"Anna and the King" and Law in Asia

Anna and the King (20th Century Fox, 1999) portrays the well-known story of how King Mongkut of Siam (Rama IV) engaged a feisty English governess for his children and the inter-cultural problems between them that her employment lead to. The movie contains a story-within-a-story concerning Tuptim, a young woman belonging to the King's harem, who elopes with her young lover Balat, a priest. She is discovered disguised as a male novice in Balat's monastery and is brought before the court in chains to be tried and punished. Anna Leonowens looks on as Tuptim and Balat, who have clearly been tortured, are accused of treason, a crime carrying the penalty of death. Anna tries to intervene as Tuptim's pleas for individual freedom in the matter of love fall on deaf ears and lead only to a brutal caning. Anna then goes directly to the King to plead for mercy in Tuptim's case. The King argues angrily that it is none of her concern; that Anna has now made it impossible for him to intervene ('What, after they have been tortured?" "Yes!", replies the King); that he would be seen to have given in to the entreaties of a foreign woman; to show weakness when strength was needed to keep the country together; that now was not the time to change things (Anna: "If not now, then when?"). Anna storms out. Tuptim and Balat are executed to great public applause. Anna is traumatised and chastened by this turn of events. King Mongkut is also traumatised and the episode ends with him prostrated before the Buddha in sheer moral agony.

The story sets up a clear dichotomy between Anna, standing for love, individual autonomy, progress, justice and from-heaven-dropping mercy; and the King, standing for stability, traditional values, strong government, collective interest and the necessity sometimes, yes, of cruelty. Yet at another level it achieves more than that. The King's patrimonial anger is not what it seems. It also conceals a desire for something better but frustration that his plan to intervene has been prevented by Anna's own interference. Anna's anger on the other hand, borne of a libertarian's courage and humanity, also conceals the shallowness of ambitious idealism. What emerges is a double tragedy: the cruel deaths of two young innocents; and the frustration of good moral intentions through cultural misunderstanding.

I have no idea if the story itself is true. It probably doesn't matter. Whether it correctly or fairly portrays Siam's legal system circa 1860 is however open to doubt. From the perspective of European observers such as Anna Leonowens it certainly seemed feudal, cruel and corrupt. Yet those are descriptions which could, uncomfortably recently, have been equally reasonably leveled at European legal systems. The fact is that both European and Siamese law were going through a period of profound change. Anna was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery; the abolition of slavery in Siam in fact began very shortly after its abolition in the United States and Russia. King Mongkut himself was no stranger to European rationality or a sense of individual rights and justice. He established the principle of free individual choice in marriage; and at Waco in Southern Thailand in 1868 he correctly predicted an eclipse of the sun using European science and mathematics. In these things he regarded himself as a good Buddhist, a scientist, and a progressive, if absolute, monarch (he had been a monk for 20 years before becoming King and had reformed the Buddhist Sangha). Unfortunately at Waco, Mongkut caught malaria and, returning to Bangkok, died a few days later. He was succeeded by his son who became Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V), an innovator who built a modern state on the foundations laid by his father. The ultimate irony of all of this is that Chulalongkorn's teacher was none other than Anna Leonowens. It is surely significant that on his accession he began the process of freeing the slaves and changing his subjects into citizens. He remained grateful to Anna throughout his life but in later times he met her and chastised her because in her account of her time in Siam she had defamed his father as a bad-tempered tyrant. For that he could not forgive her. "Anna and the King" was filmed in Malaysia with Chinese actors and was banned in Thailand, not because it portrayed Siam as cruel and backward, but because it portrayed King Mongkut, a saint in Thai understanding, as a man who flirted with a foreign woman and as less than a perfect human being. 

Thai law still inflicts heavy punishments on both Thais and foreigners for lese majeste. 'Anna and the King' grossed nearly US$40 million.


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