The current concept of Thai kingship has evolved through 800 years of absolute rule. The first king of a unified Thailand was the founder of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, King Sri Indraditya, in 1238. The idea of this early kingship is said to be based on two concepts derived from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhist beliefs. The first concept is based on the Vedic-Hindu caste of "Kshatriya" (Thai: กษัตริย์), or warrior-ruler, in which the king derives his powers from military might. The second is based on the Theravada Buddhist concept of "Dhammaraja" (Thai: ธรรมราชา), Buddhism having been introduced to Thailand somewhere around the 6th century CE The idea of the Dhammaraja (or kingship under Dharma), is that the king should rule his people in accordance with Dharma and the teachings of the Buddha.
These ideas were briefly replaced in 1279, when King Ramkhamhaeng came to the throne. Ramkhamhaeng departed from tradition and created instead a concept of "paternal rule" (Thai: พ่อปกครองลูก), in which the king governs his people as a father would govern his children. This idea is reinforced in the title and name of the king, as he is still known today, Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng (Thai: พ่อขุนรามคำแหง). This lasted only briefly, however. By the end of the kingdom, the two old concepts had returned as symbolized by the change in the style of the kings: "Pho" was changed to "Phaya" or Lord.
The Kingdom of Sukhothai was eventually supplanted by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, which was founded in 1351 by King Ramathibodhi I. During the Ayutthayan period the idea of kingship changed. Due to ancient Khmer tradition in the region, the Hindu concept of kingship was applied to the status of the leader. Brahmins took charge in the royal coronation. The king was treated as a reincarnation of Hindu gods. Ayutthaya historical documents show the official titles of the kings in great variation: Indra, Shiva and Vishnu, or Rama. Seemingly, Rama was the most popular, as in "Ramathibodhi". However, Buddhist influence was also evident, as many times the king's title and "unofficial" name "Dhammaraja", an abbreviation of the Buddhist Dharmaraja. The two former concepts were re-established, with a third, older concept taking hold. This concept was called "Devaraja" (Thai: เทวราชา) (or "divine king"), which was an idea borrowed by the Khmer Empire from the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Java, especially the idea of a scholar class based on Hindu Brahmins. The concept centered on the idea that the king was an incarnation (avatar) of the god Vishnu and that he was a Bodhisattva (enlightened one), therefore basing his power on his religious power, his moral power, and his purity of blood.
The king, portrayed by state interests as a semi-divine figure, then became—through a rigid cultural implementation—an object of worship and veneration to his people. From then on the monarchy was largely removed from the people and continued under a system of absolute rule. Living in palaces designed after Mount Meru ("home of the gods" in Hinduism), the kings turned themselves into a "Chakravartin", where the king became an absolute and universal lord of his realm. Kings demanded that the universe be envisioned as resolving around them, and expressed their powers through elaborate rituals and ceremonies. For four centuries these kings ruled Ayutthaya, presiding over some of the greatest period of cultural, economic, and military growth in Thai History.
The king was chief administrator, chief legislator, and chief judge, with all laws, orders, verdict and punishments theoretically originating from his person. The king's sovereignty was reflected in the titles "Lord of the Land" (พระเจ้าแผ่นดินPhra Chao Phaen Din) and "Lord of Life" (เจ้าชีวิตChao Chiwit). The king's powers and titles were seen by foreign observers as proof that the king was an absolute monarch in the European sense. However, in Siamese tradition the duty and responsibility of the king was seen as developed from the ancient Indian theories of royal authority, which resemble Enlightened Absolutism, although the emphasis is not on rationality but on Dhamma. This was disrupted in 1767, when Thai digests of the dhammasāt (ธรรมศาสตร์) were lost when a Burmese army under the Alaungpaya Dynasty invaded, sacked and burned the city of Ayutthaya.
During the Rattanakosin Period the Chakri kings tried to continue the concepts of Ayutthayan kingship once again emphasizing the connection between the sovereign and his subjects. On the other hand, they continued to not relinquish any authority of the throne. Kings Buddha Loetla Nabhalai (Rama II) and Nangklao (Rama III) created a semblance of a modern administration by creating a supreme council and appointing chief officers to help with the running of the government.
Mongkut (Rama IV) marked a significant break in tradition when he spent the first 27 years of his adult life as a Buddhist monk during which time he became proficient in the English language, before ascending the throne. As king, he continued the appointment of officers to his supreme council, the most notable being Somdet Chao PhrayaPrayurawongse and Si Suriyawongse, both of whom acted as Chief Ministers for King Mongkut (and the latter as regent, from the king's death in 1868 until 1873.)
