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Dhonburi, the Former Capital of Siam from Past to Present

Sulak Sivaraksa

Abstract

               After the destruction of Ayudhya in April 1767, Dhonburi served as the capital Siam for 15 years, before it moved to the present site on the opposite side of the river with the establishment of the Chakri Dynasty in 1782. There was only one king of Dhonburi, King Taksin, who was not only a commoner but was also of a Chinese descent.

               Although Taksin re-conquered Ayudhya before the end of December 1767, he felt that it was impossible to reconstruct the former capital, especially since there were five other rivaling chieftains within the kingdom. Hence the charismatic leader declared Dhonburi the new capital and from there he managed to subdue all the other five rivals, uniting Siam and expanding its border to incorporate Laos and Cambodia as itsprotectorates. The Burmese continued to periodically attack the kingdom, but could
never again successfully defeat the Thais.

               King Taksin ascended the throne at the early age of 33, but was ultimately betrayed by his most trusted general whom he thought was his good friend. He was executed at the prime age of 48 with the accusation that he had mental disorder, although there was no historical evidence to substantiate the fact. In fact, his glory was eclipsed for 150 years, all through the period of the absolute monarchy of the Chakri dynasty. For instance, no Thai government has ever thought of submitting the name of the King of Dhonburi to UNESCO for its recognition as a great personality in world history. Yet since 1962, successive Thai governments have asked UNESCO to declare seven members,of the Chakri royal family to be recognized internationally.

               It was gossiped that before he was beheaded the King of Dhonburi prophesied that his usurper would be in power for 150 years. Supposedly, he also said that if a bridge was built to link Dhonburi with the new capital on the other side of the river, that would indeed be the sign of the end of the new dynasty.

               To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Chakri dynasty on 6 April 1932, it was deemed essential to build a memorial bridge to honor the founder of the dynasty. Yet the curse or the prophecy of the King of Dhonburi was still haunting (at least subconsciously) the top members of the royal Chakri dynasty. However compromises were reached, and the bridge built was a suspended one. The bridge was constructed in the shape of an arrow, shooting from the new capital to the other side of the river,
almost directly targeting the temple where the ashes of the late King of Dhonburi were kept.

               Then on 24th June of the same year, there was a bloodless coup in Bangkok which ended the absolute monarchy of the Chakri House. Had it not been due to Pridi Banomyong, the brain behind the plan for Thai democracy, the military leaders would have declared Siam a republic at the time. Pridi argued that we needed a constitutional monarchy, for continuity of our culture and identity. Yet the king would be only the first among equals, among all the citizens. There would no longer be divine right, which was part of the Buddhist worldview.

               Pridi, like the King of Dhonburi, was a commoner from Ayudhya. Although a civilian, he was a brilliant intellectual with strong moral courage to serve the people and the country. With his friends he successfully established a constitutional monarchy in Siam in 1932. He was then 33 years old. He also founded the University of Moral and Political Sciences to prepare the younger generation to be politicians in the new democratic regime with a sense of service, honesty, dedication and dignity.

               Eventually Pridi was the sole regent and in that capacity he organized the Free Thai Movement operating clandestinely against the Japanese occupation and working in collaboration with the Allies. Thus in the wake of the war, the country was not classified in the same category as Japan, Italy, and Germany. In fact Siam joined the UN before Sweden.

               With many political enemies, Pridi was subsequently accused of committing regicide. He was 48 years old then, the same age when the King of Dhonburi was executed. He lived in exile for over three decades until he died in Paris in 1982. Hopefully, it will not take another 150 years before his contribution to Thai democracy and freedom will be recognized.

               Lest we forget, the name “Dhonburi” itself means the city of wealth — not only materially, but also culturally and spiritually. Temples, churches and mosques adorned Dhonburi. They are all symbols of our spiritual wealth as well as the wealth of the Thai culture reflecting its diversity and religious tolerance. Besides Dhonburi was famous for its canals and orchards–the symbols of its ecological balance. With these symbols in mind, and recognizing the legacies of Dhonburi, the Thai people will be intellectually and spiritually equipped to cope with the new religion of capitalism and consumerism,
which are rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion.