Prince Somdet Chaofa Prajadhipok Sakdidej, who later became King Prajadhipok, King Rama VII, the last absolute monarch and the first constitutional monarch of Siam, was born 8 November 1893, in Bangkok, Siam (now Thailand). He was one of the 9 children and the youngest of 5 sons born to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and Queen Saovabha Bongsri. He was also the second youngest of King Rama V’s 77 children, and the youngest of that king’s 33 sons. King Phrapokklao, Rama VII, reigned for only 10 years, from 1925 to 1935. He died 30 May 1941, in Cranleigh, Surrey, England.
With his many brothers in line before him, it seemed unlikely that Prince Prajadhipok would succeed to the throne of Siam. As were many of Rama V’s children, Prince Prajadhipok was educated abroad. He pursued a military career. He was sent to Eton College in 1906, then to the Woolwich Military Academy where he graduated in 1913. After graduating, he received a commission in the British Army and was based in Aldershot. In 1910 his father, King Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam, died. Prince Prajadhipok’s older brother, Crown Prince Vajiravudh, succeeded to the throne and became King Vajiravudh, King Rama VI of Siam. With the outbreak of WWI, and the declaration of Thailand’s neutrality, King Vajiravudh ordered his younger brother to resign his British commission and return home to Siam immediately. Prajadhipok became a high-ranking military official in Siam. Then in 1917 he was ordained temporarily as a Buddhist monk.
Being ordained as a Buddhist monk and staying in the monastery for at least three months was, and still is, customary for Buddhist Siamese men. Having said this I hasten to add that of course there always were, and still are, those young men who do not become ordained, and of those who do become ordained, some only serve a day or so, or a few weeks, in the monkhood: a young man may be excused from staying in the monkhood longer if, say, if they have a job or studies they must return to, or perhaps something like an ill parent who needs their help at home, or if they are a royal. But from what I understand, no young man is excused from the army. It is mandatory for all young Siamese (Thai) men, once they turn 20 years of age, to enter the Siamese army for two years of service. It is not until they have carried out these mandatory duties that they are free to marry. What I can say from knowing the Siamese Buddhist people who befriended Bob and I, is that Siamese Buddhists, both the men and women, are truly lovely, genuine people–very calm, quiet, gentle, very deep-thinking, very far-seeing, very honest, very kind, and very spiritual. As well, they are very friendly, but they are also nobody’s fool.
After the war in Europe ended, Prince Prajadhipok attended the École Superieure de Guerre in France before then returning to Siam to the Siamese military. Then in the August of 1918, he married his childhood friend and cousin at the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace with the King’s blessing. During this time he was granted the additional title Krom Luang Sukhothai (Prince of Sukhothai). The young couple chose to live a quiet life at their residence, Sukhothai Palace, next to the Chao Phraya River. They had no children, but adopted Prince Jirasakdi, the infant grandson of one of King Chulalongkorn’s full brothers. As an adult, Prince Jirasakdi served as a pilot in Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary. He died when the plane he was flying crashed in 1942.
All Prince Prajadhipok’s brothers died within a relatively short period, and he rose rapidly in succession to the throne. In 1925, King Vajiravudh, King Rama VI himself died at the age of 44, and Prince Prajadhipok became absolute monarch at only thirty-two. He was crowned King of Siam on 25 February 1926. As the monarch, Prajadhipok was referred to by his reigning name of Phrabat Somdet Phra Pokklao Chao Yuhua: in legal documents he was more formally called Phrabat Somdet Phra Poraminthramaha Prajadhipok Phra Pokklao Chao Yuhua. It is said today that Thais sometimes refer him Ratchakan thi Chet (literally, “The Seventh Reign”) or more colloquially, Phra Pok Klao, and in English, King Rama VII of Thailand. The system of referring to Chakri rulers as “Rama” (followed by a number) was instituted by King Vajiravudh to follow European practice. But while Bob and I were in Thailand I never heard this former king referred to by any other name than King Prajadhipok or King Rama VII.
From the people I spoke to, and who told me about Rama VII, I came to understand that his reign was a turbulent time for Siam (Thailand). Even though an intelligent man and diplomatic in his dealings with others, King Prajadhipok had not been raised to the throne. Nevertheless, he was eager to learn. But he had inherited serious problems from his predecessor, his elder brother, King Vajiravudh, King Rama VI of Siam. The most urgent of these problems was the state of the economy: the budget was heavily in deficit. Added to that, the entire world was suffering in the grip of the Great Depression. In an institutional innovation intended to restore confidence in the monarchy and government, Rama VII, in what was virtually his first act as king, announced the creation of the Supreme Council of the State of Siam.
