Thursday, 13 October 2016

King Mongkut and the saving of Thailand's independence and monarchy.

Doesn't look anything like Yul Brunner
David Bassett who taught me South East Asian history at Hull in the early 1980s hated the musical The King and I. Dr Bassett was a mild mannered chap but when we began to look at how Thailand retained its monarchy and its independence, his hackles rose a little and he engaged in a gentle rant about the film's historical inaccuracy and, in particular, its portrayal of Thailand's saviour King Mongkut. The real problem is that the accounts of Anna Leonowens exaggerate her influence on both the King and on his son.

But that's a different story to the one I want to relate. For Mongkut did save Thailand and Thailand's monarchy. And on the day we hear of King Bhumipol's death, it's perhaps worth reflecting on the manner of that salvation. For when the Thais look at their closest neighbours - in Indo-China and in Burma - they see once proud nations that were cast into colonial slavery under the French and British. Moreover they can look more recently at the tragedies of independence for those places - at the impoverishment of Burma under Ne Win's lunatic Burmese Way to Socialism, at the millions dead and displaced by nearly thirty years of war in Vietnam and at the suicidal genocide Pol Pot visited on the Khmer.

Thailand - Siam - avoided this tragedy because it remained independent. And the members of Thailand's parliament stood for nine minutes in silence today because Mongkut saved the monarchy too. Far from the bumbling, lovestruck man of the film, Mongkut was an intelligent, wise, hard-working and effective monarch. Not the first or last victim of American historical revisionism but undoubtedly one of the more egregious cases of rewriting what happened to make it seem down to a Yankee.

In 1855 Mongkut - or rather his ministers led by (my favourite Thai of all) Somdet Chao Phraya Borom Maha Si Suriyawongse - signed a treaty with the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring. Because we're western-centric, we usually refer to this as the Bowring Treaty:
Bowring Treaty, (1855), agreement between Siam (Thailand) and Britain that achieved commercial and political aims that earlier British missions had failed to gain and opened up Siam to Western influence and trade.

The treaty lifted many restrictions imposed by Thai kings on foreign trade. It set a 3 percent duty on all imports and permitted British subjects to trade in all Thai ports, to own land near Bangkok, and to move freely about the country.
Again we should appreciate that Mongkut and his advisors knew what was happening elsewhere - in China, in Vietnam and even in India. The Siamese negotiating position was not strong and Mongkut knew he had to arrange some sort of deal or see what had been done to the stronger and richer kingdom of Burma happen to his kingdom. Siam had some leverage from playing the British, French and Dutch off against each other but in the end a deal was concluded with Britain rather than with the corporate interests representing France and the Dutch. Sir John Bowring was an envoy of another monarch allowing Si Suryawong to get him in front of Mongkut so as to conclude the deal:
There shall henceforward be perpetual peace and friendship between Their Majesties the First and Second Kings of Siam and their successors, and Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and her successors. All British subjects coming to Siam shall receive from the Siamese Government full protection and assistance to enable them to reside in Siam in all security, and trade with every facility, free from oppression or injury on the part of the Siamese; and all Siamese subjects going to an English country shall receive from the British Government the same complete protection and assistance that shall be granted to British subjects by the Government of Siam.
For all that came afterwards, this moment in modern Thai history was central. In principle Siam was the equal of Britain (although everyone involved knew this was something of a conceit) and had kept its freedom at the cost of ending the Royal monopoly of trade, removing tariffs and allowing British - and subsequently through further treaties, American - merchants to operate freely within the kingdom.

So today I know Thailand will, while mourning the passing of King Bhumipol, nod to history and to the time when an earlier wise king secured peace and independence by signing a trade deal with the world's most powerful nation. Thailand is a great country because of Mongkut - it's a shame our view of him is of a bald, buffoon in a 1950s Hollywood musical. Dr Bassett was right, he deserves - and Thailand deserves - much better.



nisakiman said...

Unfortunate that now those agreements have been cast to the wind. As an Englishman, I cannot own land in Thailand, the businesses I can operate are severely limited, and in most cases must have a 51% Thai partner, and the visa requirements to reside in Thailand are onerous, to say the least. And that's for me, an Englishman who is married to a Thai national.

My views of the late King Bhumipol are similarly jaded. He has presided over a country with the most draconian lèse-majesté laws in the world, a 15 year sentence being the norm for transgressing that basic right of free speech. The western press like to portray him as the stable influence in times of political turmoil (read coup), but the army is loyal to the crown, not to government, which suggests that he was instrumental in precipitating the coups to get rid of governments he didn't personally like. And there are many dark mutterings concerning the untimely demise of his elder brother in the 1940s, catapaulting Bhumipol into the throne. His brother's death remains unexplained to this day.

It will be interesting to see how the transition to the ascendancy of Vajiralongkorn unfolds. He's a bit of an unknown quantity, and probably doesn't command the respect of either the people or the military that the old king did.

Kevin said...

Unfortunate that now those agreements have been cast to the wind. As an Englishman, I cannot own land in Thailand, the businesses I can operate are severely limited, and in most cases must have a 51% Thai partner, and the visa requirements to reside in Thailand are onerous, to say the least. And that's for me, an Englishman who is married to a Thai national.

I think you'll find that it was Britain that rescinded their part of the agreement - that of equal treatment for Thais - first. You have a Thai wife so you know how much of a hassle it is for her to get a visa to visit the UK, in comparison to you turning up at the airport and being granted visa free entry for 30 days (something that is abused by long term expats). If your business is of benefit to Thailand, such as high technology, then you can get BOI approval which means you can own 100% of your business, pay no taxes for years AND own the land for you to build your factory/residence on. As a sovereign nation, and one whose GDP is ranked 21st in the world, Thailand is fully entitled to implement its own rules on who it lets in and under what terms. Moreover, it has an absolute right to enact laws to protect the monarchy from defamation or slander - just like the UK has the right to create
'hate laws' to protect favoured 'victims'.

The bottom line is, if you really don't like Thailand you are free to leave.