The legacy of slavery and emancipation in Thailand

There is a stunning fresco at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall produced by Italian painter Galileo Chini in 1913, titled “King Chulalongkorn abolishing slavery.”

The Great King stands dressed in Western-style royal finery before a harbor scene, symbolic of free trade, as a number of “joy-full liberated slaves” gather at his feet on the marble steps below. In another image displayed prominently on the Chulalongkorn website, the King is dressed in Thai royal attire in front of a Thai village, with freed slaves kneeling on the ground with a grateful wai.

Photo Credit: Chulalongkorn University

Thailand is rife with iconography of the abolition of slavery as a single momentary act, a direct proclamation from King to Citizen. The classic narrative, as analyzed and deconstructed in Irene Stengs book, has it that slavery was abolished as an act of Kingly benevolence, the foresight of a King who was progress-oriented beyond his peers.

It is a myth that has percolated throughout society.

Without King Chulalongkorn, it goes, perhaps we would still have slavery today. In Steng’s book, Bun, a shopkeeper at Chiang Mai’s night market says: “If the king had not [abolished slavery], I would almost certainly have been a slave.” Similarly, Supachai – a Chiang Mai shop owner – compares King Chulalongkorn to Abraham Lincoln. “One can never be sure whether any king after King Chulalongkorn would have done the same thing.”

But it is arguable that slavery as it existed in Siam would have lasted beyond the 19th century, along with its sister institution of corvée labor. King Chulalongkorn was a modernizer, but one that understood the overwhelming economic and international political currents engulfing the nation. In the context of broader pressures, the reforms of the late 19th century and early 20th century were not simply motivated by royal benevolence – rather, they were a way of asserting Siamese sovereignty while simultaneously regaining direct state control over manpower. They had buy-in from the market elite and faced little resistance from slave owners.

In doing so, the reforms legitimized other forms of labor control: the practice of advanced payments as an alternate form of bondage, the continued control over elite women.

In these and other more insidious forms, slavery continues to exist in Thailand today. Sex trafficking brings Shan women to brothels in Thailand, forced labor is rampant in the Thai fishing industry. As such, repeating the narrative of slavery’s ‘immaculate abolition’ without recognizing the continued legacy of forced labor is irresponsible, and ignores the injustice that remains in Thailand’s highly unequal labor market.

The Diversity and ‘Uniqueness’ of Thai Slavery

From the beginning, labor control was the result of low population density in mainland Southeast Asia. This anxiety manifest in two distinct but interrelated systems: the corvée system, which was an extensive registration system developed in the 14th century, and slavery.

In Siamese society, there were five categories (the lingering hierarchy remains visible today): the monarch, members of the royal family, the nobility, commoners and slaves. Commoners or phrai were bound by corvée obligations to serve as unpaid labor to their nai or officials in the nobility, from two to six months per year. By the Bangkok period, commoners were able to commute their obligations through payment.

Among slaves, there were two main categories: war captives, and slaves from debt bondage. Where Europeans fought for territory, Southeast Asian kingdoms fought for manpower: wars in the area, as Craig Reynolds writes, were little more than slave raids. Human trafficking in its earliest form took place in these slave raids, where thousands of families would be captured from neighboring kingdoms to be presented to Siamese noblemen as gifts.

Debt slavery had a closer relationship to the corvée system. Some commoners sold themselves into slavery to escape corvée obligations. Usually, people – wives or children – served as collateral on loans (especially among gamblers). A slaveowner’s control varied with how much debt was owed. ‘Nonredeemable’ slaves were completely owned by their masters. ‘Redeemable’ slaves might be able to work independently, owing annual payments to their ‘masters’ for interest on the principal. They could be freed if someone paid off their original debt or paid their full price. Under King Mongkut, all slaves became ‘redeemable.’

The complexities of Siamese slavery and the agency of (some) Siamese slaves have given historians the mistaken impression that it was a benign institution. Often, Thai specialists over-emphasize the ways that ‘slavery’ is an imperfect word to capture the specificity of “that.”

Yet, it was undeniably a form of bondage where a person was made property and could be treated as such. That that dehumanization was, in some cases, better than corvée labor says more about the corvée labor system than it does the slaving system. As Jit Poumisak points out, the word for ‘lord’ and ‘owner’ in Thai, jao, is the same. The commoner’s slave-like obligations to the nobility was encoded in Siamese hierarchy, a debt owed from birth. The fact that this is often omitted from discussions of Siamese slavery is a testament to how normalized this hierarchy became.

Economic pressures

By the 19th century, both the corvée and slavery systems were undergoing massive change.

