Giles Ji Ungpakorn
This year’s anniversary of the 1932 revolution, which occurred on the 24th June, was an important one. There is a major ideological battle to achieve hegemony over the history of the event. [See http://bit.ly/2pwS5Pg ]
The importance of history is in what it can tell us about the present. It is important not to see the present monarchy, even in Pumipon’s time, as an unchanging “left-over” from feudalism. A brief study of Thai history can explain this. But the important conclusion is that it is possible to abolish this parasitic institution once and for all.
Before the major transformation of the Thai state into a centralised capitalist model in the 1870s, “Thailand” as a nation-state did not exist. The back-projection of “Thailand’s history” from the modern era to Sukotai (1270) and Ayuttaya (1350-1782) must therefore be seen as rewritings of history by people such as Luang Wichitwatakarn and Prince Damrong, to serve modern nationalistic ideology.
Before the early Bangkok period the dominant economic and political system in the central and northern region can best be described as the “Sakdina” system. This was a loose political entity based on clusters of powerful cities, such as Sukotai, Ayuttaya, Chiangmai, and Krungtep (Bangkok), whose political power changed over time and also decreased proportionately to the distance from each city. Not only was there no such thing as a centralised nation-state under an all-powerful king, but political power to control surplus production was also decentralised.
In this Sakdina system, control of surplus production, over and above self-sufficiency levels, was based on forced labour and the extraction of tribute. This was a system of direct control over humans, rather than the use of the ownership of the means of production to control labour. Its importance was due to the low population level. The majority of common people (Prai) living near urban centres were forced to perform corvée forced labour for monthly periods. There were also debt slaves (Taht) and war slaves (Chaleay Seuk). This direct control of labour was decentralised under various Moon Nai, nobles and local rulers (Jao Hua Muang) who had powers to mobilise labour. The result was that under the Sakdina system both economic and political power was decentralised away from the king.
Trade also played an important part in the economy. Control of river mouths as export centres became more important as long distance trade increased. Local rulers sought a monopoly on this trade in cooperation with Chinese merchants who ran sailing junks as far as China and the Arab world.
Although the increasing penetration of capitalism and the world market into the region had already increased the importance of money and trade, in the early Bangkok period, it was direct pressure from Western imperialism and class struggle from below that finally pushed and dragged the Bangkok rulers towards a capitalist political transformation. The British imposed the Bowring Treaty of 1855 on the rulers of Bangkok. This treaty established free trade and the freedom for Western capital penetration into the area without the need for direct colonisation. While the monopoly over trade, enjoyed by the Sakdina rulers of Bangkok, was abolished, vast opportunities were created for the capitalist production and trade of rice, sugar, tin, rubber and teak. An opportunity also arose to centralise the state under a powerful ruler. Thailand’s Capitalist Revolution was not carried out by the bourgeoisie in the same style as the English or French revolutions. In Thailand’s case, the ruler of Bangkok, King Rama V or “Chulalongkorn” brought about a revolutionary transformation of the political and economic system in response to pressure from an outside world, which was already dominated by capitalism, political rivalry with the nobles and class struggle from below in the form of people avoiding forced labour.
This revolution involved destroying the economic and political power of Chulalongkorn’s Sakdina rivals, the Moon Nai, nobles and local Jao Hua Muang. Politically this was done by appointing a civil service bureaucracy to rule outer regions and economically, by abolishing their power to control forced labour and hence surplus value. Forced labour was abolished.
The Absolute Monarchy of Rama V was a thoroughly modern centralised institution, created in order to serve the interests of the ruler of Bangkok in an emerging capitalist “Thai” nation. It is this modern form of capitalist monarchy which was overthrown only sixty years later in 1932. The further transformation of the monarchy into a Constitutional Monarchy, as a result of the 1932, revolution was a contested area. Radicals wanted a republic, moderates wanted a Western-style Constitutional Monarchy and the ultra-conservative among the military wanted to create a false image of a god-like and powerful monarchy which they could manipulate for their own purposes. The ultra-conservatives were the ultimate victors with the help of the royalist old guard who had now given up any hope of restoring the Absolute Monarchy.
With Wachiralongkorn on the throne the importance of the monarchy will be reduced as he is not fit for purpose. [See http://bit.ly/2l63Z1I]
The monarchy today is a mere puppet of the military with a falsely created image of “power”. But “power” is always concrete and political power cannot be separated from the power to determine state policies on social and economic issues or international relations. Today that concrete power lies with the military. [See http://bit.ly/2AF9ozT ]