In forming his Council, King Prajadhipok more than likely intended to demonstrate a clean break with the discredited sixth reign of his brother, King Vajiravudh, King Rama VI, when he announced the creation of the Supreme Council of the State of Siam. Within 6 months of beginning his reign only three of the former king’s twelve ministers still served the new king, the rest having been replaced by a number of experienced and competent members of the royal family, including the former long-serving Minister of the Interior (and King Chulalongkorn’s right-hand man), Prince Damrong Rajanubhab. King Prajadhipok’s choice of men to fill the top positions appeared to be guided by a wish to recreate a Chulalongkorn-type government, in the hope of restoring confidence in the monarchy and government. While the family appointments brought back men of talent and experience, they also signalled a return to royal oligarchy. Gradually these princes gave power to themselves, monopolising the main ministerial positions and appointing various of their relatives–sons, nephews, brothers, cousins, for instance–to administrative and military posts. Many of the Council felt it was their duty to make amends for the mistakes of the previous reign, but their acts were not generally appreciated: the government failed to communicate to the public the purpose of the policies they pursued to rectify King Vajiravhud’s financial extravagances.
King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, was very concerned with the question of future politics in Siam. He wanted to allow common people to have a say in the country’s affairs with the creation of a parliament. Unlike his predecessor, the king carefully perused virtually all state papers and petitions by citizens, noting the different points, and then seeking comments and suggestions from a range of experts. But when various solutions to the problems presented themselves to the inexperienced king, he was indecisive, and was unable to select one at the expense of others. In these instances, he would often rely upon the Supreme Council to prod him in a particular direction. In 1926, in his vision for teaching the Siamese the concept of democracy, the king, spurred on by agitation for radical constitutional change, began moves to develop the concept of prachaphiban, or “municipality”. Information was obtained regarding local self-government in other 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 a reality worked against the success of this administrative venture. Nevertheless, the idea of teaching the Siamese the concept of democracy through a measure of decentralisation of power in municipalities had become, in King Prajadhipok’s mind, fundamental to future policy making.
A proposed constitution was ordered to be drafted, but the king’s wishes were rejected by his advisers. Two of Rama VII’s leading advisers–one of whom was the former long-serving Minister of the Interior (and, incidentally, King Chulalongkorn’s right-hand man,) Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, and the other of whom was Francis B. Sayre, Siam’s adviser in foreign affairs and an important political figure–felt that the population was politically immature and not yet ready for democracy. This was also the conclusion reached by the Khana Ratsadorn, the self-proclaimed “People’s Party” of Siam.
In 1932, like the rest of the world Siam was in deep in the throes of the Great Depression. As one measure for saving, the Supreme Council opted to introduce cuts in spending, civil service payrolls, and military budgets. The king foresaw that these policies might create discontent, so he convened a special meeting of officials to explain why the cuts were absolutely necessary to Siam’s survival. In his address he said, “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.” It has been well-noted by numerous political-historical sources that no previous monarch had ever spoken so honestly, or made such a frank appeal for understanding and cooperation. It has also been noted that many of the king’s officials interpreted his words as a sign of weakness and proof that the system of rule of fallible autocrats should be abolished. Some of these officials and others–a small group of soldiers and civil servants–began to secretly plot to overthrow the absolute monarchy and bring a constitutional government to the kingdom. Their efforts culminated in a “bloodless” revolution.
On the morning of 24 June 1932, a revolution was carried out by the People’s Party, or Khana Ratsadorn, against absolute monarchy, against the absolute rule of King Prajadhipok, Rama VII of Siam. With the king away in the north of the country, the Khana Ratsadorn took control of the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok and arrested key officials who were, in the main, princes and relatives of the king. They demanded the end of absolute monarchy, and that King Prajadhipok become a constitutional monarch instead, and that he grant the people of Siam a constitution. If in the case that their demands should not met to their satisfaction, they reserved the right to declare Siam a republic. The king immediately accepted the People’s Party’s request. He returned to Bangkok and received the coup plotters in a royal audience. As the People’s Party entered the room, contrary to the accepted and traditional royal ritual where monarchs were to remain seated while their subjects made obeisance, King Prajadhipok stood and greeted them with the words: “I rise in honour of the Khana Ratsadorn.” In this one significant gesture King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, acknowledged the changed circumstances, and absolute monarchy in Siam was ended for good. On 10 December 1932, a “permanent” charter was announced publically with the blessings of King Rama VII who was now the new constitutional monarch.
