A Poem in Isan Explaining the Constitution of the Kingdom of Siam

[คลิกที่นี่เพื่ออ่านต้นฉบับ คำกลอนพากย์อีสาน บรรยายรัฐธรรมนูญแห่งราชอาณาจักรสยาม]

With the arrival of democracy to Siam in 1932, the Constitution became the kingdom’s highest political symbol. For the next fifteen years, constitutionalism was heavily pushed via annual festivals, public art, and literary contests. With a coup in 1947, constitutionalism began to wane, until it was completely unseated in 1957 with the US-backed coup of Sarit Thanarat.

The Northeast, also known as Isan, offers a vantage point to unpick the period’s constitutionalism. Many monuments to the Constitution were erected in the region, which could be taken as evidence of the spread of a modern, democratic consciousness among the populace in the periphery who welcomed the new order with open arms. The monuments in Surin and Roi Et, for example, were crowdfunded by local civil servants, merchants, and other ordinary people; they were finished years before the People’s Party came up with the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Yet this phenomenon could also be taken as evidence of the lack of such consciousness, which necessitated an extensive state-led propaganda. A case in point is the 1934 Monument to Revere the Constitution in Maha Sarakham, the first of its kind in the kingdom, which was initiated by the local ruler after multiple Holy Man rebellions cropped up since the revolution.

Anusawaree thoed ratthathammanoon in Maha Sarakham. Image from the National Archives of Thailand.

The poem excerpted here lends itself to both readings. Its author Khun Phrom Prasart (Wan Phromkasikorn, 1895-1968) was at once a civil servant loyal to the Siamese nation-state-building project and an intellectual unwavering in his preference for the regional Lao tongue, or Thai-Isan as he called it. His father was a village headman in Ubon who had taken part in the crackdown on local Holy Man rebellions at the turn of the century. Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the civil service at the age of nineteen. By the time A Poem in Isan Explaining the Constitution of the Kingdom of Siam was published in 1935, he had become a district chief of Khueang Nai, Ubon Ratchathani Province.

Written in the fluid and melodic metrical form of klon lam suitable for being read out loud for a public’s entertainment, this was an unprecedentedly egalitarian attempt to reach out to the common people. In the same breath, it was yet another iteration of putting the masses under the tutelage of the political elite:

We call it, simply, “Ratthathammanoon.”
Learn it. Try saying it. You’re not deaf-and-dumb,
Don’t butcher it, or they’ll call you a buffoon.
I’m not exaggerating—I have seen some
Just skip through syllables. Then there have been some
Who mumble noon-noon then just call it a day. Ho-hum.
They’re not ashamed of ignorance, are they?

Another complicated aspect of the work is its careful balancing act between defending the Revolution and reaffirming allegiance to the Crown. It could be the author’s own intermediary position, or could also be official policy to portray the government as royalist in the face of detractors. In her thesis Penpilailak Maneepark pointed to the context of increasing skepticism and antagonism towards the People’s Party a few years into its rule. Incidentally, the date of the work’s publication in a cremation book, 20 April 1935, came only forty-nine days after the abdication of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII)—an event which signaled the breakdown of compromise between the old and the new.

Prior to publication, the Poem in Isan was presented to the Minister of Interior and reviewed by the recently established Department of Propaganda (now the Government Public Relations Department). We do not know whether the text was altered as a result, but we do know that a previous work by Khun Phrom Prasart, The Events of Change of Siam’s Government: A Poem in Thai-Isan (1932), did get censored for “passages referring to certain royalty and high-ranking bureaucrats who might be unnecessarily hurt and offended should they come upon them.” 

Letter requesting edits as reprinted in a volume edited by Jaruwan Thammawat

Despite the author’s social and ideological inbetweenness, his support for the people’s constitution was unequivocal. The 1930s was a simpler time when democracy and monarchy were still antonyms, and the prospects of a permanent constitution seemed within reach. This week, the now-hegemonic verbiage of “Democracy with the King as Head of State” was repeatedly used by the Constitutional Court to argue that sovereignty never left the hands of the king, even in 1932.

