Prajadhipok

Prajadhipok

[pruh-chah-ti-pok]
Prajadhipok or Rama VII, 1893-1941, king of Siam (1925-35). He was educated in England and France. He succeeded his brother Rama VI, and in 1932 a coup forced him to grant a constitution, which allowed for national suffrage and a representative parliament. In 1933 he dismissed the cabinet as too radical. A second rebellion further weakened his already faltering position. Differences over the limits subsequently placed on the royal prerogative led to his abdication in 1935. He moved to England, where he died. He was succeeded by his nephew, Ananda.

Prajadhipok (Rama VII, พระปกเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว Phra Pokklao Chaoyuhua) (November 8, 1893 - May 30, 1941) was the seventh king of the Chakri dynasty. He was the last absolute monarch and the first constitutional monarch of Siam.

Prajadhipok's reign was the shortest, and probably the most controversial, in the history of the Chakri Dynasty. On the one hand, the short history of this reign is the story of the movement of great historical forces—of political aspirations, public opinion, social and political mobilisation, and economic modernisation—while, on the other hand, it is very much the story of individuals and personalities and their effect upon historical events.

Early life

Somdej Chao Fah Prajadhipok Sakdidej (Prince Prachadhipok Sakdidej) was born November 8, 1893 in Bangkok as the last and youngest son of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and Queen Saovabha.

Unlikely to be an heir to the throne, the shy prince aimed for a quiet military career. He was educated at Eton College and the Woolwich Military Academy in England, and later on at the Ecole Superieure de Guerre in France. However, when Prajadhipok returned to Siam in 1924, he found himself rising rapidly up the ladder of succession to the throne. When his brother King Vajiravudh died in 1925, he was made king at the young age of thirty-two.

Circumstance of succession

Prince Prajadhipok was probably one of the least likely candidates for the throne at the time he was born. His mother, Queen Saovabha, was the youngest sister of Queen Savang Vadhana, who was the mother of Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis. The Vajirunhis' untimely death caused Chulalongkorn to name Prajadhipok's eldest brother, Prince Vajiravhud, the new crown prince. According to the Law later enacted by King Vajiravhud, this gave the princes born to Queen Sri Patcharindra higher priority to succession than the princes born to his father's other royal wives. In addition, because she was then mother of the crown prince, Queen Sri Patcharindra was appointed Queen Regent when King Chulalongkorn embarked on his tour of Europe. As her sister, Queen Savang Vadhana, mother of the deceased crown prince, remained just Queen Consort, Queen Sri Patcharindra's status was thus considered higher and her sons would also automatically have higher claims on that ground alone. As it turned out, none of Prajadhipok's elder brothers survived by the time King Vajiravhud died, leaving Prajadhipok as the immediate heir.

There were, however, two other princes who have more or less equal claims to the throne to Prajadhipok. One was Phra Worawong Ther Phra Ong Chao Chula Chakrapongse (Prince Chula Chakrabongse, son of Field Marshal Chao Fa Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Phitsanulok), the other was Mom Chao Waranonthawach (Prince Waranonthawath, son of Chao Fa Juthatutch of Petchaboon). Both the Prince of Phitsanulok and the Prince of Petchaboon were Prince Prajadhipok's elder brothers, but both had died. It was clear cut in the case of Prince Waranonthawach, as King Vajiravhud had specifically removed him from the line of succession because his mother was a commoner. It was more ambiguous for Prince Chula Chakrabongse. In fact, Prince Chakrabongse had been the heir-apparent to King Vajiravhud. However, the problem was that he had married a Russian noblewoman, and Prince Chula Chakrabongse was therefore only half-Thai. Marriage to a foreigner is one of the conditions that prohibit a prince from succeeding to the throne. However, the law that said so was enacted after this particular marriage, and King Chulalongkorn had in fact endorsed the wedding. It also appeared that King Vajiravhud more or less endorsed the legality of Prince Chakrabongse as his successor, and therefore Prince Chula Chakrabongse might have a higher claim.

Tradition required that the senior members of the Royal Family meet to select the next king. After consideration of these points, and possibly some muscle-flexing by Field Marshal Prince Boripat of Nakornsawan, Prince Prajadhipok of Sukhothai was offered the throne.

The debate, however, would return again when King Prajadhipok abdicated on March 2, 1935. See also Ananda Mahidol's succession.

King Prajadhipok was crowned on November 26,1925.

Reigning name

He was normally referred to as Phrabat Somdet Phra Pokklao Chao Yuhua (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปกเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว) and in legal documents as Phrabat Somdet Phra Poraminthramaha Prajadhipok Phra Pokklao Chao Yuhua (พระบาทสมเด็จพระปรมินทรมหาประชาธิปก พระปกเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว)

Informally, Thai people refer to him as Ratchakan thi Chet (lit. 'The Seventh Reign') and in English translation as King Rama VII. It should be noted that he did not use the name Rama in Thai.

