Manusya, Journal of Humanities


Punnee Bualek

Publication Date



This research explores the answers to 3 significant questions. 1. When and in what conditions did the wage laborer class emerge in Thailand? 2. What kinds of relationships were there between the wage laborers and the productivity process? 3. Under those relationships, what were their real lives and way of life like? The first groups of hired laborers in Thailand were Chinese coolies, the outsiders of the phrai system. To study this laborer group, we should understand four inter-related factors. The first are the problems within China that pushed Chinese emigrants from their homeland. The second are the trading and production changes in Southeast Asia, which came from many factors both inside and outside the region. The third is the power of Western countries, which influenced Southeast Asia at that time. The fourth are the conditions and problems in Thai "sakdina" society, including the political and governmental institutions, which were changed in King Rama V's reformation. The research found that the laborer class in Thailand emerged at the end of the 18th century in a situation where production for export and trade prospered. They were all Chinese laborers. They used the "kongsi" system in their community and in their ways of production. Moreover, they used "kongsis" for trading and protecting themselves from outsiders. The "kongsi" system had a horizontal relationship that emphasized brotherhood, partnership and equality among its members. Later on, this system was superseded by the triad system, which was a vertical relationship. The triad, or T?ien-ti Hui, or secret societies, were governed by a hierarchy and had strict rules, so in this organization equality disappeared. Its ritual oath-taking ceremony and use of opium made the triads tightly-knit. Consequently, coolies and employers could not be separated within the triad "kongsi." Coolies would be well taken care of if they demonstrated loyalty to and worked hard for their employers, but they would be severely punished if they lacked these qualities. This research draws a clear picture of the coolies' lives in the early Rattanakosin period to the beginning of King Rama VI, in the shipping and the ship-building industry, the sugar industry, pirate organizations, tin mines and various economic activities in the capital, Bangkok. The triad "kongsi" system gradually faded out at the end of the 19th century when there were many changes in Thai society brought about by both Western influences and the attitude of the Thai government. At that time, Bangkok became the hub of export production. After that, the triad "kongsi" was not suited to the urban way of life in a modern city such as Bangkok. The employers or the rich were the first to separate themselves from the "kongsi." Some of them moved to become aristocratic Thai. They absorbed both Western and Thai "sakdina" culture and then neglected the "kongsi" Chinese culture. They established, instead, new organizations like merchant guilds and chambers of commerce. These groups of merchants were called "towkaes." At the same time, the coolies themselves established their new organizations, which subsequently became the modern laborer organizations. At first, the coolie organizations were controlled by "towkaes" who employed them for their own advantage. These kinds of organizations were "ang-yi" or gangsters, which were latterly subdued by the Thai government towards the end of King Rama V's reign and the beginning of King Rama VI's reign.

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