Historians are divided over who introduced the printing press to Thailand. The most likely candidate is Dan Beach Bradley, an American missionary, also thought to be the first person to perform surgery in the country. In 1835, he began printing translated copies of the Bible for evangelical work. 14 years later, he introduced the country’s first newspaper, the Bangkok Recorder, printed monthly in Thai. Although it ceased publication after only one year—partly because of poor subscription numbers (just 35 people at its height)—it was resurrected with greater success in the 1860s.
During the first half of the 19th century, the printing presses of Siam (as Thailand was known until 1939), were chiefly reeling off evangelical texts for the swarms of missionaries who had begun entering the country in the 1820s. While Siam’s absolute monarchs saw these incoming Christians as an annoyance, they were tolerated and allowed to go about their work. After all, Christianity was only of interest to the country’s small Chinese and European communities.
But the ready availability of printing presses allowed one young noble to attempt something that would foreshadow Siam’s changing public sphere. In the late 1840s, as Mot Amatayakul was engaged in a feud with the courts over an inheritance, he paid a small fee to a clerk to make a copy of the country’s legal text, the so-called Three Seals Law, so that he could study it by himself. “After reading the text, [he] came to realise that those who did not have knowledge of the laws would face problems when dealing with legal matters,” writes the historian Thanapol Limapichart.
So, in 1849, Mot Amatayakul hired one of the missionaries’ printing presses to publish dozens of copies of the law. These, he thought, he could sell for a handsome price. But at the time, legal texts were the property of the King and not intended for public viewing; indeed, they had never before actually been printed for public consumption. The royal house’s responsibility was to interpret the laws of the land and judge how they should be applied. Allowing commoners to interpret legislation by themselves, it was argued, was a direct threat to the legitimacy of Siam’s absolute monarchy. Consequently, Mot Amatayakul’s printed texts infuriated King Nangklao (r. 1824-1851), and they never went on sale; instead they were confiscated and later burned.
Nevertheless, Mot Amatayakul had opened a new fissure in Siamese society. Not only had he offended the royal government by trying to bring their shrouded laws into public view, he had used the new technology of the printing press as his means. Importantly, his fateful printing took place just as the newspaper industry was starting to boom in Siam.
Arguably, the most important aspect of these treaties—one with particular implications for newspapers—was that foreigners were considered under the protection of their own nations’ laws, not those of Siam. This allowed foreign-owned newspaper publishers to skirt restrictions on free speech routinely applied to Thais
This boom was in large part due to a number of treaties Bangkok had signed with foreign powers, which were busily colonising other parts of Southeast Asia at the time. Siam would remain the only country in the region not to be colonised by a European nation, though historians remain divided over whether it was truly independent or merely semi-colonial. Siam, after all, certainly didn’t agree voluntarily to the treaties it signed during the 1850s, such as the Bowring Treaty. With the British military emboldened after the First Opium War and readily employing gunboat diplomacy throughout the region, in 1855, Siam was pressured into signing this Treaty with the UK, which guaranteed Siam’s territorial rights while giving Britons in the country special extraterritorial powers. This became the template for most of the treaties Siam signed with other foreign powers during this periodis, requiring Siam open up its markets to free trade, despite the monarch’s reluctance to expose the country to outside influences.
Arguably, the most important aspect of these treaties—one with particular implications for newspapers—was that foreigners were considered under the protection of their own nations’ laws, not those of Siam. This allowed foreign-owned newspaper publishers to skirt restrictions on free speech routinely applied to Thais. Soon, the newspaper industry boomed. In 1859, Bradley began publishing his new almanac, the Bangkok Calendar. The American John Hassett Chandler (the teacher of the future King Chulalongkorn) started publishing the Siam Times, a business weekly, in the early 1860s. Later, in 1867, Chandler’s assistant Samuel J. Smith founded Siam Daily Advertiser, an English- and Thai-language newspaper. Two years afterward, he launched the Siam Weekly Advertiser and the Siam Repository. Later still, in 1882, he would publish the highly influential Thai-language monthly, Jotmai-het sayam samai.
But it was in 1865, when Bradley re-launched the fortnightly Bangkok Recorder in both English and Thai, that the newspaper industry went through a major revolution. As well as the usual coverage of international and local news, the Recorder also included articles on various elements of global modernisation, such as the concept of the rights-bearing individual found in the U.S. Constitution and the invention of the railroads. Importantly, these provided a stark contrast to the lack of development in Siam, allowing Thai readers to question why modernisation wasn’t happening in their country; indeed, the intention of these articles, as compared to usual news coverage, was to draw a distinct contrast between what was happening elsewhere and the absence of similar developments in Siam. For example, one issue published in June 1865 reported on a Bombay millionaire who had donated his fortune to create a university in India. The newspaper went onto to enquire why the numerous wealthy individuals in Siam hadn’t similarly made donations to further national education.