The last absolute monarch

Unprepared for his new responsibilities, all Prajadhipok had in his favour was a lively intelligence, a certain diplomacy in his dealings with others, a modesty and industrious willingness to learn, and the somewhat tarnished, but still potent, magic of the crown.

The initial legacy that Prajadhipok received from his elder brother were problems of the sort that had become chronic in the Sixth Reign. The most urgent of these was the economy: the finances of the state were in chaos, the budget heavily in deficit, and the royal accounts an accountant's nightmare of debts and questionable transactions. That the rest of the world was in deep economic depression following First World War did not help the situation either.

Within half a year only three of Vajiravhud's twelve ministers stayed on, the rest having been replaced by members of the royal family. On the one hand, these appointments brought back men of talent and experience, on the other, it signalled a return to royal oligarchy. The King obviously wanted to demonstrate a clear break with the discredited sixth reign, and the choice of men to fill the top positions appeared to be guided largely be a wish to restore a Chulalongkorn-type government.

Virtually the first act of Prajadipok as king entailed an institutional innovation intended to restore confidence in the monarchy and government, the creation of the Supreme Council of the State. This privy council was made up of a number of experienced and extremely competent members of the royal family, including the long time Minister of the Interior (and King Chulalongkorn's right hand man) Prince Damrong Rajanubhab. Gradually these princes arrogated increasing power by monopolising all the main ministerial positions. Many of them felt it their duty to make amends for the mistakes of the previous reign, but it was not generally appreciated, for the government failed to communicate to the public the purpose of the policies they were pursuing to rectify Vajiravhud's financial extravagances.

Unlike his predecessor, the king diligently read virtually all state papers that came his way, from ministerial submissions to petitions by citizens. The king was painstaking and conscientious; he would elicit comments and suggestions from a range of experts and study them assiduously, noting the good points in each submission, but when various options were available he would seldom be able to select one and abandon others. He would often rely upon the Supreme Council to persuade him in a particular direction.

In 1932, with the country deep in depression, the Supreme Council opted to introduce cuts in official spending, including the military budget. The King foresaw that these policies might create discontent, especially in the army, and he therefore convened a special meeting of officials to explain why the cuts were necessary. In his addressed he stated the following:

I myself know nothing at all about finances, and all I can do is listen to the opinions of others and choose the best... If I have made a mistake, I really deserve to be excused by the people of Siam.

No previous monarch of Siam had ever spoken in such terms. Many interpreted the speech not as Prajadhipok apparently intended, namely as a frank appeal for understanding and cooperation. They saw it as a sign of his weakness and evidence that a system which perpetuated the rule of fallible autocrats should be abolished.

King Prajadhipok then turned his attention to the question of future politics in Siam. Inspired by the British example, the King wanted to allow the common people to have a say in the country's affairs by the creation of a parliament. A proposed constitution was ordered to be drafted, but the King's wishes were rejected by his advisers. Foremost among them were Prince Damrong and Francis B. Sayre, Siam's adviser in foreign affairs, who felt that the population was politically immature and unready for democracy - a conclusion also reached, ironically, by the promoters of the People's Party.

However, spurred on by agitation for radical constitutional change, the King in 1926 began moves to develop the concept of prachaphiban, or 'municipality', which had emerged late in the fifth reign as a law regarding santitation. Information was obtained regarding local self-government in surrounding countries, and proposals to allow certain municipalities to raise local taxes and manage their own budgets were drawn up. The fact that the public was not sufficiently educated to make the scheme work militated against the success of this administrative venture however. Nevertheless, the idea of teaching the Siamese concept of democracy through a measure of decentralisation of power in municipalities had become, in Prajadhipok's mind, fundamental to future policy making. Before practical steps could be taken, however, the days of the absolute monarchy were over.

The coup

A comparatively small group of soldiers and civil servants, however, felt that the time for a change had come. This led to an almost bloodless "revolution" in the early morning of June 24,1932 by the so-called People's Party (Khana Ratsadon - คณะราษฎร) who took control of one of the royal palaces in Bangkok and arrested key officials (mainly the princes) while the king was at his summer retreat in Hua Hin. The People's Party demanded that Prajadhipok agree to become a constitutional monarch and grant the Thai people a constitution. The King agreed and the first "permanent" constitution was promulgated on December 10,1932.

His arrival back in Bangkok on June 26 dispelled for the time being any thoughts the promoters might have had of establishing a republic. One of his first acts was to receive some of the leading promoters in audience: as they entered the room, the King greeted them with the words "I rise in honour of the Khana Ratsadorn." It was a very significant gesture. According to Siamese tradition, monarchs remain seated while their subjects make obeisance.

Constitutional monarch

The King's relations with the People's Party declined quickly, particularly after the ousting of Phraya Mano.

In October 1933 the maverick Prince Boworadej, a popular one-time Minister of Defence who had resigned from Prajadhipok's cabinet in protest of the budget cuts, led an armed revolt against the government. He mobilised various provincial garrisons and marched on Bangkok, capturing the Don Muang aerodome in the process. The Prince accused the government of disrespecting the King and of promoting communism, and demanded that the government leaders resign. He had hoped that some of the garrisons in the Bangkok area would join the revolt, but they remained loyal to the government. In the meanwhile, the navy declared itself neutral and left for its bases in the south. After heavy fighting in the northern outskirts of Bangkok, the royalists were finally defeated and Prince Bovoradej left for exile in Indochina.

