Thursday, February 08, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Five): Rama VIII

In the fifth of a series of posts reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, we come to the last of the four reigns: King Ananda Mahidol (1935-1946). As previously, I’m especially interest in how the author portrays historical developments, particularly the impact of changes in society on people’s behaviour; he has a gift of conveying changes at large in the local context of a family household, albeit an aristocratic one.

Thai postage stamp (2 Satangs) issued during the reign of King Ananda Mahidol, from the collection of Paul Trafford

Ananda Mahidol becomes king of Thailand at the tender age of 10, too young to properly assert authority, which meant power rested more firmly with the nascent constitutional government. In contrast with the king’s youth, as the story enters the second half of the 1930s, Phloi, the main character, is really showing her age as she dwells on the fact that she is khon si paendin (a person of four reigns), reminiscing on the early years of her life.

Modern Manners and Mores

There’s a pause in the coverage of serious historical developments as household chats are resumed and some further diversion as Praphai, Phloi's daughter, becomes quite a “gallivanting” socialite, enjoying many new freedoms that privileged youngsters have. This modish behaviour is exemplified by the introduction of the new ‘party’ (pronounced “pat-ee”) trend and its farang-style dancing. This activity is initially concealed from Phloi by several of her children, until she is obliged to host one for her daughter, with the enthusiastic participation of the household. It’s a welcome light-hearted interlude, with detailed descriptions that could easily be set to stage or a lavish film production. (And this is the kind of lifestyle that seemed to have appealed to my mother some 15 odd years later: having experienced a strict childhood with tight control on her movements, when she arrived at university she exercised her new-found freedom to socialise across departments and universities!).

Phloi’s obvious reservations at such ‘progress’ and then her mollification are again nicely described as she is able to indulge further in nostalgia with one of the guests, Than Chai Noi, whose mother was a contemporary of hers in the Upper Palace. Given all that had been going on, it’s no wonder they quickly got on very well and the author reminds us once again of the refined behaviour exhibited by those suitably trained in the Grand Palace. Indeed this impeccably-mannered gentleman represents the royal ideal and the extended passages make clear he is liked by all. Phloi’s hopes are raised that her daughter might seek to wed this gentleman, so altogether the reader is meant to sympathise with him.

The narrative sets up a dramatic contrast with a rival, Khun Sewi, a colleague of An. He’s almost the opposite in character, being materialistic and opportunistic, steadily becoming a source of further worry and division in the family. And unbelievably — we are meant to feel — it is this older man who finds his way into Praphai’s heart. To engender a sense of revulsion we’re informed that Ot, who is usually so calm and accommodating, can’t bear the sight of him, proceeding to share with his mother fierce criticism of Khun Sewi's less than honourable character. Ot even becomes furious on hearing the news of the engagement, asserting that Khun Sewi is only interested in money. And just in case the reader would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, Ot’s suspicions are later borne out when Khun Sewi starts to exercise undue interest in running the affairs of the estate using Praphai as proxy, who herself eventually confesses that he is obsessed about it.

As ever the bitterness and unsavouriness is washed down with a sweetener: Ot provides the humour as he becomes ‘man about town’ to chaperone his sister away from Khun Sewi’s attentions. However, we start to see a little more of the less amiable side of Ot and as it seems so out of character, it makes Khun Sewi's behaviour appear even more questionable. And what does Khun Sewi stand for? These and related views emerge in the following pages and the signal to the reader is clear: beware! Khun Sewi symbolises the kind of ‘progressive’ state that tramples on intangible qualities of dignity and respect; it’s obvious where the reader’s sympathies are meant to lie. It’s almost creating a kind of pantomime where you can imagine the cheers for Than Chai and the boos and hisses for Khun Sewi (and by implication the whole ‘democracy’ project is subject to deep scepticism.)

With the air being rather cloudy, even the normally decorous Phloi in a careless moment uses Chek, the not-so-complimentary slang for Chinese (cf Kaerk for Indians). She realises the below par nature as soon as she has said it. However, despite her strenuous efforts to dissuade her daughter, Praphai accepts Khun Sewi’s offer of marriage. Whilst the outcome is surprising, the dynamics generally ring true, though I was surprised that Praphai was able to make the decision about where to go and stay and that the assumption was that it would be with her husband — although my mother moved away from home to settle in the UK, her case was an exception as all three sisters who got married stayed at the family compound and had houses built on the land there; I think that’s far more common. In fact a few years later her mother (it is strongly suspected) made an attempt via a cousin on a UK business trip to persuade my parents to settle in Thailand.

