Siamese Coup d’État of 1932: From Absolute to Constitutional Monarchy

The year 1932 marked a turning point in the history of Thailand. Faced with a failing economy, a reduced military budget, and cuts to civil service payrolls, a group of foreign-educated civilians and military leaders secretly began plotting the overthrow of the ruling princes of the Supreme Council. These princes practiced nepotism and greedily hoarded their personal wealth. In an attempt to ease the economic tension, King Prajadhipok proposed the levying of income taxes and property taxes but the Supreme Council opposed these policies, fearing that their personal fortunes would suffer. They instead made cuts to civil service and military spending, causing the Minister of Defense Prince Boworadet to resign, and angering civilians. The king himself was of a passive nature and allowed the Supreme Council to overrule him. He admitted his lack of financial acumen and publicly apologized for his failings:

“I myself do not profess to know much about the matter… if I have made a mistake I really deserve to be excused by the officials and people of Siam.”

In April of that year, Bangkok celebrated its 150th anniversary. Rama I founded the capital in 1782, after the fall of Ayutthaya. Legend tells how Rama I prophesised that his dynasty would last but 150 years. To honour the founding of the Chakri dynasty, the king had commissioned the building of a bridge to span the Chao Phraya River and a large statue of Rama I, which was sculpted by the resident Italian artist, Corrado Feroci. King Prajadhipok had promised to reveal his planned constitution during these celebrations. When the sesquicentennial passed without mention of a constitution, the People’s Party began to foment revolution.

Rama I statue

Rama I statue

Sesquicentennial celebrations

Four senior army officers joined the Promoters after sensing the growing vibe of discontent among many of Siam’s young officers and civil servants. Chief among them was Phraya Songsuradet, who became the main tactician in plotting the coup and advised the Promoters to be more secretive to avoid official detection. The coup organizers held clandestine meetings in dimly-lit boardrooms to plan the overthrow of the ruling elites. Despite their precautions, word of the coup eventually leaked to the police. On the evening of June 23, 1932, the Director General of the Police made a phone call to Prince Paribatra – who was acting Prince Regent while the king was away at his seaside resort in Hua Hin – asking him for authorization to arrest the coordinators of the coup. The prince, recognizing many of the names on the list of conspirators, decided to delay the order until the next morning, a delay that would cost him bitterly.

In the early hours of June 24, 1932, civilian and military members of the People’s Party began to gather on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.  A gunboat sailed up the Chao Phraya River and was positioned facing the residence of Prince Paribatra. Naval units arrived on the scene under false orders to suppress a Chinese uprising. Many of those gathered there on that fateful morning were unaware of the intentions of the People’s Party and there was a general air of confusion. Military units secured all strategic locations and the princes of the Supreme Council were arrested and imprisoned in the Throne Hall. Prince Paribatra was reputedly in his pyjamas when armed soldiers came to take him away; he was given no time to change his clothes. It was well known that Paribatra had strongly opposed the constitution and wished to put himself or his son on the throne in place of King Prajadhipok. Only one of the princes managed to avoid arrest. Prince Purachatra had been away at the Turkish baths in downtown Bangkok when a faithful servant came to warn him of the uprising. He escaped from Bangkok by train and disembarked in Hua Hin, where he informed King Prajadhipok of the state of affairs back in the capital.

troops on the street after the coup

Troops on the street after the coup

Tanks outside Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Tanks outside Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

When a large crowd had gathered on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, a speech was given by Phraya Manopakon (Mano) which strongly criticised the king and the ruling elites. The speech was written by Pridi Phanomyong, a French-educated radical who played a key role in organizing the coup d’état. Mano, standing on a podium on the pavilion of the Throne hall, read out the Manifesto of the People’s Party. In it, the king was accused of embezzling funds, nepotism and governing without principle. In the speech, the People’s Party invited the king to retain his position, but under a constitution which would strip him of all his theoretical powers. The king was given an ultimatum: if he did not reply, it would be taken as treason and the country would adopt a republican form of government. All this was broadcast over radio and supporters of the movement blanketed the capital with flyers and pamphlets. Despite the rousing speech, many of the onlookers remained noncommittal and waited to see the reaction of the forces that were being ousted.

Mano addressing the crowd at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Mano addressing the crowd at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Peoples Party in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

People's Party in Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

Meanwhile, King Prajadhipok was at his seaside palace, Klai Kangwon, teeing off a game of golf when Prince Purachatra came charging onto the scene talking of revolution in the capital. The king took the news with aplomb and asked his wife, Queen Rambai Barni, to finish the game of golf while he went indoors to discuss the matter with Purachatra. Also staying with the king was Prince Svasti, Queen Rambai Barni’s charismatic father, who was well known for his wit and charm. The group nervously listened to the strongly-worded radio broadcast of the People’s Party and considered what course of action to take. At first, the possibility of fleeing the country was broached but when the king turned to his wife for a final answer, she decided the most honourable thing to do would be to return and face the music. Later in the day, they received a telegram from the People’s Party which contradicted the terms set forth in their Manifesto. In the telegram, they assured King Prajadhipok that if he did not want to remain on the throne, they would be happy to replace him with another prince. Soon after, a gunboat was dispatched to Hua Hin and the commander of the vessel went ashore to ask the King to return with him to Bangkok. He refused to board the gunboat and went instead by royal train.

King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai Barni

King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambai Barni

King Prajadhipok and his entourage arrived in Bangkok late the next night and were met by a police guard who served as escort to the group. No military display was permitted at the Bangkok station and the People’s Party kept a respectful distance. Early the next morning, the king expressed his wish to meet with the leaders of the coup. Four members of the People’s Party were escorted to a room in King Prajadhipok’s palace where he was sitting behind a broad desk. He smiled and rose to greet them. “I rise,” he said, “in honour of the People’s Party.” In a country where civilians had once been obliged to prostrate themselves in the presence of the king, this significant moment was seen as a clear sign of King Prajadhipok’s willingness to agree to the terms of the People’s Party Manifesto. On June 27, 1932, King Prajadhipok signed the draft constitution, which stripped him of all his ancient powers. All the princes held captive were then released, all except Prince Paribatra, who was exiled to Germany for fear that he might stage a counter coup.

By the end of November of that year, the new government had drafted up a Permanent Constitution and it was formally signed by King Prajadhipok on December 10, 1932, thus ending 150 years of absolute monarchy.

King Prajadhipok at the signing of the Constitution

King Prajadhipok at the signing of the Constitution

The constitution

The constitution

To see more pictures from the 1932 coup d’état, visit my image blog, Siamese Visions.

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Siam Tries A People’s Party – Article from Asia Magazine 1932

A very interesting article written by Clare McKelway —->Siam Tries a Peoples Party


The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama II – The Poet King

Buddha Loetla Nabhalai - Rama II

The second king of the Chakri dynasty was born in 1767, the same year that Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese. His father was Thong Duang, the man who would later become Rama I. At that time, Thong Duang had been appointed Luang Yokrabat[1] in the provincial town of Ratchaburi, where he met and married Nak (later Queen Amarinda). She gave birth to Chim on February 24, 1767, in Amphawa, Samut Songkhram. Chim was just 16 years old when his father became king and was raised to the title of Prince Itsarasunthon. In 1807 he was appointed uparat (deputy-king) and served as such until his father’s death in 1809, when senior court officials chose him as successor to the throne. However, Prince Thammathibet – the son of Taksin and Rama I’s daughter – plotted to take power for himself with the help of numerous supporters. His plot was discovered before it was implemented and all conspirators were executed, including the prince’s male offspring. After his execution, Prince Thammathibet’s wealth, palace, servants and rice were passed on to the son of the new king-elect. The day after the executions, the anointing ceremony took place and Prince Itsarasunthon officially became king. No royal naming system was established at the time of his accession to the throne. He was later named Buddha Loetla Nabhalai and is commonly called Rama II.

Reformation

During his reign, Rama II introduced numerous reforms. One of the first things he did was to order a complete census of manpower. At the time, Thai society was broken up into four main classes: chao (royalty), khunnang (nobility), phrai (commoners) and that (slaves). Ordinary phrai were expected to perform four months corvée[2], but many of them were able to avoid their duty by circumventing the registration process. In an attempt to remedy this, Rama II issued a decree that aimed to settle all disputes regarding registered status. Runaway phrai were given the opportunity to return to their patrons and were promised that they would not be punished if they did so of their own free will. If they chose to remain in hiding, they would be forcefully arrested and imprisoned. Furthermore, tattooing the wrists of phrai who had not yet been tattooed or had changed status was to be carried out to clearly show who their master (nai) was. The practice of tattooing the wrists of commoners was introduced by King Taksin.

In 1811, Rama II appointed eight committees to the task of surveying all arable land in the central plains area. He ordered that all land must be cultivated and anyone found to own large stretches of uncultivated land would be required to hand it over to the state. All landowners were obliged to pay a land tax, which was usually paid in rice – a tax known as khawka. As well as practical reforms, the king ordered that customary ceremonies were to be carried out before measuring land, such as making offerings to the spirits of the field. People were prohibited from working upon the fields on ceremonial days and anyone caught doing so would have his land confiscated and given to others.

