The Thai people have an invaluable cultural heritage that their forefathers had diligently created and maintained for posterity to be proud of. This cultural heritage stands out as the unique identity of an ancient nation. Above all, it is the Thai monarchy that has bestowed great benevolence on the country, the heritage of pride and dignity that all Thais are aware of.
The characteristics of the Thai monarchy have undergone various changes during the passage of time. In the early stages, there were many independent Thai dominions and the Thais had to fight among rival groups and against outside enemies. Thus, Thai monarchs in those days were mostly warrior kings.
After a long period of fighting and migrating, the Thais finally settled down in the area which is now Thailand. Sukhothai, the first capital of the Thai Kingdom, was established. Though only a part of Sukhothai became extremely important historically and politically. Sukhothai was the centre of commerce and Buddhism. Befitting the literal meaning of its name, “The Dawn of Happiness,” the peaceful nature of the city was reflected in the image of its kings, especially King Ramkhamhaeng the Great who ruled his subjects like a father does his children. The King had a bell hung up in front of the palace for anyone in plight to ring and their case would be heard and dealt with fairly by the King himself. King Ramkhamhaeng also established friendly relations with China and other neighbouring kingdoms, thereby ensuring the country’s stability. He was also credited with inventing the Thai alphabet in the year 12831. As for religion, he had invited Buddhist monks of the Lankawongs tenet from Nakhon Si Thammarat to stay at Sukhothai. Under his reign, Sukhothai flourished in almost every area.
In the Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767) King Naresuan the Great was the epitome of valour. As Crown Prince, Naresuan relieved the Ayutthaya Kingdom from the acute threat of hostile occupation posed by a foreign power, in 1574. Since then he had fought many battles, the most famous one being the single combat on elephant back against the Burmese Crown Prince, in which King Naresuan was victorious.
Another renowned king of the Ayutthaya Period was King Narai the Great who, at the beginning of his reign, put down rebellious members of the court. His wise handling of officials resulted in efficient management of state affairs. His diplomacy in establishing friendly relations with Western countries, especially France, raised the status of Siam in the eyes of Westerners. Two emissaries were sent to France. The first one was lost at sea but the second one was received with splendours by King Louis XIV since it was the first time an Eastern monarch had sent an ambassador to the French Court. The French king eventually sent 636 soldiers to serve in the Thai king’s service. Though a devout Buddhist, King Narai allowed Jesuit missionaries to preach their religion in Siam and Thai who wished to convert to Christianity were allowed to do so. The King even bestowed land on which the Jesuit priests could build a church and schools. Contact with Westerners brought modern knowledge and technology, especially in the areas of medicine, astronomy, architecture, and military training. In the compounds of King Narai’s Palace at Lop Buri, the second capital city, the king had a pipeline and fountains installed, and at Yen Villa an observatory was built from which the king could observe lunar and solar eclipses.
In the Thon Buri Period (1767-1782) King Tak Sin the Great was another warrior king who managed to put down rivalling factions and re-establish the kingdom, after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767.
In the Rattanakosin Period (since 1782 ), King Rama I, founder of the Royal House of Chakri, established Bangkok as the new capital city on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, opposite Thon Buri. After a series of warfare, the country was in peace and the King found time to turn to producing literary works. Subsequent Chakri monarchs had all contributed to the progress and happiness of the country. King Rama IV, better known in the West as King Mongkut, was a scholar. He was well-versed in various fields, especially astronomy, since he was able to predict a total solar eclipse accurately. He could speak and write English and once wrote a letter to US President James C. Buchanan offering some elephants to be used in warfare. The King assigned an Englishwoman, Mrs. Anna T. Leonowens, to teach English to the royal children, notably Prince Chulalongkorn, at the royal court.
Prince Chulalongkorn succeeded his father as King Chulalongkorn or Rama V. It was in his reign that Siam underwent extensive modernization. Ascending the throne at the tender age of 15, the king faced many problems, domestic and foreign, which he dealt with very efficiently. The king sent a number of his sons to be educated in Europe so that they would return to help develop the country. He was the first Thai king to make state visits to European heads of state. The King’s meeting with Czar Nicholas II of Russia was a splendid move of diplomacy since it kept England and France from colonizing Siam. King Chulalongkorn always saw to the welfare of his subjects, sometimes visiting them incognito to observe their circumstances. He was a superb writer and poet as well, but his greatest achievement was the abolition of slavery, a gradual and bloodless process that has earned him the appellation of “Phra Piya Maharat,” or the Great Beloved King.
His successor, King Rama VI, who received his education at Oxford University, held the rank of general, First Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, an honorary rank bestowed on him by King George V of Great Britain. He was an accomplished scholar who had produced prolific writings in various genres, in both Thai and English. Besides writing plays, he also acted in performances. A superb translator, his rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is part of Thailand’s school curriculum. The War of the Polish Succession, a historical novel written in English, attests to his mastery of the English language. The king had a model town called “Dusit Thani” constructed as a means to gradually prepare the Thai people for democracy. His decision to join the Entente Cordiale and declare war on Germany and Austria - Hungary in World War I was an ingenious move that helped maintain the sovereignty of Thailand. For the first time Thai soldiers marched proudly through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris alongside the other allied troops. A legacy left by King Rama VI is Chulalongkorn University, the oldest institution of higher learning in Thailand, built in commemoration of his royal father.
King Rama VII, also a son of King Chulalongkorn, was the last king of the absolute monarchy when the bloodless coup of 1932 changed the system of government to the constitutional monarchy. Actually, the king had already planned to relinquish his power to the Thai people. He bestowed the first Constitution on the country, and it is more than apt for him to be designated “The Father of Democracy.”
The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, has been revered for sacrificing everything for his people. Apart from being the longest reigning monarch in the world, His Majesty is perhaps one of the hardest working heads of state. All through the 60 years on the throne, his activities have covered not only affairs of state, but also activities in diverse fields. His numerous development projects, philosophy of Sufficiency Economy, and New Theory not only bear direct benefit on the Thai people but can also be applied worldwide. The Artificial Rain Project and the Chaipattana Aerator are examples of his initiative and invention that prove useful in agriculture and the conservation of the environment. All these contributions are encapsulated in His Majesty‘s name, “Bhumibol,” which means “Strength of the Land.”
The remark made by King Rama I that “Siam has a common father, the king, who possesses the Ten Kingly Virtues. He possesses morality, ability, bravery, and knowledge as his great assets, and never scorns any people of foreign origins or races that have come to be under his bounty, in all periods and eras, for they all are Siamese, who are equal, regardless of race, and take pride in their country” has proved to be true. Therefore, the Thai people should maintain this august institution, since the monarchy most succinctly constitutes the national identity.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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