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.


Temple of the Emerald Buddha – Sacred or Sacrificed

Wat Phra Kaew 1932

Wat Phra Kaew 1932

In Bangkok’s spiritual heart, next to the lifeline of the Chao Phraya River, is Wat Phra Kaew – known by foreigners as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Located in the northeast corner of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew is one of Bangkok’s must-see temples and draws hundreds of visitors each day. The temple houses the Emerald Buddha statue, which was brought to Bangkok by Rama I when he was a general in the army of King Taksin. In 1785, when the Grand Palace was officially opened, Rama I enshrined the Emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew, where it has remained since.

To get to the temple, take the express boat to Tha Chang, then take a short walk along Thanon Na Phra Lan through the maze of street vendors and souvenir sellers until you come to the Gate of Glorious Victory. Once you step through the gates you will get a glimpse of the magnificent spires of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi and Phra Mondop, which are located on the upper terrace. This tantalizing view is just the tip of the iceberg, and more wonders wait to be revealed inside. The ticket office is at the end of the driveway on the left. As of the time of this blog post, tickets cost 400 baht for foreigners.

Wat Phra Kaew - View of the shimmering spires from the 1930s

Wat Phra Kaew - View of the shimmering spires, circa 1930

Inside the temple grounds, your eyes will be dazzled by the iridescent blues, reds, golds and silvers of the mirrors adorning the temple walls, which refract light in a thousand directions. Surrounding the whole compound are high arcaded walls, decorated with murals showing scenes from the Thai national epic, Ramakien. Fearsome statues, known as Yaksha, guard the Emerald Buddha and ward off evil spirits. The whole scene is like something from a gaudy fairytale, and the English novelist, W. Somerset Maugham wrote of it:

“It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth.”

Since it was first built under Rama I, successive kings have added to and renovated Wat Phra Kaew. A wide range of architectural styles are present throughout the temple grounds including Thai, European and Chinese. This gives the temple its hodge-podge nature. During the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV), a scale model of Angkor Wat was introduced. At the time, Cambodia was a vassal state of Thailand and Rama IV reputedly wanted to move the entire Angkor Wat to Bangkok. However, he was dissuaded from this excessive undertaking and decided instead to commission a scale model. To the east of the upper terrace is Phrasat Phra Thep Bidon, known as the Royal Pantheon. This ornate building is designed in Khmer style and features life-size statues of all the previous kings. It is only open on ceremonial days such as Chakri Day (April 6), when the current Chakri dynasty is celebrated, and Coronation Day (May 5).

Yaksha in Wat Phra Kaew

Yaksha in Wat Phra Kaew, 1930s

The Emerald Buddha is enshrined inside the bot, the largest building at Wat Phra Kaew and one of the few original structures remaining. The bot is garishly decorated in traditional Thai style, with gilt and coloured glass walls surrounded by 112 garudas (birdmen) holding nagas (serpents), telling the tale of Indra, the god who saved the world by defeating the serpent-cloud that had swallowed all the rain water. Inside the bot, the Emerald Buddha sits on a nine-metre-high pedestal. This legendary statue is revered as protector of the country and only the king is allowed to touch it. The king traditionally changes the Buddha’s costume three times in the year to correspond with the start of the hot season, rainy season and cool season. Despite being called the Emerald Buddha, the statue is carved from a piece of solid jade, in the meditating posture of the Lanna school of northern Thailand. The statue was first discovered in 1434 when “lightning” shattered a chedi in Chiang Rai. In the ensuing chaos, a stucco Buddha image fell and some of the stucco was chipped, revealing the Emerald Buddha beneath. The figure then moved to Lampang and Vientiane before finally being carried to Thonburi by Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I) in 1779.

The Emerald Buddha wearing his three seasonal costumes

The Emerald Buddha wearing his three seasonal costumes

If you’re looking for the tranquillity and authenticity of a traditional Buddhist temple, you won’t find it at Wat Phra Kaew. The steady stream of tourists ensures that the place is constantly bustling with a multitude of languages and nationalities. This makes it hard to really appreciate the beauty of Wat Phra Kaew and you will spend most of your time trying to avoid getting in other people’s photographs, or getting them in yours. As you enter the central bot, you will most likely get pulled along by the strong current of people – all fighting for space to leave their shoes – and find that you don’t really get any time to observe the exotic images that surround the walls. Before you know what’s happened, you will be back outside wondering what all the hassle was about. Wat Phra Kaew is best visited in the morning while you still have plenty of energy, it could be a real drain in the late afternoon.

The temple is definitely worth a visit but for a quiet place to relax, you’d be better heading to temples such as Wat Sanghathan, which, although off the tourist radar, is a great place to take in the ambiance of temple life. Wat Phra Kaew, unfortunately, has become little more than a money making machine, where the original sanctity has been replaced by the creeping tentacles of capitalism and the rush towards “modernism.” The Thais are a Buddhist people, and Buddhists believe in the universal concept of cause and effect. One has to wonder what the effect of all those unaccountable masses will be. If the countless kisses of pilgrims can wear away the foot of the statue of St. Peter in the Basilica, what will the noisy calamity of tourists in Wat Phra Kaew bring about as they continue to flock in the selfish pursuit of been-there-and-done-that.


New iPhone guided tour comes to Thailand

The cover page of the guided tour

For the last few months I have been lucky enough to be part of something big in the world of iPhone apps. In early January of this year, I discovered a call for writers who “know Thailand” on craigslist and, deciding that I had nothing to lose, I sent out an email expressing my wish to take the job. I didn’t expect to get a reply and so when I got an email saying that I seemed like the ideal candidate, I was a pleasantly surprised.

Even more surprising was the assignment I was given: I had to write a “historical” tour guide. Did I have to travel through time? Not quite.

Rama – an app designed by New York-based Crimson Bamboo – is available on the iPhone and puts a unique spin on the role of tour guides. The app harnesses the power of GPS, archival photographs and storytelling to create compelling tours that not only direct you to intriguing locations, but also inform and entertain you. Rama offers guided tours in a number of cities throughout the world and is looking to add new tours in the near future. This tour is the first for Thailand.

 “Bangkok in the 1930s” takes you through a decade of economic crisis, coup d’états, political intrigue and the birth of a new nation. The narrative is set against the backdrop of Bangkok’s most famous temples and palaces and the tour guides you to places such as the Annanta Sammakhom Throne Hall – where the People’s Party staged a coup d’état in 1932 and ousted King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).

If you’re planning a trip to Bangkok, this guided tour offers you the perfect opportunity to discover places that you may otherwise overlook, while learning about the country’s history in a compelling and interactive way.

“Bangkok in the 1930s” is available as an in-app purchase at $1.99 on Rama, an iPhone app found on iTunes: http://bit.ly/iTunesRama or through the developer’s website at http://www.crimsonbamboo.com.