Seminar on “Monarchy, Nation-Building and Struggle in Thailand: Past, Present and Future?”

In this hybrid seminar, Speaker Dr Charnvit Kasetsiri (historian and former rector of Thammasat University in Bangkok) shared his recently published book “Thailand: A Struggle for the Nation” and presented on the history and challenges of nation-building in Thailand. He was joined by Discussants Dr Allen Hicken and Dr Matthew Reeder.


Monday, 12 December 2022 – Thailand’s monarchy has had a central role in “nation-building” in the post-1945 era. These accomplishments constituted the foundation for growing prosperity and an image of national development. King Bhumibol’s reign of 70 years (Rama IX’s reign: 1946 – 2016) played a significant role in mobilising the Thai military to cope with national security threats from communist insurgents during the Cold War. There are strong parallels between King Bhumibol’s reign and that of his grandfather King Chulalongkorn (Rama V’s reign: 1868 – 1910). These parallels extend to the aftermaths of the two kings’ reigns.

Left to right: Dr Matthew Reeder, Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap (moderator), Dr Charnvit Kasetsiri, and Dr Allen Hicken. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

One important lesson learned is that “barami” (influence based on achievements and love from the people) of a successful king does not and will not automatically go to his successor. This was the case of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI’s reign: 1910 – 1925) who inherited the throne from his father, King Chulalongkorn. Today, while Thailand no longer faces the spectre of communism, a new spectre of authoritarianism—along with urban-rural and class divisions, and challenges to Thailand’s benign image—defines many aspects of the country’s affairs.

To explore the role of the Thai monarchy in Thailand’s “nation-building”, the ISEAS Thailand Studies Programme convened a hybrid webinar by inviting Dr Charnvit Kasetsiri as a speaker, and Dr Allen Hicken and Dr Matthew Reeder as discussants. The event attracted the interest of 125 attendees combined both in-person and online.

The speaker started the discussion with his comparison between power and nerit (amnat vs barami) of King Chulalongkorn of Siam and King Bhumibol of Thailand, the two longest reigns in the history of modern Thailand. The speaker cited a quote from Prince Damrong, a grand historian recognised as the Father of Thai History, which stated that the Thai people have three important virtues that sustain Siam to its present-day: 1) love of national independence, 2) toleration , and 3) power of assimilation.

The speaker recounted his own personal experience growing up believing in Thailand’s uniqueness and was proud of Thailand being the only country in Southeast Asia which had not been colonised. Before World War II during the height of late 19th-century colonialism, Siam managed to remain independent. The speaker gave credit to the two enlightened monarchs King Mongkut (Rama IV’s reign: 1851-1868) and King Chulalongkorn who managed to play politics between the British and the French. The speaker however pointed out that the international context of rivalry among colonial powers was often overlooked, such as the ‘Declaration Between Great Britain and France with Regard to the Kingdom of Siam and Other Matters”. This agreement essentially set the Menam Basin (Siam) as a buffer state.

The speaker then moved on to explain King Chulalongkorn’s reign as an “absolute monarchy” for 42 years. King Chulalongkorn guided Siam into modernity, unifying and consolidating his version of absolutism. Siam managed to escape the Anglo-French colonial rivalry in the region while giving up its claims over parts of territories in Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Malaya. As a diplomatic effort, the King made two visits to “civilised” Europe and was well received by its global monarchs and presidents in 1897 and 1907. During his first tour of Europe in 1897, King Chulalongkorn called on Tsar Nicholas II in St Petersberg; and the two monarchs developed a warm friendship.

However, King Chulalongkorn’s rule ran into domestic issues in the latter years with the rise of three rebellions on the periphery of Siam. All rose up in 1902 and had to be quelled by Bangkok’s modernised army. King Chulalongkorn chose to follow the European style of royal succession through the right of the firstborn son to succeed. King Chulalongkorn had 153 queens, royal consorts, and concubines altogether. Altogether they begot 32 princes and 44 princesses. The first heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajirunhis died of typhoid fever at the age of 16. After King Chulalongkorn’s death, the throne went to one of his sons, Prince Vajiravudh. Yet, by the time of Rama VII who is another son of King Chulalongkorn, Siamese absolute monarchy came to an end in 1932 since Rama VI and VII did not produce any male heir. The speaker claimed that King Chulalongkorn’s immense barami (a Buddhist idea of revered soft power) of 42 years could hardly help his two successors.

The speaker then discussed the reign of King Bhumibol, Rama IX. During his reign, Thailand leaned towards the Japanese at the beginning of World War II but later joined the Allies to be with the winners. During the Vietnam War, Thailand provided air and naval base sites for U.S. war operations in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Cold War years. At the same time, King Bhumibol led national efforts to defeat the Thai Communist Party. Thailand enjoyed economic growth and development while the other regional peers were facing social and economic disruptions.

American military and economic aid, Japanese investment, and Sino-Thai entrepreneurship produced an economic boom for Thailand. Despite long spells of military rule, 20 new constitutions and many coup d’état, Thailand has continued to be on a path towards democracy. Kasian Tejapira, a political scientist at Thammasat University, coined the term “Bhumibol Consensus,” which explains a condition of royal hegemony where King Bhumibol became the heart and soul of the Thai nation. His wish was revered as a command.

King Bhumibol derived immense barami in a way that he was seen as the traditional spiritual Buddhist Dhammaraja (righteous king). Rama IX became a conciliatory force balancing above and between the military, students with democratic aspirations, and Bangkok’s middle class. Under Rama IX, Thailand even looked towards becoming another Asian “tiger” as part of the Asian miracle and a newly-industrialised country (NIC). But then the “tom yum koong” Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98 hit and disrupted the Thai economy.

The speaker argued that new social and economic forces from populations outside Bangkok launched Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party onto the political scene. The last decade of Bhumibol’s reign from 2006 to 2016 was plagued with a big political split among Thai populations, between the ‘Yellow Shirts’ (royalists) and the ‘Red Shirts’ (pro-Thaksin). The last two coups in 2006 against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and in 2014 against his younger sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra created more serious rifts and intensified social polarisation.

The speaker argued that a spectre of authoritarianism is haunting Thailand while Thailand is facing new and unprecedented domestic problems. Beyond Bangkok especially in the northern and north-eastern regions, rural discontent is growing alarmingly. Adding to the mix are the security problems in Thailand’s Deep South in Muslim-majority areas. There are also sporadic and ongoing student protests in Bangkok and up-country demanding the immediate resignation of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha as well as urgent reforms of the monarchy.

The young protesters have also been active in cyberspace. The younger Generation Z, who in the previous years seemed to be largely oblivious and unengaged in political matters, have become brave, active and fearless. For the students, electoral campaigns and proposals about reforms of the monarchy are seen as causes worth fighting for, to ensure the future of the nation. They have shown increasing discontent with the old establishment, previous attributes of barami, the monarchy and the military as well.

The speaker concluded the seminar with the following questions: “What is becoming of Thailand and where are Thai people going? Will Thailand manage to survive new crises? Will the barami of the old monarchy extend to be new barami for Thailand’s future?”

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)