Ramathibodi I Creates First Thai Legal System Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The kingdom of Ayutthaya, later known as Siam and today as Thailand, was one of the most stable political systems in Southeast Asia. Its founder, Ramathibodi, was responsible for building a government composed of four ministries and a law code. Both of these innovations survived well into the twentieth century in the modern state of Thailand.

Summary of Event

The beginnings of the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand)—nestled between several neighboring empires, the Khmer to the east, India to the west, and China to the north—can be traced to the Ayutthaya (also Ayudhya, Ayuthia, or Ayuthaya) period. The founder of this state was Ramathibodi I, who not only conquered and combined several neighboring states but also developed a political system for the region that continued into the twentieth century. [kw]Ramathibodi I Creates First Thai Legal System (1350) [kw]Thai Legal System, Ramathibodi I Creates First (1350) [kw]Legal System, Ramathibodi I Creates First Thai (1350) Thai;law Laws and law codes;Thai Ramathibodi I Ayutthaya Southeast Asia;1350: Ramathibodi I Creates First Thai Legal System[2840] Government and politics;1350: Ramathibodi I Creates First Thai Legal System[2840] Laws, acts, and legal history;1350: Ramathibodi I Creates First Thai Legal System[2840] Ramathibodi I

Ramathibodi was a member of a tribe originating in southwestern Siam. During his reign, it was rumored that he was a brother of the great leader Ramkhamhaeng Ramkhamhaeng , who had ruled most of Siam until his death in 1317. It was said that Ramathibodi descended from the same bloodline as the former monarch, and the story allowed him to claim his rule as a continuation of the original dynasty.

On Ramkhamhaeng’s death, his empire splintered into many small states with their own rulers. These states were too small to protect themselves from outside invaders, including the Khmer. Ramathibodi’s first great achievement was to move his army into central Siam, conquering a broad swath of territory and founding Ayutthaya as the first city of his empire. Calling the new state the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, he made the city into a commercial and political center for Siam. By 1352, the kingdom had expanded to the Bay of Bengal in what is now modern Myanmar (Burma). Ramathibodi’s armies also invaded and conquered most of the Malay Peninsula and defeated the Khmers in the east.

With the borders of the empire set, Ramathibodi focused on creating a permanent system of government. He began with the selection of four great offices or ministries of the state and then developed a law code that would be enforced by them. The four ministries addressed the interior, providing the internal security for the state and the people; the treasury; the king’s household and the ritual of the monarchy; and agriculture. This final ministry, called the Ministry of Na, was probably the most important of the four, because it handled the rice fields so necessary for the people to survive (Ramathibodi had set up his city and empire along the Siam River system to ensure the plentiful rice harvests that would be overseen by this ministry). The four ministries became the focus of power in the government and enforced the new laws drawn up by Ramathibodi. Agriculture;Ayutthaya

Prior to the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, much of the law for the region was based on tradition, with local customs and the dictates of local monarchs setting the rules. Ramathibodi sought to consolidate these laws, making them more systematic and understandable for ordinary people. His code, known as the Thamanasat Thamanasat , was partly based on the Indian form of law known as the Manu Manu . Elements of Manu were combined with ancient customs and modern rulings to form the code. The process took years as Ramathibodi eliminated outdated or contradictory laws and built the code from the remainder.

Ramathibodi’s code focused primarily on public law rather than private affairs. He set the guidelines for the relationship between the people and the state while leaving many individual decisions to the people. One area where he legislated heavily was in public works. Under his law each male citizen of the kingdom participated in the corvée system whereby they “donated” six months of their time working on public projects, including farming and road construction. Ramathibodi’s 1356 Law of Abduction criminalized the act of helping slaves escape mandated service in the corvée system. The punishment was severe, sometimes death. Corvée system;Siam

The code also established a hierarchy among men in the society, including defining freemen and slaves. This hierarchy was apparent in Ramathibodi’s 1350 Law of Evidence. The law created the rules for who could testify in court and against whom they could testify. Freemen were allowed to testify against slaves, but slaves had no such rights. Slavery;Ayutthaya

In 1351, the Law of Offenses Against Government set the punishments for government officials who cheated or stole from the government. Those officials could be suspended, fined, lashed, or executed based on the severity of the crime.

The laws also created the system of Sadki Na, or Degrees of Dignity, for government officials. The Sadki Na determined classes of officials based on the amount of land they received from the king. The more land they received, the higher was their level of dignity and authority. The Sakdi Na also forced officials to treat one another with respect and to work with one another for the advancement of the state.

Ramathibodi’s code also set the commercial regulations for the state. Under the code, the king owned all the land in the kingdom. He would grant land to important officials, but they did not own that land. Instead, they held the land until death or the time when they no longer served the king. Ownership of all land gave Ramathibodi total control over his population and his government officials.

One major change in private law instituted by Ramathibodi was the 1359 law governing husbands and wives. This law, which was greatly influenced by Khmer and Indian law, legalized polygamy and made it easier for men and women to get a divorce.

Like all law codes, there was a procedure for changing the codes and modernizing them. Under Ramathibodi’s law, the kings retained the absolute power to issue laws to handle current situations. These royal decisions were known as Rajasattham. The decisions were collected and became part of two sets of law. The original code became known as the Mula Attha Mula Attha . The Sakha Attha Sakha Attha was a digest of all the monarch’s decisions that supplemented the law code. Kings could discard the decisions of their predecessors, particularly if they found them to contradict Manu.

Significance

Ramathibodi’s code was the basis for Siamese and then Thai law into the middle of the twentieth century. While Ramathibodi’s dynasty lasted only a few years after his death, his system of government created a stable society with the rule of law for most people. Ramathibodi’s reign witnessed the creation of government ministries and a law code that would last several centuries, to be replaced by a more democratic system only in the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Christopher. A History of Thailand. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A wide-ranging book describing the culture, government, and people of Thailand from ancient to modern times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chakrabongse, Prince Chiela. Lords of Life: A History of the Kings of Thailand. London: Redman, 1982. A series of portraits of the leading rulers of Thailand throughout its history
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Englehart, Neil. Culture and Power in Traditional Siamese Government. Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2001. Details the duties and authority of Thai monarchs and their use of absolute power in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gervais, Nicolas. The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1989. An overview of the government system of Thailand and its economic development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peleggi, Maurizio. Lords of Things: The Fashioning of the Siamese Monarchy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. Describes the development of the Thai monarchy, with its rituals, ministries, and powers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rajchagool, Chaigan. The Rise and Fall of the Thai Absolute Monarchy. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1994. Details the medieval Thai monarchy and how it advanced into modern times and lost its absolute authority.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Ronald Bishop. Siam or the History of the Thais. Bethesda, Md.: Decatur Press, 1986. Examines Siam, its government, and the development of Siamese society.
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    xlink:type="simple">Wood, William R. A History of Siam, from the Earliest Times to the Year A.D. 1781. 1933. Reprint. San Diego, Calif.: Simon, 2001. The first Western book on the history of early Thailand book, by a British consul and based on ancient Thai documentation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyatt, David. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A brief work touching on the major events—political, military, and cultural—in Thai history.

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