publisher colophon


An Assessment

King Vajiravudh died on November 26, 1925, at the age of 44. He had had periodic bouts of illness during the reign and was sick through most of 1918; his final illness, which began in August 1925, centered on an infection of the intestinal system.

The last months, indeed the last years, of the King were filled with much sorrow and bitterness. Deaths of high-ranking members of the royal family occurred with alarming frequency in those last years. From 1919 to the end of the reign six half-brothers, three full brothers, the Queen Mother, Prince Vajiranana, and Prince Deva­wongse all died. The most frightening losses, from the political point of view, were those of the heirs to the throne. In 1910 Vajiravudh had declared that succession to the throne would pass presumptively through the line of Queen Saowapha’s sons: Princes Chakrabongs, Asadang, Chudadhuj, and Prajadhipok. Prince Chakrabongs died in 1920 at the age of 37; Prince Chudadhuj died in 1923 at the age of 25831; and Prince Asadang died in 1925 at the age of 33. Only one son of Queen Saowapha remained to carry on the line, Prince Prajadhipok, the youngest of King Chulalongkorn’s sons. Vajiravudh had, of course, hoped for a son of his own to carry on the succession. But his only child, born two days before the King’s own death, turned out to be a girl and therefore, by the King’s law on succession of 1924, not eligible to succeed.1 The King’s question when the baby brought to him and placed by his side was, “Is it a girl or a boy?” The answer was, “A girl.” The King paused for a moment, then said, “It’s just as well.”2

Contributing to the mood of depression that grew during the last years of the reign was the downturn taken by the economy. Poor rice harvests, budget deficits, and growing criticism of administrative policies could not help but affect Vajiravudh adversely.

Characteristic of the King were the plans he made to boost the economy and the national morale. In a new burst of enthusiasm early in 1925 he decided to hold special festivities commemorating the end of the fifteenth year of his reign—a reign that would then be equal in length to that of Rama II, Vajiravudh’s great literary predecessor. He planned to join these festivities with those for his birthday and the annual Winter Fair to create one great celebration. The celebra­tion’s chief feature would be a Siamese Kingdom Exhibition, patterned after England’s annual Wembley Exhibition, that would combine all the attractions of the Winter Fair—the booths, the lotteries, the games, the dancing—with an elaborate display of Siamese arts, agriculture, and industry. The principal aim of the exhibition would be to promote the economic development of the nation; its by-product would be a new permanent park for the people and an exhibition ground for future fairs. The exhibition had proceeded to within two months of its opening when Vajiravudh died. One of King Prajadhipok’s first acts was to cancel it.

Vajiravudh’s exhibition and Prajadhipok’s cancellation symbolize in microcosm the vast differences between the two kings and their reigns. The ethos of the Sixth Reign, and many of its accomplishments, were to stand embodied in the exhibition. It was to have, in addition to exhibit halls for agriculture and industries, a palace of art, sports stadia, theater halls, and displays illustrating the progress of the army, the navy, and the Wild Tigers. The Boy Scouts were to be featured in yet another display. Various sports events were planned, and football teams were invited from Rangoon, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Sai­gon, Hong Kong, Manila, and Batavia to compete in “the first great Asiatic Football Competition.” But what Vajiravudh undoubtedly 259hoped would happen at the Siamese Kingdom Exhibition was what a writer for the Bangkok Times described as happening at Britain’s Wembley during the final torchlight tattoo. The tattoo was staged in a great arena with flags, lights, bands, marching men, horses. It was “just a parade on a big scale,” and yet it was much more. For the performance had a magic, a thrill. And that thrill came from the audience “in the strung up excitement and admiration and emotion of thousands of people, all stirred by a common feeling.” That feeling was pride in nation, pride in unity, pride in fellowship. It was the proof, despite “all the terrible things happening or about to happen to our country,” that “England isn’t done.”3

Prajadhipok and his advisers saw the exhibition in a different light: it was expensive, and much of it was wasted show; at a time when the economy was in difficulty, retrenchment rather than lavish spending on fairs was the practical course to follow. The exhibition was cancelled in good conscience. Only a small pagoda clock-tower and a few small buildings remained as evidence of what had been planned. The Wild Tigers died quietly soon after. Arts shows ceased. The Boy Scouts failed to get financial support. Even the army and navy felt the financial pinch as the new government cut all expenses it could to keep a balanced budget in a time of worldwide depression.

The overriding question about the nationalistic program in Siam during the Sixth Reign remains: Did it work? Did it survive, if not in the form of the Wild Tiger Corps, in the impression it made on men’s minds?

“On the day that King Vajiravudh died,” said one former Boy Scout, “I put on my Scout insignia and stood for a long time in honor of the leader of our nation with a heart deep in sorrow … the whole Thai nation had lost its guiding national star.”4 Another writer, com­menting many years after the King’s death on the King’s patriotic songs, said that the songs remained moving and unforgettable.5 Such stories, such vivid memories of men of the times, demonstrate beyond doubt that the King’s messages affected some people. And in addition, the latter-day assessments of the reign by most Thai writers, even those not generally sympathetic, do credit the reign with success in its nationalist program. One severe critic of Vajiravudh, for example, allows that the “one political success of his was sowing the seeds of nationalism in the Thai people.”6 Favorable Thai surveys of the reign usually count the drive to stimulate nationalism as the foremost achievement of the reign.

The question of the effectiveness of the nationalist movement then does not deal with absolutes. It becomes a question of the degree 260of effectiveness. How many people were affected? How many people remained aloof or uninvolved? Such questions cannot be answered absolutely. No Gallup or Roper polls are available to give quantified answers. Answers, at best tentative, must remain impressionistic.

It seems unlikely that the population at large, the vast mass of Siam’s farmers, was deeply influenced by the King’s nationalistic messages. In those areas in which farmers were affected—in the drive for adoption of surnames, for example—the nationalistic meaning was probably not even understood. Yet the farmers were not com­pletely isolated from the new emphasis on patriotism. School boys and school girls even in the provinces learned the patriotic songs penned by Vajiravudh. The King’s birthday and other national holidays were celebrated in provincial capitals with parades, Wild Tiger and Boy Scout marches, and displays of the King’s photograph. The provincial holidays were on a smaller scale than those in Bangkok, but they were stirring nonetheless.

To a degree, also, the Wild Tiger movement and, even more so, the Boy Scout movement brought the patriotic ideas of the King to rural Siam. The number of men directly involved in the Wild Tigers was not large, and most members seem to have come from the ranks of government officials. The Boy Scouts were less elitist, although the expense of buying a uniform undoubtedly kept many boys from joining. In any one year, it seems, there were never more than 22,000 Scouts. Perhaps a total of 40,000 to 50,000 Scouts received training during the reign. But each Scout was given considerable exposure to nationalistic slogans and ideals, and it is hard to believe that a Scout would remain unaffected by appeals to his patriotic sentiments. Further, his parents, who had to be willing to buy his uniform, and another member or two of the family would be likely also to be aroused. Putting all these probables together, for Boy Scouts alone, would give a total of perhaps 200,000 people who to some degree saw the nation in a new and favorable light.

Although it is impossible to approach an estimate of nationalism through figures, another figure, that of the number of people who subscribed to the Navy League in the great patriotic drive to purchase the warship Phra Ruang, may reveal something. In the five-year campaign some 130,000 people made contributions. Certainly not all contributed for purely nationalistic reasons, yet some undoubtedly did.

Still a third audience for nationalistic messages that can be numbered is the armed forces. Obviously, not all army, navy, and gendarmerie conscripts were equally susceptible. But all were sub­jected 261more than most citizens to patriotic slogans, songs, and words. On the basis of an approximate military establishment of 10,000 men made up mostly of two-year enlisted men, there must have been, during the fifteen-year reign, roughly 75,000 men who received military training, a military training that included a strong element of nationalist indoctrination.

It is tempting to play with numbers further and add up the figures for the various audiences—the Wild Tigers, the Boy Scouts, the contributors to the many campaigns, the viewers of the national­istic pageants and plays—to obtain a final audience figure. But such an exercise would be meaningless, for the audience overlap would be very large; how large there is no telling.

