The third Siamese king of the currently ruling Chakri dynasty. As a young man he had been named Prince Chetsadabodin and was crowned as Phra Nangklao, but he is more usually known in English as Rama III, which is admittedly easier to pronounce. He ruled Siam from 1824 to 1851.

Rama III is not well-known outside of Thailand, overshadowed by his famous younger brother Mongkut (Rama IV), who has been immortalized - and sadly calumniated - in The King and I, a story based on the highly fanciful memoirs of Anna Leonowens. Rama IV was a great modernizer, and so by contrast Rama III is often seen to be a reactionary, but in this role he is miscast. Though not the innovator that his brother and successor was, Rama III was a clever statesman who guided his kingdom through a difficult period and maintained her independence in the face of increasingly aggressive western powers intent on expanding their empires and swallowing up Siam, as Thailand was then known.

Rama III came to the throne when his father, Rama II, died. His ascension was controversial, at least in the eyes of farang (westerners), for though he was his father's eldest surviving son, his mother was a concubine and not a queen, and many farang viewed him as a bastard, an illegitimate son, and a usurper; they believed that Mongkut, whose mother was a queen, was the legitimate heir to the throne. But ascension was not based simply on blood in Siam; a council of elder statesmen made the decision of which of the (often extremely numerous) sons of the polygamous kings should inherit the throne, and they knew that Mongkut was young, barely 20, and unschooled in statesmanship, while his elder half-brother was 36 and well-experienced in government. Furthermore, among the council were powerful ruling families who would support the elder son, should it come down to a raw contest for the throne. Rama II no doubt knew how things would play out after his death, for, in his final days, he ordered that Mongkut become a monk forthwith. Without the usual pomp and ceremony, the young man took the saffron robes, and he would remain in the monkhood, safely removed from the cutthroat world of politics, for 27 years, till his brother's death.

The new king soon faced threats: in 1824 Britain was at war with Burma over incursions into India, and it was rumoured that the British were planning on strengthening their position in the area by first seizing Kedah, then sailing into Siam from the south. The Siamese government in Bangkok was sufficiently worried to stretch a great iron chain across the mouth of the Chao Phraya River to block entrance to the city. But the next year, spooked by the British victory in Burma, they received an emissary, Captain Henry Burney, and signed a treaty removing many restrictions and duties on trade in return for having their territorial rights recognized. Siam had held its own in negotiations with the west, reaching a compromise which protected some interests and gave way on others, and setting the tone for international relations over the next century.

In the meantime, Siam waged war with sometime vassal kingdom centred in Vientiane (the capital of present-day Laos); the victorious Siamese destroyed the city and resettled its population into provinces more closely under Bangkok's control. Over the next decades much of the Lao population was forcibly resettled into Northeast Siam, sowing the seeds of what is, in modern Thailand, a distinctive Isan ethnicity and culture. Wars also raged with the southern sultanates - sometime vassal principalities asserting their independence, egged on by the British - and with the Vietnamese over Cambodia; after lengthy battles, the Siamese prevailed in each case.

Rama II, Rama III's father, had been known for his artistic pursuits - he was a great scholar and writer - but Rama II was not so enamoured of the arts. He is infamous for sending one of Siam's greatest poets, Sunthorn Phu, into exile. But he was concerned to preserve traditional knowledge. He renovated the great temple, Wat Pho, and had hundreds of inscriptions and murals completed; a rich historical record, these writings and paintings depict traditional medicine, warfare, massage, astrology, history, religion, and many other aspects of indigenous Siamese knowledge. Thus Rama III is revealed as a conservative, championing the old ways by preserving them, rather than forcing others to believe as he did.

By 1850 western powers were keen to see an end to all restrictions on trade and provisions for extraterritoriality for their nationals; aggressive missions were sent to Siam, only to return empty-handed, angry with what they saw as Siam's arrogance and intransigence. In reality, there was great uncertainty about the succession, for Rama III was ill. He had recently had the highest ranking prince put to death for treason in the traditional manner - clubbed to death with sandalwood clubs. As he became more gravely ill he called his most senior advisors to his bedside and proclaimed that his brother Mongkut was most fit to lead the country, and so it was to be.

Rama III had led Siam through a difficult period and increased its size and power in the region to its strongest ever. Yet he knew that what lay ahead would be harder. On his deathbed he is reported to have said

There will be no more wars with Vietnam and Burma. We will have them only with the west. Take care, and do not lose any opportunities to them. Anything that they propose should be held up to close scrutiny before accepting it. Do not blindly trust them.

Wise words indeed.

Primary source: Thailand: A Short History, by David K. Wyatt.

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