What is incontestable is the importance of family background — it’s more important than in the West. And, at least, we see Khun Sewi obliging his fiancée in every way ahead of the matrimony. Phrapai organises everything with remarkable efficiency for what becomes a society wedding with “grand personages of the new regime”, as Choi puts it, followed by some mild condescension from the royalist seniors about their manners. Some customs are done the farang way much to the bemusement of the elders, yet despite their reservations, the celebrations in the garden are described in glowing terms, and they are able to have a chuckle about it all. It seems as though such cultural innovations, though puzzling and sometimes breaking with some customs, are not really the issue, and this fits the picture of Thais being adaptable. However, the question arises as to how far one takes this (and more generally who is steering such change). There are further cultural shifts after the wedding: Praphai has no engagement with the kitchen and she and her husband practice birth control, which are genuine disappointments for Phloi.

Tangential to this is promising news from On: political prisoners like him are likely to be moved for rehabilitation and a “re-training programme” followed by release. It’s greeted with tears of joy by Phloi, though there might be an eerily familiar ring about such ‘re-education'. In the event, he gets relocated to an island in the South owing to the Songsuradet rebellion (I think that’s what’s alluded to), when Luang Phibulsonggram ruthlessly consolidated his power. Further, the return of Nai Luang from Switzerland provides another opportunity to see the world in a more positive light (or rose-tinted spectacles) with clouds bringing shade to the well-wishers. However, these seem increasingly to be exceptions as Phloi finds living even more a struggle and experiences a deep sense of loneliness.

The narrative proceeds relentlessly like this, heaping uncomfortable disruption on Phloi’s world, so that for the remainder of the book one senses there’s going to be more trouble, not a happy resolution; it feels to me like going off the edge of a cliff in slow motion. The tone is partly calibrated by Ot, who appears bothered and listless until, viewed as a worthless layabout by Khun Sewi, he is roused to find his first job, in the Ministry of Public Information. The author takes the opportunity for further parody: initially there’s nothing to do, at which his uncle, Phoem, jests that many have risen to great heights on a daily routine of tea and reading newspapers. Then he becomes interested in how the whole Civil Service operates and immersed in his work, but it only lasts a few months as he can’t bring himself to adopt fawning and cliquish behaviour, so he resigns. As though wanting to have nothing to do with this setup, he subsequently finds a job down South, where he can help his brother, On.

International relations

The advent of the Second World War provides another window on Thais and international relations; An’s incorrect predictions (German victory, short war and limited impact on Thailand) are way off the mark; there’s disinterest in developments in Europe, but as the issue emerges of reclaiming border territories seceded to the French, then Thailand gets drawn in. The narrative paints a bleak picture with gathering clouds, conveying the sense of foreboding and helplessness.

The dialogues in the family allows expression of a range of views, with interesting insights into how various nations are perceived. Phoem’s general state of uncertainty sets the tone for a rollercoaster of fortunes. One of the most important goals running through the efforts of Muang Thai is the striving to retain independence through neutrality — kwam pben klang, which literally means ‘being in the centre’ (a fitting instruction for meditation practice!) In a complex situation that was rapidly evolving, the government had to look simultaneously East and West. Even well-connected families would receive only partial reports, as with the news of the Japanese negotiating the restoration of some provinces from French control.

Accordingly the narrative shares only snippets so the reader is left with a blurry background. So when the Japanese initially invade Thailand, there is confusion and it seems like the country is caught unawares; it rapidly capitulates and enters into an agreement that allows the Japanese occupation. The drama is heightened with the opener, “And on the night it happened.”, accompanied by the kinds of memories that are never to be erased (Where were you on that fateful day? What were you doing?) Khun Sewi is the only one who speaks at all positively about this development, making the point that resistance could be very costly to life. But this observation, which seems realistic given the evident military superiority that the Japanese held over the Thais, doesn’t move anyone.

Confusion reigns and perceptions vacillate. We read how Phloi picks up on the atmosphere in the nation at large, depicted as one of gloom and despondency: “the whole country (with Khun Sewi as the exception) had seemed to her to be in deep mourning”. Yet within a few sentences that sense has disappeared and the Japanese have quickly become accepted as a new presence in society (Thais are adept at just carrying on with their day to day business). But it was only Khun Sewi who originally welcomed the Japanese as partners and he is pointedly reported as profiting, so despite the Maha Mit (Great Friend) credentials, other warning remarks in the narrative serve to increase the troubling suspense.

Japan as a nation gets some rough treatment, but is it reasonable? At the time the story was originally being serialised in Siam Rath, it was only about 8 years after the end of hostilities, so the memory of the occupation was still fresh. It might have been a sensitive matter to discuss relations with Japan, not least because of the chagrin felt from Thailand being so easily occupied. There are also the author’s own political ties from that period. It’s probably little coincidence that when Thailand declared war on the Allies, M.R. Seni Pramoj, M.R. Kukrit’s elder brother and the Thai ambassador to Washington, refused to deliver it. Then in the immediate aftermath of the war it was rehabilitated with the help of Allies, through the Seri Thai (Free Thai) resistance movement that M.R. Seni had founded. Furthermore, whilst Si Paendin was being written, Thailand was led by the authoritarian Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who had during the war formed the alliance with Japan.

