Social and political development
The king stood at the apex of a highly stratified social and political hierarchy that extended throughout the society. In Ayutthayan society the basic unit of social organization was the village community composed of extended family households. Generally the elected headmen provided leadership for communal projects. Title to land resided with the headman, who held it in the name of the community, although peasant proprietors enjoyed the use of land as long as they cultivated it.
With ample reserves of land available for cultivation, the viability of the state depended on the acquisition and control of adequate manpower for farm labor and defense. The dramatic rise of Ayutthaya had entailed constant warfare and, as none of the parties in the region possessed a technological advantage, the outcome of battles was usually determined by the size of the armies. After each victorious campaign, Ayutthaya carried away a number of conquered people to its own territory, where they were assimilated and added to the labor force.
Every freeman had to be registered as a servant, or phrai, with the local lords. The lords gradually were court officials and provincial governors. The king ultimately came to be recognized as the earthly incarnation of Shiva and,or Vishnu, and became the sacred object of a politico-religious cult officiated over by a corps of royal Brahmans who were part of the Buddhist court retinue. In the Buddhist context, the devaraja was a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who, out of compassion, foregoes nirvana in order to aid others). The belief in divine kingship prevailed into the eighteenth century, although by that time its religious implications had limited impact. Nai, for military service and corvee labor on public works and on the land of the official to whom he was assigned. The phrais could also meet his labor obligation by paying a tax. If he found the forced labor under his nai repugnant, he could sell himself into slavery to a more attractive 'nai' or 'lord', who then paid a fee to the government in compensation for the loss of corvee labor. As much as one-third of the manpower supply into the nineteenth century was composed of phrai.
Wealth, status, and political influence were interrelated. The king allotted rice fields to court officials, provincial governors, military commanders, in payment for their services to the crown, according to the sakdi na system. The size of each official's allotment was determined by the number of commoners or phrai he could command to work it. The amount of manpower a particular headman, or official could command determined his status relative to others in the hierarchy and his wealth. At the apex of the hierarchy, the king, who was symbolically the realm's largest landholder, 'theoretically' commanded the services of the largest number of phrai, called phrai luang(royal servants), who paid taxes, served in the royal army, and worked on the crown lands.
However the recruitment of the armed forces depended on nai, or mun nai, literally means lord, officials who commanded their own phrai som, or 'subjects'. These officials had to submit to the king's command when war broke out. Officials thus became the key figures to the kingdom's politics. At least two officials staged the coups, taking the throne themselves while bloody struggles between the king and his officials, followed by the purges of the court officials were always seen.
King Trailok in the early sixteenth century established definite allotments of land and phrai for the royal officials at each rung in the hierarchy, thus determining the country's social structure until the introduction of salaries for government officials in the nineteenth century.
Outside this system to some extent were the Buddhist monkhood, or sangha, which all classes of Siamese men could join, and the Chinese. Buddhist monasteries (wats) became the centres of Siamese education and culture, while during this period the Chinese first began to settle in Siam, and soon began to establish control over the country's economic life: another long-standing social problem.
The Chinese were not obliged to register for corvee duty, so they were free to move about the kingdom at will and engage in commerce. By the sixteenth century, the Chinese controlled Ayutthaya's internal trade and had found important places in the civil and military service. Most of these men took Thai wives because few women left China to accompany the men.
Ramathibodi I was responsible for the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom. The Dharmashastra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the 19th century. A bureaucracy based on a hierarchy of ranked and titled officials was introduced, and society was organised in a manner reminiscent. Yet the hindu caste system did not exist.
The sixteenth century witnessed the rise of Burma, which, under an aggressive dynasty, had overrun Chiang Mai and Laos and made war on the Thai. In 1569 Burmese forces, joined by Thai rebels mostly royal family members of Siam, captured the city of Ayutthaya and carried off the whole royal family to Burma. Dhammaraja (1569-90), a Thai governor who had aided the Burmese, was installed as vassal king at Ayutthaya. Thai independence was restored by his son, King Naresuan (1590- 1605), who turned on the Burmese and by 1600 had driven them from the country.
Determined to prevent another treason like his father's, Naresuan set about unifying the country's administration directly under the royal court at Ayutthaya. He ended the practice of nominating royal princes to govern Ayutthaya's provinces, assigning instead court officials who were expected to execute policies handed down by the king. Thereafter royal princes were confined to the capital. Their power struggles continued, but at court under the king's watchful eye.
In order to ensure his control over the new class of governors, Naresuan decreed that all freemen subject to phrai service had become phrai luang, bound directly to the king, who distributed the use of their services to his officials. This measure gave the king a theoretical monopoly on all manpower, and the idea developed that since the king owned the services of all the people, he also possessed all the land. Ministerial offices and governorships—and the sakdina that went with them—were usually inherited positions dominated by a few families often connected to the king by marriage. Indeed, marriage was frequently used by Thai kings to cement alliances between themselves and powerful families, a custom prevailing through the nineteenth century. As a result of this policy, the king's wives usually numbered in the dozens.
Even with Naresuan's reforms, the effectiveness of the royal government over the next 150 years should not be overestimated. Royal power outside the crown lands—although in theory absolute- -was in practice limited by the looseness of the civil administration. The influence of central government was not extensive beyond the capital until the late nineteenth century.