Tag Archives: Sakdina

The Thai monarchy has changed many times. It can be abolished.

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   ]

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.