Saturday, January 10, 2015

King Chulalongkorn (Part 3): Reform and Rebellions

The pace of reform and modernization in the Kingdom of Siam brought dangers to King Chulalongkorn. This was proven when the Front Palace Incident erupted. Nevertheless, the King continued his reform with the support of his brothers. Medical and educational reforms made. But Chula wanted the reform program to cover public administration as well. Once again, he relied to his brothers to enforce many of his edicts.

King Chulalongkorn wanted to establish a centralized government. With the help of his brother, Prince Damrong, Chula worked to realize this goal. In 1874, King Chula established the Privy Council, which would serve as his advisory body. Second to that, in 1892, Chula went further to create a ministerial cabinet, composed of twelve ministries. Each ministries were given a task. And some of these positions were occupied by the King’s capable brothers, like Prince Damrong. The Ministerial cabinet and King embodied the central government of the Kingdom of Siam. Meanwhile, he also began to think of reforming the local administration of the kingdom.

During the time of King Chulalongkorn, the Kingdom of Siam did not have a complete centralized government across the Kingdom. Although the Kingdom of Siam centered on Bangkok, with the Chakri Dynasty ruling, much of the local administration laid in the hands of autonomous local entities known as the Muengs. The mueng system operated as far as the time of the Sukhothai Kingdom. However, under the situation of great pressure of imperialism, the Chulalongkorn must exert his authority in order to keep the Kingdom intact.

In 1897 he began to reform this old system. King Chula replaced the muengs with the monthon or circles. Each of the monthon were placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior headed by Prince Damrong. Every Monthon were divided into several changwat or provinces. Then, each changwat was then divided into several amphoe or districts. And each amphoe was then divided into tambon or villages. Every monthon, changwat, amphoe, and tambon were given a head. The heads of the local government units were given regular salaries to avoid the extortion of the people.

Other than organizing the local government, one more thing that dealt the heads of the muengs a blow was the loss of their judicial power. During the creation of the ministerial cabinet in 1892, among the new ministries founded was the Ministry of Justice. It was given to Prince Rajeburidirekit and advised by a Belgian lawyer named Gustave Rolin-Jaequemyns. The new ministry was then tasked to organized and take control of all courts within the Kingdom. Also, new courts were established that were assigned to handle small disputes like debts. In addition, in 1897, a new special law school was established in order to produce new lawyers and judges for the courts. The implication of this reforms in the judicial systems struck the old muengs a blow. It was because the head of the muengs also practice the power of being a judge. But because of Chulalongkorn’s reforms, this power was taken away from them as well.

Chulalongkorn knew that his administrative reforms was not welcomed by all heads of the muengs. In fact, he was vigilant in enforcing it. He sent the Minister of Interior, Prince Damrong, and other Princes to go to the muengs with a contingent from the army to enforce the new political structure. By sending army units, he was aware that violence or armed uprisings might erupt with the enforcement of the reforms. Nevertheless, force was not always the resort of Chula and his brothers. In many muengs, the princes offered majestic titles and huge allowances to the heads of the muengs to cooperate in the dismantling of the old structure. Many accepted.

However, there were some instances that rebellions erupted to oppose the rise in the degree of control of King Chula. In 1889, the Phraya Prap rebellion erupted in Chiang Mai. The main reason was the increasing meddling of Siam to the affairs in the region brought by the centralization of Kingdom. Then, 1901 to 1902, a rebellion in Ubon under Thao Thammikarat rose up under the banner of opposition against the reforms. In the South, on the same time, the Sultan of Patani, Abdul Kadir Kamaruddin began a rebellion after his power was reduce drastically by Bangkok. And in 1902, a rebellion in the Shan region raged. Once again, the reforms was the reason. Nevertheless, Chula remained steadfast for his decision.

The rebellion became an opportunity for Chula to display his modernization of the Thai Army. Even during the reign of his father, King Mongkut, the Thai Army received a share of modernization. But it intensified during the reign of Chula. After he took direct rule in the 1870’s, he slowly begun to modernize the military, beginning first with the capital guards, known as the Thahan Na. They were retrained by hired foreign military advisers. They were equipped with the latest weaponry. They proved their new might during the Front Palace Crisis. After then, they became the model for the modernization of the entire Siamese army. In 1888, the army of department was created and given to Chao Phraya Surasakmontri. The new department was in charge of modernizing the armed forces. In order to attain a modern army, the budget for the military was increased. From a mere million Baht annually in the 1870’s it rose to 13 million Baht per annum by 1910. This provided the military to hire foreign trainers as well as to purchase new weapons. By the turn of the 20th century, the gatling gun was introduced to Siam. In order to bolster the number of the Siamese Army, King Chula introduced conscription in 1902.

See also:

Hinks, P. et al. Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Mishra, P. The History of Thailand. California: Greenwood, 2010.

"King Chulalongkorn, Rama V: The Fifth King of the Chakri Dynasty" Welcome to Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai. Acessed on June 23, 2013.

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