Commemoration of 1868 as the beginning of the first social and cultural reform in Siam, and recognition of Sri Sury Wongse’s contribution to the modernization, education, culture and sciences from the accession to the throne of  King Chulalongkorn of Siam

Sri Sury Wongse: Regent for the young King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) of Siam from 1868 through 1873

This commemoration is to honor Sri Sury Wongse, or Chuan Bunnag, who served as Regent for the young King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) of Siam from 1868 through 1873, during a period when that country was threatened by the expansion of Western imperialism into Southeast Asia. It was imperative that Siam be respected by potential usurpers as a civilized country, and through his judgment and effective approach to diplomacy and governing, as well as through his astute tutelage and guidance of the future ruler, Sri Sury Wongse was instrumental in ensuring that Siam remained a free and independent country. His imprint on the shaping of Siam as a modern nation cannot be underestimated. Through his wise and steady leadership he maintained sovereignty, prevented internal conflicts, reformed the legal system, put in place administrative procedures and practices that lasted well beyond his regency; through his patronage of missionary doctors, the health and well-being of the Siamese people were improved; through his interests, talents, and knowledge, he brought about significant advances in the cultural and social foundations and the good governance of the Kingdom.


Description of the Regent’s good governance

1. Sri Sury Wongse’s life spanned five reigns, from King Rama I (Budhha Yodfa) to King Rama V (Chulalaongkorn). Born Chuang Bunnag, a scion of the influential Bunnag Family line, whose members held important positions in the Siamese court and governments, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, he served in a number of capacities, most notably that of Minister, Chancellor and Chief of the Armed Forces. Long before his investiture as Regent to King Chulalongkorn, he was well known as a member of the new generation among the court officials, with a keen interest in western learning in a variety of fields, including science, engineering and steamship building. He established cordial and constructive relationships with early Protestant missionaries, whom he valued for their modern medical knowledge and ability to provide instruction in English; and his ability to interact effectively with foreign agents and diplomats made him the key figure in promoting Siamese-British relations.

2. Having a very close relationship with Prince Mongkut during his years as a Buddhist monk and later as king Rama IV (1851-1868), Sri Sury Wongse became one of the most influential figures in King Mongkut’s court. He supported the king in welcoming British influence and Western learning, eventually assuming the position of Chancellor or Samuha Kalahome, head of the Defense Ministry.

3. After the death of King Mongkut in 1868, his young son - Prince Chulalongkorn, became the successor to the throne (1868-1910). However, as the new monarch was then only fifteen years old, Sri Sury Wongse was named as Regent, a post he held until 1873. He could make decisions on all affairs either inside or outside the capital, or even across the country, including the absolute power to pass a judgment of execution on any felon.

4. Following his retirement as Regent in 1873, Sri Sury Wongse continued to contribute his knowledge and talents in a variety of activities until his death in 1882 at the age of 74.

I. Culture for Peace: Bamboo Diplomacy Emphasizing Tolerance and Mutual Understanding

5. During the 19th century, a country negotiating with a European power could not fail to notice a warship or fleet of ships appearing off its coast. The mere sight of such power almost always had a considerable effect, and it was rarely necessary for such boats to resort to other conspicuous displays of naval power. Britain and France joined hands in deploying their gunboat diplomacy to corner Siam as they had done so successfully with Burma, China, India and Indochina.

6. Siamese nobility realized that they could not keep peace through strength, and instead, engaged in bamboo diplomacy, a shrewd foreign policy that seeks to bend with the prevailing wind. The bamboo is always solidly rooted but flexible enough to bend whichever way the wind blows and resilient enough to survive under heavy pressure.

7. Sri Sury Wongse, both before and during his term as Regent, was one of the principal architects and practitioners of this strategy in dealings with foreign envoys – to accept compromise and to avoid confrontation that might ruin negotiations and could lead to the use of force. This approach was transmitted to his protégé, who adopted it fully, and the bamboo diplomacy has been the hallmark of Siamese / Thai diplomacy to the present time.