Chulalongkorn (Rama V) ascended the throne as a minor at age 15 in 1868, and as King of Siam on 16 November 1873. As a prince, he had been tutored in Western traditions by the governess, Anna Leonowens. Intent on reforming the monarchy along Western lines, during his minority he traveled extensively to observe western administrative methods. He transformed the monarchy along Western lines of an "enlightened ruler". He abolished the practice of kneeling and crawling in front of the monarch, and repealed many laws concerning the relationship between the monarch and his people, while continuing many of the ancient aspects and rituals of the old kingship. In 1874, he created a privy council copied from the European tradition, to help him rule his Kingdom. During his reign Siam was pressured to relinquish control of its old tributaries of Laos and northern Malaya to Western powers, Siam itself narrowly avoided being colonized. In 1905, 37 years after his coronation, Chulalongkorn ended slavery with the Slave Abolition Act. In 1867 slaves accounted for one-third of Siamese population.
His son, Vajiravudh (Rama VI), ascended to the throne in 1910 and continued his father's zeal for reform to bring the monarchy into the 20th century. The perceived slow pace of reform resulted in the Palace Revolt of 1912. In 1914, Vajiravudh determined that the act providing for invoking martial law, first promulgated by his father in 1907, was not consistent with modern laws of war, nor convenient for the preservation of the security of the state, so it was amended to a more modern form that, with minor amendments, continued in force through subsequent changes in government.
Prajadhipok (Rama VII) succeeded his brother in 1925. The Eton and Sandhurst educated monarch created a council similar to a cabinet, where the most important government officials could meet to decide state affairs. This advisory and legislative council, styled the Supreme Council of State of Siam (Thai: อภิรัฐมนตรีสภา) was founded on 28 November 1925 and existed until 1932.
In June 1932, a group of foreign educated students and military men called "the promoters" carried out a bloodless revolution, seizing power and demanded that King Prajadhipok, grant the people of Siam a constitution. The King agreed and in December 1932 the people were granted a constitution, ending 150 years of absolute Chakri rule. From then on the role of the monarch was relegated to that of a symbolic head of state. His powers from then on were exercised by a prime minister and the national assembly.
In 1935 King Pradhipok (Rama VII) abdicated the throne, following disagreements with the government. He lived in exile in the United Kingdom until his death. The King was replaced by his young nephew Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII). The new king was 10 years old and was living abroad in Switzerland. A council of regents was appointed in his place. During this period the roles and powers of the King were entirely usurped by the fascist government of Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who changed the name of the kingdom from Siam to Thailand, and aligned it on the side of the Axis powers in the Pacific theatre of World War II. By the end of the war Phibunsongkhram was removed and the young King returned. The Free Thai movement provided resistance to foreign occupation during the war and helped rehabilitate Thailand after the war.
After Rama VIII's sudden death from a bullet wound in 1946, Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), aged 19 years old, became the new monarch. As of 2015, he is the world's longest reigning monarch.
Since c. 2000, the role of the Thai monarchy has been increasingly challenged by scholars, media, observers and traditionalists, and as more educated pro-democracy interests began to express their rights to speech. Many deemed that a series of laws and measures relating to lèse majesté in Thailand, aimed at protecting the king and the royal family, are hindrances to freedom of expression. Dozens of arrests, hundreds of criminal investigations and multiple imprisonments have been made based on these laws. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in his 2005 national birthday broadcast, also indicated that he could be criticized if the criticism is constructive and not politically motivated.
The lèse-majesté law is part of Thailand’s Criminal Code, which also contains general provisions on defamation and libel of private individuals.
The junta which took power in 2014 has been aggressive in jailing critics of the monarchy. In 2015, it will spend US$540 million, more than the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on a promotional campaign called "Worship, protect and uphold the monarchy." The campaign includes television commercials, seminars in schools and prisons, singing contests, and competitions to write stories and films praising the king. "This is not propaganda," Prayut Chan-o-cha, the leader of the junta, said. "The youth must be educated on what the king has done."
The present set of royal regalia of Thailand (Thai: เบญจราชกกุธภัณฑ์) and the royal utensils was created mostly during the reign of King Rama I and Rama IV, after the previous set was lost during the sack of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767. The Regalia is used mainly during the coronation ceremony of the king at the beginning of every reign. The Regalia is presently on display in the Museum of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Coronation of King Bhumibol at the Grand Palace, 5 May 1950.
