His Majesty King Chulalongkorn
Every night at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok, Thai people of all walks of life gather in groups large and small to offer their respects at the equestrian statue of Thailand’s beloved and honored king, King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) of the Chakri Dynasty. The mood is solemn as people tend to makeshift altars laden with votive offerings of flowers, candles and incense.
His Royal Highness Phra Chula Chomklao Chaoyuhua was born on September 20th, 1853 in Bangkok Thailand. He was the eldest of the nine surviving sons of King Mongkut, King Rama IV, and ascended the Throne on October 1, 1868 following the death of his father. Her Majesty Queen Sri Bajarindra was the King’s Regent and Principal Queen. He had 92 Phra-mahese or concubines. Of the 77 children of HM King Chulalongkorn, 33 were sons and 44 were daughters. Of the 33 sons, only 15 produced male heirs, continuing their lines to the present.
When he succeeded to the throne of Siam, he was a mere boy of 15, and in poor health. Even though Siam was popularly believed to be an absolute monarchy, the power he inherited was limited. Real authority was in the hands of a small oligarchy of noble families. Their control of the nation's purse, forced labor of the peasantry, provincial administration and legal system and the line of succession imposed enormous constraints on the young monarch. In fact, it was a sign of the oligarchies devices that they succeeded in placing on the throne such a young and sickly king who was not expected to live very long.
What lay in the young king’s favor was the invaluable training he had received from his father His Majesty King Monkut (Rama IV). He received an excellent education in both classical Thai and modern Western studies. He had also received valuable guidance at his father's side. In the initial period of his reign, King Chulalongkorn had to function under the guidance of the regent, Chao Phraya Sri Suriyawongse (the foremost nobleman) and other members of the regent's family who held powerful administrative positions. The King realized that the oligarchs, whose power and vested interests would inevitably be threatened, would greet the reforms he wanted to introduce with hostility.
And reform was a point of primary importance to this new king, not only to protect his insecure throne, but also of an external threat, that of European ambitions in the region which were becoming overt and aggressive in the late 19th century. The colonial expansions of Britain, France and other powers were in play. A way had to be found to resist European imperialism, both in political and commercial terms. The worldwide economic, social and political changes in the late nineteenth century contributed to Siam's decision to adapt herself in order to avoid being colonized. The King had to skillfully design his foreign policy to balance Thailand’s relationship with contending powers, fostering friendly relationships and avoiding confrontation. At home, King Chulalongkorn enacted a royal policy to strengthen and improve the Siam government so that the country could successfully resist the tide of colonialism.
King Chulalongkorn decided to engage constructively with the colonial powers. He did this by opening up the country to the West through skillful diplomacy, yielding concessions without giving up sovereignty. This was decisive as the King was buying time to consolidate his power through a modernization drive. He implemented changes in his own household by updating the style of dress, sponsoring Western education for his younger brothers and peers, filling the court with open-minded young men who shared his vision. He became educated in the systems of western governments, also sending the royal children to be educated in Europe. He was the first Thai monarch to widely travel abroad, making friends with the major world powers of America, Britain, Russia and France. He also studied various models of European colonial administration during visits to Dutch and British holdings in Java, Malaya, Burma and India in 1871 and 1872. He slowly and quietly laid the groundwork for the centralization of administration in Siam.
His Royal Highness is perhaps most popularly noted for his abolition of slavery in 1905, and lessening the subservient position of the common people such as the practice of prostration in public and at ceremonial events, which was discarded. But his reforms also included the expansion of mobility and communication with the construction of railways and the establishment of postal and telegraph services. Provincial administration was brought under centralized direction and augmented by specialized functional ministries. Fiscal administration was centralized and modern accounting, budgeting and auditing procedures were adopted. Modern law codes and other judicial reforms were decreed, which went a long way toward pacifying the European power’s discontent with the legal system. He created a ministerial system in 1892, established a variety of public institutions, particularly in the fields of health and education. Roads, bridges, railways, telegraph lines, irrigation canals and water gates were constructed. Mining projects were launched. Mapping was introduced. The military forces were upgraded through conscription and the founding of a military academy.
One of the major reforms, which would later prove to be deep-rooted and highly effective was to improve the Siamese educational system so as to produce capable personnel to work in both the public and private sectors. In 1871 a school was founded at the Royal Pages Barrack within the Grand Palace compound. Disciplines taught at this school at first consisted of Thai and English languages, mathematics and official protocol. Textbooks were used, curricula established and pupils were given examinations. The pupils consisted of sons of the members of the royal family and government officials. When these pupils finished from the school they would serve in the palace or in other government jobs. In 1882, King Chulalongkorn developed this school and gave it the name of Suankularb “Rose Garden”. The school at the Royal Pages Barrack was Siam's first attempt at modern education. The King also established other schools, namely: the Army Cadet School, the Cartographic School, the School for Princes, and the School for Dhamma Studies.
But these schools were not where educational reforms ended. The King resolved to found schools for the children of ordinary citizens, ordering the Wat Mahan Napharam School to be established in 1884. The royal idea of setting up a modern school in a temple showed the King's insight in maximizing already existing resources, Buddhist temples had always been the font of learning in Siam and the idea greatly facilitated setting up modern schools. Wat Mahan became the first "temple school" in the country and became the model for numerous other such schools. Primary and secondary education in Siam was thus given a strong foundation and has progressed steadily until today.
The insight, direction and impact of King Chulalongkorn's reforms were startling. He restored the monarchy as an absolute power and ushered in a new order. He sought power as a means to effect progressive change and advancement for Siamese society. It was due to the reforms of King Chulalongkorn that Siam's independence and sovereignty was preserved. Through his leadership and vision Thailand stands in contrast to other Asian countries. King Chulalongkorn was indeed a symbol of an enlightened age in Siamese history.
On October 23 1910, Somdej Phra Piyamaharaj, one of Thailand’s most beloved and honored kings, died. The 42 year reign of King Rama V was marked with change as Thailand moved into a modern age. King Rama V was considered such a great benefactor to Thailand that Thai people donated their own money to erect the King Rama V equestrian statue at the Royal Plaza to honor and commemorate the advancements he made for his country and people. Thai people believe that the King has the miraculous power of bringing good luck and prosperity to any person who pays respects to him. For this reason the King’s picture is found in almost every house and business.