Monday, March 18, 2013

Nascent Nationalism (an excerpt for Moon Thailand)


Nascent Nationalism

Vajiravudh succeeded his father as Rama VI.  He, like many of his brothers, was educated in Europe.  It is not surprising then that his reign is remembered for taking the first steps toward defining the Thai “nation”.  But, as so many other countries experienced during the early 20th century, the elite classes were beginning to embrace not only the idea of nationalism but also democratic and/or republican reforms.  It can be said that the monarchy wanted to have it both ways: continued emphasis on hierarchy with limited reforms to serve the “national” interests.  What Vajiravudh and his successors were to find was that Siam was progressively less willing to accept change in everything but its political institutions.

What was the Sixth Reign’s idea of the nation?  Ideally, it was part of the triumvirate of nation, religion and monarch (chat-satsana-phramahakasat).  The nation could be seen to be composed of similar people who were unified in their desire for the good of the many.  It was something that its members should be willing to defend even with their lives.  Not surprisingly, during this period the issue of ethnicity assumes greater importance, as it did around the world. 

Another worldwide phenomenon that touched the Thai at this time was xenophobia.  If it is a common identity that is the primary unifier of those within the nation, those who are different can be a threat.  Although in fact Thailand was, as we have seen, long home to different ethnic and language groups, the Chinese, by virtue of their numbers and importance in trade and bureaucracy, attracted the most negative attention.  Rama VI himself wrote an infamous pamphlet called “The Jews of the East”.  In it he accused the Chinese of being disloyal, entitled and overly reverential of wealth while clinging to their ethnic identity.  Their relationship to Siam’s economy was compared to “so many vampires who steadily suck dry an unfortunate victim’s life blood.”

This was one of the lower points in Thai history.  However, it’s useful to examine it not only to understand internal Thai relations, but also Siam’s role in the larger world.  As repugnant as it is to modern readers, anti-Semitism was a popular political and social orientation in early 20th-century Europe, particularly among the aristocratic elite.  Further, the British and other European nations saw the Chinese as a commercial threat.  By the 19th century, Europe had made so many breakthroughs in technology and conquest that they perceived themselves to be the ascendant leader into the future and China as the decadent symbol of a failed past.  Many of the Thai nobility and royal family, including the king, would have been educated with these people from a young age, and it follows that many of them adapted this world view to their special circumstances.

Vajiravudh aka Rama VI
If in many ways his father and grandfather were the right monarchs for their time, Vajiravudh may have been the wrong one for his.  His extravagance, homosexuality and Western style made him seem in some ways too foreign to many of the people he governed; ironic, given his promotion of national unity.  He also seemed, at times, more interested in the arts than affairs of the state.  Further, he appointed some of his favorites, many of whom came from the common class, to positions of importance in his cabinet.  This was a break with the precedent his father had established in which his well-educated uncles and brothers would normally have filled the majority of the top posts.  Although many questioned the motivations behind these appointments, these helped to establish an example that was later used in subsequent reigns to allow commoners access to government positions. 

The country was still smarting over the losses of 1893 when World War I broke out.  Many of Vajiravudh’s advisors opposed his decision to declare war on Germany and send a token force to fight for the Allies (which included Great Britain and France) in 1917.  However, this ended up yielding important rewards.  Not only were they able to alter their treaties with Britain and France to their advantage, they also earned a seat at Versailles and became a founding member of the League of Nations.

Those achievements are best appreciated in hindsight.  Post-World War I contemporaries found Vajiravudh increasingly more of a burden than an asset to Thailand.  He was not the first extravagant- or homosexual- ruler.  However, in light of the post-WWI Depression, his continued lavish expenditures did nothing to endear him to a population that was already beginning to question the utility of an absolute monarchy.   

After the war, the demand for rice and silver, two of Bangkok’s primary exports, declined.  The steps taken to address the fall off led to deficits and borrowing.  In addition, some of the promises the royal family had made in the years before the war were beginning to look thin.  Although education was a stated priority, it took only 3% of the budget; 23% went to military spending and more than 10% to royal expenditures under the auspices of the Privy Purse and the Ministry of the Palace.

Political tensions were rising as well as the ideology of nationalism that began to take hold in Southeast Asia.  While the Malay and Lao populations in Bangkok were easily controlled, the larger and more influential Chinese were not.  They were angered over Japanese activities in China and staged anti-Japanese boycotts and protests.  At this time Bangkok also became a focus of Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian and Burmese nationalist activity against their European colonizers.  The Thai government was sympathetic, but they were leery about alienating the European nations.

Thai students who returned from abroad- particularly France- were increasingly dissatisfied with Bangkok’s progress towards modernization.  Two such student leaders, Pridi Phanomyong and Plaek Phibun Songkhram, were to play important roles later in Thai history.

© Suzanne Nam.

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Want to read more?  Please check out Moon Thailand (Moon Handbooks) by Suzanne Nam