to the general public. The monarchy profiled itself as the carrier of modernity. The court invested enormously in the arts, Italian and Victorian buildings, royal paraphernalia, and public rituals. Education in Europe, travels to Europe, and consumption of European culture were the methods of obtaining and gaining access to the European civilization [44]. Over time, his court became more and more like an elegant European court. “Chulalongkorn’s court became the centre of symbols of modernity. It adopted European couture, cutlery and dinnerware, furniture and art as decoration. English words soon inserted themselves into the speech patterns of the royals and educated elite. Consumption of all things Western, especially technological gadgets and machines, became symbols of modernity [65].” The trend reflected the common quest of Siamese elites to modernize the country by adopting and adapting western models, and the list of desired changes ranged from etiquette to material progress, from physical infrastructures, to social and legal institutions, to dress codes, and white teeth [68]. It was inevitable that the changes would mean the gradual petering out of habits, costumes and customs, and other social and cultural practices of traditional life.

An account of how these modern habits gradually diffused to the broader Siamese society can be gleaned from the famous Thai novel “The Four Reigns” by Kukrit Pramoj [35]. As a result of borrowing new cultural elements from foreign sources and adapting and mixing them with local traditions, a synthesized form of modern Thai culture evolved. The origin of what is known as Thai national culture today can be traced to the reign of King Chulalongkorn in the late nineteenth century [23]. In other words, Thai national culture is a recent creation [42, 81].

Another significant change is the system of political symbolism. In the older world order in Indochina, an overlord was the center of a microcosm located in a capital city. He claimed his supremacy and political legitimation based on his ability to access the superior sources of cosmic power. In such pre-modern world, Siamese rulers modeled their personas after Indian emperor Asoka [45]. At the same time he lived in world of geopolitics. A Siamese king exercised his power over tributary kings and chiefdoms, while he acknowledged the claims by Chinese emperors.

It was a world with India and China as the axis mundi of the world, ideologically rather than in actual political relations [68]. This world was changed by the mid-nineteenth century when both India and China were defeated by the British. It marked a radical shift to an axis mundi centered in Europe, the new source of global power [45, 46]. In fact, the defeat just accelerated a trend since the eighteenth century when the Indie models of statecraft had been losing their resonance for the Siamese monarchs [45]. The exposure of Siamese courts to the European ideas and culture harked back at least to the seventeenth century when the Kingdom of Ayutthaya exchanged embassies with Holland, France, and the Vatican [45].

This was the background in which Rama V built a new symbolic system by a selective borrowing of Western symbols of power and legitimacy. The Western monarchies provided a new resource of associations and imagery. The association with larger global forces was the strategic choice of the court. “Military uniforms, oil portraits, and suburban villas played, in this sense, a function similar to silk robes, Brahmanic rituals, and Indie architecture in proclaiming the Bangkok royalty’s association with a foreign civilization whose potency was manifested by means of trade, diplomacy, and proselytizing, as well as military might [13, 45, p.].” Rama V wanted to align himself with his European counterparts and to enhance his royal power. The political elites viewed themselves as purveyors of a civilizing project that served at once the validating of political authority and boosting of public image [47].

The Paknam Crisis and State Integration

The late nineteenth century witnessed an increase of British and French colonial ambition in Southeast Asia. In response to expansion of British control in Burma and the Malay Peninsula, the French did the same in Indochina and soon encroached on the territories under Siamese suzerainty [72]. It led to skirmishes along the borders between the Siamese and French armed forces which was a prelude to the battle of Paknam. The death of a French sergeant and the capture of a French captain gave France the excuse to send two gunboats to the Chao Phraya River and anchored 3 miles from the palace. Unable to secure assistance from Britain and too weak to face up to the French naval power, Siam succumbed to the threats. To make peace, Siam was forced to sign the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1893.

Siam lost 50,000 mile2 of territories and gave 3 million francs indemnity to France. To add insult to injury, France occupied Chantabun, the second most important Siamese port on the Gulf of Siam and entrance to three rich Siamese provinces [37]. The huge gains made by French caused unease in London, which led her to intervene. The result was the Anglo-French Agreement of 1896, guaranteeing Siamese independence in the Chao Phraya valley [8, 79].