8. Townsend Harris, the American diplomat who concluded the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Siam in 1856, applied similar tactics with Japan and signed in 1858 the Treaty of Peace and Commerce, known as the Harris Treaty, after 5 years of deadlock. By the end of King Mongkut’s reign, Siam had treaty relations with almost every country in Europe: Great Britain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Norway and Sweden. Later, in 1869,during his term as Regent, Sri Sury Wongse negotiated important treaties of a similar nature with Spain and Austria and Hungary. For other states in South and Southeast Asia, the presence of the imperialist powers in the end meant colonization, but Siam managed to maintain its sovereignty.

9.  Siam succeeded not only in making her presence known in Europe and in the United States but also transformed the battlefield into a zone of friendship and commerce. Thailand’s mastery of the bamboo diplomacy is more than mere pragmatism; the Siamese court did so successfully during the colonial period as one American professor - Thomas W. Smith once mentioned: the bamboo diplomacy reflects Thailand's long-cherished, philosophical approach to international relations. Thailand continues to exercise its shrewd diplomacy, playing one power against the other in order to maintain a high degree of autonomy in the country's foreign affairs. Surachat Bamrungsook – professor of the Faculty of Political Sciences, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, added: Thailand also looks east and west nowadays emphasizing her experiences in the complex engagement.

Education for All

10. Education to develop the human capital is a key success factor of social development in any age. A knowledge society must be created at all cost. Sri Sury Wongse, because of his personal love of learning and his firm belief in the importance of self-education and literacy in the development of his country, had a definite impact, not only in the education of the young King Chulalongkorn and members of the court, but on government administrators and the people of the country as a whole.

11. Sri Sury Wongse championed the introduction of innovations into the Kingdom that encouraged learning and the practical application of the knowledge gained. Earlier in his career he facilitated the import of a printing press from Singapore for the missionary Dr. Daniel Beach Bradley (1804-1873) - an American Presbyterian missionary, who then established a printing house where several Siamese literary classics were published, as well as the country’s first English Language newspaper, The Bangkok Recorder, which featured articles on science, technology, as well as local and international news. Prior to and during his term as Regent, Sri Sury Wongse promoted and facilitated translations and publication of enjoyable and didactic works from English and Chinese to encourage a reading habit among the populace, and to introduce new insights, cultural understanding and ways of thinking from Western and Eastern cultures. Among these works were the translation and publication of nineteen Chinese chronicles that embodied values such as compromise, community, loyalty, righteousness and unity. Through publications such as these, the Siamese people also learned concepts of basic human rights and responsibilities.

12. During the Regent’s term, women were given greater opportunities to acquire learning than had been the case previously, and were encouraged to study English.

Education for the Royal Court and the Nobility

13. A major task for the Regent involved ensuring that the future monarch received an education that would enable him to rule justly and effectively. This he did with great success, as his protégé, King Chulalongkorn became a wise and good ruler assisted by an educated team of administrators. Far different from the regents’ traditional role in Europe, this was found to be highly appreciated when King Chulalongkorn was more mature.

Education for the Future Ruler

14. For his formal education, the King was trained in public administration, with emphasis on practical learning in real-life situations. He was advised and mentored in administrative skills by high-ranking and experienced noblemen on the one hand, while missionaries, other foreigners and civil society activists prepared him with knowledge of the Western and rapidly changing world. Sri Sury Wongse had to nurture the young king with his vast experienceand made himself available at all times.

15. The Regent took it upon himself to carefully and systematically prepare the young monarch, allowing him to learn from real-life situations, practices, and actual management. In particular, he ensured that the king, as the decision-maker of his kingdom, would have to know how to handle crises in the future.

16. As part of his informal education, with the guidance of the Regent, the young king was expected to undertake royal duties and the pursuit of moral education and practices (i.e., observing religious precepts, managing the country and his family affairs, training royal pages, inspecting construction, checking subjects’ petitions). To give him a break from these duties and to provide him with new experiences, the Regent arranged for the young monarch to travel abroad to neighboring countries. He visited Dutch Java in 1871 for 38 days, the British colonies of Singapore and Burma (Rangoon) and then India for 92 days in 1872. Through these visits he became aware of the social, political and cultural development in the world beyond the borders of Siam, and sparked his interest in making study visits to countries in Asia and Europe, in order to learn, to meet and to exchange opinions and experience with the ruler and outstanding officials of each country. Since then, it has become a tradition for a newly enthroned king, absolute or constitutional monarchy, to pay state visits to foreign countries to establish close relations of friendship and cooperation.

17. Experiences and knowledge gained from the voyage created the most benefits to King Chulalongkorn and the kingdom enormously, as shown in the archives of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab – Minister of Interior, known as Father of the Thai history. He reviewed his memory available today:After my own perception (since my childhood as far as I can remember) towards the processes by that time, inquiry from the others appointed to particular official position, and an intense investigation of the references available at the archives. I considered that the determination and arrangement of the voyage at that time remained a success. Two seniors: Sri Sury Wongse and Prince Bamrap Porapak – Minister of Finance should be highly merited with two important steps, firstly, the elders (the Regent and the Minister of Finance) implemented rules and regulations in the administration to pave the way, and secondly, the well-planned strategy to prepare the King with experiences and qualifications for government affairs. It was the Regent’s duty to suggest the direction of ruling the country to the king based on good governance principle and command the government affairs decisively. However both affairs must be reported to His Majesty regularly.

Education of Future Government Administrators

18. Sri Sury Wongse, with the support of King Chulalongkorn and Dr. Daniel Beach Bradley established the Royal School, a very special school in the palace that focused on the teaching of English, with the concept that Siamese people should read texts in English in order to learn and understand culture, literacy and Western knowledge. There were two departments: the right wing situated in the east of the palace was devoted to teaching English and French, while the left wing on the west, to Siamese language and mathematics. European textbooks were used, teaching English and French (reading, writing and speaking), mathematics and also some European history and geography. King Chulalongkorn ordered all his younger brothers to go to one or other of these schools and also induced noblemen to send their sons of school age to study.

19. When the time came for King Chulalongkorn to assume full powers, he continued his own self-education and that of the princes who administered government agencies. With the foundations he received from his Regent’s initiatives and his subsequent endeavors, the monarch visited Europe twice in 1897 and in 1907. He became a modernizer, led a great reform wherein he abolished slavery, centralized revenues, created a national education system, maintained Siam’s independence, and worked in myriad ways to develop the country for the benefit of Siamese people. Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese king to send royal princes to Europe to be educated. On their return, they were appointed to top posts in his administration – the so-called Government of the Princes. He is remembered as the Great King who made Siam a modern nation.

20.  The king finally succeeded through education in shaping the future of the country - a legacy of Sri Sury Wongse, who launched him on the right path. King Chulalongkorn was also recognized in 2003 by the UNESCO as Eminent Personality of the world.

III. Adaptation and Assimilation of Western Culture and Technology to Further the Development and Modernization of Siam

Public Health

21. Good health and hygiene is a basic right of all people, a goal that the international community is working cooperatively to achieve. Over a century ago, Western medical care was being introduced and adopted in Siam. Progress had gradually been made since until Thailand is now universally accepted as a force in Health Sciences.

Welcome to my residence

22. Siamese traditional medicine of the 19th century could not cope with many diseases and epidemics. The country needed new knowledge and modern technology, which were in part introduced through Christian missionaries who played an important part in the transition period of medicine and public health in Siam. This effort was greatly assisted by Sri Sury Wongse, who had opened his home to missionaries to demonstrate medical procedures and operate clinics, and who facilitated their travel upcountry to provide medical services to those in remote areas by authorizing their right of passage through various checkpoints. Significant support for travel was undertaken by boats that plied the various rivers throughout the country, some of which he himself had had constructed or commissioned.

23. Thus, through his strong support of the work of missionaries in modernizing traditional medical practices and disseminating medical education and research, Sri Sury Wongse paved the way in public health to improve the quality of life of the Siamese people that has had a lasting impact to this day. Under his patronage, missionaries introduced and disseminated procedures in surgery, anesthesiology, and in the techniques of vaccination against smallpox. His facilitation and good intentions, along with the assistance of foreign personnel, driven by modern medical science and technology, seemed at this point in time to resemble remarkably medicine without frontiers, long before a western-style hospital was established in Siam. Sri Sury Wongse initiated and delivered a form of public health in the 19th century, more than a century before the WHO Declaration on Health for All in May 1998.