Royal Nine-Tiered Umbrella (พระมหาเศวตฉัตร)- the most important regalia; currently there are seven, distributed at various palaces.
^Cœdès, G. (1921). "The Origins of the Sukhodaya Dynasty"(PDF). Journal of the Siam Society (Siam Heritage Trust). JSS Vol. 14.1b (digital): image 1. Retrieved March 17, 2013. The dynasty which reigned during a part of the XIIIth. and the first half of the XlVth. centuries at Sukhodaya and at Sajjanlaya, on the upper Menam Yom, is the first historical Siamese dynasty. It has a double claim to this title, both because its cradle was precisely in the country designated by foreigners as "Siam" (Khmer: Syain; Chinese : Sien, etc.), and because it is this dynasty which, by freeing the Thai principalities from the Cambodian yoke and by gradually extending its conquests as far as the Malay Peninsula, paved the way for the formation of the Kingdom of Siam properly so called.
^Prince Dhani Nivat, Kromamun Bidyadabh (1947). "The Old Siamese conception of the Monarchy"(PDF). Journal of the Siam Society (Siamese Heritage Trust). JSS Vol. 36.2b (digital): image 10 page 93. Retrieved March 7, 2013. Patriarchal Sukhothai Kingship ...The monarch was of course the people's leader in battle; but he was also in peace-time their father whose advice was sought and expected in all matters and whose judgment was accepted by all. He was moreover accessible to his people, for we are told by an old inscription that, in front of the royal palace of Sukhothai there used to be a gong hung up for people to go and beat upon whenever they wanted personal help and redress. The custom survived with slight modifications all through the centuries down to the change of regime in 1932....
^Terwiel, Barend Jan (1983). "Ahom and the Study of Early Thai Society"(PDF). Journal of the Siam Society (Siamese Heritage Trust). JSS Vol. 71.0 (PDF): image 4. Retrieved March 7, 2013. In older usage, khun was used for a ruler of a fortified town and its surrounding villages, together called a mueang; with the prefix pho (พ่อ "father") appears as Pho Khun.
^Griswold, A.B.; Prasert na Nagara (1969). "A Law Promulgated by the King of Ayudhya in 1397 A.D. Epigraphic and Historical Studies, No. 4"(PDF). Journal of the Siam Society (Siam Heritage Trust). JSS Vol. 57.1 (digital): image 3. Retrieved March 17, 2013. It was customary for Southeast Asian kings, who were of course the absolute proprietors of the land, to allot the usufruct of portions of it to their subjects. The kings of Ayudhya allotted a specified number of sakti-na or 'dignity-marks' to each of their subjects according to his rank and the position he occupied, corresponding to the number of rai he was actually or theoretically entitled to; and when the system was fully developed the number of marks ranged from 5 to 25 for ordinary citizens, up to 10,000 for ministers in charge of important departments, and 20,000 for princes of the highest rank.
^"Royal Words". Internet resource for the Thai language. 9 October 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
^Lingat, R. (1950). "Evolution of the Conception of Law in Burma and Siam"(PDF). Journal of the Siam Society (Siam Heritage Trust). JSS Vol. 38.1c (digital). Retrieved March 17, 2013. Kings and rajas are only responsible for keeping peace and order. It is a very noticeable thing that in so rich a language as Sanskrit there exists no proper word to translate our word law as meaning positive law. It is true Hindus have the word darma, which is sometimes wrongfully translated by the word law, but actually is quite a different thing....
^Wales, H. G. Quaritch (April 14, 2005) [First published in 1931]. "Chapter IV, the kingship". Siamese state ceremonies (digital ed.). London: Bernard Quaritch. p. 32. Retrieved April 25, 2012. ...to-day we find the only certain relic of the cult of the Royal God in the symbolism of the Coronation Ceremony by which the Brahman priests call down the spirits of Visnu and Siva to animate the new king....
^Pakorn Nilprapunt (2006). "Martial Law, B.E. 2457 (1914) — unofficial translation"(PDF). thailawforum.com. Office of the Council of State. Retrieved May 21, 2014. Reference to Thai legislation in any jurisdiction shall be to the Thai version only. This translation has been made so as to establish correct understanding about this Act to the foreigners.