Thais seem to view the Japanese as a nation in a mixture of admiration, awe and trepidation. This goes back a long way because of trade links: for example, in the 17th century, there were close ties between the rulers of Muang Thai and Japan, with Samurai warriors sometimes helping the Thai king.

One of the motivations given by historians as to the political agitation that led to the 1932 revolution was the perceived need to emulate the Japanese development, particularly their industrialisation, which was very rapid. But on a more visceral level, some of the antipathy may have to do with a substantial proportion of Thais having Chinese ancestry and Sino-Japanese relations had been strained for decades. Fast forward a couple of decades to the early ‘70s and there’s still wariness; on returning to Wong Wien Yai after 8 years in the UK, she records with a note of dismay in her diary: “There are Japanese billboards everywhere!” Yet, for the next two decades Thailand continued to woo Japanese businesses, so that in the ‘80s they were building golf courses and ambitious young Thai execs were practising their golf swing.

Returning to the narrative, we see An’s previous optimism about international affairs evaporate and then the penny drops about Khun Sewi; suddenly we see An despise the man he previously trusted, much to Phloi’s disappointment as she continues to strive for family harmony. The Western allies response is in the form of a major bombing campaign targeting Bangkok, where the Japanese have set up bases and supply lines. Government efforts at international alignment are manifest in cultural changes, wathanatham, as prescribed by Phibunsonggram’s government. Cosmetic elements in terms of fashion are ridiculed: the mode of dress, including shoes and hats, using cutlery for meals, the banning of the consumption of betel nuts, etc.

Occasions of light relief aside, the general situation provides little gladness; Phloi and her family have to suffer yet more disappointment and loss, particularly the death of Ot to malaria. There’s also severe flooding, which Thais generally responded to in a positive way, at least that’s how it appears in a film archive, which shows the Thais taking it gamely in their stride (or, rather, their oars) with opportunities for leisure, exploring the city by rowing boat; and it shows the government continuing to operate as we see the arrival of several ministers, I assume — were they the ones responsible for the national campaign for kuaitieo (rice noodles)?! But, as the narrative notes, it had a serious impact on poorer growers. It’s as though Muang Thai will never recover after the entry into war.

Another short interlude sees An behaving like the prodigal son when he confesses deeply held regrets to Phloi regarding his involvement in bringing about the new form of government. Ot arrives soon after and is the same, but more grown up; for a brief period there is harmony — Phoem and Ot resume their banter by pondering the new-fangled language being promoted nationwide. But the peace is shattered by a series of air raids; as they progress, the atmosphere becomes increasingly frightened until a daylight raid sees all of Phloi’s family takes refuge in a bunker just before the main house is destroyed. Phloi is left feeling desolate, yet this quirk of fate means she returns to live in Khlong Bang Luang, her ancestral home. Many families in Bangkok have stories from the war: my grandparents' home in Wong Wien Yai on the Thonburi side escaped attack, but my Aunt, Umpai, was wounded by shrapnel as she cross the Memorial Bridge one day and the friend she was with lost her life. My mother also remembered the bombs dropping.


The closing chapters continue the rollercoaster of events and emotions. The reality of war grows with its “increasing difficulties and privations”, then a change of government [1944 with Khuang Aphaiwong as Prime Minister] restores some of the old Thai traditions. There is some rare good news: all political prisoners are released and On looks set to returns home at last only to be delayed because Ot’s health becomes critical. The reality of impermanence is never far away; one night, in a poignant scene, Ot suddenly appears to his mother in a vision, looking well, just a few days before On returns to bring news of his brother’s passing, but she already knew.

One ancient word that we don’t see, at least not in the translation, is dukkha, a Pali word meaning unsatisfactoriness or suffering. On relates about his dukkha as a prisoner, but just at the point where the narrative could lose hope, he brings great cheer to his mother by announcing his intention to ordain as a monk and a simple ordination takes place, bringing the family together in happier moments, with shared respect for the significance of the occasion. The narrative presents a nice summary of the process.

The ordination over Phloi’s health fades and the narrative signals that it won’t be long now: she shows little concern as to whether or not medicine will work. The end of the war doesn’t really help as it just means Japanese soldiers being replaced by farangs. However, she does respond very positively to news of the planned return of the king from Switzerland and manages to join the throng paying respects, keeping her in good spirits for months… until the great tragedy: the shooting of the king, which is too much for Phloi and she passes away the afternoon of the same day. Thus a calamitous ending for such a virtuous human being, a dramatic device that seems to protest that a very heavy price has been paid for all the so-called progress and development.

So ends the book, but not my review - some further analysis to follow, starting with religion ...

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