The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
SIAM has the distinction of being the only independent state in southern Asia. Its neighbors have all fallen into British or French possession; Siam alone has escaped. To produce this result many causes have contributed, not the least of them chance. But chance has not been the only factor. In the nineteenth century though the British and the French quarrelled about Siam, their desire to have a buffer between their possessions played a considerable part. After making allowance for all such influences, however, we are forced to conclude that Siam today would not be free if it had not been for the enlightened statesmanship of its rulers.
Modern Siam borders on the south, west and north upon British territory and on the east upon French. Its population today is about 11,000,000, of which nearly a million are Chinese immigrants and their children. The Siamese themselves are of the same racial stock as the Chinese and speak a monosyllabic tonal language of the Chinese group. This language, however, has been written since the latter part of the thirteenth century by means of an alphabet derived from the Cambodian, which in its turn was derived directly or indirectly from the Sanskrit.
The original homeland of the Siamese is southwestern China, below the upper Yangtze, where they lived in a powerful, independent kingdom, known in the Chinese annals as Nan Chao, which lasted until its destruction by Kublai Khan. Even before this occurred there had undoubtedly been an infiltration of Siamese (or Thai, to give them their proper name) into what is now northern Siam and French Laos, but it was only after the defeat of Nan Chao by the Chinese that there occurred the first immigration on a large scale of the Thai people into Siam. Central Siam was then occupied by the Khmers, whose capital was at Angkhor, and western Siam was part of the Mon Empire, established in southern Burma. The Siamese were able, however, to maintain themselves in their new home.
The history of Siam as we know it today begins in 1350, with the founding of Ayuthia, the old capital. The Siamese kingdom grew to embrace all of present-day Siam and large parts of Malaya, Burma, French Laos and Cambodia. Ayuthia remained the capital until 1767, when it was taken and destroyed by the Burmese in a war which shattered the Siamese power. What was left of the Siamese forces gathered together under the leadership of a Chinese, Phya Tak. In 1782, after the death of Phya Tak, who left no successors, the present dynasty, the Chakri, came to the throne, and has occupied it continuously since. The capital was transferred to Bangkok, then a small fishing village, about forty miles south of Ayuthia. Temples and palaces were built and a modern city was gradually developed. Today Bangkok has a university, schools, hospitals, public buildings, wide tree-shaded avenues, a modern water supply, and the conveniences and necessities of a great capital.
The present monarch, King Prajadhipok, is the seventh of the Chakri dynasty, having succeeded his brother, Rama VI, in 1925. They were sons of King Chulalongkorn, who died in 1910 after a reign of more than forty years; his father, in turn, had been King Mongkut, who came to the throne in 1851 and under whom what may be called modern Siam began its development. The kings of Siam are absolute monarchs. There is no legislature and the source of all justice is the king's will. While this is true theoretically, the king in fact rules very much as would a constitutional monarch.
Before Mongkut's accession to the throne in 1851 Siam was practically closed to foreign trade. Although a few foreigners had been permitted to open commercial establishments, the king monopolized foreign trade, except in those few instances when monopolies in particular commodities had been granted or when permissions to trade had been given. The restrictions on such foreign trade as existed were burdensome and trade on any considerable scale was impossible. Efforts to change this situation had been made in the reign of Mongkut's father, by Great Britian in 1825 and the United States in 1832, but these treaties had no practical results.
At the beginning of King Mongkut's reign Great Britain was launching an active penetration in Burma and Malaya and France was equally busy in Annam and Cochin-China. Mongkut was therefore confronted with the problem of how best to face the rising tide of European aggression without an army or a navy trained and equipped to meet European forces. It is evident today that resistance would have been futile. Perhaps the inevitable might have been postponed by diplomacy, but it is characteristic of King Mongkut that he did not rely upon armed resistance or diplomatic obstruction. He decided to bend before the tempest and he did so without bluster or equivocation. He had been, for an oriental monarch of his time, extraordinarily well-prepared to understand the western mind. For twenty-five years he had been a Buddhist monk, and with shaven head, yellow robe and begging bowl he had travelled, as monks do in the dry seasons, over the length and breadth of the land. Not only had he come to know the people over whom he was later to rule in all the simple affairs of their daily lives, but he had come into intimate contact with many westerners, chiefly American missionaries, from whom he had learned English, Latin and something of modern science. Thus he was able to comprehend the strength of the west and the imminence of the danger which threatened his country. Almost as soon as he came to the throne, and against the opinion of many of his officials, Mongkut began a correspondence with Sir John Bowring, the Governor of Hongkong, which led to Sir John's mission to Bangkok and to the treaty with Great Britain of 1855. This treaty provided for a 3 percent tariff and laid down that all British subjects in Siam should be exempt from the jurisdiction of Siamese courts and Siamese law and should be judged by the British consul. In the next year a similar treaty was made with the United States. Rapidly other treaties of the same general nature were entered into with most of the European Powers. Extraterritoriality and a 3 percent tariff became established facts in Siam.