In general, however, the nature of the appeals the King made shows that his primary audience was the educated element in the population—the elite, the leaders. Most of the Wild Tigers were, after all, civil servants. The heavy stress on writings is also evidence of reliance on the educated, for, as simple as Vajiravudh’s writings were, they could be read only by the minority of the population that was literate. And, even if no reading barrier had existed, many of the King’s finest nationalist expressions—for example, the play Phra ruang or the essay “Clogs on Our Wheels”—were not likely to be comprehended by farmers. Not even the King’s plays reached a mass audience, for they required actors experienced in “spoken plays” and they required theaters, neither of which were available except in Bangkok and some of the largest towns.

King Vajiravudh realized, of course, that he could reach only a small percentage of his people with his vital messages. He saw this as no insuperable problem if his select audience helped him spread his ideas. If the Wild Tigers informed others, if government servants, including teachers, passed on the word, then the idea of nation would spread. He enunciated this idea clearly to one Wild Tiger audience. “If all of us here, though we are only few in number, were to be of one mind and speak with one voice, that voice would strike the ears of others, one person after another, and soon would be heard through­out Siam.”7

There was a certain logic in the King’s view of how ideas could spread in Siam. But there were also problems. The King’s ideas of patriotism were given to groups that were undoubtedly already more nation-conscious than most Thai. These groups needed nationalistic reminders less than most Thai. And as disseminators these groups had both natural advantages and natural shortcomings.

The advantages lay in their influence. Men such as Čhaophraya 262Yommarat and Prince Chakrabongs had large circles of influence in their ministries. Such men could and did help spread the King’s word. They gave speeches echoing the ringing nationalistic phrases of the King. Prince Abhakara composed songs for the Siamese navy fully as patriotic as those of the King. Other men also picked up the mes­sages. The Commander of the Fifth Army Division in Khorat, for example, in 1918 wrote and staged an operetta (lakhο̨n rο̨ng) involving a hero who served in the Siamese Expeditionary Force. In one scene the hero tells the weeping mother and wife of a friend about the friend’s death in battle and “suddenly amid thunder, flames of fire and smoke, the spirit of the departed shows itself and exhorts his dear ones not to grieve for his glorious death, but to bring up his little son to become a courageous and daring ‘Nak bin’ [aviator].” The boy rises to the occasion and “swears to his father’s spirit that he will worthily follow his father’s footsteps and combat the father­land’s enemies.” The play’s reviewer commended it for its “ardent patriotism.”8 Certainly in this regard the play was a worthy successor to His Majesty’s own products.

A disadvantage in using the elite classes as purveyors of the King’s ideas was that the links between the elite and the masses were usually not intimate. The social gulf between even lowly government officials and rice farmers was considerable. Officials were respected. They were obeyed. But they were not always understood. And a sentiment such as nationalism is not easily communicated under such circumstances.

Another possible disadvantage in relying on the Siamese elite to transmit nationalism was that many of its members were not sym­pathetic to Vajiravudh on personal and political grounds.

That a gulf existed between the King and many members of the royal family and other educated Siamese cannot be gainsaid. A detailed examination of the dimensions of the gulf and its causes would be relevant, of course, to an overall evaluation of the reign, but such an evaluation is beyond the scope of a study of nationalism; the gulf is relevant here only to the extent that it may have interfered with the King’s nationalistic program. A catalog of some elements of the gulf, however, will substantiate its existence.

The lack of rapport, of intimate contact, between King Vajiravudh and the other members of the royal family is well documented. King Chulalongkorn had been in the habit of meeting regularly with his Council of Ministers, most of whom were members of the royal family. In addition, ministers and other royal councillors would dine with the King and meet him informally. They would even attend the King 263when he was residing outside of the capital. Vajiravudh did not follow this pattern. Although he continued to assign important positions in government to his relatives, he met these relatives much less often than his father had done. Meetings of the Council of Ministers were held irregularly and with less and less frequency during the reign. The King and Prince Chakrabongs, for example, “hardly ever had a quiet chat together, let alone a quiet meal” during the entire period of the reign.9 To cite but one example of the differences between Chulalongkorn and Vajiravudh in their contacts with relatives: Prince Paribatra, who had been in the habit of seeing Chulalongkorn every evening no matter where the King was residing, went to attend Vajiravudh during the King’s first visit to Bang Pa-in in 1911. Paribatra waited for an audience. He waited several days. He was not called. The Prince drew the obvious conclusion and thereafter ceased to expect the call that would not come.10

