Mongkut

Mongkut (1804-1868) was king of Thailand as Rama IV. He founded modern Thai Buddhism and as king took a leading role in opening his kingdom to the West.

Born on Oct. 18, 1804, Mongkut was the forty-third child of King Rama II (reigned 1809-1824), but he was the first son to be born of Queen Suriyen and thus was favored to succeed to the throne. He had just entered the Buddhist monkhood for a short period, as was customary, when his father died in 1824 and the royal accession council chose his older and more experienced half brother to reign as King Nangklao (Rama III, reigned 1824-1851).

As much for political safety as any other reason, Mongkut remained a monk during his brother's reign. An unusually gifted young man, Mongkut spent several years seeking intellectual and religious satisfaction in traditional Buddhism, trying first mental exercises and meditation and then orthodox scholarship, neither of which kindled his enthusiasm. Then he encountered a monk from Burma who inspired his return to the strict discipline and teachings of early Buddhism, shorn of local Thai custom and noncanonical beliefs.

Becoming abbot of a monastery in Bangkok, Mongkut developed a lively home for intellectual discourse in the 1830s and 1840s, when he gained adherents to his new teachings and invited American and French missionaries to teach Western languages, arts, and sciences. His brother monks ultimately were to found the modernist Dhammayutta sect, a major force in the life of modern Thailand.

Others who joined his circle were among the leading princes and young nobles of Bangkok society, and this group, led by Phraya Suriyawong (Chuang Bunnag)—eldest son of the leading minister of Rama III—was responsible for placing Mongkut on the throne when Rama III died on April 2, 1851. These young liberals had come to understand the nature of Western power and Siam's weakness, profiting from the example of Western warfare against China (in the Opium War, 1839-1842) and Burma (1824-1826 and 1851-1852).

Upon consolidating their power the liberals signified their willingness to come to terms with Western demands and signed treaties, beginning with Britain in 1855, which removed all barriers to trade and established extra-territoriality for European subjects in Siam. Mongkut and Suriyawong, who became his chief minister, set a pattern of accommodation to the West which came to assure Siam's survival as an independent state through the 19th-century thrust of European imperialism.

Described by European envoys as thin and austere, Mongkut was extraordinarily lively, excited by ideas, and colorfully expressive in English. Though the conservatism of his nobles precluded fundamental reforms, he educated his sons to understand the value of national independence and the necessity for reform, which alone could ensure survival. He died on Oct. 1, 1868, and was succeeded by his son, Prince Chulalongkorn.

Further Reading on Mongkut

The best available biography is Abbot Low Moffat, Mongkut, King of Siam (1961). An excellent contemporary account is Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam (2 vols., 1857).

Additional Biography Sources

Bristowe, W. S. (William Syer), Louis and the King of Siam, New York: Thai-American Publishers, 1976.

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