For the fifty years thereafter the major objective of Siamese policy was to be the modification and ultimate abolition of these two clogs upon Siamese independence.
Mongkut had for the moment saved Siam. It was not his intention, however, to grant extraterritoriality and a 3 percent tariff and then stop. He realized fully that these concessions alone were not sufficient to secure for Siam immunity from absorption or partition. Siam must be made over into a modern state, but gradually and by Siamese, not forcibly by Europeans. While western ideas and methods must be taken over, the old values which lay in Siamese culture must not be destroyed. Siam must maintain its integrity as a nation and must never cease to be Siamese.
It is interesting to see what Mongkut's first step was. This was to provide for the education along western lines of his successor, Chulalongkorn. Mrs. Leonowens, a schoolmistress in Singapore, was called to Bangkok, "to do," as the king expressed it in quaint but unmistakable English, "English education and not Christian religion upon my Royal Children." Later, other tutors continued the work which Mrs. Leonowens had begun. Chulalongkorn was only fifteen years old when he ascended the throne, but as soon as he attained his majority, so thoroughly had he been imbued with his father's ideas, he decreed that all of his brothers must, whether willing or not, have an education. They might choose an English education or a Siamese one, but educated they must be. Later, members of the Royal Family, and others of the king's subjects, were sent to Europe, sometimes to spend many years. The young king continued his own education by going to India very early in his reign to see for himself the workings of the British administration. Among his brothers the king later found the administrators who were to make over the mediæval structure of Siamese administration and create, under his direction, a really modern state.
Up to this time Siam had been merely a mediæval Asiatic monarchy. Although mildly administered, it was nevertheless a despotism of the old style. There had been practically only one government ministry, presided over by an official, the Phra Klang, or Barcalong, as the title is spelled by European writers of the seventeenth century. This official was a combination of lord high treasurer, minister for foreign affairs and the king's trade representative. In 1885 a ministry for foreign affairs was established, and in 1892, at a time when Siam was seriously threatened by the French, who succeeded in obtaining Luang Prabang and the Siamese territories east of the Mekong River, the general reorganization of the other branches of the administration took place. There are now Ministries of the Interior, of Justice, of Finance, of Public Instruction, of Lands and Agriculture, of Commerce and Communications, of War and of Marine. The same year, 1892, also saw the creation of a Cabinet Council.
A hierarchy of courts, from police courts to a supreme court, was established. A modern law was created, partly by the enactment of statutes upon single subjects, and partly by codes. The Penal Code was promulgated in 1908, and a large part of the Civil and Commercial Code has been in force since 1923. The Siamese courts are independent and the king does not interfere in the administration of justice, except that all judgments involving capital punishment must be approved by him before execution.
Railroads, owned and operated by the state, have been built connecting the northern and southern extremities of the country. There are also two lines towards the French frontiers on the east. Large irrigation works have been completed. An extensive program of public education has been put into operation, and compulsory school attendance exists in many parts of the country. The army has developed a large flying service, which is used for civil purposes, such as the carrying of passengers and of the mails. The finances of the kingdom have been for many years stabilized. Theoretically there is no distinction between the public revenue and the private income of the king; but in fact this distinction has existed for a very long time. The king's civil list is budgeted and is under the control of the Ministry of Finance. The national debt is entirely for productive purposes and is small. The railroads pay their own interest and sinking fund charges and in addition turn a surplus into the treasury.