A Poem in Isan shows that, at one point, to be politically moderate in our country meant to be steadfast in the people’s constitution above all else:

The way of Thammanoon, don’t you forget it.
That is, inscribed to be the basic tenet
Of governance, forever set in stone.
It matters not which man ascends the throne:
The Thammanoon won’t budge, not even as much
As a sesame seed.

The following excerpt, translated by Peera Songkünnatham, is from the first eleven pages of the 35-page work. Trace the spiral movement of ideas, and listen to them resound as they bound across time and language barriers.

O people of Isan, lend me your ears.
I’d like to elucidate, to make things clear
From A to Z, a glimpse into the gears
As by a torch’s light. For those well-versed
Already, still you’ll gain more insight. First,
About myself who wrought this verse by hand
For you to read: I come from wooded land
Of Mueang Phana Nikhom, in Ubon of old.
Khun Phrom Prasart is my name and the title I hold.
Now, Khueang Khwaeng Ubon is where I make my abode.
About my folk I’ve pondered long and deep,
For many in Isan are still asleep.
In other places treatises have been penned,
But they’re in Central Thai, of cities beneath,
A tongue that is hard for us to comprehend.
In hopes that people here will get to read
And listen to it, I’ve toiled with what I’ve got.
Forgive my mistakes: hate the poet not.

Now, I shall speak of Prathet Thai’s government
To give some background knowledge, pros and cons.
Let’s start from the beginning. Say, age of bronze,
There were already kings. With time, all power went
Into the monarch’s hands. The common people,
However smart, could never stand as equals
With lords and masters. Voices of plebeians
Were ignored by the king, who held the reins
And had the final say in everything. For sure,
His Majesty looked after people as required
By custom. Some were happy, others mired
In suffering: he could not give succor
To everyone I s’pose. This is no crime:
’Twas a tradition fitting for its time.
With luck, our lives would by grace be uplifted.
Now was the time of change, the country had shifted:
More highly educated than before,
And yet our trade and livelihoods were shot,
Our public funds were dropping through the floor.
For years the king had unsuccessfully sought
A solution. Things kept getting rougher and rougher
For common folk. And then, some brave souls offered
To put their lives on the line for the people’s sake.
With kith and kin they pitched in and hitched on
To the movement by the name “Khana Ratsadon.”
All of these people work in teams and know
Their job. Had they maintained the status quo,
Let the Thai monarch have the sole dominion
Without considering the people’s opinion,
The country would not prosper, for the king,
One king, can’t keep an eye on everything.
Ruling o’er millions, the few will lead astray
The many. Better more views than one, I’d say,
A long road is made secure with company.
Also, a lot of countries in the outside world
Managed to find peace and prosperity
From using a modern governmental mold.
Our people saw all that and, so impressed,
Petitioned Our Monarch to suggest
That commoners be involved in decision-making.
The noble ones who led this undertaking—
Brothers and sisters, learn their names by heart,
Lest we forget their extraordinary soul
That struck out, even if their heads could roll,
To bring us all the prize—now, just to start,
Remember these two men for later retrieve:
Colonel Phraya Phahon, this man’s the chief,
And Luang Pradit, who’s always by his side…
Well, uncles and aunties, let me pause this ride
For now. I’ve still got so much more to tell
And entertain your ears. I might as well
Give just the juicy bits—it’s for the best:
Otherwise we won’t get to all the rest.