Equally importantly, the Recorder and some other newspapers began publishing letters from members of the public. The front page of one issue of the Recorder featured an angry letter by a reader accusing a local tax collector of corruption. By the time the Recorder ceased publication again, in 1867, it was printing between one and six public complaints per issue, written chiefly by ordinary people. One merchant, who ran into difficulties with a minor royal, wrote that while his problem was not serious enough to take directly to the King, “I want everyone to know that the accused, a royal of Mom Chao rank should not deceive me, a poor unfortunate being.” The publication of such letters became a norm.
By the end of the decade, it became abundantly clear these publications weren’t just being read by the royal and financial elites, but also by “commoners”. The historian Thanapol writes: “The commoners quickly learned to appropriate the new technology for their own use. As the increase [in] complaints indicated, [newspapers] soon emerged as an open forum for the public expression of dissent and injustice.”
This practice was commonly known as “dropping a note.” But seldom did the authors of the letters reveal their identities, as the practice was illegal and those discovered to have published their grievances were severely punished. Indeed, royal authorities became increasingly anxious about the fact that commoners could now air their grievances in public, rather than taking matters directly to the King, as was traditionally done and indeed required by law.
In one sense, newspapers began to usurp the role of the monarch as the national arbitrator of the public’s woes. King Mongkut (r. 1851-1868) decided that he would not take complaints from the public that had previously been aired in newspapers. Then, in 1866, he issued two royal proclamations informing his subjects not to believe what was written in foreign-owned newspapers. There is a slight whiff of irony here: before his coronation, he had taken an active interest in the habits of newspaper publishers, striking up friendships with the likes of Bradley.
“…the King has been much stirred up by my last [issue of the Recorder]. He sent a copy of the paper back to me filled with his criticisms. Some of them are very bitter on religious subjects. Some are verbal in regard to letters and style. I feel much encouraged to go on with the work”
King Mongkut took to writing directly to newspapers’ owners, especially Bradley, to express his disappointment at their publications. In his journal, in 1865, Bradley wrote that “the King has been much stirred up by my last [issue of the Recorder]. He sent a copy of the paper back to me filled with his criticisms. Some of them are very bitter on religious subjects. Some are verbal in regard to letters and style. I feel much encouraged to go on with the work.” In another entry, he reported that a man of influence “has come today to advise me to stop reporting evil doers, saying that the better way is to let all complaints be carried directly to the King.”
Yet the royal elites could do little to censor such criticism, given the special protections afforded to foreigner publishers. Instead, in 1858, King Mongkut ordered his government to set up its own printing house and, the same year, began publishing the Government Gazette (Ratchakitchanubeksa), which gave a pro-royal slant on current affairs. The printing house was also used to publish his own speeches and travel reports, as well as handbooks on how the government should be run.
Importantly, the Government Gazette began printing texts of the country’s laws, including the Three Seals Law, considered unpublishable only a few years prior, under King Nangklao’s reign. Bradley was allowed to print these legal texts in the 1860s, and as a result, “the [Three Seals Law] was no longer a source of legitimacy and sacral power that had to be secluded, but was transformed into a source of applicable and practical law. For the first time in history, any literate individual who had enough money to purchase a copy of the Government Gazette could read portions of the [law], or have it read to them.”
It could be said that the Bowring Treaty and subsequent agreements with foreign powers constituted a violation of Siam’s sovereignty, and ought not be spoken of as praiseworthy. A consequentialist rebuttal, however, is that without these treaties, there most likely wouldn’t have been the maturation of a media culture in Siam, nor the rapid growth of a public sphere that centered around the products of the printing presses. Indeed, even if the foreign publishers in one sense violated national sovereignty by not abiding by local laws, they nevertheless provided an unrivaled service which arguably granted more agency to common Thais, who had previously had no say in their own country’s affairs, but were now more able to learn more about their country and complain of certain practices. It was certainly a major change for King Mongkut to publish for the first time legal texts once considered the exclusive property of the royal elite.
In 1868 came the coronation of fifteen-year-old King Chulalongkorn. His reign (until 1910), together with the introduction of more modern mechanised printing machines during the 1870s, again changed the nature of journalism. The King’s advisers knew they could not silence the press, so instead, his supporters, known as the “Young Siam”, started producing their own newspapers, which provided space to reply to complaints and ridicule the reporting by foreign-owned publications. The young nobles of the Young Siam were among the most enthusiastic authors of their time, writing polemics against foreigners and missionaries, as well as against other nobles. This came amid a series of royal reforms in the early 1870s, especially the creation of a Privy Council to manage state affairs, that created tensions among royals and prompted minor power struggles. Prince Kasemsansophak, the King’s half-brother, subsequently launched the weekly Thai-language Darunowat (“Instructions for Youth”), which provided a space for King Chulalongkorn’s supporters to defend his reforms, as well as attacking those who disagreed with his rule.
The last two decades of the 19th century marked a period when many young nobles, able to study abroad for the first time, returned home with new ideas about directions for Siam. A good number of these foreign-educated elites went onto create their own activist publications, with titles like Lak witthaya (Stealing Knowledge) and Thawi panya (Increase Your Intellect). In addition to news reports and editorials, they carried translations of European novels and Thai-language fiction, marking the start of what would become a radical new period of Thai literature.
Notably, too, by the turn of the century, commoners began publishing their own newspapers. Perhaps most influential was the noted writer T.W.S Wannapho (also known as Thianwan), a lawyer who had been jailed on sedition charges for 17 years and who agitated for Siam to develop like liberal democracies in Europe. He started two journals, Tun-wiphak photchanakit and Siriphotchanaphak, in the 1910s. This gave birth to a new muckraking form of journalism, in which non-royals could write specifically about social injustice, such as ongoing slavery. Thianwan, in particular, focused on the power of citizens to force change and was a leading proponent of constitutional reforms towards democracy.
Royals continued to own and operate newspapers under the rule of King Vajiravudh (r. 1910-1925). After an adviser suggested that the royal government should “seize the press as a weapon” in order to dispel mounting criticism, the King purchased several newspapers, including the Thai-language edition of the Bangkok Daily Mail, known for its criticism of the royal government. The Oxford-educated King Vajiravudh was also an avid writer, penning his own articles under the noms-de-plume Sri Ayutthaya, Ramchitti or Asavabahu.
Censorship became a pressing concern. From the 1880s onwards, as foreign-owned publications became ever bolder in their political coverage, gaining more Thai readers in the process, they were at greater risk of defamation lawsuits, one of the few local laws from which foreigners weren’t exempt. In 1886, just four years after it was founded, Samuel J. Smith’s influential Thai-language newspaper Jotmai-het sayam samai was forced to cease publication after Smith was sued for defamation by a Thai royal. However, most evidence suggests that trying to sue for defamation was an arduous and costly task, and it affected only a few newspapers.
Yet while a few newspapers were occasionally hampered by defamation charges or overt pressure to censor content, the most prevalent form of retaliation by those in power was rebuttal, response or simple mockery, including of foreign publishers. Instead of trying to silence their critics, the ruling royals and politicians responded with their own words. Siam’s public sphere was an arena for competing opinions and warring voices.
It was not until 1912 that King Vajiravudh was advised to try another method: introduce a Press Law. But he delayed adopting this approach for years, once noting that “it is important that we not cut off people’s means to air their grievances”. Legislation, nonetheless, was eventually introduced in 1922, for the first time allowing authorities to bring legal action against the media, though not foreign publishers, who were still protected. To circumvent the new legislation, many Thais simply hired foreigners to act as the “official” publishers of their newspapers, borrowing their protection.
Despite the law, the number of radical newspapers kept increasing, as did the potency of political criticism. Referring to the then-absolute monarchy, an editorial published in January 1924 by the English-language Bangkok Times stated: “There is no institution that in these days may hope to escape questioning. In Siam we have lived long contentedly under authority tempered with a smile but unquestioned. Today eager spirits are asking for justification of the dictates of authority.”
The same year, a survey found 99 privately owned printing presses operating in Bangkok alone. And, in just one month, 14 publishing houses in the capital published more than 40,000 copies of 39 titles. By the end of the 1920s, there were roughly 130 daily newspapers in circulation.
Fast forward almost a century and modern-day Thailand has a wildly different media environment. Today, Thailand is controlled by a military junta that came to power during a coup in 2014, ousting the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, had been likewise ousted in an earlier military coup in 2006. Thailand now has one of Asia’s worst records on free speech, thanks in part to harsh lèse-majesté laws that make it illegal to write critically—or honestly—about the monarchy. There has been more draconian enforcement of the law since the 2014 coup.
When exactly did Thailand’s public sphere go from a place where critical reporting was met with rebuttal, scorn and debate, to where it is now swiftly censored, and journalists rendered fearful of reporting even on trivial matters?
When exactly did Thailand’s public sphere go from a place where critical reporting was met with rebuttal, scorn and debate, to where it is now swiftly censored, and journalists rendered fearful of reporting even on trivial matters? Historians and political analysts have several theories. One simple answer is that this is only natural in a country that has witnessed 18 coups, successful and unsuccessful, and about two dozen general elections, in the last eight decades. In fact, since the 1932 revolution, which cast off the country’s absolute monarchy and replaced it with a constitutional monarchy, Thailand has seldom enjoyed a decade of political tranquility.