It is much more difficult to establish the reasons for the rift than to demonstrate its existence. On the King’s side, many reasons are cited by one source or another. Vajiravudh, according to some, wished to do things his own way, without interference from his relatives. The King was anxious not to fall under the sway—or have the government remain under the sway—of strong elder princes such as his uncle, Prince Damrong. Old Thai custom did not allow a King to remove officials, not even cabinet ministers, from office without extremely good cause. King Chulalongkorn had had his problems because of this custom. And so did his son, who had to proceed circuitously to achieve his objectives. Prince Damrong, who as Minister of the Interior had been the most powerful, minister during the Fifth Reign, found his ministry reduced by Vajiravudh. In 1915 Damrong resigned for “reasons of health.” Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of the Interior, under the stewardship of one of the King’s most trusted counsellors, Čhaophraya Yommarat, found its powers enhanced again.

Another frequently cited reason for the rift between the King and his relatives was Vajiravudh’s shyness. Foreigners as well as Thai remark on this personality characteristic. The rarity of the King’s visits to his mother, for example, has been attributed in part to his uncomfortableness in her female-dominated household; he reportedly “never seemed at home” in surroundings in which he was “in the midst of women.”11 His disinclination to call meetings of the Council of Ministers early in the reign has been attributed to his shyness in presiding over a group of men whose years and experience elicited the King’s deep respect.12 This reputed shyness of the King, however, 264may have been primarily a reflection of his unwillingness to expose himself to criticism.

There are several indications that Vajiravudh was less tolerant of hearing opinions that did not agree with his own than his father had been. The King was aware that on occasion his policies were not popular; he was also aware that many people did not approve of his lifestyle. Just as Vajiravudh wished to rule according to his own lights, he wished to live according to his own lights. On social occasions he preferred the company of his courtiers in the royal household to the company of members of the royal family. He enjoyed having dinner with Čhaophraya Ram or Phraya Anirut or Phraya Sucharit or other long-time friends from his years as prince at Saranrom Palace, and so he dined with them. If important business in a ministry arose, the King would meet the minister informally in settings of his own choosing.

One astute commentator on the probable source of the King’s distance from his relatives observed that it was a natural result of the King’s long separation from his family during his years of schooling in England. The young sons of Chulalongkorn “were scattered over the Continent” and could meet one another “only on rare occasions.” Thus “those impressionable and formative years for family contact were lost … and never regained.”13

On the side of the King’s relatives, the reasons given for the rift are also many. They include criticisms of the King’s displays of favoritism, his reluctance to marry, his suspicions of his relatives, his excessive generosity to his courtiers. Aspects of Vajiravudh’s administrative policies were also called into question, particularly his stress on militarism and his nationalistic drives that seemed to crowd out attention to practical problems. Whatever the merits of these criticisms, they do not account for the rift. For the rift did not exist because the princes refused to see the King or resented the King. The princes simply were not called upon. Whether the specific criti­cisms of and uncomplimentary gossip about the King were true or not, it was the King who called the tune, not the princes. Vajiravudh did not work as closely with his brothers and uncles as they would have liked. That was the principal reason for the resentment they felt.

In the end, however, the distance between the King and his relatives bears on the history of nationalism only if this group, out of resentment, refused to cooperate, or cooperated half-heartedly, with the King in forwarding the nationalist cause. It would be very difficult to prove that royal bickering had this effect. It may be 265assumed that some princes, resentful of their low status in the Wild Tiger movement, were less than enthusiastic about the Wild Tiger cause. Yet none dared refuse roles assigned them in the movement by the King: Prince Damrong did research for Wild Tiger pageants, and Prince Paribatra wrote music for them. Prince Abhakara, accord­ing to rumor, was one of the princes the King suspected of plotting his downfall. But that rumor seems not to have interfered with the Prince’s continuing an outstanding career in the navy and, not incidentally, contributing his bit toward nationalism by writing a number of patriotic navy songs. By and large it seems clear that all the princes of Vajiravudh’s generation shared his nationalistic inclina­tions. They may have resented the King’s approach, his aloofness from them personally, but their ideas of Siam’s needs were not dissimilar from the King’s own. And, in any case, they would not have dared to oppose him directly.

