There are only very few countries that were never colonized by European powers. Siam (today’s Thailand) was one of these countries, which poses an interesting question: How did Siam avoid colonization?
This was largely thanks to three Siamese kings: Mongkut (1851-1868), Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) and Vajiravudh (1910-1925), also known as Rama IV, Rama V and Rama VI. Among them, Chulalongkorn (or Rama V) was the most influential, mainly due to his long reign and his focus on modernization.
In the mid-19thcentury, Siam had a unique and well-established political system called the “Mandala” system. The underlying philosophy of this system was very different from the European notion of nation-states. Instead, the “Mandala” system focused on spheres of influence in which weaker rulers had to pay tributes to the more powerful rulers. At the top of the pyramid was the Siamese King.
Siam was able to avoid colonization by European powers due to a combination of factors. Firstly, Siam was geographically located to function as an ideal buffer zone between the British colonies of the Malay peninsula and the French colony of Indochina.
Secondly, the Siamese kings, especially Chulalongkorn, realized that in order to avoid colonization, they had to transform their political system into a more Europeanized version. This became a massive nation-building project that led to the modernization of today’s Thailand.
An important aspect of this project was map-making. The Siamese realized that the Europeans put a lot of emphasis on knowledge, especially topographical knowledge. The Brits and the French used maps to define the territory that they ruled and when borders were ill-defined, they used this as an opportunity to claim the land.
Another point of interest was the concentration of power. In the previous Mandala system, power was very diffused. Local rulers exerted their influence as much as they could, but large areas still remained outside the reach of any particular ruler. De facto, the king was in charge of the whole land, but de jure, many areas remained in a political limbo.
Chulalongkorn recognized this problem and introduced a standing professional army for the first time in Siamese history. While they would have never been able to stand up against any European military, it gave the king more power to control the local rulers and unsupervised regions.
Eventually, all local rulers were deposed and stripped of their powers, which was transferred and centralized in Bangkok. This concentration of power became a beneficial advantage in the fight against western colonization.
Additionally, programs to foster nationalism were established. Historiography was used to create the sense of an eternal Thai nation and the Thai language was introduced as the only official language of the nation.
These carefully calculated maneuvers turned Siam into a legitimate state in the eyes of its European competitors. Subsequently, this gave the Siamese kings much more power than they otherwise would have had.
All in all, these factors were not a waterproof plan to avoid colonization and one could say that Siam was simply “lucky” to have circumvented colonial rule. Either way, Siam managed to remain sovereign for long enough to survive the period of European colonization.