The constitution stripped the king of most of his powers, which were then instead exercised by the new Government of Siam. This new government included the People’s Assembly (the legislature), the People’s Committee (the executive), and the Supreme Court, (the judiciary). The president of this new Public Committee was to be the head of government and in effect the de facto Prime Minister of Siam. The role was accepted by the 48-year-old former Minister of Justice, Privy Councillor and Middle Temple lawyer Phraya Manopakorn Nititada. His title was later changed to prime minister after the old title was deemed to be communistic. In effect, the absolutism of the monarchy had been replaced by that of the People’s Party, with the military looming on the horizon as the ultimate arbiter of power. Though personally convinced of the necessity of moving toward democratic political reforms, King Rama VII, welcomed the opportunity to reign as a constitutional monarch but was repulsed by growing military rule. The king’s relations with the People’s Party deteriorated quickly, particularly after the ousting of Phraya Manopakorn Nititada as prime minister by the Khana Ratsadon’s leader Phraya Phahol Phonphayuhasena.
On 15 March 1933 Dr. Pridi Phanomyong, one of the founding members of the People’s Party, revolutionary, and member of the People’s Committee and minister of state, submitted to the People’s Assembly the “Draft National Economic Plan” or the “Yellow Cover Dossier”. This dossier outlined Pridi’s plan for the country’s economic, financial, and social structure, and was intended by Pridi as a plan to follow to try to raise the standard of living of the masses, and in particular that of the many rural poor. Immediately upon publication the plan drew criticism on the socialistic nature of the dossier, as well as charges of communism, and charges that Pridi was instigating a social revolution. The criticisms also targeted Phraya Mano, who allowed Pridi to publish such a plan. Despite these charges the People’s Party, and especially the young revolutionaries and most of the urban middle class and rural poor, stood behind Pridi in his defence. The debate exploded into a constitutional crisis when King Prajadhipok, who had confessed to the nation that he had little knowledge of financial affairs, attacked Pridi verbally, asking Pridi if he was copying Stalin. The royal intervention drew even more outrage from the public, this time not directed at Pridi but at the king for violating the constitution and in effect criticising his own constitutional government. This also led to a lawsuit by a Mr. Thawan Ritthidet, a civilian suing the monarch on the grounds he violated the constitution by interfering in political affairs. The People’s Committee was split between those who supported Pridi and those who opposed him, and who were led by Phraya Mano himself who by now had realised the danger of Pridi’s plans. A number of the more influential members of the Party actively threatened the lives of Pridi and his supporters. Phraya Mano had no choice other than to call for the dissolution of the People’s Assembly.
On 1 April 1933, under emergency decree some parts of the constitution, including the legislature and the judiciary, was suspended. On the 2 April, the government repealed the “Anti-Communist Act”, which gave the police executive powers to arrest without trial, citizens who are considered to be communists. Under this law the People’s Party was disbanded. The Communist Party of Siam’s central committee was arrested along with numerous others accused of having communist sympathies. Many left wing newspapers and publications were also suppressed. This event is called the “silent coup”, and is considered by many historians as the first “real” coup d’état instigated by the military in Thailand against a constitutional government. On 12 April Pridi was exiled to France.
On 15 June 1933, Army Colonel Phraya Phahol Pholphayuhasena (or Phot Phahonyothin), a member of the People’s Party and a minister of state resigned from his seat on the People’s Committee, citing health reasons. In actual fact, he and Naval Commander Luang Supphachalasai were conspiring to overthrow Phraya Mano’s government. With the support of the army, the navy, and the civilian factions within the People’s Party, and most of Bangkok’s populace, the Colonel was able to act on his plans.
On 20 June 1933, the Siamese Coup d’état, which was considered the first time in Thai history that the military successfully overthrew the constitutional government, took place peacefully in Bangkok. Led by Colonel Phraya Phahol Pholphayuhasena against the premiership of the Premier Phraya Manopakorn Nititada, the coup was virtually a counter-coup against the dictatorial policies of Phraya Mano stemming from the Yellow cover dossier crisis. On 20 June Phraya Phahol and Luang Supachalasai, seized the National Assembly building and proclaiming themselves as the legitimate government. Citing the fact that the present government has acted illegally in dissolving the assembly and that they would return the constitution, which the previous administration had suspended, Phraya Phahol appointed himself the country’s second prime minister and Luang Supachalasai a minister of state. He immediately recalled the People’s Assembly and asked the Speaker to submit to King Prajadhipok at his Summer Palace in Hua Hin, the reasons behind the coup. The king duly accepted. He also pardoned Pridi and recalled him from exile. Immediate resistance against the coup was limited and quickly dissolved as Phraya Mano resigned and escaped to a part of what was then British Malaya, where he died in 1948.
