His successor King Chulalongkorn (Somdetj Phra Chula Chom Klao, Rama V, 1868-1910) continued his father’s reforms. He is considered the great reformer of Thailand. During his 42-year reign the country gained extraordinarily in prosperity. The first western-style postal service was established, the first roads and the first railways were built. The King succeeded in arousing the cultural interest of the higher classes, and the first lay schools were instituted. A new penal code was introduced, and Chulalongkorn by stages abolished slavery and debt-servitude. He was also the first King to attempt to curb gambling and opium consumption. In 1890 a complete reform of government and administration begun on western models: the first ministries were established and the administration of the provinces was centralised.
Externally, the King was in a difficult position in regard to the colonial powers. Britain had annexed part of Burma in 1852, and in 1882 France conquered Annam. Thailand, hemmed in between the two, had to make territorial concessions to both. To France it had to surrender north-eastern Laos in 1888, and five years later the entire territory on the left bank of the Mekong (Luang Prabang). Further losses followed in 1905 and 1907, including the provinces of Battambang and Siemreap (Cambodia). In the Malay peninsula Britain obtained the principalities of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah and Perak. But thanks to the rivalry between Britain and France, Thailand itself was able to remain independent. Chulalongkorn was followed on the throne by his son Vajiravudh (Somdetj Phra Mongkut Klao, Rama VI, 1910-1925). In 1917 he established the first university in Thailand, and in 1921 compulsory universal education was introduced. In 1916 surnames were made compulsory. The calendar was reformed on western lines. Soon after his accession, the King created a Supreme State Council. Its functions were advisory, and its members were appointed by the King himself.
Under his successor, King Prajadhipok (Somdetj Phra Pok Klao, Rama VII, 1925-1935), Thailand remained an absolute monarchy. The King indeed told the American press on a visit that he was considering the introduction of universal suffrage, but clearly was unable to overcome the resistance of the princes and leading officials. Throughout its history Thailand had never had an aristocracy in the western sense: the privileged class consisted of the “princes”, descendants of the royal house whose education made them a genuine élite. They descended in rank from one generation to the next, and after five generations the descendant of a prince reached the lowest rank.
The reforms of the 20th century had created a new bourgeois intelligentsia, who demanded a share in government. Their greatest success was the bloodless revolution of 1932 which led to the abolition of absolutism. The revolutionaries called themselves the “People’s Party”, although the people hardly knew anything of the events in Bangkok, and probably scarcely cared. The “Party” consisted in reality of a small group of young middle-class civilians and military officers. They were united only in their determination to limit the absolute power of the King and introduce a democratic constitution.
Serious differences soon arose among the new parliamentarians, and Phraya Mayo, the newly appointed Premier, quickly dissolved the assembly. Mayo, an old official of conservative leanings, had the support of the moderate revolutionaries and the confidence of the King. His influence had reached almost dictatorial proportions when the officers seized the initiative again and deposed him and his government.
In 1932 Siam became a constitutional monarchy. The new Premier, Phraya Bahol, was an army general, and the majority of the new cabinet were officers. Bahol remained in office until 1939, skilfully playing off the military and civilian elements in his cabinet. During his term of office the first general election took place. Meanwhile the army had grown strong under Phraya Pibul Songgram, an officer who had distinguished himself during the crushing of the royalist rising of 1933 and who succeeded Bahol. He recovered parts of Cambodia and Laos, and later, during World War II, with Japanese help, parts of Burma and Malaya.
The name of the country, Siam, was changed to Thailand in 1946; since 1939 the official name has been Prathet Thai; the word “Prathet” means “country” and the word “Thai” means “free” referring to the Thai people.
From the time of the Russo-Japanese War Thailand had been drawing closer to Japan. In January 1942 Thailand declared war on the USA, but the declaration, made during the Japanese occupation, was not accepted. Japanese troops landed in the Gulf of Thailand on 7 December 1941 in order to march on Burma. Thailand’s territorial gains (two Shan States, the northern provinces of Malaya and districts west of the Mekong) had to be restored after the war.
Towards the end of the war, when Japan’s defeat was inevitable, Songgram lost his post to a liberal politician. At the end of hostilities a group of “Free Thai” politicians seized power with British and American support.
As a result of the Japanese plundering of rice supplies, the country’s gold reserves and the national treasury Thailand’s hitherto stable economy was shattered, and inflation resulted. In 1946 the young King Rama VIII (Somdetj Phra Poramindara Maha Ananda Mahidol), a nephew of Rama VII’s who had been king since 1935, was murdered, and members of the government were accused of complicity. The government was overthrown in 1947 and replaced for a short time by a civilian conservative group. The regency for King Bhumibol Aduldej (Rama IX), who was still a minor, was abolished in 1948 by Pibul Songgram, who again became premier with the support of the army and established a military dictatorship. An unsuccessful coup was attempted in 1949. In 1951 the constitution of 1932 was restored, but within the framework of a military dictatorship.
But unrest continued, until General Sarit Dhanarat seized power in 1958, suspended the constitution which had been restored in 1951, and dissolved parliament. After fresh elections he formed a right-wing government with Kittikachorn as deputy premier. The next year King Bhumibol proclaimed an interim constitution, on the basis of which he called a constituent assembly with legislative powers. After Dhanarat’s death in 1963 Marshal Kittikachorn became Premier, an office he had already held in 1958.
On 20 June 1968 the king promulgated a new constitution establishing a bicameral system (Senate or Upper House, with 120 appointed members; House of Representatives, with 230 elected members).
During the latest period of democracy (1988-1991), Chatichai Choonhaven led a coalition of parties, he was arrested by the soldiers who were ordered by the military to intervene as he was in the airport hangar because of corruption charges and the accusation of inability against him. Then the non-elected primer General Suchinda Kraprayoon appointed himself to the position on May 18, 1992. In one intervening incident, hundreds of pro-democracy protestors and many Thai people were killed and wounded in the violence. King Bhumipol (Rama IX) had to intervene to stop the bloodshed confrontation. Suchinda was forced to resign and Anan Panyarchun was appointed to the temporary primer at that time.