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Thailand and the Royalty*
In the current royalist frenzy over lèse-majesté in Thailand, which has got people arrested for flimsy pretexts including not standing in theatres during the king's anthem, one fact has been forgotten. One of Thailand's most revered monarchs abolished the practice of prostration and sought to eliminate acts of subjugation.
King Chulalongkorn, who ruled the country from 1853 to 1910 and is considered one of its greatest monarchs, abolished the practice of going to one's knees in front of the monarch and had a notice published in the Royal Siamese Government Gazette of 1873 that "the abolition of this practice is indeed to show the world that Siam rejects any oppressive and unjust practice."
Chulalongkorn, who reigned as Rama V, is credited with the modernization of what was then known as Siam, instituting far-reaching government and social reforms and saving the country from colonization by either the British Empire, which colonized Malaya, or French Indochina, which ruled Cambodia and Vietnam.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Research Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, writing in New Mandala, translated excerpts from the Royal Gazette in which Chulalongkorn "called for a meeting at the Amarin Winitchai Hall, with the presence of members of the royal family, senior bureaucrats, phu yai, phu noi (higher and lower classes) and representatives of the armed forces.
Pavin, a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel, published the excerpts from the Royal Gazette without comment. "King Chulalongkorn said that since his enthronement in 1868, he had wanted to ensure the kingdom's prosperity and to bring happiness to the royal family, nobles, bureaucrats, members of the sangha, and ordinary Siamese. Therefore, during his rule, the King wished to eliminate whatever could be perceived as acts of subjugation that would cause hardship to his peoples."
The practice of going to the knees before royalty was not reinstituted until Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged one of Thailand's innumerable coups in 1957 and served as Thai Prime Minister until he died in 1963, according to a response from Dr Jim Taylor, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide in Australia, who wrote that Sarit's coup was supported by the royalist or amaat regime, which sought to regain influence and power via the monarchy. Sarit's regime was considered one of the most repressive and authoritarian in modern Thai history, with al power vested in his Revolutionary Party.
As reported in the Gazette, the King said: "In other major powers, in other great capitals of the world, in other kingdoms in East Asia, such as in China, Yuan (Vietnam), Japan, and in West Asia, such as India—these countries once enshrined the practice of prostration, commanding the subordinates to prostrate before their superiors (chaonai) and the nobles, just like what is currently experienced by Siam.
"But now, those countries have abolished the prostration practice. The reason behind this is that they acknowledged the necessity of rebuilding a more equal relationship between different groups in society—no more class oppression. Since the abolition, those countries have become more prosperous.
"In Siam, the practice of prostration reaffirms the existence of oppression which is unjust. Furthermore, there are other practices that must be abolished or at least reduced in their degree of strictness. But to eliminate all the practices at once will be impossible. The process has to be gradual and timely. At the end of the process, Siam will re-emerge as a much more prosperous kingdom.
"The practice of prostration in Siam is severely oppressive. The subordinates have been forced to prostrate in order to elevate the dignity of the phu yai. I do not see how the practice of prostration will render any benefit to Siam. The subordinates find the performance of prostration a harsh physical practice. They have to go down on their knees for a long time until their business with the phu yai ends. They will then be allowed to stand up and retreat. This kind of practice is the source of oppression. Therefore, I want to abolish it."
The 1873 Gazette also reported that the King's wish truly exhibited his generosity and compassion to bring happiness to his peoples, for them not to suffer any longer from the prostration practice. It said:
"From now on, Siamese are permitted to stand up before the dignitaries. To display an act of respect, the Siamese may take a bow instead. Taking a bow will be regarded as a new form of paying respect. The dignitaries may first question the reason behind the abolition of prostration practice. They may ask: How will the change assist in developing Siam?
"They must know now that the abolition of this practice is indeed to show the world that Siam rejects any oppressive and unjust practice. Powerful countries which have been successful in refraining from oppressing their own peoples are now enjoying prosperity. Henceforth, members of the royal family and senior and junior bureaucrats who wish to have an audience with the King at his residence, or in public places, please adopt this new recommended practice as instructed by the King. His Majesty the King has assigned Than Chao Phraya Srisuriyawongse, his Regent, to enact this new practice for the Siamese kingdom."
*Headline corrected May 16, 2011 - Eds