|Doesn't look anything like Yul Brunner|
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.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:
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.
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.