Rama II was a devout Buddhist and he did much to educate the Siamese people on the teachings of the Buddha. He translated the Buddhist texts from Pāli into Thai so that people would understand the prayers and in 1817 he revived the Visakabucha festival, which commemorates the day that the Buddha attained enlightenment and passed into nirvana. When a virulent strain of cholera broke out in 1820, the king relieved all people of their duties so that they could take part in chanting sacred mantras and making merit. All animals were released and allowed to roam freely while prisoners were freed. No living being was to be killed during the ceremony. Not long after, the epidemic abated. The king’s course of action shows his strong belief in the Buddhist concept of karma and it seems he attempted to fight the disease through merit making.

Golden Age of Rattanakosin Literature

Sang Thong

It was well known that Rama II was a lover of the arts and in particular the literary arts. He was an accomplished poet and anyone with the ability to write a refined piece of poetry would gain the favour of the king; this led to him being dubbed the “poet king”. It was because of this special circumstance that the poet Sunthon Phu was able to elevate himself from phrai status to khun and later phra[3]. Sunthon – also known as the drunken writer – authored numerous works, many of which are still read and studied today. Rama II rewrote much of the great literature from the reign of Rama I in a modern style. He is attributed with writing a popular version of the Thai folk tale Ramakien and wrote a number of other dance dramas such as Sang Thong. The king was a musician of renown, playing and composing for the fiddle and introducing new techniques for playing certain instruments. He was also a sculptor and is accredited with sculpting the face of the Niramitr Buddha in Wat Arun. Because of his remarkable artistic achievements, Rama II’s birthday is now officially celebrated as National Artists’ Day (Wan Sinlapin Haeng Chat) and is held in honour of those artists who have contributed to the artistic and cultural heritage of the kingdom.

The White Elephant King

Catching a white elephant


The discovery of white elephants in Thailand has always been taken as an auspicious omen and they hold a revered place in Thai society due to their symbolic relationship to monarchy, religion and national identity. Rama II had several white elephants and because of this he was nicknamed “The White Elephant King”. Towards the end of his reign, the death of two white elephants was a cause for great concern and was seen as a sign of impending misfortune. Not long after, on July 21, 1824, Buddha Loetla Nabhalai became ill and died. His reign lasted almost 15 years.

During Rama II’s reign, Siam was mostly a peaceful country and much of his time was dedicated to promoting the arts and religion. He took a somewhat backseat role in the ruling of Siam and preferred to withdraw from administrative duties, leaving much of the work to the nobles. He was the father of 73 children to 40 mothers, outdoing his father in number of offspring but falling short in number of years; he was 16 years younger that Rama I when he died.


[1] “Luang Yokrabat” is a title given to nobility that serve as legal officers, appointed by the king and attached to a provincial centre.

[2] Unpaid labour required of people of low social class.

[3] Khun and Phra are both forms of conferred nobility, with Phra being higher than Khun.

The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama I – The Founding Father


Coronation Day 2011

King Bhumibol during his coronation ceremony on May 5 1950

King Bhumibol during his coronation ceremony on May 5, 1950

Today marks the 61st anniversary of the coronation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the world’s longest reigning monarch and ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. King Bhumibol – known as “The Great” – was crowned on May 5, 1950 in an elaborate ceremony that was said to outshine all previous coronations in Thailand. Every year, on May 5, the Thai people celebrate Coronation Day (Wan Chatramongkhol) in honour of their beloved king.

At the beginning of the Rattanakosin era, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, King Phra Buddha Yodfa (Rama I) moved the capital of Siam from Thonburi to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River and named it Krung Thep (City of Angels). As he set about constructing the new capital, he also made numerous reformations; one of which was the coronation ceremony of the king. According to Rama I’s inauguration protocol, any king not undergoing the coronation ceremony would not be able to assume the term “Phrabat” in front of the King’s title of “Somdej Phrajaoyuhua”.

Up until the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), the accession to the throne of the Siamese sovereign was not publicly celebrated. Instead, a private ceremony was held in which court officials would present the royal title and articles of royal use to the king. After Rama IV ascended to the throne on April 6, 1851, he issued an edict saying that the coronation of the king should be a joyous occasion and publicly celebrated, as was the case in all other countries ruled by a sovereign.

Under the present reign of Rama IX, Coronation day is celebrated over a three-day period, starting on May 3. The first day is dedicated to the previous kings of the Chakri Dynasty and a Buddhist ceremony is held at Amarindra Vinichai Hall in the Grand Palace, in which a high monk reads scriptures and delivers a sermon. Later on the first day, flags of honour are unfurled to distinguish various military units. On the second day, Buddhist and Brahman prayers are chanted to announce the coming auspicious day. The celebrations culminate on May 5, when the king traditionally makes offerings to Buddhist monks and leads a procession three times around the Grand Palace.

King Bhumibol making an appearance at the Coronation Day celebrations 2010