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SIAM, about the size of France, is a country of rice, rubber, fourteen million good-natured peasants and a boy king. On the map it looks rather like an octopus with one tentacle dangling into Malaya toward Singapore. It is the country where no one needs to work more than three or four months a year because the climate is so propitious and rice so abundant, where the pronunciation of names is fantastically at variance with their spelling, where there are 17,408 Buddhist temples and 150,000 priests, and where white elephants are sacred. It is also a country where Japanese influence is increasingly active.
Aside from what is left of China, Siam is the only independent country in Asia between Japan and Iran, the only eastern territory that did not become the booty of the Great Powers during the imperialist expansion of the nineteenth century. The Siamese call their country "Muang-Thai," which means land of the free. They have been an independent state since about 1350, and originally their kingdom extended to the Yangtze. The Siamese form a distinct racial and linguistic group; but they also show very marked affiliations with China, as well as Malay admixtures. They performed the miracle of surviving as an independent kingdom partly because their territory, half of which is even today unexplored jungle, was hard to penetrate and conquer, partly because it was convenient for both Britain and France to have a buffer state between Burma, Malaya and Indo-China.
But Siam may not remain an independent state forever -- if the acknowledged Japanese dream of domination over "East Asia" becomes a reality.
Siam was -- and is -- not only an independent country; until 1932 it was one of the last absolute monarchies remaining in the world. Since 1782 it has been ruled by members of the staggeringly prolific Chakri dynasty. Until 1932 it was a backwater, a stagnant and not unhappy land where the monarch, although with absolute powers, chose as a rule to govern mildly. There was no constitution, no judicial system, no legislature, until 1932. Siam was a remnant, picturesque in the extreme, of Oriental mediævalism. Then the first flush of modern ideas reached Siam. The flush spread and became a fermentation. The people demanded reforms and the extension of governmental institutions. So in June 1932 a bloodless revolution took place. But the Siamese are mild people. The only casualty was one general wounded in the leg.
King Prajadhipok, a small smiling man with great subtlety of mind and an astute sense of humor, promptly accepted the ultimatum of the revolutionaries. There was no need even to declare martial law. The revolutionaries apologized for the bluntness of their first manifesto, which had attacked the king, and prepared a provisional constitution, which was followed by another one. The movement was directed mostly against the topheavy clique of royal princes and noblemen who monopolized political power and economic privileges. The king was permitted to remain.
The revolution was made by a group of officers and students who had strong Leftist tendencies. They wanted to democratize Siam. But soon a split came, and in June 1933 occurred another coup d'état. The first prime minister of the revolution, Phya Manopakarana, fled to Penang, and was succeeded by an army officer with a more forthright policy, Colonel Phahol Pholphayuha Sena. Then in October 1933 came an attempt at counter-revolution. Several disgruntled noblemen and landowners, led by a Prince Bovaradej (who is now an exile in French Indo-China), sought to overthrow the new régime. The revolt, after allowing for the extreme difference between Spanish and Siamese character, was strikingly similar to that of General Franco in Spain. The propertied classes and aristocrats had been ejected from domination over the government. They refused to stay ejected; they rose against the revolution, and were put down. They were put down largely because the counter-revolutionary leader, gentle like almost all Siamese, refused to take the responsibility for further bloodshed when fighting began.
The government passed death sentences on several of the captured counter-revolutionaries. King Prajadhipok meantime had begun a long trip around the world searching for relief from eye trouble. It became clear that he did not want to return to Siam, though the government insisted that it had only the friendliest feelings toward him and would treat him with respect if he remained faithful to the new constitution. The crisis came when royal assent was necessary for the execution of the rebels. The King refused this assent -- this was in 1935 -- and therefore abdicated. He was in London at the time: the abdication was by mail. (Incidentally, the rebels who were executed were shot, Siamese fashion, through a curtain; the firing squad does not see whom it shoots.)
The quality of Siamese political life before the revolution may be judged from the fact that a great many words not existing in Siamese had to be invented to express the ideals of the movement. A brilliant young Siamese, Prince Varnvaidykara Varavarn, who chose to side with the new government despite his royal blood, and who had studied philology at Balliol, had the task of creating words hitherto unknown to the Siamese language such as: constitution, political science, reform, civil list, revolution, proletariat, political party. These concepts had never found expression before in Siamese. On the other hand, words did exist before 1932 for such terms as democracy, privy purse, cabinet, education, taxes and legislature.