Although there is no evidence that Prajadhipok supported the revolt, the effect of the repression of the insurrection was the diminishing of the King's prestige. When the revolt had broken out, Prajadhipok declared in a telegram that he regretted the strife and civil disturbances. It is not clear whether the king was motivated by fear of being captured by rebels, or by the wish to avoid have to make further choices between Phahol and Bovoradej, the fact remains that at the height of the fighting the royal couple took refuge at Songkhla. The king's withdrawal from the scene was interpreted by the victorious party as a sign that he had failed to do his duty. By refusing to throw his full support behind the government forces he had undermined his credibility.

In 1934 the Assembly voted in favour of amending the civil and military penal codes. One change was a stipulation that in future death sentences could be implemented without first having to secure royal approval. The King protested, and in two letters submitted to the Assembly claimed the abrogation of such a time-honoured custom would be contrary to the will of the people, who would think that the government had arrogated the right to sign death warrants in order to deal with political prisoners more swiftly. As a compromise the King proposed holding a national referendum on the issue.

Many of the Assembly members were angered. They believed that in proposing a referendum, the King was implying that the Assembly did not represent the will of the people. Hence they voted in a resentful mood to re-affirm the amendments to the penal codes.

King Prajadhipok, whose relations with the new government had been deteriorating for some time, went on a tour of western Europe before visiting England for medical treatment. While abroad, he carried on a correspondence with the government that centred on terms under which he would continue to serve as a constitutional monarch. In addition to requesting the continuation of some traditional royal prerogatives, such as the right to grant pardons, he was anxious to mitigate somehow the undemocratic nature of the new regime. Agreement was soon reached on a formula which would remove the King's objections to amending the penal codes, but he then indicated that he was not willing to return home before certain guarantees were forthcoming for his personal safety, and the constitution was amended to eliminate the nominated members of the Assembly and make it an entirely elective body. The government refused, and on October 14 Prajadhipok informed the government of his intention to abdicate immediately unless his demands were met.

The People's Party rejected the ultimatum, and on 2 March 1935, Prajadhipok abdicated. He issued a brief statement criticising the regime that included the following phases, since often quoted by critics of Thailand's slow political development:

I am willing to surrender the powers I formerly exercised to the people as a whole, but I am not willing to turn them over to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people.

As an idealistic democrat, the former king had good grounds for complaint. The Executive Committee and Cabinet did not seem eager to develop an atmosphere of debate or to be guided by resolutions of the Assembly.

Reaction to the abdication was muted. Everybody was afraid of what might happen next. The government refrained from challenging any assertions in the King's abdication statement for fear of arousing further controversy. Opponents of the government kept quiet because they felt intimidated and forsaken by the King whom they regarded as the only person capable of standing up to the promoters. In other words, the absolutism of the monarchy had been replaced by that of the People's Party with the military looming in the wings as the ultimate arbiter of power.

Life after abdication

He spent the rest of his life with Queen Ramphaiphanni in England. At the time of abdication, the couple was living at Knowle House, in Surrey, just outside London. However, this house was not really suitable for his health, so they moved to Glen Pammant, still in Surrey, a smaller house but with more walking space. They remained there for two years. The couple had no children, but adopted the infant son of one of Prajadhipok's deceased brothers. (The stepson, Prince Jirasakdi, would later serve as a RAF fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain. He died on duty in 1942.)

They moved again to Vane Court, the oldest house in the village of Biddenden in Kent. He led a peaceful life there, gardening in the morning and writing his autobiography in the afternoon.

In 1938 the royal couple moved to Compton House, in the village of Wentworth in Virginia Water, Surrey.

Due to active bombing by the German Luftwaffe in 1940, the couple again moved, first to a small house in Devon, and then to Lake Vyrnwy Hotel in Powys, Wales, where the former king suffered a heart attack.

The couple returned to Compton House, as he expressed his preference to die there. King Prajadhipok died from heart failure on May 30, 1941.

His cremation was held at the Golders Green Crematorium in North London. It was a simple affair attended by just Queen Ramphai and a handful of close relatives. Queen Ramphaiphanni stayed at Compton House for a further eight years before she returned to Thailand in 1949, bringing the King's ashes back with her.

Written only up to the point when he was 25, the King's autobiography was left unfinished.

Legacy

Of all the recent Chakri monarchs, particularly Chulalongkorn and Bhumibol, Prajadhipok emerged with little revisionistic detraction. He was a hard-working, effective administrator who was intellectually equal to the demands of his office, but whose main failing was to underestimate the Bangkok elite's growing need for change. As late as his death in exile, many, as the historian David K. Wyatt puts it, "would have agreed with his judgement that a move towards democracy in 1932 was premature."

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