When Thailand Undermined Its Monarchy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because revolutionary history can be as volatile today as when it was first written.
By Peter Morris
Seven young men from Siam met in Parisian cafes in February 1927, sipping coffee and plotting a revolution. The sight of foreign, middle-class legal students and military professionals was common in Europe at the time — Siam, in fact, had been sending increasing numbers of students abroad in a bid to expand the siwilai, or civilized, focus in its population.
Yet for these seven, the goal was far from civil. They were focused on tearing apart the very structures that held their homeland together — and would succeed in doing so five years later.
Soon to be known as the People’s Party, the group of seven included the intellectual leftist Pridi Banomyong, then just 27, and Plaek Phibunsongkhram, aka Phibun. While they would be known later for their political differences, their aims at the time were twofold: to set up a constitutional monarchy in Siam — not known as Thailand until 1939 — and establish social and economic success through six principles best summarized by historians Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit in their seminal A History of Thailand: “True independence, public safety, economic planning, equal rights (with no exceptions for royalty), liberty for all and universal education.”
Siam “was in considerable turmoil — especially since the Republican revolution in China in 1911,” says Kevin Hewison, visiting research scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University. He explains that a number of political ideologies were swirling then, but while the seven in Paris weren’t coming up with new ideas, “they were linking to ideologies that were radical because all of them challenged [the] monarchy’s stranglehold on politics.”
The movements of opinion in this country give a sure sign that the days of autocratic rulership are numbered.
King Prajadhipok, to his American adviser
By 1930, the devastating waves of the 1929 Great Depression crashed down on Siam’s economy, which was heavily dependent upon trade and import taxes. A growing resentment of corruption and economic mismanagement soon spelled revolution. King Prajadhipok, the seventh of the Chakri dynasty, was aware of a gathering storm and warned as much in a 1926 letter to his American adviser. “The movements of opinion in this country give a sure sign that the days of autocratic rulership are numbered,” he wrote to Francis Sayre.
The People’s Party finally made its move on June 24, 1932, halting 800 years of absolute rule by kings in less than 24 hours. Having managed to recruit some 100 members to their cause since that meeting in Paris — more than half from military ranks — it took fewer than three hours to surround the main palaces. The conspirators rounded up the top princes and presented the king, then 120 miles away at a palace named Klai Kangwon, or “Far From Worry,” with a fait accompli.
Not a drop of blood, blue or otherwise, was spilled, and upon announcing that a coup had overthrown the absolute monarchy, concerns about a potential backlash against the party were quickly quelled. “Opposition was insignificant,” Baker and Pasuk write. Instead, “People queued up to join the People’s Party. … Messages of support flooded in from the provinces.”
Buoyed by apparent support, Pridi — then the leader — released a declaration justifying his party’s actions and harshly addressing the royals. “The government of the King has treated the people as slaves … and as animals,” he wrote, calling on the king to govern under a constitution and alongside an assembly of the people’s representatives. If the king refused, “it will be regarded as treason to the nation, and it will be necessary for the country to have a republican form of government,” the declaration warned.
“The ultimatum shocked not only the palace, but even some People’s Party figures who couldn’t really imagine Siam without a monarchy,” writes Paul Handley in The King Never Smiles, a book that’s still banned in Thailand. Eventually, the temporary constitution was revised with input from the hamstrung king and, after some backpedaling by the People’s Party, they eventually promulgated a “permanent” constitution on December 10, 1932, that retained many royal privileges while essentially installing single-party rule. The People’s Party was in charge.
But this didn’t usher in calm. The very next year saw bloody fighting hit the streets of Bangkok as Prince Boworadet led a last-ditch “rebellion” that failed to overthrow the new People’s Party government. Shortly after Boworadet fled, in January 1934, King Prajadhipok left for England to receive treatment for his eyes, never to return and abdicating the throne a little more than a year later.
Phibun, by then in charge of the party, had broken with his ally Pridi, as well as many of the nobler causes of the coup. Having helped end nearly 150 years of absolute rule under the Chakri dynasty, Phibun’s descent into military-backed autocratic rule would become a template followed intermittently by generals for the next eight decades, as a paranoid desire for “Thai-style democracy” — autocracy under a monarchy — fomented tumult and prompted another 19 constitutions. The monarchy itself would soon rise to new heights, thanks to an expertly navigated 60-year reign of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, while the topic of the 1932 revolt would quickly become — and remain — a political hot potato.
Since the ’50s, says Hewison, there has been considerable effort to expunge the political legacy of 1932. “There is no ‘Thailand view’ of 1932,” he says, noting how there are instead multiple views. “Pridi was hated by the royalists, never forgiven for his forthright statements [to] the monarchy.” This year the usual low-key commemoration of its anniversary was banned by Thai police, while the plaque that marked the efforts of the People’s Party some 85 years ago was mysteriously removed in April.
For political scientist Prajak Kongkirati, a professor at the famed Thammasat University founded by Pridi in 1935, Thailand’s awkward embrace of the past is understandable. After all, as he wrote in an introduction to a collection of political essays, “retelling the past is ultimately a political act.”
- Peter Morris, OZY Author Contact Peter Morris