The 1930s saw coups and counter-coups, and the first threatened communist incursion. Purges were not uncommon, while undemocratic rulers tried their best to stifle dissent, including of the media. In 1938 came the premiership of Plaek “Phibun” Phibunsongkhram, an ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who took the country down an ultra-nationalist, quasi-fascistic path, signing an alliance with Imperial Japan even after it had invaded Thailand in 1941 (Thailand declared war on the Allies in 1942.) Phibun lost power after the war, but in 1948 he became Prime Minister once again, this time with the temporary support of Western nations because of his fierce and deadly anti-Communist stance. He was eventually overthrown by a military coup in 1957, ushering in an era of U.S.-backed military dictators that lasted until a student-led pro-democracy uprising in 1973. Even after this, however, the government alternated repeatedly between democratically-elected governments and military juntas.
Unsurprisingly, political instability since the 1930s has had effects on the country’s media. But a less obvious, though equally potent, contributor was the rise of Thai nationalism in the early 20th century, particularly following the creation of a constitutional monarchy in the 1930s. Unlike its neighbors, Thailand couldn’t take inspiration from an anti-colonial struggle to forge its sense of nationalism. It had no real “enemy” to rally against. “Thai-ness” became defined during a period of intense political rivalry, as each side battled over their own concept of nationalism, a concept which was always divisive and, potentially, combustive.
As a result, the contemporary political analyst Pavin Chachavalpongpun argues, an “enemy at the gates” has long been a major concept of Thai nationalism. “Terms like ‘evil’, ‘danger’, ‘threat’, and ‘enemy’ all signify negative elements that are supposedly extrinsic to ‘Thainess’ and deserve to be eliminated. In other words, those who act in ways perceived to be un-Thai may be labelled as enemies of the nation,” he wrote.
He charts this back to the reign of King Chulalongkorn, who “not only perceived farang [foreign] colonialism as a threat to his kingdom’s security but also farang concepts such as democracy as a threat to his absolute rule.” Later in the 20th century, he adds, “Thai leaders repeated this pattern of designating enemies, choosing home-grown and foreign communists in Indochina to represent a ‘clear and present danger’ to the Thai state.”
The implications of this for the media were apparent only a few months after the 1932 revolution. With the People’s Party in power, its newly installed intelligence network was put to work finding cliques of the ancien regime. One agent came across an alleged conspiracy by the owner of the Bangkok Daily Mail, Louis Girivat, and Wichit Wichitwathakan, who controlled the Thai-language Thai Mai newspaper. Other newspaper owners were also said to be part of a plot to agitate for the return of absolute monarchy. Wichit was a noted ideologue, and his Thai Mai newspaper was hardly deferential to the new government, warning it in an editorial published in August 1932 that if it degraded the honor of the monarchy or Buddhist faith then “the whole country would be up in arms”.
The newspaper also published regular letters from members of the public, calling themselves “Thai patriots”, who threatened an outright war if the role of the monarchy was infringed upon. But by the end of 1932, the People’s Party government had closed down four publications, including the Thai Mai newspaper. More were closed as Siam verged on civil war, starting with a successful military coup in June 1933 (replacing the more radical members of the People’s Party with conservatives), followed by an unsuccessful royalist Boworadet counter-revolution later in the year.
The idea of a common “enemy” might have aided the development of Thai nationalism, but it also consolidated the idea that the Thai state is in constant danger. The media had become outspoken and politically opinionated by the beginning of the 20th century, but after the 1932 revolution, not only was it a source of irritation for political elites, but it was also presented as a threat to national security. This characterisation has persisted till today. Articles that question the sanctity of national institutions-especially the monarchy, and increasingly the military and non-royal politicians-are viewed as national security threats to be expurgated.
What happened to the national culture after the end of the absolute monarchy remains unresolved. In the last century of Thailand’s absolute monarchs, a healthy media environment developed where the natural impulse towards censorship was curtailed by the idea that it is better to argue opinions, not deny them a space in the emergent public sphere. This period that began with the introduction of the print press was certainly affected by unequal international treaties, which made foreign-owned newspapers difficult to close, but there was a gradual evolution by the monarchist government from a desire to censor to a desire to debate. A natural response today might be to say that censorship has always been a feature of Thailand’s public sphere, but history shows that isn’t the case.
 Limapichart, T. The Emergence of the Siamese Public Sphere: Colonial Modernity, Print Culture and the Practice of Criticism (1860s–1910s). South East Asia Research 17, no. 3 (2009), p.367.
David Hutt is a Cambodia-based political journalist who has been covering Asian affairs since 2014. He is Southeast Asia Columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to international publications. Previously, he was a reporter for the Southeast Asia Globe and editor of Focus Asean. He holds a first-class undergraduate degree in History from the University of Sussex.