The continuing French occupation of the strategic port of Chantabun was a thorn in the fresh of Siam and it worried the King constantly. He decided to embark on a goodwill mission to Europe in 1897 to garner broad support from European powers for strengthening Siamese sovereignty in the areas not covered by the agreement [79]. He was received in Paris but that was not enough to impress upon France to leave the strategic port. He then dispatched a mission to Saigon and did his best to convince the French that there was no need to station troops in Siamese soil [37].

The victory in Paknam whetted the appetite of France even more. By using military threat and the offer to return Chantabun, France obtained additional 38,000 mile2 in 1902–1904. Siam again received no assistance from London because Paris and London had been working behind the scene to cement their colonial interests in Asia and Africa. Britain was willing to sacrifice Siamese interests in exchange for French recognition of British de facto protectorate over Egypt [72]. The French grab of Siamese territory only ended in 1907 when it seized another 31,000 mile2 [37].

Administrative reforms carried out between 1902 and 1906 integrated the southern provinces more fully within the state. Agreements with Britain during the same decade led to a 1909 treaty that transferred Siamese rights over the neighboring Malay states of Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu to Great Britain [34]. The territorial demarcation defined the clear boundaries of the Siamese nation-state. Treaties drafted in Bangkok, London, and Paris simplified the political landscape by cutting through overlapping zones of influence [65, 67].

Even after Siam signed border treaties with France in 1904 and 1907 and with Britain in 1909, the Siamese elites saw evidences of serious and continued threat to the sovereignty of the kingdom [77]. It was with skillful diplomacy and internal unity and strength that the country was able to ward off further imperialist threats, and the treaties marked the final settlement of boundary with its neighbors.

Let us return to the Paknam crisis to look at its broader repercussions on the state-building. The territories lost were loosely held vassal states and the border areas, often ethnically non-Thai, rather than integral parts of the kingdom [5]. These peripheral principalities were semi-autonomous states that accepted Siam’s hegemony but they were not under Siamese complete political control. In Thai political theory, they were under the suzerainty of the King of Siam, although they were not effectively administered from Bangkok [74]. It was high time for Bangkok to integrate these chiefdoms and tributaries into the state. The task was even more pressing given that some rulers in the periphery areas were showing readiness to connive with foreign powers in order to cut off their ties with Siam [74]. In 1894, one year after the crisis, the Ministry of War was set up, mainly to prevent further loss [3].

In 1902, universal military conscription was introduced. While Siamese forces were unable to defeat the more powerful and well-equipped French navies, they were sufficiently strong to crush domestic revolts. Bangkok acquired the military capacity to enforce its rule and ensure national integrity of the Siamese state with modern weapons [69]. Like in other major government initiatives, the King depended a lot on the close circles of the royal family. Prince Bhanurangsi, a younger full brother of the King, and Prince Chakrabongse, a son of the King, helped to build the modern Thai army [65]. There was something special about the armed forces of Thailand. The Thais were the only Southeast Asians who were in a position to develop their own army before World War II [69].

Additionally, the King strengthened and consolidated control by administrative reform and centralization, and transfer of power to collect revenue from the local governors to the central authorities. Faced with administrative consolidation of the Siamese state which steadily undermined their power, local chiefs responded by forging strategic alliances with subaltern groups of peasants, laborers, and members of ethnic minorities [75]. A small-scale resistance movement of Muslims broke out in the southern provinces led by the local chief in 1902 [69]. This was easily quelled, but not so with a fierce revolt of the Shan in the north.

The Shan rebellion of 1902 to 1904 was catalyzed by the French strategy to create trouble for Siam. It was a French strategy to nurture trouble which they would then use for more encroachment of Siamese territories [75]. The rebellion was successfully suppressed by the newly modernized Siamese army. It was an important episode in the formation of the modem Siamese state [75]. It influenced the trajectory of the country’s long-term economic development by encouraging state investment in railways. It also demonstrated the capacity of the government to impose its will on the periphery. The standing army provided the hard power needed to erode the power of local nobles. With the extension of influence and control, Bangkok was able to increase state revenues.

In the confrontation between industrial western powers and non-industrial powers, it was the latter that lost out. Siam was no exception. However, Bangkok was able to preserve the essential independence of the core of the Thai realm and to establish control over other tenuously held areas. “In view of the complete destruction of the Thai state [Ayutthaya] in 1767, followed by a century of European colonial expansion, the success of Siam in preserving control over so many of its peripheral areas is striking, and a consequence in part of the reorganization of provincial administration in the Fifth Reign, which tied outlying areas closer to Bangkok and prevented local incidents or misunderstandings from developing into serious confrontations with Siam’s colonial neighbours [5].”