A revolution may be judged by two things: first, its transfer of political power; second, its transfer of economic power. As regards the first, the Siamese revolution is complete. A legislature functions, an independent judiciary has been set up, and the paraphernalia of western democracy is closely imitated. Power is in the hands of the Peoples Party, an outgrowth of the original revolutionary clique. Economically the revolution is not complete. Beginnings have been made towards equalizing taxation and distributing wealth, and a social reform program of some consequence has been inaugurated; but Siam still has a long way to go before it becomes an integrated people's state.
The actual technique of the revolution was unusual. It was a technological coup d'état of an advanced type. Its chief authors had read Trotsky and Curzio Malaparte. They acquired power not by force of arms but by seizing the sources of power -- the telephones, the power plants, the railway, and so on. Also the Siamese revolution differs from many others in that there was no punitive assault on the class represented by the previous régime. Most of the princes and aristocrats continued to live in peace: they were not eliminated, even after their attempt at counter-revolution. Their privileges, however, were severely curtailed. Before 1932 the royal princes usurped a tremendous proportion of the national revenue. Now the civil list, which includes the expenses of the regency, is only 455,200 ticals out of a total budget of 104,891,144, or .4 percent. (A tical is worth 45 cents.)
King Prajadhipok continued after his abdication to live in England. His successor was his nephew, the boy Ananda. Because Siam is still a kingdom and because the princes of royal blood may some day choose to reassert themselves, let me interpolate a word about what by all odds is as improbable and ornate a group of characters as the Asian world can show.
The great Siamese King Phra Paramindr Maha Chulalongkorn, the most impressive figure in Siamese history, ruled from 1868 to 1910. It was during this long reign that Siam heard the first enticing whispers of the modern world outside. Chulalongkorn was an enlightened despot. Railways came; so did posts and telegraphs; so did treaties with foreign nations. But the most interesting thing about him was his family. Reputedly he had 84 wives and 362 children. In the current "Directory of Siam" nine and a half pages are necessary merely to list the male descendants of Chulalongkorn who survive today. They are grouped in twenty-five main families, presumably the offspring of the twenty-five chief royal wives.
In a polygamous country like Siam, if more kings came with the vitality of Chulalongkorn, practically the entire population would in time become admixed with royal blood. So the Siamese invented a unique system whereby the progeny of kings gradually resume the status of commoners. Thus the son of a Siamese monarch is known as a Royal Highness; the grandson is merely a "Mom Chao" or Serene Highness; the great grandson is a "Momrajawong" or Lord; the great-great-grandson is plain Mister.[i] Even this gradual but drastic de-royalizing of royalty did not seem a sufficient precaution in view of the inordinate number of surviving princes; therefore a law was passed inflicting monogamy on the Siamese monarch. Moreover, it has become a custom that the monarch -- if he can find anyone -- should marry someone not of royal blood.
The marital affairs of King Chulalongkorn, quite apart from the number of his wives, were extraordinarily complicated. Incidentally his senior wife, known now as the Dowager Consort, is still alive; she prays daily in the great temple of the Emerald Buddha and is the richest person in Siam. King Chulalongkorn's first wife had two sons. The king then married in turn three sisters. The third sister had six sons. She had great influence over him, and persuaded him to skip the second son by his first wife when arranging the succession, in favor of her own first son and then her other sons. Another complication is that the three wives who followed the first wife were not only sisters, but moreover were half-sisters of the king himself. All had the same father (the previous king) though the mothers were different.
So King Chulalongkorn's heir was his eldest son by his first queen; he reigned from 1910 to 1925 as King Rama VI. He was an exceptionally engaging creature, a spendthrift and wonderful gambler. He translated Shakespeare into Siamese, wrote plays, and acted in them. According to King Chulalongkorn's rule of succession, Rama should have been followed by his eldest halfbrother whose name was Mahidol. But Mahidol was far from being interested in kingship and refused the succession. He went instead to Harvard and Johns Hopkins, became an excellent doctor and married -- in Albany, New York -- a Siamese girl who was a nurse in a hospital. The succession then passed to Mahidol's next brother Prajadhipok. When Prajadhipok abdicated, the next heir was adjudged to be Ananda, the son of Mahidol.