There may have been some individuals who held back, who did not throw themselves enthusiastically behind the nationalistic pro­gram because of their general feeling of estrangement and resentment of the King. It is difficult, however, to see this kind of a reaction as a serious obstacle to nationalistic growth in Siam during the Sixth Reign. It has been speculated that Prince Damrong’s opposition to the Navy League drive to purchase the Phra Ruang was the direct cause of his subsequent resignation. Yet the drive continued to a successful conclusion without the Prince’s support. The resentment of some princes may have been more of a factor in the reign of King Prajadhipok when the princes came back to favor and proceeded, in a mood of pique and practicality, to dismantle sections of Vajira­vudh’s nationalistic edifice.

The evaluation of King Vajiravudh’s nationalism cannot stop with consideration of possible personal dissatisfaction from princely quarters. There was dissatisfaction from other quarters for other reasons. The abortive coup of 1912 was the clearest demonstration of dissatisfaction. The young military men who were the members of the coup group had personal grievances against the King; they also took exception to his policies, particularly those they felt to be injurious to the best interests of the army. Insofar as they concep­tualized their ideals in their plans, they reflected the growing spirit of democratic thought that had shown its strength in Turkey and China. But in the area of ideology, there is little question that their main emotion was nationalism. They were ardent patriots who shared 266they used showed royal inspiration. Thus the coup group of 1912 provided in a sense an indirect tribute to the effectiveness of the King’s nationalistic propaganda.

Dissatisfaction with the reign was also reflected in the press of the time, and press criticism showed the growth of an intellectual rift between the King and some of the educated elements in the society. Criticism of specific policies was aired in the press from time to time throughout the reign, but a general critical mood became apparent in the last years of the reign. Several series of very frank, although carefully worded, articles began appearing in the Bangkok Times in late 1919 and continued through 1925. The articles were written by various contributors under the pen names Junius, Hermit, Fiat Lux, Perspectiva, and Simplicitas.

In these articles, which were written in a period of growing economic difficulties and postwar pessimism and fear, Siam’s policies were examined from a broad perspective—and generally found wanting. The first article by Junius, for example, stressed the theme that, now that “Siam has taken her place in the family circle of the nations,” Siam must live up to the responsibilities of that position. Siam must develop its resources to prevent the growth of a “spirit of unrest” internally and to answer the threat of the irresistible force outside that demanded “higher development.” To develop its potential Siam needed honest and able administrators and not “her common run” of men better known for “paltry cleverness” than “straight­forward work.” Siam needed also to throw open its gates to foreign business and to Chinese labor. Siam must invest in its own develop­ment, and to do this must “cease to dissipate her resources on armaments.” Waste of all sorts must end, particularly “private profit arising out of government acts, nepotism and the power of personal influence.” The article concluded: “Siam needs a strong leader. She has him, if he will trust himself and the right helpers.”14

Subsequent criticisms by Junius and others attacked government policies in four main areas: economy, administration, defense, and the political system. The principal governmental shortcoming in the economic sphere, according to the critics, was its lack of attention to the development of Siam’s main resources. Above all, the govern­ment was faulted for doing little to improve the Thai rice industry; the Thai rice farmer, said Perspectiva, is “getting poorer and poorer every year … if we cannot tackle this question of the rice industry and put it on an efficient basis then there is no hope for us.” Govern­ment efforts at economic development were regarded as misdirected; 267for example, said Perspectiva: “The cities of Siam are all trying to subscribe to aeroplanes and making flying grounds, while fundamen­tals like drains, water supplies, hospitals and streets are forgotten.”15

In the administrative sphere innumerable shortcomings were identified. The bureaucracy was termed too big, unwieldy, ineffi­cient, graft-ridden, self-serving. It needed drastic pruning; it needed “a cold, common-sense, business-like programme, and the will to carry it through.”16 And the government “broadcasting of honours” in the awarding of titles and decorations, said Hermit, defeated the object of encouraging talent, merit, and character.17