The suppression of the rebellion and the integration of chiefdoms and tributaries into the Siamese state beg the question whether these were acts of internal colonialization [4]. Viewed from the position of the chiefdoms and tributaries, it was colonization or forceful integration. It was a phenomenon that happened in the formation of states, including modern states or nation-states. In doing what he did, King Rama V was drawing instructive lessons from the history of his own country. The Ayutthaya Kingdom was not a unified state; it was a network of autonomous principalities and tributaries which pledged their allegiance to the king. Such administrative structure produced a politically weak state. Moreover, the situation gave rise to frequent squabbles for power by local ambitious rulers, leading to cracks in the network of alliance. This offered an opportunity to Burma which destroyed it in 1767.

State formation and nation formation in history were historical tasks not for the faint hearted. Just consider the works of King Louis X IV of France and the “Blood and Iron” Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia. Reflecting on the formation of nations in Europe, French historian Ernest Renan said in a lecture in 1882: “Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formation, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial. Unity is always effected by means of brutality; the union of northern France with the Midi was the result of a campaign of massacre and terror lasting for the best part of a century. Though the King of France was, if I may make so bold as to say, almost the perfect instance of an agent that crystallized [a nation] over a long period; though he established the most perfect national unity that there has ever been, too searching a scrutiny had destroyed his prestige….Many countries failed to achieve what the King of France, partly through his tyranny, partly through his justice, so admirably brought to fruition [50].” Such view of state formation in history is shared by Fukuyama [17].

Siam as an Incipient Nation-State

The reign of King Chulalongkorn witnessed the emergence of an incipient Siamese nation-state. A key attribute of a modern nation-state is its power and control over a bounded national territory and sovereignty, which was achieved through the many faceted reforms pushed through by the King. The reforms reflected the beginnings of attempts to marginalize the distinctiveness of individual regions [40]. Equally important is the birth of national consciousness. The King introduced the idea of trans-ethnic Siam-ness in that everyone in the country could be Siamese provided loyalty was given to the King [60].

Siamese nationalism was essentially constructed top-down by the King and other members of the royal, aristocratic, and political elites. “Unlike in neighbouring countries—such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, in each of which struggles against Western colonialism defined nationalism—in Thailand, nationalism was based on an embrace and mastery of Western modernity and on harnessing that modernity to raise the nation to the same level of civilization [65, pp. 533–534].” There is thus something special about Siamese nationalism in its origin and formative period; it is a sort of monarchical nationalism. The monarchy has played a significant role in the formation of Thailand as a modern nation-state [13]. Even critics who question the role of the monarchy in nation-building admit that the late nineteenth century was the beginning of the Siamese nation-state [67].

The idea of chat, which originally meant “birth,” took on a new meaning, to mean a national political community or nation [36]. In the 1880s, Western-educated Siamese intellectuals began to use the term chat with its new meaning, inspired by the rise of nationalism in the West [43]. They played active roles in the appropriation and localization of the ideas and practices originated in the West.Footnote 7 They had studied European experiences directly as a sovereign state and felt that the Kingdom should become a nation-state [76]. They would use their knowledge of diplomacy and international relations in order to help Siam preserve its sovereignty.

King Rama V also began using the term “chat” frequently after his first visit to Europe in 1897, and in his speech, he expressed his appreciation of the integrity of Siamese culture and its values in terms of “national character” typical of a European age of nationalism [79]. The idea of chat became the rallying concept to unite the people and in a period when the official state ideology took shape [43]. The ideology forms the basis of modern Thai national identity, with three ideational components, namely, religion, monarchy, and chat.

In Siam, Buddhism continued as the official religion of the country under royal protection and it functioned as a force for national unity and historical continuity [69]. “In Thailand, for example, there is a single tradition accepted by a unified nation, usually expressed in terms of Buddhism and the monarchy. This does not deny the existence of “counterstructures.” The Muslims in southern Thailand represent a distinctly different tradition. Thailand is also not without its share of upland minority tribespeople. On the whole, however, these “counterstructures” did not alter the major configurations of the Thai state [9, p. 437].”

The King, as in other kingdoms, was held up as the focus of his people’s loyalty and symbol of the unity of the people and country as well as of all its greatness and glory. For the greater part of Thai history, the monarchy was the focus of a kind of national consensus [41]. The King continues to be the source of political legitimacy and the reference point for national unity [9]. Honored as one of the greatest monarchs in Thai history and one of the most outstanding political leaders in Southeast Asia, King Chulalongkorn contributed significantly to the prestige and importance of the Thai monarchy as a cultural-social-political institution.