Ananda, born abroad in 1925, is being educated in Switzerland. Recently, in November 1938, he visited his kingdom for the first time. He reaches his majority (at sixteen) in 1941, when he will be bathed, anointed and crowned in a picturesque ceremony. Three regents were appointed in 1935 for the period of Ananda's minority. They are Prince Aditya (pronounced "Odit"), a cousin of King Prajadhipok's, who represents royalty; Chao Phya Yomaraj, of humble birth, who was a monk for many years and who represents the government; and General Chao Bijayendra Yodhin who represents the army.
Of the great mass of survivors of King Chulalongkorn who are still Royal or Serene Highnesses very few occupy conspicuous positions today. By the terms of the new constitution none are allowed to become government ministers, though they may be advisers or department heads. The most noteworthy of them lives in Java. He is Prince Nagor Svarga (pronounced "Nakan Sawan"), who was King Prajadhipok's uncle and minister of the interior, and who was called the power behind the throne until 1932. He has pledged himself never to return to Siam.
Siam today is ruled by a junta of 30 or 40 men who are the nucleus of the Peoples Party and all of whom were active conspirators in the 1932 coup d'état. These men who were youngish officers or students at the time of the coup, are bound by an oath of blood brotherhood. Most of the cabinet ministers are under 45. In effect they rule Siam; yet Siam is not a dictatorship. The ambition of the junta is to create a Siamese democracy, though in the present transition period only one political party is allowed and half the members of the legislature are appointed. Even so, opposition may at times be spirited: for instance, it took the government three months to hammer the 1938 budget through the chamber.
Three men dominate the junta: the prime minister, the foreign minister, and the minister of defense. Of these the foreign minister, Luang Pradist Manudharm, is probably the most interesting. He is a shy, chunky man of 36 with a shrewd peasant's face; he is partly Chinese in origin, and has the familiar Chinese characteristic of looking younger than he is. Pradist was a poor boy who struggled for education: he won a scholarship maintained by the old government, and went to Paris to study law. Returning to Siam he became a teacher and then entered politics. Pradist (some spellings of his name omit the "s" and he is pronounced merely "Pradit") was the civilian organizer of the coup d'état. A convinced radical, he agitated for agrarian coöperatives, land reform and educational advances; his colleagues thought that he was going too fast and he was eliminated from the first government soon after it was formed. He went into exile for a time, visiting Japan, Britain and the United States. He was accused of being a Communist, a charge of which he was ultimately cleared by a parliamentary committee. In 1934 he returned to Siam to be the left-wing leader of the junta and foreign minister in the government.
The prime minister, Colonel Phya Phahol Pholphayuha Sena (pronounced simply "Pa-Hoon"), is an older man with considerable force of character, whose function seems to be that of arbiter between his brilliant and radical foreign minister and the minister of defense, who is on the conservative side. Phahol was educated first in Denmark, then Germany. An army man, he went to the same cadet school as did General Goering, who was a class ahead of him. His nickname is "the Buffalo." When I saw him he made a great point of the liberalism of Siam. He scoffed at the idea that the government should take more stringent steps to protect itself against the possibility of counter-revolution. He took a glass of water from the table, and tipped it first one way, then the other, without spilling. That, he indicated, was the path of moderation Siam was following. The budget for education, he said, had jumped from about 2,500,000 ticals before 1932 to 12,000,000 now. He said that national defense absorbed one-quarter of the total revenue, and denied vigorously that his country could ever become a vassal of Japan.
The defense minister, Colonel Luang Bipul Songgram, is called the "strong man" of the régime. His enemies are apt to say, first that he has totalitarian ambitions à la Mussolini, second that he is not likely to achieve them because he is not strong enough. What power he has comes from the fact that he controls the army, especially the new mechanized units. The colonel is a quiet and retiring individual, educated in France. Some people say he is pro-Japanese.
