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In part one of this series of articles, I outlined the history of Siam in the 19th century and how the country fell behind in the race to modernize. But what if things had gone a bit differently for Siam? What if Chulalongkorn had been able to enact his reforms at an earlier date? Could Siam have emerged into the twentieth century with as much clout as Japan? Players of Victorian RPG's may wish to make Siam a more active and powerful nation than it was historically. In this article I discuss a possible alternate development of the kingdom, one that will make it a much more prominent player in world politics.
The key change takes place in 1868. King Mongkut, always an ox of a man, recovered from his malaria instead of dying as he did historically. He continued his plans to hand over the throne to Chulalongkorn in 1873. Due to his long illness and general poor health afterwards, however, he initiated no new reforms during the balance of his reign.
In 1872, just months before his planned coronation, the nineteen-year-old crown prince Chulalongkorn tried to build up his own independent political base among the educated classes by publishing a series of articles in a radical newsletter run by a young Belgian who was living in Bangkok. In the articles, Chulalongkorn detailed reforms he felt were needed by Siam, such as abolishing slavery and corvee labor, and providing a free elementary education to people of all classes. The very fact that he published the articles was shocking enough, since the royal family had always enjoyed extreme privacy, but the contents of the articles were doubly scandalous.
Many of the elite in Siamese society felt threatened by the articles, in particular the wealthy owners of slaves and certain Buddhist monastic orders who had specialized in educating the children of the upper classes. Slowly, the anti-reform forces gained energy and coalesced around the central figure of Wichaichan, a powerful conservative prince. Conspirators began to meet to discuss possible courses of action, and finally, plans were laid for a coup.
The conspirators made their move by placing a bomb under a bridge on the New Road in Bangkok. They knew that a carriage transporting both King Mongkut and Prince Chulalongkorn must pass over the bridge on its way to the Buddhist temple at Wat Cheng. The bomb did indeed go off just as the carriage was passing. Both the bridge and carriage were both thrown high into the air, and old King Mongkut was killed, but luckily Prince Chulalongkorn was thrown free of the blast and only lightly injured.
The Conspirators moved quickly to cement their power, seizing the armory of the Royal Army and attempting to convince the people of Bangkok that divine forces had struck down the King. The rumors spread, and at first things were moving according to the Conspirators' plan, but within a day, things start to go wrong for them.
The people of Siam, who worshiped their King almost as a god, were enraged that Mongkut had been killed. The few forces loyal to Chulalongkorn managed to fan those flames of anger and convince the people that it had not been an act of God that felled their beloved king, but one of treasonous conspirators. They bemoaned the brutal act as an attack on Siamese society itself, and managed to turn Mongkut into a true martyr. The usually quiet and docile Siamese peasantry were whipped into a fury and stirred into action.
Directed by a few military officers and nobles who remained loyal to Chulalongkorn, mobs of peasantry, with help from two loyal regiments of the army, stormed through the streets of Bangkok in search of the Conspirators' strongholds. Whenever they found them, the masses turned on the conspirators with a mad vengeance. The throngs rushed the fortresses and palaces of the disloyal and crushed them, often quite literally and with great loss of life on both sides.
Once the "Seven Mad Days", as the violence came to be known, were past, all of the Conspirators had surrendered, been slain, or fled the city, and Prince Chulalongkorn found his political power ascendant. The people gushed with emotional tributes to both their martyred former king and their young king-to-be. He enjoyed popularity with the masses like no other sovereign in Siamese history. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, young Chulalongkorn found himself without any serious political rivals and holding the fanatical loyalty of the masses. He was presented with a unique opportunity to push his reform agenda.
The new king punished the conspirators (who were largely government ministers) and used the pretext of the coup and his new-found political clout to replace all of the ministers with young men who were loyal to his beliefs. The overwhelming bulk of these men were his own brothers. [Note: Thus, he reached a political position in 1873 that he did not reach historically until 1888!]
Legal reforms were enacted with the guidance of European advisors, and the laws of Siam were published and distributed freely for the first time. The stability of the legal environment and concurrent decline of corruption encouraged various Western countries and businesses to trust Siamese courts and contracts, and foreign trade expanded significantly. Chinese merchants and craftsmen flocked to Siam by the hundreds of thousands to seek their fortunes, contributing to the buildup of a sizable business community.
Public schools and hospitals were constructed in Bangkok in 1874, employing the latest in European scientific methods. Within two years, similar institutions were opened in Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, and the fast-growing town of Ubon Ratchathani. In the first few years of operation, the pupils in the schools were overwhelmingly drawn from the lesser nobility. But as more schools were constructed and more teachers trained, lower levels of social classes were represented each year. By the late-1890s, primary education was available to the majority of the population, with close to a quarter going on to secondary school, and a few thousand attending the newly-chartered Mongkut University in Bangkok each year.
The single largest restraint on modernization and economic expansion of Siam was the King's insistence on avoiding foreign loans. Because of this, all public works projects had to come out of the Kingdom's current revenues. This slowed the construction of railroads, telegraphs and canals, perhaps needlessly, but Chulalongkorn was adamant, believing that to owe money to a foreign nation would risk being beholden to that nation.
Another restriction on modernization and growth were the shortages of educated men to serve in government and business. Teachers for all levels were recruited from Europe and America, but there were never enough to satisfy the country's needs. The resulting shortage of educated minds meant that many government ministries operated with less than one quarter of their needed positions filled, and many projects that were deemed as vital to the country's growth had to be postponed.
Recognizing the benefits of the expansion of overseas trade, as well as the value of having local shipbuilding facilities, the Siamese government invested heavily in a shipyard project proposed by two Chinese brothers named Chin. The Royal Siamese Shipyards, or the Chin Yards, as they were popularly known, were a tiny concern by western standards, having no slips longer than one hundred fifty feet, but they seemed a miracle to the Siamese. The king officially opened the yards on July 3, 1889, and pronounced that he would personally subsidize the construction of at least one merchant ship per year in order to encourage overseas trade, as well as to protect the government's investment in the yards. Unfortunately, there was little free capital in the Siamese private sector for large projects such as shipbuilding, and orders were slow to come for the Chin Yards. Twice in the early nineties the Siamese government had to step in and rescue the small company from bankruptcy. It was not until the naval building boom of the mid 1890s that the shipyards truly began to show a profit and to expand their facilities dramatically.
Traditionally, the Siamese army had been made up of descendants of prisoners of war, known as Peguans. Peguans were rated as little better than slaves by Siamese society. Chulalongkorn believed that free men were more motivated to give their all for their country, and thus he wanted to encourage a transition to a citizen army. To this end, he formed a new regiment immediately following the 1873 coup attempt. This regiment was made up exclusively of those who had fought on the Royalist side during the coup, and was named the 5th Royalist Regiment. They became second only to the King's Royal bodyguard in terms of troop quality and political reliability. Chulalongkorn also encouraged other citizens to volunteer for military service, promising government jobs at good salaries to all veterans. This met with little success at first, with only about a thousand citizens volunteering between 1874 and 1886.
Finally, in the "Army Reorganization Decree" of 1887, all Peguans were granted full citizenship status, and a system of conscription was enacted. The size of the army was also doubled, from 5 infantry regiments to 10. Though the former Peguans were never fully accepted by mainstream Siamese society, their living standards improved dramatically, and they knew their children would be ordinary citizens, thus they owed a great debt of loyalty to the king. Though it was no longer required by law, many sons of the Peguans took pride in following in their father's footsteps and volunteered for military service. These recruits were generally assigned to the old Peguan regiments, which were among the best in the Siamese army, and soon became the small army's elite units.
The King issued his famous "Freedom of the Seas Decree" in 1890, and with it rolled out a plan to modernize the Siamese Royal Navy. Previously, it had consisted of only a few obsolescent gunboats and the royal yacht Maha Chakri. The 1890 Decree outlined a plan to build one modern gunboat or torpedo vessel per year in the Chin yards, as well as significant purchases from Italian, American and British shipyards. Siam acquired her first true cruisers from an Italian shipbuilder in 1890. They were lightly armed and almost unarmored, but were a great improvement for such a small fleet. Protected cruisers were bought from overseas in 1892 and 1893. Finally, in 1895, Siam purchased her first battleship. She was a diminutive battleship by European standards, but would stand up to anything in the fleets of either Japan or a Siam's newfound rival: Spain.
The Spaniards and Siamese had largely ignored one another for years, but events of the late 1880s and early 1890s forced the two nations to confront one another. First, the Spanish felt that the growing power of Siam was a threat to their colonies of the Philippines and Guam, and began to concentrate more ships in Manila. The Spaniards made numerous attempts to undermine the growing Siamese economy, often in conjunction with French interests.
At the same time, harsh treatment of the Filipinos at the hands of the Spanish caused thousands of refugees to flee the Philippines, and a great many of them ended up in Siam. The nascent Siamese press was full of incensed stories and desperate accounts of Spanish brutality. By the early nineties, elements of Siamese society were actively involved in assisting the Filipinos in resisting Spanish rule. A fact that was neither unknown nor appreciated in Madrid.
There was also growing tension between Siam and Japan. Japan's militarization of the Ryukyu Islands and annexation of Formosa in 1895 put the Siamese coast within easy striking distance of Japanese fleets. Japan also frequently acted in either overt or covert ways to restrain the economic and diplomatic growth of Siam as a regional power.
By far the largest threat to Siamese existence, however, was France. The French had long been interested in exploring and exploiting the Mekong River valley as a back door into China. French protectorates over Annam and Cambodia also provided them with (nebulous) claims to territories on the banks of the Mekong that were well within Siamese borders. As Siam grew and expanded its armies, many in France became anxious over the threat posed to all the French holdings in Southeast Asia. This culminated in a major clash in 1893, when France was forced to back down and enter negotiations due to the intervention of Germany. Talks in Geneva did not fully resolve the conflict, however, and relations between France and Siam continued to be tense for the rest of the century.
Siamese relations with Great Britain were generally cordial. This was largely because the British did not see Siam as a threat, but as a buffer zone between British and French colonies in Southeast Asia. Until the early nineties, most of Siam's foreign trade was with Britain, and English was commonly spoken by Siamese government ministers.
Siam was on generally good terms with the United States. King Mongkut had greatly admired US President Abraham Lincoln and had even offered help to the Union side in the American Civil War. There were a great many Americophiles in Siam, particularly among the young reformers who aligned themselves with Chulalongkorn. Although the United States generally remained aloof from foreign powers during this period, they did a significant volume of trade in Siam.
The relationship between Siam and the German Empire was a close one. German merchants had come to dominate Siamese foreign trade in the early nineties, actually before the Kaiser's famous pro-Siamese trade concessions. Following the 1893 incident and the Geneva talks, relations between Siam and Germany quickly grew much closer. German investment in Siamese industry and infrastructure soared, and Germany guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Siam. Although the two countries did not actually form a military alliance in the nineties, their militaries grew close, with dozens of German advisors flocking to Siam, and Siamese officers training in Germany.
Fournereau, Lucien, Bangkok in 1892, White Lotus Press, 1998. (Orig. 1894). ISBN 974-8434-42-7.
Tips, Walter, The 1894 Directory to Bangkok and Siam, White Lotus Press, 1996. (Orig. 1894). 974-8496-77-5.
Wyatt, David K., Thailand, A Short History, Yale University Press, 1984. 0-300-03582-9.