As a country with many ethnic minorities, Thailand has a history of not experiencing the same extent of communal or ethnic conflicts as elsewhere in developing countries. “One of the reasons is that the Thai have never experienced bitterness caused by being under a colonial power….Moreover, Hinayana Buddhism and the Royal Family also have made great contributions to peace in the nation and also in the region [66].”

Another reason is that the King’s nationalism was inclusive and not focused on stirring up parochial feelings against ethnic minorities. One feature of his policy is the stress on ethnic harmony and friendship [34]. For example, he issued in 1878 the “Edict of Religious Toleration” which provided for religious freedom throughout the country [78]. In the southern provinces, the Muslim Malays could follow their own religious laws in matters of inheritance and marriage [14]. Whatever its merits, the approach could not achieve its long-term goal of national integration. Until today, the Malay Muslims in the southern provinces still exhibit separatist tendency.

However, the benevolence and its limits displayed by the King toward tribal minorities could also be seen in the fortune of the Karens. They were indigenous people occupying a swathe of western territory adjacent to Burma and they suffered attacks and destruction by their powerful neighbors [11]. In exchange for protection in Siam, they often assisted Siamese troops with information on Burmese troop deployment. They played an important role in the traditional Siamese export trade to Asian markets [51]. The King was keen to retain the royalty of the Karens. He visited their traditional settlements in Sai Yok on three occasions and recorded in verse his favorable impressions. They were granted citizenship,Footnote 8 which meant that they were thereby eligible to join the army and police. They were taxed at the same rate as the rest and received the newly introduced smallpox vaccine. Though the King tried to extend the benefits of the modernized state to them, he could not succeed in integrating them into Siamese nation life [51]. Their fortune began to decline when Siamese trade shifted from Asia-oriented barter trade to a Europe-oriented trade in rice and teak. The Karens lacked the capability to compete in the new trade. The misfortune was compounded by their declining importance in Siamese defense. Instead of anticipating a British attack on their western front, the Siamese government felt that the attack was more likely to be launched from the Gulf of Siam. Though Rama V did show much interest in the welfare of the Karens, the larger impersonal forces played a bigger role in determining their fate. “From a rather comfortable existence at the start of Chulalongkorn’s rule, the Karens have now fallen to the position of being among the poorest people in the Kingdom of Thailand, a trend that began in spite of King Chulalongkorn’s efforts to help them [51].”

Other Aspects of Nation-Building

Alongside with introducing monarchical nationalism discussed earlier, the King took steps to give physical embodiment to the concept. Three things may be cited to illustrate this [60]. First, the King erected in 1886 a monument to eulogize and remember the fallen soldiers of the campaign against the rebellious Ho Chinese who took control of several cities in the Mekong region between 1877 and 1886. The monument was a traditional stupa blended with Western design elements. The sides were decorated with a commemorative text praising those who had died for their loyalty. Though this nationalist monument was dedicated to the soldiers for their supreme sacrifice, the king was the focus of the monument and the narrative. “The fallen soldiers became immortal first and foremost for their loyalty to the monarch and the nation [60].”

Second, an exhibition was organized in 1887 during a royal cremation ceremony in Bangkok. The exhibition featured 92 paintings depicting events in the country’s history. The paintings were accompanied by poems, many of them written by the King himself. Between them, the poems told a “national history” aimed at the ordinary people. The main message of the exhibition was the defense of the nation by the heroic deeds of former kings, civil servants, and the common people. The message in these poems was that the barami (perfection or charisma) of a monarch was not enough by itself to justify his claim to the throne. The king must constantly acquire new barami by performing deeds in the interests of the people.

Third, a landmark monument in Bangkok was unveiled in 1908 amidst a big ceremony. It was the equestrian statue of the King at a prominent square in the heart of Bangkok and formed therefore symbolically the focal point of the kingdom. The King, portrayed as an elegant horseman, was the embodiment of the nation. “The statue became an object of veneration and its surrounding plaza was used for important state ceremonies as well as a place for relaxation … [60].”