These are the Siamese triplets who rule the country. Other politicians of consequence are the minister of public instruction, Captain Luang Sindhu Songgvamay, who is also chief of the naval general staff; the minister of the interior (also a naval officer), Lieutenant Commander Luang Dhamrong; and the chief of police, Colonel Luang Atultej Charas. Colonel Song Suradej, one of the original leaders of the coup d'état, left Bangkok in disgust at the foreign minister's radicalism, and is now in charge of military training in northern Siam. He is regarded as an important person.
Siam is not a rich country. Only 30 people in the kingdom pay a tax on incomes greater than $10,000 per year. There is no middle class and feudalism has disappeared; the great bulk of the population consists of peasantry. Siam lives on rice, the principal article both of consumption and export; teak and tin are its other important resources, most of which are controlled by British capital. The British also hold the small foreign debt. A future problem is bound to be that of foreign capital. The Siamese want keenly to develop their country, but they cannot do it alone, and they remain suspicious of outside help. Yet Siam has great untapped possibilities of wealth; it is one of the few countries left in the world with a vast public domain; perhaps fifty percent of the country is still not surveyed. It covers about 200,000 square miles, yet contains only 14,500,000 people; it is practically a vacuum compared to the suffocatingly crowded provinces of China and India nearby.
Though Siam is not rich, her finances are admirably in order. The trade balance is always favorable, and the budget has never been out of balance. The public debt is small and the currency cover is no less than 114 percent. A foreign expert recently said that he has never known a sounder financial state. There is, however, a very considerable agricultural debt, since the peasants borrow against their crops as in China, and the moneylenders try to suck them dry. Siam's best customer is Malaya; while most of her imports come from Japan.
The Isthmus of Kra, as one may readily see from any map, is the narrow bridge of land near the junction of Siam and Burma. For several years this otherwise unremarkable strip of rock, swamp and jungle has been responsible for a plentiful crop of rumors to the effect that the Japanese are building a canal there. London newspapers have printed picturesque stories about Japanese laborers already at work, assiduously digging from sea to sea. There is no foundation whatever to these rumors -- at least not yet. The Kra Canal is purely a myth at present, though conceivably it might be a reality at some future date. The reason for this Kra legend is, of course, that a canal at the isthmus would permit the ships of Japan -- or any other nation -- to go from European or Indian ports to China or Japan without passing Singapore. It would short-circuit the Singapore naval base which the British have just completed at such great cost. Technical experts disagree as to its feasibility. Though the canal would be only 33 miles long, difficulties of construction are believed to be formidable. A not unimportant point is that the western end of the canal, should it be built, would be directly adjacent to British territory in Burma, which could easily be fortified. The canal would cost about $30,000,000 according to engineers who have inspected the site.
The foreign policy of Mr. Pradist in particular and of Siam in general is strict neutrality, with no external engagements or entanglements. The Siamese are an independent nation, and want to remain so. The greatest care is taken to steer a neutral course. For instance, Siam employs several foreign experts: an American is chosen by tradition as adviser in the foreign office, an Englishman in the ministry of finance, a Frenchman in the judiciary, and so on. Siamese nationalism has recently found expression in many small particulars; for instance, government reports, hitherto always written in English, now appear in Siamese.
Siam and China are good friends, although curiously enough there have been no diplomatic relations between the two countries for several hundred years. This is because the Chinese insist on claiming Chinese nationality for children born of Chinese parents no matter where they live. There is a very large and powerful Chinese community in Siam, probably numbering 2,500,000 in all, and the Siamese cannot accept the thesis that those of them born in Siam are Chinese by nationality.
Obviously the war in China and the steady growth of Japanese influence in southeastern Asia constitute a serious problem for Siam. The country has a certain strategic importance in that it lies between Burma and Singapore; the Siamese know this -- and so does Japan. Siam does not dare to offend Japan (yet the considerable Chinese population of Siam maintains an unofficial boycott of Japanese goods), and she must base all her calculations on the assumption that Japan may some day become an enemy. So Siamese policy is double-edged, a kind of wary friendliness -- fear of Japanese aggression combined with cautious attempt to buy it off. The Japanese have gone far with economic penetration. For instance, Japanese shipping does a thriving Siamese business and new units of the Siamese fleet have been purchased from Japan. Yet to state that Japan dominates Siamese policy would be an exaggeration.
[i] There are, however, several categories of minor nobility in Siamese; a man may successively be a "Luang," a "Phra," a "Phya" and a "Chaophya."