The principal waste of government funds pointed out by the critics was that in the area of national defense. One critic suggested that the armed forces be cut by half. The mood in general was that Siam no longer was in peril from abroad and, in any case, its armed forces, despite the large proportion of the budget spent on them, could not really face a serious threat if one should pose itself. The Wild Tigers were too close to the King to be directly opposed, but Hermit, who praised the organization, did dare to air doubts about its funding and the soundness of its organization.18

In the sphere of Siam’s political system several writers alluded to the stifling of public opinion and to popular unrest. Hermit wrote openly in favor of democratic reform.19 He did admit that Siam was not ready for full democracy, but he suggested that the institution of advisory councils of citizens who would consult with government administrators would be a large step in the right direction. He recom­mended that such councils be formed at all levels, from the provinces up to the cabinet level. A cabinet council would be advisory to the cabinet ministers, who, in Hermit’s view, should be presided over by a prime minister.

All of these suggestions for reform in a country that remained an absolute monarchy had to be understood as implying a criticism of the King. Some indeed came very close to lèse majesté: a sly refer­ence to the waste of money on “fine uniforms,” which was a veiled criticism of the Wild Tiger organization; a delicate mentioning of excessive expenditure “in a certain quarter,” which probably meant the privy purse; and an even more veiled reference to “evil influ­ences” on the King. Probably even more repugnant to the King than such daring remarks were overall conclusions that Siam was in peril and Siam’s leaders were not doing enough about it. Assessments such as Junius’ “Siam has no national ideal, no cohesion of soul, no in­heritance of common interests” and Perspectiva’s “we really do not 268have the slightest idea of where we are going” could not help but disturb Vajiravudh deeply.20

The purpose of the articles in the Bangkok Times, however, was not sensationalism, not a desire to inflame either the King or country. The articles, it is clear, were written by honest men, by well-informed men, by representatives of Siam’s intellectual elite who seriously disagreed with some things the government was doing and were seriously disturbed about many things the government was not doing. These men comprised a kind of “loyal opposition” of monarchical times.

What was the effect of these men on Thai nationalism? Did they tend to undermine the King’s program? It is doubtful if they did. For one thing, they were but a small group, and their influence could not have been large. Their articles were scholarly and not popular, and they wrote in English, a safer language for criticism21 and, quite possibly, a language that would reach a larger number of like-minded people than the Thai language could. Far from trying to undermine Thai nationalism, these critics were themselves nationalists. It was because the critics loved Siam that they dared to express views that were dangerous but that they believed needed to be expressed if Siam was to progress.

The objectives, and even many of the specifics, of the national program outlined by the critics were very close to those of the King’s program. Both the critics and the King wanted a strong, prosperous, and united Siam. Both criticized the inefficiencies in government, the self-centeredness of many government officials, the Thai preference for “clerkism.” Both believed Thai should be more active in commerce and trade. Both believed in furthering education, particularly prac­tical education. The critics, of course, could point to failures, such as the disastrous government effort to build a Siamese merchant marine. But that effort, misguided though it may have been, was a sincere attempt to launch Siam into the postwar commercial world, which was one of the aims of the critics.

The intellectual opposition to King Vajiravudh may even con­stitute evidence of the effectiveness of his reign-long drive to stimulate nationalism. Although the critics undoubtedly received their nation­alistic transfusion from many sources, it is at least possible to wonder if the King’s blood had not indeed added to the richness of their national ardor. Some of the critics’ phrases on occasion are very reminiscent of the King’s. All write as patriots and argue policy changes in the interest of increasing national strength and enhancing nationalism. Inculcation of love of nation in the schools and in the 269military is urged. The Boy Scout movement is praised for instilling “in the youth of our country patriotism, honesty, and humanism.”22 It cannot be proved that Vajiravudh’s loyal opposition learned any of their nationalism from him, but, wherever they got it, it was there. Love of nation was one point on which the King, the princes, and the critics were in complete harmony.