While monuments were the physical structures created to capture memories, the national museum gave temporal depth to nationalism [38]. “The museum has been a social instrument for the fabrication and maintenance of modernity, and of those ideologies of modernization and progress indispensable to the self-definition of modern nation-states initially in Europe and eventually everywhere in the world [49].” In the museum, religious icons and devotional objects were presented to convey the idea that Siam was a progressive nation-state with a distinctive civilizational lineage or cultural heritage [47].

The King and his royal generation were responsible for creating the Royal Academy and the National Library, institutions central to preserving Thailand’s historical traditions [33, 80]. These cultural artifacts had important functions in producing the nation as a bonded and bounded community [2]. Another major initiative of the King was to standardize the Thai language, which helped to promote communication among the various linguistic communities in the kingdom [79].

King Chulalongkorn was very historical-minded and wrote history articles: works that in general were analytical rather than narrative or descriptive [80]. “The king’s younger half-brother Prince Damrong, deservedly remembered as the ‘father of Thai history,’ wrote hundreds of historical works, ranging from biographies and local histories to studies of government institutions and schools and comments on cultural traditions [80].”

In 1869, one year after his first coronation, the King commissioned the writing of the history of the first four Chakri reigns. Chakri historiography has successfully served the needs of a time when the modern Siamese state was being built and also vital to the survival of Siam as an independent state [80].

In 1907, the Antiquarian Society was launched to mobilize the recently created bureaucratic corps with the objective of documenting the past thousand years of Siamese history [45].

In his inaugural speech, the King called on the Society to expand and validate Siamese history. The task was functional to asserting Siam’s political and cultural independence as the kingdom’s borders were being demarcated. Even though the Antiquarian Society eventually achieved little of consequence, its creation points to the ruling elite’s awareness that empirical knowledge of ancient history was required for its nation-building project.

History, real or even imagined, provides for people living in the same territory a common frame of reference and a powerful ideational tool to forge a sense of common identity. It has romantic epics, heroes and villains, defeats, and victories. It transmits traditional and cultural values, moral standards, and world view. In an article published in 1985 on Thai history, Wyatt observes: “The elements of the Chakri historiography that are now seen as deficiencies, were strengths in that time, for they directly helped to repair the most critical weaknesses of the old Siam….None reading the conventional Thai histories of the twentieth century would suspect that the Thai monarchy’s power and authority were weak and limited as late as 1880. The Chakri historiography was a direct response to that weakness, an attempt to repair it. Finally, the dynastic quality of that historiography worked to legitimize royal authority, whereas an alternative, nationalistic historiography might have legitimized the authority of other groups in the society, who by the early twentieth century were not yet prepared to take on the task of bearing authority….For more than a half century it contributed a national cohesion, identity, and authority that held the kingdom together in difficult times. The overwhelming success of that historiography is that today there is absolutely no question of Thailand’s identity, at least among Thai, and the demands for regional separatism that were so fashionable only a generation ago have been silenced [80, pp. 136–137].”

A most effective means to propagate that sense of history as advocated by the political elites is through the national system of education. “In the long run, though, the most important contribution of the Fifth Reign to the formation of the study of Thai history was the definition of the history curriculum for the educational system that began in 1890s [80].” Here, Siam is no different from many other nations. National identities are supported by national institutions and reinforced through education systems [19].


Here we discuss three points. (1) Given similarities between Japan and Siam, why did Siam not follow the route taken by Japan during its Meiji Restoration [62]? (2) Unlike her Southeast Asian neighbors, the Kingdom was never a colony during the period of Western colonial expansionism. To what extent this made Siam unique? (3) How valid is the conventional wisdom that Siam/Thailand did not experience a nationalist movement as in other Southeast Asian states [36]? Related to this is the critical observation made by Anderson [3] that Siamese nationalism was stunted, which had negative impact on national integration.

Japan and Siam shared certain salient similarities during the mid-nineteenth century when both countries faced the challenge of modern development. “Both societies were independent, both were largely homogenous in culture, both had a strong sense of national identity, both had creative and often brilliant elites who were strategically located in decision-making positions from which they could innovate constructively, both had bureaucratic staffs able and willing to implement elite decisions, both were realistic about foreigners’ (particularly Europeans’) intentions and power and sensed the need for social innovation…, and both had the key cash crops to use as the means by which to implement productive change….Yet Japan developed but Siam did not … [31, pp. 3–4].” The puzzle is why Siam did not follow the footsteps of Japanese Meiji’s modernization [62]. Or why did King Rama V chose not to take up the Japanese model.

