There is no better day to ponder the mystique of HM King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, than October 23, widely called in English “Chulalongkorn Day” but in Thai wan piya maha-raj (Day of the Beloved, the Great King). I would observe that a level of veneration has developed for King Chulalongkorn that has never been given to any past monarch in modern times in Thailand. It is that phenomenon that I will discuss in this essay.
What is the veneration?
In addition to the equestrian monument in the plaza in front of the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok where military rededication ceremonies and massed royal audiences are held, portraits and images of HM King Rama V are widespread. They include pictures hanging in countless homes, statues proliferating in front of government buildings, and shrines in places of business which are attended to in very much the same way as are shrines to divinities overseeing prosperity and economic success. His anniversary (following oriental custom, the date of his death), alone among past monarchs, is a national holiday. His legacy and legend are vivid in the mind of every Thai person. There is also a mystery about him that has to do with the perception that he is a connection to the gods and powers that enable this nation and the people in it to prosper.
What did King Chulalongkorn do that is so memorable?
His most remembered accomplishments include, as a school child might recite them: freeing slaves, building railroads, defending Siam from being colonized, and modernizing the country. [I discuss this more extensively in an essay entitled “Protestant Influence in Siam”]. It is the aspect of modernization, I believe, that is predominant in the rise of what scholars have sometimes called the “cult of King Chulalongkorn”.
During the reign of King Chulalongkorn from 1868 to 1910, Siam joined the community of nations and empires. To do this the King had to modernize both the economic and the political structures of Siam. His revolutionary changes included sweeping away the thick layers of protocol and privilege that isolated the King from the people. Rama V was out among his people, expressing his ideas in person and in print, and visible in photographs as well as on trips, doing everything from sitting shirtless cooking to modeling his own designs of modern court and military apparel. He coordinated a massive program of constructing public buildings, palaces and temples, as well as boulevards to get to them. He instituted land reform by giving every residence a deed to the land on which they lived and farmed as well as the right to buy and sell land. He expanded the irrigation system, opening up areas for cultivation that doubled the food production capacity of the country transforming subsistence agriculture into the most important source of foreign exchange (replacing forestation). He set up a civil service that evolved into the nation’s largest employer and elevator for upward mobility.
It does not seem a mystery to me why the rise of the “cult of King Chulalongkorn” should be concomitant with the rise of the Thai business sector to world class standards during the time when Thailand was one of the Asian “Tiger” economies with double digit GNP growth and 13% interest rates before 1997. There was a phenomenon about prosperity that could be traced back to Rama V. If my guess is accurate, a fall in those statistics would be reflected in a quieting down of the level of veneration. Has this happened? I think so, but it’s difficult to measure
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.