Even this brief statement shows how far Siam has departed from the mediæval government of 1851. It may seem that a long time was taken in the development of a modern administration, but it must be remembered that at King Chulalongkorn's accession there were no educated Siamese old enough to undertake the work of making over the government to conform to western standards of organization and administration. The future ministers and their staffs had first to be found and then trained throughout, not only in the technique of modern administration, but also in the comprehension of the very conception upon which it is based. The astonishing thing is that so much has been done with means which at first looked so unpromising.
In accomplishing this task many Europeans have been used. The tradition of the foreign adviser and official is an old one in Siam. Even in the sixteenth century Indian legal experts were called in to revise the ancient Siamese laws, and in the seventeenth century a Greek was the chief minister of one of the kings and many Englishmen were in the Siamese service. Much assistance was given the young king, Chulalongkorn, by various foreigners, in and out of his service, and in 1892 Rolin-Jaecquemyns, a Belgian jurist of distinction, became the first General Adviser. In 1903, he was succeeded in this office by Professor Edward H. Strobel, Bemis Professor of International Law in Harvard University. The next General Adviser appointed after Professor Strobel's death was Jens I. Westengard, another American, a professor in the Harvard Law School. After Professor Westengard's retirement in 1915, the title of the office was changed to that of Adviser in Foreign Affairs, all the incumbents of which have been Americans; the present one is Raymond B. Stevens. Many foreigners were employed in the judicial service and in various technical branches of the administration. Foreigners also served in the Diplomatic Service and in the Ministry of Finance. Today, scattered through the various ministries and departments, there are to be found American, British, French, Belgian, Italian and Danish employees. There is an understandable tendency, however, to replace foreigners with Siamese, whenever Siamese adequately trained for a particular work can be found, though the Government wisely intends to keep foreigners in its service, particularly in the courts, for an indefinite period.
By 1919, the Siamese Government felt that the reforms in the organization of justice, the development of a modern system of law, the improvement of the general administration of the country, the stability of its finances, and its advances in public education -- all of these actually in force for a sufficiently long period of time to prove their permanency -- justified an appeal to the individual treaty Powers for a complete revision of the old treaties. In a few instances the treaties had been modified in important respects, but a complete revision had not been made. The old system was interfering with the administration more than had been the case in the past. Extraterritoriality was preventing the fulfilment of international obligations assumed in the treaties of peace concluded at the end of the World War and the 3 percent tariff was depriving Siam of a source of revenue badly needed to carry out the educational program decided upon. Siam felt that as a modern state, a member of the newly formed League of Nations, it had demonstrated both the desire and the ability to share fully in the life of the international community. A complete revision of the old treaty system was the next logical step.
Siam entered the World War in 1917 on the side of the Allied and Associated Powers. Thus the treaties with Germany and Austria-Hungary were abrogated. It was not possible to accomplish anything in the way of treaty revision at the Peace Conference, but the sympathetic interest which President Wilson expressed to the Siamese Delegation led to the opening of negotiations at Washington in the autumn of 1919. As a result of these negotiations, a treaty between the United States and Siam was signed at Washington on December 20, 1920. This treaty provided for the abolition of extraterritoriality, subject to the reservation that the consul might withdraw cases involving Americans from the Siamese Courts and try them before himself if, in his opinion, justice was not being done. This privilege, which has never been exercised, was to last until five years after all the Siamese codes had been promulgated. The 3 percent tariff was abolished and replaced by a most favored nation clause. The treaty was approved by the United States Senate and ratifications were exchanged in Bangkok on September 1, 1921. The United States was thus the first great nation to recognize the aspirations of Siam. Its example was quickly followed by the other treaty powers. Japan, which had simply had a most favored nation agreement with Siam, signed a similar treaty in 1924, and in 1925 and 1926 treaties on the same model were made with Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
The old system had come to an end. Siam had secured its recognition as a modern state. It had met the west and had not been submerged. A new state had developed in place of the mediæval one of King Mongkut's time. And yet, notwithstanding the assimilation of western progress, Siam remains Siamese. The best of her own ancient culture is intact.
Siam's relations with the western world seem to be settled, but there are problems developing in other quarters. The presence in the country of nearly a million Chinese, who do not become identified with the national life, raises difficult questions, and these are not rendered less troublesome because of the development of an intensely nationalist spirit in China. However, there is no reason to feel that statesmanship is extinct in Siam, and the same wisdom which guided the country through the turbulent years of European penetration will be applied to solve this, the most pressing and acute problem in Siam's present-day international relations.