Concerning the modern form of government,
I’ll lay out how it’s run, to orient
Your minds to matters light and heavy, so
You quickly learn of all the facts to know.
Well, the king among us Thai since long ago,
I’m gonna say it, had been placed up high,
So absolutely high, the climb so steep—
The ministers, he’d pick; the laws, he’d sign—
That no one dared object, nor utter a peep.
However stoic, the masses suffered terribly
At the mercy of the lords and royal charity.
In case the king was cruel, we’d gasp for air.
But if the king was dutiful and fair
To commoners, we’d be safe in his care.
This was the custom as per ancient roots.
Us folks had no say, like a bunch of mutes
We didn’t know how to speak. This I have witnessed
And I got so upset it left me speechless,
Akin to having elbows tied behind you
So the other side can beat you up for sport.
Students of politics will grasp this sort
Of situation. I’m not bashing, mind you:
I hold His Majesty in high esteem.
I’m not here to find fault and turn us folks
Against the king, just sketching in broad strokes
For you to get a sense of the old regime.
Don’t hate the monarch, he’s forever ours.
Bow to him daily, praise his benevolent powers.
The kind of governance described thus far
Is called “Rachathippatai”—where royals are
On top in absolute terms, while the rest
Must stop themselves from voicing their repressed
Feelings and thoughts, as custom dictates
They leave it up to the king. Then, he conceded
To grant the people power. The laws, we’d make.
Let’s learn the name so you can all repeat it:
“Prachathippatai”—the governance of now.
Mark, too, the day of change of government:
Two thousand four hundred and seventy-five B.E.,
On Friday the twenty-fourth, the month of June.
That day, our king was asked if he’d allow
The change. Then, on the twenty-seventh, they went
Further by asking that His Majesty
Establish a body of laws. For many moons,
The king himself had thought along this line.
It’s just that there were hiccups, causing delay.
Then came Khana Raat right during that time,
So he saw fit to grant it straight away.
Don’t lose the name, our job is to remember:
“Ratthathammanoon chua khrao”—means not for long,
Provisional, rushed out. Then in December
The tenth, a new body of laws was born.
Its items were fleshed out in finer detail,
With padding and pruning fitted to the form.
Once thoroughly revised, they were unveiled
To the king, who agreed with the Ratsadon
Assembly and proclaimed them into use
As pillar par excellence. This body of laws
Carries the same name as I’ve introduced,
Except scratch out the extra final clause.
We call it, simply, “Ratthathammanoon.”
Learn it. Try saying it. You’re not deaf-and-dumb,
Don’t butcher it, or they’ll call you a buffoon.
I’m not exaggerating—I have seen some
Just skip through syllables. Then there have been some
Who mumble noon-noon then just call it a day. Ho-hum.
They’re not ashamed of ignorance, are they?
Wake up, wake up and be aware, my friends,
Learn the good stuff: it will pay dividends.

Now, I’ll give an explanatory gloss
Of Ratthathammanoon, to get across
What’s good about it. Here go its essentials:
Trust me, I follow those with the credentials.
“Rath, rattha,” from the language of Magadha,
Translates to country, polity, domain.
“Thammanoon,” a proper name, translates to order.
Put the two words together, you’ll obtain
The guiding law that makes a country’s rule
An orderly affair of placid cool. Truly.
Now let us hear the word for power supreme,
“Amnat-athippatai.” Back then, it knew no bounds:
The law could be whatever He would deem
Appropriate. This new kind, though, surrounds
All avenues of action in the name
Of Thammanoon. Loopholes, we won’t permit,
Nor roads to ruin. Dharma guides its aim
And Truth its principles. It makes well-lit
The good paths, and installs stop signs before
The bad ones. How much can the monarch do?
Which rights are the people entitled to?
The Constitution settles these, and more.
Who heads the House of Representatives?
Who are the ministers? The lower executives?
The public knows them all. The Constitution
Also sets down the rules of power distribution
Within the government. They arrive at
Such rules so roles don’t clash. It’s just like that,
The way of Thammanoon, don’t you forget it.
That is, inscribed to be the basic tenet
Of governance, forever set in stone.
It matters not which man ascends the throne:
The Thammanoon won’t budge, not even as much
As a sesame seed. Let’s celebrate it, shall we?
You shan’t erase it. You shan’t tear it down.
This Constitution is the trunk of a tree,
Parent to other laws, each book a bough
With many leaves. Whoever disrespects
And treads on Thammanoon shall drown in grief
Wherein no Boon can possibly provide relief.
Stay vigilant, people, it’s ours to protect.
Besiege the evildoer—burn the thief!

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