Let us try to explain the puzzle from the objective and subjective point of view. The similarities just listed above ignored a few crucial factors and development. Japan, through its Meiji reform in 1868, was at least two generations ahead of Siam in terms of mass education development. Moreover, the oligarchs who seized power in Japan established a military dictatorship and quickly built up a large standing army meant for external aggression. In contrast, the Chakri dynasty was not a military dictatorship. And for a long time before the French annexation in 1890s, all the traditional rivals of Siam were demilitarized and tamed by European colonialism. There was no incentive to keep a big standing army.

During the Meiji Restoration, political power simply moved from the Tokugawa shogunate to an oligarchy of leaders. In the realpolitik of imperial rule in Japan, the Emperor served solely as the symbolic and spiritual authority with the real power in the hands of his ministers who governed the nation in his name [32]. In weighing the different political models, King Rama V preferred the French model of building an absolute state with power concentrated in his own hands.

Now the second point: In what ways was Siam different from Southeast Asian countries under colonial rule and to what extent this uniqueness was moderated by the reality of geopolitics and global economic integration? Siamese was different from its neighbors in at least three ways. First, the Siamese state machineries as designed by its Kings were manned by the native population. The foreigners working for it were serving as technical experts, hired at the pleasure of the royal court. The Siamese established their own army, with the result that the Siamese/Thais were the only Southeast Asians who were in a position to develop their own army before World War II [69]. Second is the near absence of colonial knowledge, or the body of scholarship produced by colonial civil servants-scholars as in colonized countries like Malaya and Indonesia. Though biased in their own ways, their writings formed an important part of modern scholarship on these colonies. “Such scholars were not limited by twelve- or eighteen-month grants, fragmentary data, politically turbulent field conditions, and so forth. They lived for years in the countries they studied, usually acquired a deep knowledge of the languages and cultures, had excellent bureaucratic access, were able to use the colonial administration to gather data, and worked in the total (if soporific) calm of late colonial domination. Modern Thai studies had to start largely from scratch, not only in terms of data and analysis but even…of fundamental perspectives [3].” This leads to our third observation. Siam was able to evolve its more or less indigenous ways of research and other intellectual enquiry. One example is in archeological research where Siamese researchers looked to its own resources, with royal inspiration and support [25].

However, in other areas, Siamese uniqueness was moderated by the reality of geopolitics and the emergent global economy. Pre-modern countries of the nineteenth century faced the continuing onslaughts of Western powers. These countries could not escape the fate of being integrated into the expanding capitalist system, as famously described by Marx and Engels [39]. They gave up territories; they signed treaties that compromised their control of customs, foreign nationals and trade; they accepted the advice of foreigners on reforming their own political, economic, and social systems; and they went so far as to hire European experts to carry out such changes. In designing and executing his modernization program and state-building, King Chulalongkorn was in many respects similar to colonial regimes in neighboring countries [3, 5]. The King could not escape the logic of realpolitik and economic necessities in the process of integration into the global system centered in Europe.

With shift from trade with the Asian market to trade with European countries, Siam introduced modern education just like her neighbors was introduced in all Southeast Asian countries to serve the growing demands of the Eurocentric world economy and its corresponding growth of local bureaucracy. “Hence, the rise of the new social class, comprising of members of the old elite and those outside the ruling class. This is because attempts by authorities, foreign as well as native, to keep access to modern education exclusively to the ruling class failed. Everywhere new men flooded the education system and, subsequently, the modern bureaucracy [36].”

Critics have pointed out the issue of extra-territorial rights conceded to western powers as evidence of its semi-colonial conditions [27, 30]. This is another clear manifestation of unequal power relations where the weak must eat the humble pie. It may be relevant to note here that extra-territoriality was imposed by the powerful Western powers on Asian countries which were not colonies like China and Japan. Interestingly, an unintended consequence of the imperialist behavior gave birth to an Asian awareness of territorial sovereignty by its very violation.

Third is the question of Siamese nationalism. It exhibits similarities and differences with those of other countries under the threats of Western colonial expansion. The similarity lies in the fact that Siamese/Thai nationalism germinated and grew as a response to the external threat, first among the educated elites and subsequently diffused to infect the rest of society. Then the difference: here was a marked absence of anti-colonial rallying cries. Neither was there a mass campaign fighting for political independence. Instead, one strain of the nationalism morphed into an anti-absolutism coup later on, though it was openly not against the monarchy. Though colonial threats constituted a driving condition for the emergence of nationalism, the nationalism is not of the kind found in colonized countries.

