Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rama V: Siam's Modernizing Monarch

It isn't easy for westerners to understand the role of royalty in Thailand. Today is Chulalongkorn Day, the anniversary of the death of King Rama V in 1910. It is a national holiday, and King Chulalongkorn the Great, also called by Thais the "Great Beloved King," is worshipped like a saint. His picture can be seen in businesses and in private homes, venerated like The Buddha and the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX. His portrait graces the common 100-baht note.

After visiting Dusit Zoo on Sunday, I walked down to the King Rama V Monument on Ratchadamnoen, the Royal Way, a wide boulevard inspired by the Champs Elysées in Paris. A statue of Chulalongkorn on a horse was unveiled in 1908 in front of the new Italianate Ananta Samakhom throne hall, built the year before "with Carrera marble, Milan granite, Germany copper, and Viennese ceramics," according to historians Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. In their History of Thailand, the authors write:
Cast in Paris and portraying the king in western military attire, the image was the first use of statuary outside a religious context and a massive statement of the royal presence in the capital.
In front of the statue, Thais place flowers and light sticks of incense, just as they do for the Buddha. Today there will be an elaborate ceremony in the plaza. Stores are closed for "Chulalongkorn Appreciation Day" (will the bars be open tonight?).

Although the term "Rama" was not applied to him until after his death, Chulalongkorn was the fifth monarch in the Chakri dynasty which began in 1782 and continues today, 225 years later. He was one of the children tutored by Anna Leonowens and was apparently influenced by her abolitionist ideas, for he outlawed slavery during his reign. (The mostly fictional Anna and the King of Siam, in all of its artistic forms, is still banned here.) He was 15 when his father, King Mongkut (Rama IV) died and he served under a regent for four years. While ruler, he was the first Thai king to visit Europe, and he returned with ideas about fashion, railroads, architecture and progress, but not constitutional limits on the monarchy. King Rama V was a firm absolutist to the end (that didn't change until 1932). He modernized the financial system and administrative bureaucracy, and successfully prevented his country being colonized by European powers, even while Britain and France were nibbling away at his eastern and western borders. Chulalongkorn had four queen consorts and numerous commoner wives who produced 77 children, 33 of whom were sons. His second son, Vajiravudh, succeeded him as Rama VI.

Chulalongkorn turned a feudal dynasty into a modern nation state, thereby earning the title of "Modernizing Monarch" by setting permanent borders and transforming a conglomeration of different ethnicities into the citizens of Siam (30 years before it was renamed "Thailand), "reinvented as members of the same race," according to the historians. His administration, led mainly by relatives, used education and the military to erase differences between people and cement unity, helped by "histories" that invented a continuity from the empires of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya to the Chakri kings of Bangkok. King Rama V had learned well from examining the same kind of nation building (i.e., invention of tradition) in France and England.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) has been in Siriraj Hospital for the past ten days. He was admitted with an "inadequate blood flow to the brain" but his condition since then has been described consistently as "satisfactory" and "improving." The King celebrated an unprecedented reign of 60 years last year and on Dec. 5 his 80th birthday will be celebrated with widespread pomp and circumstance throughout Thailand. His only son, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, paid his first visit to his father yesterday. The Crown Prince has been married three times, twice to commoners (one an aspiring actress who, after giving him five children, left him to live in America). The King and his Queen also have three other children, all daughters.

After viewing the Rama V statue, I traveled east to Banglamphu and the Chao Phraya River and walked across the imposing Rama VIII bridge to a beautiful park on the other side. Centerpiece of the park is a large statue of Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), King Bhumibol's brother. As I entered the gate past a guard with my camera at the ready I was told it was forbidden to photograph the statue (so instead you get a photo of me in the park with the bridge in the background. Mahidol, a grandson of Chulalongkorn, became king when Rama VII abdicated in 1935. He was born in Germany and was living in Switzerland when the government (now a constitutional monarchy) appointed him king at the age of 9. He visited Thailand for the first time four years later, and only came to live there in 1945 after studying for a law degree. Six months later the young king was found shot to death in his bedroom in the Grand Palace. The mystery has never been solved. Several servants were executed for his "assassination" but his brother, who replaced him as ruler, is thought to disbelieve this story. The published evidence suggests suicide was an impossibility and other candidates have been proposed as the murders. But the full truth is unknown.

I've lived in England and now reside in Thailand, both constitutional monarchies. But the admiration and love accorded the King here is far and away greater than any I saw in London. There the royal family is an objective of curiosity and grudging respect. Here, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are universally worshipped as supreme paragons, and their faces, together or separately, are seen everywhere, including the sides of buildings and on large altars in front of businesses. A film about him with music is shown in every cinema before the main feature and everyone is expected to stand. Her birthday is celebrate as Mother's Day, and his as Father's Day. Their social and environmental work is admired internationally. The baseball cap I wear has the King's symbol on it, and every Monday Thais were yellow shirts because the King was born on a Monday and yellow is that day's color.

There are other stories and rumors about the King's family which I will not report here. It is a serious crime to criticize or ridicule the King and his family in Thailand and I'm not about the battle the Thai net police who recently shut down YouTube for showing a video deemed disrespectful. The King is obviously in ill health and his death will be a national disaster. No living monarch has ruled as long as he and certainly none in any country has won such love from their subjects (except perhaps Princess Diana). The transition to Rama X will be a sad but fascinating process to watch.

No comments: