Every country has its own mysteries. One of the questions that still lingers for Thailand is what happened to the man who ruled right before the current ruling dynasty, Taksin (1734-1782).
Taksin, a Sino-Siamese governor from Western Siam who rose to power through the military ranks, defended Ayutthaya against the Burmese but when it was evident that Ayutthaya was going to fall, he gathered his followers and established a base near the Cambodian border. After the Burmese troops retreated, he retook the Thai plain. In addition to setting up an orderly government, he also distributed food to the starving, devastated population. He led an attack against the Burmese and defeated them in battle. While the Burmese may have been able to successfully fend off Taksin’s forces eventually, Burma was subsequently invaded by China. Taksin and his followers exploited that distraction and decisively defeated the Burmese. Later, he and his generals expanded the territory of the kingdom into what is now Cambodia and Laos.
Because of the devastation Ayutthaya suffered, it was no longer suitable as the seat of the kingdom. Taksin made the decision that it would be easier to build a new city at Thonburi than to rebuild Ayutthaya.
What Happened to Taksin?
Taksin was revered for his salvation of the Thai people, but he is not the ancestor of the subsequent (and current) ruling dynasty. His fall from power, and the rise of his general, Buddha Yodfa Chulalok, also known as Chao Phraya Chakri, is a subject of controversy. The simplest explanation may be, as one writer put it, that military success often leads to political strife.
Although Taksin was sponsored at the Ayutthaya court at a young age and grew to achieve a military rank and a post as governor, he was not from the royal line or any of the aristocratic houses that sometimes supplied successors to the throne. We can only speculate, but it is probably fair to say that under normal circumstances he would not have become the ruler of Ayutthaya. These, however, were not normal times.
Within 15 years of his ascension to the throne, Taksin is said to have demanded to be worshiped as a Buddha and to have meted out cruel and arbitrary punishments (including executions) for what we might today consider minor offenses. He was perhaps suffering from a prolonged mental breakdown, or he might have grown megalomaniacal.
A few historians have suggested that Taksin’s breakdown may have been caused by his awareness that he was an outsider and that the conservative factions of his court distrusted him, particularly because his father was Chinese. There are almost always traditionalists in any court or government, but this explanation is more appropriate for the nation-building 19th century and the nationalist early 20th century. Further, many wealthy Chinese had married into well-connected Thai families during this period, including that of Chao Phraya Chakri's.
According to most accounts, Chao Phraya Chakri was in the middle of a campaign in Cambodia when relations in Thonburi broke down and Taksin was overthrown. He returned to Thonburi, put the coup down, and then took power himself, eventually naming himself King. By all accounts, he ordered the execution of Taksin in 1782. According to some, Taksin was beheaded, according to others he was put in a velvet sack and beaten to death. Yet another version states that a double was beaten to death in his place and that Taksin was spirited away to the mountains, where he lived until 1825.
If we are not certain about Taksin’s fate, what can we say about Chao Phraya Chakri's motivations? Many popular histories have posited that he made himself King because it was his duty to the Thai people. There are two legends that suggest that he was fated to be King. The most popular is that the King of Burma himself declared that to him during a personal meeting on the battlefield. Another states that as children, both Taksin and Chao Phraya Chakri were told that they would grow up to be kings.
Chao Phraya Chakri could not have taken the throne without the support of powerful interests at the court and in the military, so it is fair to say that he was “made” king, after a fashion. Also, he was perhaps one of a handful of men who held positions of power and influence in both the military and government that would make him appropriate for the throne.
Despite these dynamics, it would be naive to assert that he was acting without any personal ambition. This insight shouldn't detract from the achievements of either his reign or his dynasty’s, but should highlight that they were the work of people, not fate.
© Suzanne Nam.