There is the critique of Anderson [3] that the monarchy of the centralizing “colonial”-style late nineteenth century state stunted the growth of an authentic popular Siamese nationalism, and “this, in turn, has been the central reason for the failure to achieve modern national political integration of ‘minorities’ … (p. 28).” To see if the criticism is valid, let us look at the empirical evidence. In regions where there is a mixed population of diverse ethnic groups, Thailand has registered a better record than the rest of Southeast Asia, for example, these regions do better than Malaysia which experienced racial riots in 1969 [24]. In southern Thailand which has a large population of Muslim ethnic minorities, Bangkok is confronted with problem of separatism but the problem has troubled similar regions in the Philippines and Indonesia [1, 6].


This section dwells on the historical roles of King Chulalongkorn and concludes by looking at his legacies.

First, his historical roles: In the course of state-building, it was almost “natural” that the King was also embarking on nation-building. These two sets of activities reinforce each other, for state-building rests on foundation of nation-building and nation-building on state-building [17, 59]. In the early stage, he was using the ideological resources of Buddhism and monarchy, and it was later on that he added the concept of chat or nation. Between them, nation, religion, and monarchy constitute the central ideological system of Thailand and form the core of modern Thai national identity.

The case of Siam offers some empirical basis to buttress different claims for the formation of nation. It lends weight to the view of Gellner [19] that nationalism engenders nations and the view of Hroch [29] that nationalism arose from activities of cultural elites seeking histories and constituted the identities of nations. At the same time, the Siamese experience also supports the claim of Anthony Smith the nation is a “continuation” of ethnicity; nation is constructed out of elements that sit deep in the psychological make-up of human beings, such as language, race, religion, culture, and shared historical memories [54].

There is a broad consensus in research literature that King Chulalongkorn is one of the most remarkable political leaders not only in Thai history but also in Southeast Asian history. Suffice it here to quote the assessments by Benjamin Batson and David Wyatt, two historians of Siam. Using the phrase “event-making man” coined by Hook [28] to describe the King, Wyatt [79] writes: “His rare understanding of both what it meant to be modern and what it meant to be Thai and the skill with which he manipulated the power at his command meant for his country the preservation of its independence and the creative shaping of its modern identity [79].” Another assessment is by Batson [5], who says: “By the turn of the [20th] century it seemed that Chulalongkorn and his advisers had accomplished what most foreigners and many Thai had considered impossible: the reform of the internal administration without giving rise to serious political or social disturbances, and the survival of Siam as an independent state in an age of expansive imperialism [p. 10].” While giving a big credit to Rama V, we must also note that he was actually building on and extending the works of his predecessors [15, 18].

The conventional historiography of Thailand suggests that the “modernization” since the mid-nineteenth century was a necessary measure to save the country from colonization [68]. Sympathetic scholars tend to give credit to Rama IV and Rama V who made good use of the geopolitical potential of Siam as a buffer zone between two contending colonial powers [18, 36, 79]. The significance of this point can be seen in the background of failures by local leaders in other parts of the world facing more or less situations. In fact, had the King failed in his endeavor, Siam would probably have ended up being divided between Britain and France.

However, there were some critical historians who do not buy this narrative. They argued that Siam was spared because the British and French secretly agreed between themselves to leave the country as a buffer between British power in Burma and Malaya and French power in Indochina [18]. There is probably some truth in both views [18]. In studying political leaders, it is relevant to bear in mind the historical conditions and their background. One cannot expect that when dealing with France, King Chulalongkorn, with the weak military power at his disposal, could have operated like Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia. Given the reality of power disparity between Siam and the colonial powers, the weak must concede what they must and made the best out of the situation and, to do so, calls for political courage and historical wisdom. Likewise, one has to assess his achievements against the background of deeply ingrained traditionalism existing in the Siamese society then [22]. Even the left-leaning scholar Benedict Anderson could appreciate the achievements attained. “The tide of European imperialism had engulfed the traditional external adversaries of the Thai—Burmese, Khmer, Malay, and Vietnamese—but, thanks to luck, concessions, and adroit diplomacy, Siam had escaped the same fate [3].”

The King’s approach to state and nation-building was top-down. This approach to state-building is understandable considering its very nature, consisting of, for example, centralization of tax collection and railway construction. But the essence of nation-building was the development of a shared national identity which involved all the people in the country. Even when constrained by his world view both a product of his position and upbringing, he could have engaged the services of some elements drawn from other social strata and backgrounds.

Second, his legacies: It was significant that even King Rama V, the most powerful king of the Chakri dynasty, emphasized the need for leadership based upon morality and righteousness. He wrote: “The power of the king of Siam is not defined in any law, for it is considered overwhelming, and no law, thing, or person can stand in its way. But the truth is that when the king does something, it must be right and just [61].” This was a rather radical departure from the traditional role of the king, which was to maintain the social and political order as handed down to him. His enlightened approach transformed the social structure and the nature of the monarchy itself [5, 36, 73]. This was to change the nature of absolute state itself.

First, the king’s role was not just to maintain the social and political order but also to introduce fundamental changes. Second, he justified the absolute monarchy not by divine right but by its suitability to the conditions of Siam and the benefits it conferred on the people. This change made the reign far more vulnerable to Western rationalism and its proponents. “It became more human, more connected with the people, more public service-oriented, and thus better prepared to face a more democratic and egalitarian world that was to emerge in the twentieth century. The institutional outlook became more flexible and open-minded, to the point that at several critical moments in the kingdom’s history, it was the kings, rather than their subjects, who more readily accepted, co-opted, or initiated changes [61].”

Third, the shift from divine rights to moral responsibilities amounted to a change in the basis of legitimacy. This shift of legitimacy opened “the door to the counter-arguments of a later generation that the absolute monarchy had become an anachronism—no longer benefitting the country [5].” This is a foretaste of constitutional monarchy, a moderation of absolute monarchy.

In addition to his enlightened approach, the king expanded education to produce the manpower needed to run a modern bureaucracy and thereby changed the social structure. Moreover, modern education replaced royal patronage as essential requirements for entry to the bureaucracy. Modern textbooks contained ideas derived from the European Enlightenment, such as meritocracy and nation-state. The concept of nation-state was itself very subversive in the long run, because it suggested the question of whether royal or national interests had priority [36]. When combined, the various innovations nurtured conditions for an unintended consequence—the coup of 1932.

When King Rama V passed away, people mourned not only for him but also for the passing of an age [61]. To borrow the words of the French historian Gabriel Monod (quoted in [48]), the King is one of those important individuals in history who are signs and symbols of the development of institutions and economic conditions. By virtue of his achievements, he left behind a distinctive imprint whose impact is felt until today. He strengthened the institution of the monarchy and made it almost sacrosanct, perceived as the embodiment of Thai virtues and values, and guide for a Thailand in a challenging world. This was evident in the coup d’etat of 1932 staged by a group of military officers and bureaucrats to wrest power from the government. Instead of abolishing the monarchy, they sought to consolidate their position by using the king as the source of legitimacy for their new Constitution and called themselves “servants of royal affairs [61].” If nationalism inspired the coup plotters to get rid of absolutist component of the monarchy, they were keen retain monarchy as an institution of the state and nation. It reflected the political reality that for the ordinary public, the monarch remained the object of their ultimate royalty, respect and love. The monarchy has always played a pivotal role in Thai nationalism and any threat to the Thai nation-state is also seen as a threat to the monarchy [52, 63]. “This institution sees itself and is seen by many Thais as the embodiment of the nation-state. The monarchy is a primary source of Thai culture and values [63].” The monarchy balanced its role as preserver of tradition and at the same time being the advocate for the modernization of the society.

Another legacy of the King Chulalongkorn is that he has become the reference model used by Thai citizens to articulate their love and veneration for his grandson, the popular King Bhumibol [57, 61]. Reporting in 1999 about how the Thais viewed King Bhumibol, Steng [57] writes, “In their view the present King is similar to his grandfather in many respects. The Kings are compared in the qualities of genius, compassion, and leadership….At places where one finds images of King Chulalongkorn (e.g. at home altars, in temples, with vendors at the equestrian statue and at amulet markets), one increasingly finds medallions, statuettes and portraits of King Bhumibol as well (p.68).” A small, though nonetheless interesting, example may offer a glimpse of the message. King Rama V is known as the first Siamese king ever to go into the countryside to learn first-hand the needs and problems of his folks. This practice has been arduously followed by his grandson. In times of crises, the throne is the source of moral authority and an anchor of stability. These are invaluable political assets which King Bhumibol used very adroitly to steer the nation out of a few critical moments [57].