Building ships and facilitating canal transportation

24. Sri Sury Wongse had a keen interest in Western learning in various fields, particularly science and engineering and was fascinated by the potential of water transportation and steamship building. Prior to and during his regency, he oversaw and then commissioned the construction of many barges, notably, the Ariel, built on a western model, steamship-type barges, such as the Rising Sun – and a warrior steamship called the Morta.

25. Siam was crisscrossed by a network of canals used by Siamese for travel. This is the reason why early Western visitors called Bangkok - Venice of the East. Transportation by canals had to be developed to facilitate circulation by boat. Sri Sury Wongse headed an operation to dig a canal between two rivers (the Ta Chin and the Mae Klong Rivers to the west of Bangkok) with soldiers, local Siamese and Chinese working as labourers, using some of his own funds. The canal, named Damnoen Saduak remains a major waterway to the present day. The Prem Swat Prachakorn Canal was opened in 1870 under the first Canal Commission Act for the convenience of communication and trade between Bangkok and Ayutthaya Province. Crops could be cultivated along its banks, and the canal provided not only means of transportation for society but also benefited farmers and their livelihood.

26. The first lighthouse in Siam was completed in 1874, constructed by Sri Sury Wongse using his own budget. The lighthouse was requested by consuls and foreign merchants in Siam to mark clearly the passage of ships and barges through the shoals in accordance with international standards. Later on it served to demarcate the shallowest channel. Sri Sury Wongse headed and inspected the project himself. The construction took 3 years to complete, from 1870 to 1874 and this first standard lighthouse was donated to the royal government for commercial nautical purposes. Dedicated on November 9, 1874, it was named by contemporary expatriates the Regent Lighthouse, and served as a navigational point for more than 50 years.

Promotion of Buddhism and Institution Building

27. The Regent had great faith in Buddhism. Under his supervision, important religious structures were renovated and/or constructed, many using his own funds. Dong Mai Temple, initially established during the Ayutthaya period, after renovation by the Bunnag Family, was presented as a royal tribute to the king and later royally renamed Bupparam Temple.

28. Temples in Ratchaburi Province were constructed after he reached the end of his service as Regent. Wat Sri Sury Wongsawas, built during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, was based on western architecture. The chapel was constructed in a Western style with the Suriyamondhol emblem (the cachet of his regency) in front.

29. Despite his marked interest in Western culture, Sri Sury Wongse did not forget the roots of the country. A harmonious integration between Siamese classical and Western arts was created through his advice on the construction of the Chakri Throne Hall in the Grand Palace, which is a hallmark of this style.

30. Another palace that benefited from his judicious advice was built in Phetchaburi Province. It was called Pra Nakhon Khiri Palace, commonly known as Kao Wang. The palace, together with a temple, called Wat Phra Kaew, was constructed atop three contiguous hills in a neoclassic architecture.

31. Traditionally, temples were not only religious institutions but also centers of learning. By promoting the construction of infrastructure and architecture in Buddhist temples, Sri Sury Wongse contributed significantly to the creation of knowledge and wisdom among the people in those days. Increasingly, promotion of culture has been recognized as an enabler and driver of sustainable development, peace and economic progress.

Modern Thailand owes a great debt of gratitude to this man, who, despite the power he wielded and opportunities he had to usurp that power for his own benefit chose loyalty over self-glorification and service over greed. He served as protector of the Siamese throne while introducing the foundations of good government and social development in the country. This loyalty and service was recognized and greatly appreciated when King Chulalongkorn attained his maturity and took full authority of rule.

The activities to celebrate the Commemoration of Sri Sury Wongse’s contribution to the modernization, education, culture and sciences from the accession to the throne of King Chulalongkorn of Siam in 1868 will be hosted mainly by the BanSomdejchaopraya Rajabhat University (BSRU) whose campus actually sits on Sri Sury Wongse’s old residence and compound which was donated to the Ministry of Education by King Chulalongkorn following his death. This is indeed an important and long-lasting legacy of the Regent of King Chulalongkorn.

Each year on January 19 as the anniversary of his death, the university organizes a special commemoration day to pay gratitude to the owner of the property.

The university staff and students including international students, as well as alumni foundation and other private sectors, will take part in the organizing of the Commemoration of 1868 as the beginning of the first social and cultural reform in Siam,