One important touchstone of the degree of success of Vajiravudh’s nationalistic efforts is the question “What elements survived his time?” The obvious survivals—his flag design, the institution of surnames—are dubious evidences of nationalism. Other survivals, such as compulsory education, Chulalongkorn University, and Vaji­ravudh College, were logical developments of policies begun before the Sixth Reign and have meanings broader than nationalism. Some institutions, such as the Boy Scout movement and the arts and crafts shows, went into a decline or ceased altogether at the end of the reign, but were later revived. More important than any of these, however, are the literary survivals. The patriotic plays Huačhai nakrop and Phra ruang have been performed often in Thailand since Vajiravudh’s time. And, on occasion, they are still performed. Some of the King’s plays, including Phongphang and Chuai amnat!, have been featured on Thai television in recent years. Vajiravudh’s essays, his proverbs, his poems have gone through countless editions. His song Sayam manutsati is one of Siam’s best-known patriotic songs today. His first volume of lectures to the Wild Tigers was used as a school text for many years; by 1958 it was in its seventh printing. And Phra ruang, also used as a school text, had reached its eighteenth printing of 40,000 copies by 1959. Countless other writings of the King have been reissued as commemorative volumes at cremations and in com­mercial editions.

Indeed, the nationalistic message of King Vajiravudh has un­doubtedly reached many more people since his death than it ever did in his lifetime. The King’s writings and his patriotic spirit inspired Thai of later generations. His contributions in the area of nationalism were drawn upon by many later nationalists.

The clearest illustration of the use of Vajiravudh’s ideas as a nationalist model is provided by the regime of Premier P. Pibulsong­gram. Pibulsonggram, one of the military promoters of the coup d’état of 1932 that ended the absolute monarchy in Siam, rose to the premiership at the end of 1938. Pibulsonggram’s power base was the army, and his program was militaristic and nationalistic. It would be a distortion of truth to attribute all of Pibulsonggram’s nationalistic notions to his royal predecessor, for the nationalism of the premiership 270of World War II years could and did draw heavily on other sources, particularly the ultranationalism of the rising dictatorial regimes in Italy, Germany, and Japan. But some of Pibulsonggram’s notions seem clearly to go back to Vajiravudh.

The main elements of Pibulsonggram’s nationalist program were militarism, economic nationalism, chauvinism (particularly directed against the Chinese minority in Siam), and cultural nationalism. The militarism of the regime undoubtedly derived in part from the military background of the premier himself. It seems also to have borrowed heavily from Japanese warrior codes. But some of the phraseology—“The Thai love nation above life”; the Thai are “eminent warriors”23 —is strongly reminiscent of Vajiravudh’s. The economic nationalism of the Pibulsonggram years also seems to hearken back to the exhor­tations of the Sixth Reign to the Thai people to work hard, to buy Thai products, to take increased interest in occupations in industry and trade. In the expressions of anti-Chinese sentiments, parallels are again easily noted, even to the point that a close associate of Pibul­songgram in a public lecture compared the Chinese in Siam to the Jews in Germany. The cultural nationalism of the Pibulsonggram regime seems in many ways but an extension of the cultural nationalism of the Sixth Reign, with heavy attention paid to language purity, his­torical glory, and Buddhist piety. And, in addition to this emphasis on traditional Thai values, Pibulsonggram, like Vajiravudh before him, felt the need to modernize the culture, obviate possible outside criticism, by introducing Westernizing reforms such as Western dress and Western social manners. Some cultural reforms in both regimes defy the East-West label: Vajiravudh’s new system of writing that found precedent in Siam’s past as well as in Western styles is akin in this regard to Pibulsonggram’s promotion of social dancing through the medium of an old Thai peasant dance, the ramwong. There are aspects of Pibulsonggram’s nationalistic program that could have been inspired by either Vajiravudh or the fascist states. The mili­taristic youth movement, the yuwachon, that Pibulsonggram created in 1935, for example, certainly partook of the flavor of the Italian ballilla and the German Hitlerjugend; it undoubtedly owed something as well to Vajiravudh’s Boy Scout movement.

