It seems there can never be enough done in the overwhelming glorification of Thai kings. The Thai junta has built giant bronze statues of the so-called ‘seven great kings’ of Thai history to glorify and strengthen the status of the monarchy. Soon, a soap opera which aims to glorify King Rama V will be on air. It features the recurring theme of the emancipation of slaves during the reign of King Rama V, although the story is heavily romanticized and distorted, say experts.
“Without the King’s mercy, we would not be living happily together...I wouldn’t even have a sense of being a human, much less my Chief Justice position, status, and especially Khun Namthip, the beautiful daughter of Phraya Chaiyakorn.” (From the 2014 version of Luuk Thaad)
Over the past sixty years, two stories promoting the benefaction of King Chulalongkorn to all Thai people have been remade six times each. Later this year the sixth adaptation of Naang Thaad [Slave Girl] will air on Channel 3 during prime time, telling the story of a slave girl who endures a torturous life until she is emancipated by Rama V’s verdict.
The upcoming 2016 version of Nang Thaad, and a screenshot from the 2008 version
The second story, Luuk Thaad [Son of a Slave] takes place in 1885. A literate household slave of a lord has to fight against his cruel masters against the backdrop of Rama V’s decrees of emancipation and modernization of Siam. Keaw makes his way from being a slave to becoming a royal judge in the Ministry of Justice, fit to marry his ex-master’s daughter. Keaw’s happiness, success, and freedom is entirely attributed to Rama V, and he prostrates himself at the King’s statue every year, perfectly loyal never forgetful of his gratitude.
If we look past the montages of blood trickling down lashed torsos, we can see that both Son of a Slave and Slave Girl are products of a constructed historical narrative that reshapes and romanticizes historical facts regarding Thai slavery, emancipation, and royalism.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin vs. Phraya’s Household
The emancipation of Siamese slaves, however, was not a single-handed, native initiative. In reality, foreign influences during Rama V’s reign, especially American, brought in the idea of emancipation through channels like missionaries, education, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said Chalong Soontravanich, Associate Professor in history at Chulalongkorn University.
Indeed, according to Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit’s A History of Thailand, reform-minded elite Thais hoped to end slave owners’ control over labour and increase its availability for the market economy, while “thwart[ing] colonial criticism” towards Siam as a backwards, slave-filled land--such as the comment by Anna Leonowens, who called the Siamese elite as cloaked in “error, superstition, slavery, and death.”
There was a continuing need to compare Siam with the “civilized West,” and the emancipation of slaves was part of that agenda, explained Chalong. “Thai slaves themselves weren’t the ones demanding freedom.”
Despite the direct American influence of emancipation, drawing comparisons between the slaves of these two countries leads to historical misunderstanding, says Chalong.
Siamese slaves were domestic or debt slaves whose status as slaves could be worked off, while plantation slaves in the US had a hereditary status. Hereditary slavery integrated the status of being slaves into part of US slaves’ identity, said the historian, and therefore cemented it as part of a collective memory.
“Descendants of slaves in the US are able to reproduce and retell their historical identities as being descended from slaves.” In contrast, Thai slavery’s more fluid status prevented it from being attached to a sense of identity. Debt slaves were able to sell themselves into slavery or to become free after working off their debt, and the number of household slaves was quite small.
The 2014 adaptation of Look Thaad
“Slavery never played an important role in Thai society, not even becoming part of the identity of slaves themselves. Even if you go to his monument on Chulalongkorn Day and ask around at the people offering flowers and prostrating themselves, you won’t find anyone who will declare themselves as descendants of the slaves that had been emancipated by Rama V,” emphasized Chalong.
“Some audiences will be moved emotionally, or even cry at when they are absorbed in the intended atmosphere of these narratives,” says the professor. “They prompt a sort of yearning for a monarchy like the ones portrayed in the narratives.”