Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thailand’s great ruler

King Chulalongkorn also known as Rama V, one of Thailand’s greatest rulers and reformers, died 100 years ago today. For much of his reign, and especially when travelling, he kept diaries. Recently, Ohio State University acquired rare copies of many of these diaries and launched a project to digitalise them. This has just been completed and they are now all available on the internet - but in the original Thai language.

Chulalongkorn was born in 1853, in Bangkok, the eldest son of King Mongkut. Because Chulalongkorn was still a minor when his father died in 1868, Si Suriyawongse, one of Mongkut’s closest advisers, was appointed regent until his coming of age in 1873. The young Chulalongkorn took the unprecedented step of travelling abroad - to Singapore, Java and British India - to observe European methods of administration, some of which he would later use to modernise his country.

King Chulalongkorn’s early reforms included the abolition of slavery, the closure of gambling houses, the establishing of an auditory office (to replace the corrupt tax system in place) and a privy council based on the British example. He also chartered a Council of State to act as a legislative body, though this proved ineffective and was later disbanded. His early years of rule were characterised by internal power battles, and having to deal with insurgencies on the borders with China. However, in time he set about wholesale administrative reforms, overturning the traditional methods that had been in place for centuries. He established a royal military academy to train troops in the Western fashion; he founded a Department of Education; and he implemented a title deed act confirming peasants’ claim to their land.

Thailand’s first railroad - from Bangkok to Ayutthaya - was opened in 1896. And it was also during Chulalongkorn’s reign that the traditional lunar system was replaced by the Western calendar, and that a modern system of coins and banknotes was introduced. He also declared religious freedom, allowing Christianity and Islam to be practiced in the Buddhist country. During his reign, Siam lost territory, now in Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia, but, by playing off Britain against France, he managed to preserve the country’s independence - confirmed by a convention, signed in 1896, guaranteeing Siam as a buffer state between British and French possessions.

According to Wikipedia’s biography, Chulalongkorn took four of his half-sisters (Mongkut’s daughters) as wives, and had 149 other consorts and concubines. Between them they bore him 33 sons and 44 daughters. He died a century ago today, on 23 October 1910 (a day commemorated with a national holiday). A few years later the country’s first university was founded and named in his honour - Chulalongkorn University. For more biographical information see Wikipedia or separate web pages hosted by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and Foreign Office.

Earlier this month, Ohio University Libraries announced, via its Southeast Asia Collection Blog, that it had completed a project to digitalise 24 volumes of Chulalongkorn’s diary, spanning the years 1876 to 1887, as well as many more volumes of travel writings. These are all now available at Internet Archive - but only in the original Thai language. The project was funded or supported by the US Department of Education, the David K Wyatt Thai Collection, Digital Initiatives, Lyrasis, and Internet Archive itself.

King Chulalongkorn ruled the Kingdom of Siam with ‘a remarkable astuteness and foresight at a time of extraordinary danger and change in Southeast Asia’, the Blog explains, and his diary and travel writings ‘constitute one of the single-most important collections of primary sources on the period’. Even in Thailand these works are quite rare, it says, and accessible only to a handful of scholars.

Notwithstanding the Ohio Libraries information, there are some published editions of Chulalongkorn’s diaries which are still in print in Thailand and read today, such as the diary of his trip to Europe, Klai Ban (Far from Home), according to a feature on the King in the Pattaya Mail.

There appears to be no translations into English of Chulalongkorn’s diary or travel writing, but a review in English of a French translation of his diary or travel writing to Java in 1896 can be found on the Persee website. The review says of the translated text, ‘this is no dry-as-dust official memoir. Instead Chulalongkorn springs to life vividly from these pages as a perceptive and shrewd observer of the colonial scene as much at home amongst the frock-coated and bejewelled denizens of the ubiquitous Dutch clubs, as in the Kongsi of the Kapitan Cina [captains of Chinese enclaves] and the kratons [palaces] of the Central Javanese rulers.’

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