During our latest stay in Bangkok, we were lucky to meet some people willing to discuss the history of this region and to introduce us to some of the city’s hidden treasures. One of these kindly souls, a Thai-speaking Briton, took us to the Labor Museum. A small building near Makkasan station run by donation and volunteers, this lovingly curated museum illustrates the history of Thai workers—an accessible and illuminating view of the country’s general history.
Before the nineteenth century, Siamese society adhered to a strict hierarchy, with the King at the top, nai—nobles beneath him (each of which controlled a mueang or fortified town), phrai—commoners or freedmen, and slaves. Phrai were actually not all that different from slaves as they were required to carry out corvée labor and the kinds of work they did was essentially the same as that of slaves. Royal officials would keep tabs on numbers by going about the country conducting mass tattooings for phrai.
Thailand has the largest Chinese population of any country outside China—about fourteen percent are ethnically Chinese, though many of them are fully assimilated and identify as Thai. In the late eighteenth century, King Taksin (whose mother was Chinese from Guangdong Province), actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. During the nineteenth century, particularly as European powers became aware of Siam’s teak forests (coveted by European shipbuilders), pewter and tin deposits, there was an increased need for cheap labor. Chinese men poured into the country to work rickshaw-pullers, blacksmiths and railroad builders (the first railway line was started in 1891). Because they were usually single, many of them married Thai women. In 1876, the Angyee Riots were a big uprising of Chinese tin miners protesting the fact that mine owners laid off so many of them or even stopped paying them wages.
King Rama IV (reigned 1851-1868) was the first Thai monarch to have a western education and to speak English. Although, he is perhaps best known to English-speakers as the ‘King’ of Margaret London’s semi-fictional book Anna and the King of Siam, that book and all of its cinematic manifestations are banned in Thailand for being deemed offensive to the King. His son Prince Chulalongkorn, (reigned 1868-1910), implemented a number of reforms including the abolition of serfdom and the conscription of commoners for slave labor. He is still regarded with worshipfulness by Thais today and you often see his portrait hanging in shops and offices.
Underplayed in the Labor Museum was the Siamese Revolution of 1932, a bloodless coup instigated by intellectuals who’d studied abroad, were sick of royal mismanagement and wanted to try new methods of government. These intellectuals gains some popular support, staged a coup and absolute monarchy was changed to constitutional monarchy. Soon afterwards, Pridi Banomyong, one of the tiny group that organized the coup, presented radical economic plans that would involve nationalizing land, public ownership and universal basic income. These plans were rejected by royalists and in 1933 he went into exile, accused of being a Communist. He returned to the country in 1934, but increasingly found himself to the left of his colleagues.
In 1938, Defence Minister Major General Phibun became Prime Minister and the country took a militaristic turn. He passed authoritarian laws that gave the government powers of complete censorship, he had political opponents arrested and exiled, and he launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. On June 23, 1939, he renamed Siam ‘Phrathet Thai,’ meaning ‘land of the free’ and meant to include Tai-speaking peoples and exclude Chinese. The country’s slogan become ‘Thailand for the Thai.’ Phibun admired leaders who employed a cult of personality, such as Hitler and Mussolini. In places where you would ordinarily expect to find the King’s portrait, he put his own.
At the outbreak of World War II, Phibun formed an alliance with Japan. Thailand’s government split into two factions: the Phibun Regime and the Free Thai Movement, which included about 90,000 pro-Allied guerillas. As the war progressed, Phibun’s leadership became increasingly unpopular thanks to economic hardship, strategic bombing of Bangkok by Allied Forces and Japanese arrogance towards Thais, whom they treated more as a conquered people than an ally.
The notorious Siam-Burma Railroad, otherwise known as the Death Railroad, was ordered by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to facilitate transport of supplies to Burma. It was built thanks to at least 180,000 laborers and POWs who suffered maltreatment, sickness and starvation. About 100,000 of them died during its construction. English-language accounts by POWs include Railroad of Death by John Coast, Last Man Out, and In the Shadow of Death by Idris James Barwick. In Asia, the railway’s construction is still considered a war crime committed by Japan. The bridge’s construction was the occasion for Pierre Boulle’s book (and the film based on it) called Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (The Bridge on the River Kwai).
After World War II, Thailand received financial aid from the USA, partly (no doubt) in return for acting as a staunch anti-Communist ally in the region during the Cold War. Americans effectively gave the green light to coup makers to overthrow Thailand’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong and CIA reports at the time frequently linked the left-leaning Pridi to Chinese Communism and also to the Viet Minh. Naturally, the US was much more comfortable with Phibun, who offered a stable military regime rather than an unpredictable democratic civilian-led government. So the US looked on indulgently as Phibun crushed Pridi supporter and assassinated key members of the opposition, particularly in Isan, in the country’s north-east.
Ironically, according to legend anyway, it was US meddling in Thai politics that was responsible for the creation of one of Thailand’s most famous Communist poets, Somchit Phumisak (Chit for short). The story goes that he was first exposed to Marxism when hired by William J. Gedney, working for the US Embassy, to help translate The Communist Manifesto into Thai. The idea was that if Thai officials could read the thing, they’d take the Communist threat more seriously. Phumisak pretty soon joined the Communist Party and wrote (under pseudonyms) The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and several volumes of poetry before being shot to death in a village at the age of 35. In the Labor Museum there is a whole room devoted to poetry and song, and it is dominated by images of this young bespectacled guy. The rest of the room is more or less taken up with paraphernalia related to a folk-band called Caravan, originally student activists who sympathized with Isan farmers. Their songs criticize US interference in Thai politics and celebrate the love between a man and his water buffalo.
October 14 1973, theDay of Sorrow, marked the largest democratic uprising in Thai history. More than 200,000 students gathered in Bangkok to protest against the expulsion of student activists by the Thanom Kittikachorn, the pro-US, anti-Communist junta leader since 1963. When the army moved in to break up the crowd, between 50 and 70 people were killed, with 870 wounded. The effect of the uprising was that Thanom fled and there was an eerie calm until the next far-right junta took power in 1976, soon after another massacre of protests, the Thammasat University massacre.
One of the most poignant exhibits in the museum is devoted to the Kader Tragedy of 1993. This was a massive fire in a shoddily built toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok. Most of the workers were women from poor rural areas. Because there were no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire escapes, the women learned of the fire too late and when they tried to escape they were trapped. Officially, 188 people died and more than 469 were injured, making it the worst industrial fire in history. Outside the museum there is a monument to the victims featuring images of Bart Simpson, as the world was at the height of The Simpsons craze.
Note: This article has been edited because there were factual errors conflating Chulalonghorn with his father Rama IV. Thank you to Siam Rat for the corrections! Please check out his great blog for more information about Thailand.