The “tradition” of Thai Kingship

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

It should come as no surprise that Thai Kingship is an “invented tradition”, just as Eric Hobsbawm described the British monarchy as an invented tradition. In fact “Thai” as something to do with “Thailand” is also an invented concept, corresponding to the state centralisation and nation-building that took place in South-East Asia in the late nineteenth century.

The idea that the Thai king is “revered” by Thais is a doubtful and invented “fact”. Firstly, such reverence is enforced by the lèse-majesté law and the Communist suppression law in the past. Secondly, there is severe peer pressure on people to say that they revere the king. But most importantly, the degree to which people support the monarchy has fallen and risen at different times in recent history. During the height of the Communist Party’s struggle, many Thais hated the monarchy. Today the monarchy is also hated by many red shirts. This is why the military junta are so manic about fitting people up with lèse-majesté charges.

The idea of a king as a deity or absolute ruler is a very recent phenomena in Thai history. Before the 1870s the kings of Bangkok or Ayuttaya had limited power. Under the Sakdina feudal system they had to share power with the rulers of other towns and with the recruiters of corvée labour. Corvée labour was a system where local villagers were forced to work for a local boss, ruler, temple authority or king. Villagers were also forced to become soldiers during war time and the main aim of warfare in the region during this time was to seize war slaves and loot rival cities.

Given that forced labour of one kind or another was the base of much wealth production in the Sakdina system, the local rulers and recruiters of forced labour had political power to match that of the king. Trade and taxation were also important sources of wealth, but both trade and taxation were subcontracted to private merchants who also held power.

As far as the local ordinary folk were concerned, kings and local rulers were “bad news”. When they arrived with their armed tugs they dragged off the men to work or fight and dragged off young women for their pleasure. The general response of ordinary folk was to try to live as far away from kings and local rulers as possible and if they turned up on your door step, the sensible things was to run away and hide in the forest. Some villagers even used to smear shit on their daughters to make them less attractive. So people in those days feared kings but certainly did not revere them at all.

All this devolved power made the Sakdina kings weak. This is why King Chulalongkorn waged war on the Sakdina system, eventually abolishing forced labour and the power of local rulers and bosses. His establishment of the Absolute Monarchy was a necessary step towards building a centralised Thai state in the new capitalist world order.

The Absolute Monarchy only lasted 60 years. It was overthrown by the 1932 revolution and the king lost all power. Today’s king still has no power, but the military and the capitalists have invented the myth of “traditional Thai kingship”, where the king is both an absolute monarch and a constitutional monarch at the same time. The left-wing British historian Christopher Hill once wrote that after the English revolution in the 1640s, the English capitalist class restored the monarchy following Cromwell’s death, by claiming that the king was anointed by God, when in fact he was appointed and used by the capitalists. There are strong similarities with Thailand.

Finally, if the power and nature of Thai kingship can change so much in recent history, it is not beyond imagination that we shall soon get rid of the monarchy all together.