Central to these changes were two aforementioned developments that took place under Mongkut’s reign: the commutation of corvée service, and the universal ‘redeemability’ of slave labor.

By accepting money payments over forced labor, the King was able to undercut the jao’s control over the kingdom’s manpower, and in doing so also capture a greater share of the tax burden. By 1830, commutation became the largest item of royal revenue. Meanwhile, Chinese immigration meant that Chinese wage workers became viable (and cost-effective) substitutes for this labor, performing most of the construction work previously performed by phrai. In economic historian David Feeny words, “commoners were converted into tax-paying, draft-eligible citizens.”

Meanwhile, members of the elite engaged in the market economy sought to increase the availability of labor, through the abolition of slavery. Active campaigners included patriarchs of the Bunnag household, and aristocratic intellectuals around Prince Mongkut. They were opposed by traditionalists who were concerned about the social implications of giving up what was, to them, their visible symbols of prestige.

By King Chulalongkorn’s time, the tension between local jao and an increasingly market-oriented, centralizing bureaucratic elite had risen to an all-time high. In 1874, he decreed that all child slaves were to be freed when they reached the age of 21. Explicitly, he argued that “the offspring of slaves are born innocent.” Implicitly, the rationale was that freed children would buy the freedom of their parents. Embedded into the royal establishment’s moral logic was the economic logic of bolstering Siam’s source of labor in an increasingly commercialized, international economy. Slavery was being steadily abolished, at the will – insistence, even – of the nobility themselves.

French Gunboats in Siam

International political pressures

What was ultimately consequential for the formal abolition of slavery in 1905 was the international political pressure faced by Siam.

In the late 19th century, European international society developed a ‘standard of civilization’ by which it recognized the sovereignty of other nations. Anna Leonowens’ assessment of the Siamese elite as cloaked in “the darkness of error, superstition, slavery, and death” did not shock King Chulalongkorn into action by its moral clarity alone. Rather, European nations were invading Asian kingdoms on the basis of such assessments. In 1893, France thinly justified its invasion into Siamese territory on the basis that Siam was an uncivilized nation – exemplified by the continued practice of slavery.

King Chulalongkorn himself recognized that codifying any further ‘end’ to slavery beyond the 1874 decree was principally symbolic. In a 1905 ministerial meeting, he argued: “Whether or not that is abolished would not have much effect on everybody, because people have already been affected [by the decree of the year 1874] and the buying and selling of that as formerly practiced no longer exists.”

He also acknowledged that labor control was still practiced through the advanced payment of money as wages, something historian Chatchai Panananon calls “a form of that in disguise.” In making the case to his ministers for abolishing slavery, he emphasized the French imperialist threat. The fact that the institution remained – even if only in name – made Siamese sovereignty vulnerable.

In promulgating the 1905 decree, however, this important detail was omitted. Instead, the preamble stipulated that slavery was being abolished purely for “the progress and happiness of the nation.” As Chulalongkorn predicted, the 1905 decree affected a small percentage of the remaining slave population (~30%, by Panananon’s calculations). But its symbolism was paramount in asserting Siam’s status as a civilized nation.

Modern-day implications

It is absolutely true that moral considerations were threaded throughout the conversation on slavery, from King Mongkut’s time onwards. King Chulalongkorn built on this thinking and embedded it within a specific program of modernization and nation-building. But what has been under-emphasized throughout history are the more instrumental economic and international political pressures that played an important role in bringing about the eventual abolition of both the corvée and slavery system.

As economic and international political forces have reorganized in modern-day Thailand, age-old imperatives remain at play in the Thai labor market: once again, there is a shortage of labor to serve the economic ‘jao’ in Bangkok.

There is low-cost legal and illegal immigration from neighboring countries that provide most of the labor force in construction, and within-country immigration that provides the labor force in the sex industry. But somehow, this isn’t quite enough. As a result, women are trafficked from Myanmar and refugees are trapped on slave ships to fulfill the excess demand for labor. Nowadays, slaves aren’t paraded for social prestige, but they still underpin the exorbitant profits that are used to buy social prestige in other ways.

Recognizing these forces helps us recognize the reality of bonded labor. It injects renewed urgency into calls for its abolition. The that system may be gone, but slavery does still exist in Thailand.

Taking a broader view of history also helps us avoid the deification of certain people or moments, acknowledging the careful interplay between agent and structure in Thailand’s own development and modernization. Great people are critical to making things happen when they do. But that they are meant to happen can sometimes be due to forces beyond their remit.

It is unlikely, in any case, that the that system would have persisted to the present day. As Marx famously says, men do make history, but they do not simply make it as they please.


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