Vajiravudh of Siam, absolute monarch of his country from 1910 to 1925 and sixth ruler of his dynasty, was a paradoxical combination of traditional autocrat and modern nationalist. He was indeed the founder of modern nationalism in his country. His espousal of nationalism as an instrument of national strength was as deliberate, as unrevolutionary as were the actions his predecessors had taken to ease Siam into the modern world.
xivThe policy of making adjustments to the Western presence and power by accepting Western “improvements” was deliberately begun by King Mongkut, Vajiravudh’s grandfather, in the 1850s. This policy was continued by King Chulalongkorn. Both these monarchs considered the policy of Westernization necessary for Siam’s survival; they believed that it was necessary to adopt Western techniques in order to preserve Siam’s political independence, its society, its essential culture. But neither king fully appreciated the underlying danger to Thai values in their policy; neither realized that the adoption of Western techniques would change the character of what they were trying to save. By 1910 many traditional Thai arts and crafts, for example, had disappeared. Little had been done by Mongkut or Chulalongkorn to stop this trend and, in the view of a long-time foreign resident in Siam, “it is doubtful indeed if they desired it”; one of the “dominating passions” of Chulalongkorn’s life was to “Europeanize his country … and the fact that some of his reforms were quite unsuited to the climate and habits of the people, never deterred him from introducing them.”1
Vajiravudh was much better able to understand the force of Western culture—partly because he came later in time, partly because he had had a thorough schooling in things Western, including nine years of study in England. Vajiravudh therefore perceived that unthinking acceptance of Western ways of doing things must endanger Thai ways of looking at things. Continuance of Thai values, heretofore taken for granted, must be actively pursued if Thailand were to remain Thai. Yet how was Thailand to become more Westernized and more Thai at the same time? For “Westernization” and “Thaiification” worked at cross-purposes: the more egalitarianism, the less hierarchy of respect; the more science and technology, the less abstraction from the material world.
Vajiravudh’s answer to the challenge of Westernization was to embark on a program of nationalism for his country, a method of fighting fire with fire that has won global acceptance. The inspiration for Vajiravudh’s nationalist program was, first and foremost, Great Britain, the Western nation that Vajiravudh knew best, at this time a nation caught up in imperialist enthusiasm. Other influences on the King were emergent Japan, whose defeat of Russia had made a strong impression on him, and the rising nationalist groups in China, which had had an influence on the Chinese in Thailand. Sources for nationalist inspiration were not hard to find in the years immediately before, during, and after World War I.
Nationalism, to be worthy of the name, requires more than an xveloquent spokesman. Unless the leader has a mass following, unless numbers of people are caught up in the “ism,” the nationalist proponent is merely a voice, and the ideology he espouses remains inert, lifeless. Machiavelli in the sixteenth century could call for the “valor of an Italian spirit,” could speak of Italy’s being “ready and willing to follow any banner” that would lead the battle for redemption from foreign occupation and bring unification. But he spoke as a visionary whose message, while undoubtedly attractive to Lorenzo Medici, his patron, had little effect on the Italian population at large. Machiavelli may have been a nationalist, but Italian nationalism was another 400 years in coming.
Was Vajiravudh a similar prenationalist voice, a propagandist but not a leader of a new loyalty? This is hard to judge. For he was the king, and his people perforce followed. The crucial question is whether those who followed did so out of obligation or out of conviction. Did Vajiravudh persuade the Thai people to love their nation above all else, or did he merely impose on them outward behavior that seemed to betoken nationalism?
However the question be answered—and some answer will be attempted—the position of Vajiravudh remains central. Whether he was the leader of an emergent nationalist land or an idealogue whose policies, later espoused by others, would produce a people aware of their uniqueness as a nation, Vajiravudh remains a key figure in the analysis of Thai nationalism. The history of Thai nationalism must start with Vajiravudh.
An overview of the nationalism of King Vajiravudh of Siam reveals many similarities with nationalistic expressions in other times and other places. The enlistment of tradition, of history, in the nationalistic cause is not new; nor is the empirical search for sources of national strength; nor is the effort to contrast the nation and national characteristics favorably with those of foreigners.
What is remarkable about Vajiravudh’s nationalism no doubt owes much to the peculiar historical circumstances of Siam in the early twentieth century. Siam had managed to maintain its political independence, as a formality at least, in a century of expanding colonialism. The upsurge of anticolonial nationalism in the rest of Southeast Asia therefore bypassed Siam. the Thai people had been lulled into a feeling of relative complacency. Yet the Western-trained Vajiravudh saw that nationalism had a utility beyond its role in the achievement of independence; it had a utility in state-building. And so this traditional monarch worked assiduously to promote nationalism among a somewhat reluctant people.
xviThe difficulty of rousing nationalistic fervor in a country whose people by and large were “too content with themselves” was enormous. The difficulty was in no way diminished by the fact that the task was undertaken by a national leader acting very much on his own. “Be loyal to your king” may have been a good nationalistic aim, but it undoubtedly raised some eyebrows because it was pronounced by the King himself.
The injunction of the King to avoid imitating foreign ways also rang a bit false. For there was no greater imitator of Western ways in the Thailand of his day than the King himself. In addition to a governmental program that was essentially one of Westernization, Vajiravudh’s nationalism and even many of its slogans (including the necessity for loyalty to nation, religion, and king—analogues to the British “God, King, and Country”) were Western imports. Vajiravudh’s strong stand against imitation meant, in the last analysis, only that the delicate choice of what should be introduced from the West was a choice that the King felt he alone was capable of making. Vajiravudh here was again the traditional monarch making the crucial decisions for his people.
The nationalistic program of Vajiravudh was, all in all, moderate, almost exclusively hortatory. Vajiravudh was no demagogue. His most xenophobic comments were directed against the Chinese, but even in these he did not descend into verbal mire. He launched no pogroms; in fact, no anti-Chinese legislation at all was issued during his reign.
The paradox of competing values in Thailand is nowhere clearer than in the picture of King Vajiravudh introducing the Western concept of nationalism to his people in the manner of a tolerant moral exemplar in the finest tradition of the benevolent autocracy of old Siam.
|Abbreviations Used in the Notes|
|CMHSP||Čhotmaihet su̓apa (Wild Tiger Records)|
|NA||National Archives, Documents of the Sixth Reign (NA 37/1 = National Archives, Documents of the Sixth Reign, File 37, Folder 1)|
|RKB||Ratchakitčhanubeksa (Royal Government Gazette)|
1. Malcolm Smith, A Physician at the Court of Siam (London: Country Life, 1947), p. 92. 274