But although there are similarities in their methods and motives, Pibulsonggram far outstripped Vajiravudh in the intensity of his pro­gram. Vajiravudh by and large relied on voluntarism, exhortation, and propaganda; Pibulsonggram frequently resorted to force, underlining his convictions by fines, threats, and, on occasion, assassinations. Vajiravudh made some anti-Chinese remarks; Pibulsonggram enacted severe anti-Chinese legislation. Vajiravudh initiated promilitary mea­sures; Pibulsonggram embarked on a program of military opportunism and aggression against Siam’s French Indochinese neighbor. The nationalism of King Vajiravudh can be seen in the nationalism of Premier Pibulsonggram as through a lens that magnified and distorted.271

King Vajiravudh Memorial (Statue at entrance to Lumphini Park).

272Despite their differences, Pibulsonggram felt the tie between himself and his royal predecessor. He expressed it in word and deed. In January 1940 the government made a decision to honor the Sixth Chakkri monarch by building him a tribute in the form of a statue to stand at the entrance to Lumphini Park. At the opening of the campaign to solicit funds for the statue, Premier Pibulsonggram gave high praise to Vajiravudh; he asserted “there does not to-day exist an individual comparable with such a Monarch.” The premier recited the various accomplishments of the King and concluded with the statement:

The most important and highly beneficial kindness handed down to the Thai country and nation, however, lies in the fact that King Vajira­vudh was responsible in rousing the Thai nation as a whole from its lethargy to realize the importance of carrying out patriotic and other good acts for the betterment and glory of the nation.24

The days of wartime supernationalism have long been gone in Siam. The process of nation-building goes on in quieter ways, in ways that seem more congenial to the spirit of Siam’s “great literary monarch.”25

Although all the connecting lines between Vajiravudh’s nation­alism and modern Thai nationalism cannot be precisely charted, the lines are there; they are perceivable, and they are perceived. In a reflective, and perhaps harried, mood, Vajiravudh once made a pre­diction that was also a wish, a wish that now is in large part fulfilled: “When I die, it will be many years before those who come after me will realize what good I have done for the country.”26


1. NA 6/260, “Draft Law on Succession,” November 10, 1924.

2. Čhaophraya Ram’s account, given in Sena su̓ksa, October 1930, as quoted by Prayut Sitthiphan, Phramaha thiraratčhao (Bangkok: Sayam, 1972), p. 5.

3. BT, November 7, 1925.

4. S[awai], foreword.

5. Amorn, Su̓apa lae luksu̓a nai prawattisat, vol. 2: 16.

6. Phra Sarasas, My Country Thailand (Bangkok: Golden Service, 1960), p. 143.

7. Phrabο̨romrachowat su̓apa, p. 13.

8. BT, September 10, 1918.

9. Chula Chakrabongse, Lords of Life, p. 273.

10. Prasongsom Bο̨riphat, pp. 15–18.

11. Smith, pp. 112–113. Smith’s views are at once revealing and untrust­worthy. Smith was physician to Queen Saowapha. His reports, then, reflect views of the King prevalent in the Queen Mother’s entourage. They are not objective and are not necessarily true or reflective of views in other quarters.

12. Samnao phraratchahatlekha, p. (115).

13. Smith, p. 114.

14. BT, September 24, 1919.

15. Ibid., April 4, 1925.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., February 23, 1924.

18. Ibid., May 24, 1924.

19. Ibid., May 31, 1923; February 23, 1924; February 6 and 28, 1925. 323

20. BT, December 31, 1919; March 8 and October 22, 1924; April 4, 1925.

21. See Hermit’s hint on why writers “are compelled to write in English,” in BT, September 4, 1925.

22. Hermit in BT, May 24, 1924.

23. Wan Waithayakon, “Thai Culture‚” Journal of the Thailand Research Society 35 (September 1944): 142–143.

24. BT, January 11, 1940; S[awai], pp. 827–828.

25. A translation of Mahathiraratčhao, an epithet for the King that is often used today.

26. A remark to Phraya Anirut, as quoted in the preface to Sangwan Phatthanothai, Pathakatha ru̓ang phraratchaniphon khο̨ng ratchakan thi 6 (Bangkok: Phanit Suphaphon, 1941), p. i. 324

Previous Chapter

9: The Media

Next Chapter


Additional Information

MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.