By Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s elaborate coronation ceremonies for King Maha Vajiralongkorn this weekend are steeped in history and a showcase for the kingdom’s rich Buddhist culture for the world.
Yet for many in the West, the Thai monarchy is still often associated with another king – the character played by Yul Brynner in the 1956 Hollywood musical “The King and I”.
That film is banned in Thailand because its depiction of King Mongkut – the current king’s great-great grandfather – is deemed disrespectful and false.
In the movie, the king, played by Brynner, was portrayed as a moody, vain, ignorant and misogynistic monarch who softened up thanks to the influence of the children’s plucky English governess.
In fact, King Mongkut, who reigned from 1851 to his death in 1868, is seen by many historians as a reformist for his time.
The king, also known as Rama IV, was 47 when he took the throne after the death of his half-brother.
He had spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk and founded a reformist Buddhist sect that is still practised in Thailand.
It was during this time that he studied foreign languages like English and Latin, as well as mathematics and Western astronomy through conversations with Christian missionaries and through books.
As king, Mongkut conducted a range of social and educational reforms including measures improving women’s rights and modernizing the military.
His passion for learning led to his hiring of an English woman, Anna Leonowens, in the 1860s as a tutor for some of his 32 wives and concubines and 82 children.
Leonowens’ contemporary account of her experience, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court”, became the basis nearly a century later for the fictionalised novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon that inspired both a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on Broadway and the Hollywood film.
Leonowens’ book – unlike its fictionalised offspring – is not banned in Thailand and in fact was re-translated into Thai this year.
While official Thai history dismisses Leonowens’ works as inaccurate and overly sensational, many historians are now seeing her work as a valuable insight into the clash of world views between nineteenth century Siam and colonial powers.
“Her works provide a glimpse into the culture shock between East and West,” said Somrit Luechai, an independent scholar.
“Here is a Victorian English lady with strong views against slavery and prostration and she obviously clashed with the Thai elite who had a very different world view and conduct about people’s rights at the time,” he said.
However, the idea that Leonowens introduced King Mongkut to Western ideas is overblown, historians say.
“King Mongkut and other nobles employed Western missionaries to teach their household English, Western manners and other knowledge well before the arrival of Leonowens,” Kanthika Sriudom, a historian at Rangsit University, told Reuters.
“As early as the reign of Rama III, many Siamese nobles were already able to read European books,” she said.
Thai historians also dispute Leonowens’ account of how the king mistreated his wives, saying Mongkut was actually the first monarch to provide education for women in his court.
He also allowed those concubines who did not bear him any children to leave the palace and remarry, breaking with ancient tradition.
One thing both Thai and Western historians agree on: Mongkut and Leonowens were extremely unlikely to have had anything resembling a romance. And they never – as in the famous movie scene – danced a polka together to the tune “Shall We Dance?”
(Editing by Kay Johnson and Robert Birsel)