There is, and never has been, any evidence that Prajadhipok gave support to the rebellion. Nevertheless, the insurrection diminished the king’s prestige. When the revolt began, King Prajadhipok informed the government that he regretted the strife and civil disturbances, and the royal couple then took refuge in the far south of Siam (Thailand). The king’s withdrawal from the scene was interpreted by the Khana Ratsadorn as a failure to do his duty. By not throwing his full support behind government forces, he had undermined their trust in him.
In 1934 the Assembly voted to amend civil and military penal codes. One of the proposed changes would allow death sentences to be carried out without the king’s approval. The king protested. He submitted letters to the Assembly in which he said that ending a time-honoured custom and a royal prerogative would make the people think that the government desired the right to sign death warrants to eliminate political opponents. As a compromise, he proposed holding a national referendum on the issue. Many in the Assembly were angered. They felt the king was implying that the Assembly did not actually represent the will of the people and voted to re-affirm the penal code changes.
King Prajadhipok, whose relations with his chosen government had been deteriorating for some time, was not a well man but nevertheless had royal duties to fulfill. He went on a tour of Europe before then visiting England for medical treatment. He continued to correspond with the government regarding the conditions under which he would continue to serve. As well as retaining some traditional royal prerogatives, such as, for instance, granting pardons, he was anxious to put a halter on the increasingly undemocratic nature of the new regime. Agreement was reached on the penal codes, but King Prajadhipok indicated he was unwilling to return home to Siam until guarantees were made for his safety and the constitution amended to make the Assembly an entirely elected body. The government refused to fully comply with the king’s conditions, and on 14 October Prajadhipok announced his intention to abdicate unless his requests were met.
The People’s Party rejected the ultimatum. The Executive Committee and Cabinet did not seem eager to develop an atmosphere of debate or to be guided by resolutions of the Assembly. The rule of Rama VII, King Prajadhipok, was finished. On 2 March 1935, King Prajadhipok abdicated, to be replaced by Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII. In his abdication speech King Prajadhipok issued a brief statement criticising the regime that included the following phrase: “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.” Generally speaking, reaction to the abdication was muted. 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 regime.
To date, he is the only Siamese monarch of the Chakri Dynasty to abdicate. Even given the deletion of absolute monarchy, once a king is crowned monarch in Thailand, they remain King for life. After his abdication, the king and his wife left Siam to live in England. There, they lived a quiet existence. The king attended his beloved garden in the mornings, and busied himself with writing his autobiography in the afternoons. King Prajadhipok died from heart failure on 30 May 1941 without completing his autobiographies.
His cremation was held in North London, and was attended by just his Queen and a few close relatives. Queen Ramphaiphanni stayed at their home in England for a further eight years before returning to Thailand in 1949, bringing the king’s ashes back with her so that he could be interred on his home soil.
Perhaps one of Thailand’s best kept secrets is Surin Beach, a beautiful area that was once owned and greatly loved by King Rama VII and his wife. In fact, King Rama VII and his wife loved the area so much that in the 1920s, shortly into his reign, he built a beach-house there, and laid out gardens and a nine-hole golf course along the beach-side strip. This was Phuket’s first golf course and one of the oldest in Siam. During his reign the house and the course were used frequently by the King and his wife, and their guests. Years after King Rama VII had died, members of the royal family still used the house and the gardens and the course on weekends and holidays, and as a place to take or offer their guests. I heard that the beach-residence was also visited by HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family in 1959. The Royal golf-course on Surin Beach in Phuket is now no more, and the house, which is small by royal standards, is no longer in use and has fallen into disrepair, and is now owned by the people. The area that once belonged to the King is now largely in disuse except as a park, and the once-beautiful gardens surrounding the former King’s beach-house are overgrown and in a mess.
Today, beautiful Surin Beach and the beach-side strip that was once a parkland and golf- course that belonged to the King, is there to be enjoyed by the locals and visitors alike. I could be wrong here when I say this, but from what I was told I gather that until recently, the royal beach-house was open to the public and to tourists at set times of the week. Now though, it is closed for restoration, but once it is restored to its former glory the intention of the government is to again opened it to visitors to look inside. As well, the house’s gardens and the former King’s once time golf-course is undergoing a make-over by the government. Their plan is to turn these into beautiful gardens and parklands.
Although we walked on the beach and the beach-side strip, and in the gardens surrounding the former King’s beach-house every day we there in Surin, we were unable to see inside the house itself because it was closed for restorations. But we did take many photos, some of which I have posted below: