Thailand Law Forum Thailand Law Forum



By Chachapon Jayaphorn(1)


In the future, there will be no wars with the Yuan(2) or the Burmese anymore. The only power will be the western nations. Beware! Steer your course carefully and avoid defeat. Any of their works which you think should be studied, do so. We shall follow them, but shall not blindly worship them in all aspects(3).

These dying words of H.M. King Phra Nang Klao in 1851 seem to have become cliché since international relations between Thailand and western countries have developed into just the future that the King predicted. Thai lawyers have a difficult time answering the question whether western influences have already defeated the uniqueness of the Thai legal system. It seems like defeat to accept the demise of the traditional Thai legal system, yet it is obviously dodging the question to deny the impact of western legal systems.

The dawn of the 21st century is one of the most significant turning points in the modern history, perhaps the greatest event since the end of World War II. The world has changed rapidly and vigorously. These changes have exceeded expectations, especially in terms of international relations, economics, and technology. Thailand has changed just as drastically as the rest of the world over this period.

From the beginning of the industrial revolution in Europe until the mid-19th century, cultural, economic and technological developments from the west have been adopted by eastern countries, including Thailand. These developments opened Thailand to the west, especially in the realm of commerce. An early part of the process of Thailand’s opening to the west was the drafting of the Bowring Treaty with Britain in 1855, and subsequently other western countries. In order to protect independence, Thailand had to renounce many of her sovereign powers, such as the power to extraterritoriality of the judicial system, the right to monopolize international commerce, and the right to fix tariffs on imports and exports.

The 21st century is also the time of great change in Thailand because of the vast improvements in political structures under tremendous economic pressure. Thailand’s survival has depended both on the harmony of its citizens and cooperation at an international level. Looking back 100 years ago, there is a tremendous similarity between the fate of the Thai people then and modern Thai citizens. In the late 19th century, Thailand had almost been occupied by the west under the guise of colonialism. At that time, one of the most important defenses employed by the Thai government to prevent colonial powers from taking root in Thailand was to reform its governmental structure and to modernize the legal system. Today, the government is following the same path, starting with the promulgation of the new constitution in 1997, and more recently a major reform of the government service system in 2002.

Thailand is currently at a great transitional point in her history. Has the legal reformation of the last two centuries been appropriate? Unavoidably, this question must be thoroughly pondered to plan the future course of Thai legal policy. Now is the time that Thailand must decide whether legal and administrative policies should follow western models wholeheartedly as did previous reforms, or whether there are certain traditional concepts to the Thai legal system which must be preserved.

Analysis of Thai legal history during the last two centuries could be used to navigate a path for the planning and development of Thai legal policy in the future, since current legal and political systems are the result of administrative policies and legal reformations undertaken in the 19th and 20th centuries. Knowledge of origins and results of the reformation would also help to protect the sovereignty of Thailand and the freedom of the Thai people from undue influence of foreign powers. Additionally, foreign powers would be presented with an alternative legal policy founded in the characteristics of traditional Thai legal and administrative policies.

Understanding about each other is the best way to harmonize the world because now there seems to have no hegemonic legal system anymore. There is a western scholar’s note that: “it is based on an impression of “hegemony”. Acknowledging that individual characteristics of each legal family can be found in any of the others and thus, in purist’s term, all legal systems are mixed.”(4)


To appreciate the development of the Thai legal system, it is helpful to understand the origin of the meaning of the word “Thai”, which means “free”. The fact that Thailand (formerly Siam) has never been colonized has influenced the direction of Thai law.

Thailand has a rich history, and a legal system which functions relatively smoothly. The ancient origins of Thai law before the SukhoThai Period (13th – 15th centuries) were founded in the Hindu Code of Manu(5). During the Ayudhya Period (1350-1767), the modified Code of Manu, called the Dharmasatra, along with the Rajsatra, formed the Thai legal system. The Dharmasatra and Rajsatra were developed from actual decisions of kings in administering justice.

After the Burmese invasion of 1764 destroyed Ayudhya, King Rama I (1782-1806), the founder of Bangkok, appointed a Royal Commission to revise Thailand’s law. The revised code of 1805, commonly known as the Law of Three Seals, contained both the Dharmasatra, the royal decrees, and edicts. It remained in force until the reformation under the government of King Rama V. in the early 20th century, the new legal system culminated into the law of Thailand’s current form, as outlined in civil and commercial codes, the systems of civil and criminal procedure, and the penal codes. All of these current codes were based upon existing European principles.

Even though Thailand has never been officially colonized by western countries, Thailand did pay a price to keep independence in the late 19th century by allowing its sovereignty over resident aliens to be infringed through a series of bilateral treaties. Under these treaties, foreigners and their dealings with Siamese and with other foreigners were subject to legal challenges only in Consular Courts and/or the International Court. The western powers of the day were not satisfied that their subjects could be subject to the jurisdiction of the Siamese courts under the Law of Three Seals, which on occasion settled disputes or determined innocence in criminal proceedings through trial by ordeal. For example, techniques using fire or water were employed to determine a tolerance for pain and physical abuse to arrive at true justice(6).

In the 20th century, Thailand adopted western systems of laws, courts, and legal education, whereupon the Consular and International Courts were gradually phased out and finally dissolved. Because of many legal consultants from various countries, modern Thai laws have characteristics from numerous western countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland, England, Italy, Japan and India. It is thus too difficult to label which legal system is the basis of modern Thai law; instead it is appropriate to include all of these legal systems under the greater category of western legal systems to explain the basic principles of modern Thai laws.

In the late 20th century, there were new reforms of the Thai legal system to promote and protect civil rights, freedom, and liberty by the enactment of the new constitution in 1997. Further, the 21st century has signaled even more changes in terms of political and economic reforms in the realms of international trade and relations. Law has played the greatest role in these changes just as it did in the late 19th century.


3.1 Similar Characters between Past and Present Situations

3.1.1 Similarities in Terms of Rules
We may compare the GATT, which has as its core principles: 1) reducing tariffs 2) diminishing commercial barriers and 3) reforming one’s laws to be consistent with all other trading partners, with the Bowring Treaty in B.E. 2398. The Bowring Treaty forced Siam to reduce import duties to 3%, to cancel the monopoly of the Royal Treasury, and to force Siam to grant extraterritoriality for some European countries until the government had completed legal reforms to match the western system.

3.1.2 Similarities in Terms of Economic Developments
The Bowring Treaty was the beginning point of great changes which lasted for more than a century. The opening of the free market, and the guarantee of certainty of legal relationships between Siam and foreign countries by the grant of extraterritoriality, linked Siam to international markets. This development changed the nature of Thailand from an agrarian society to one based in industry and trade. Because of this economic change, the government also reformed social organizations, legal and judicial systems, educational systems, public welfare, monetary policy, and many more aspects of Thai society(7).

When thinking about the terms and conditions of international free trade in the present, such as liberalism, free and fair trade, democracy, multilateral agreements, and information technology that Thailand is now facing, all characteristics of Thai society must be reformed in order to assure advancement under the free trade system as well.


What were the motivations of the Siamese kings and the governments in the 19th century to fundamentally reform the country, especially the legal system? The answer lies in the industrial revolution and colonialism, which dominated international relations in the 19th century.

Threats of English and French colonization occurred in every area around the territory of Siam; almost all countries in Southeast Asia were already colonized. How could Siam prevent European countries from claiming Siam as their colony as well? The answer for Siam was multifaceted: 1) the manifestation of Siam as a civilized nation, which would be able to grant justice to her citizens just as European judiciary systems were doing in their own territories, 2) making Siam appear to be as civilized in its social systems as other civilized countries, 3) that Siam could efficiently maintain order and peace, and that Siam was capable of protecting civil rights in this process, and 4) assuring that European countries would be able to trade in Siam without major hindrances(8).

The necessity of legal reformation in Thailand may be classified in two ways: (1) the external motive: to regain extraterritorial rights; and (2) the internal motive: to reform the obsolete portions of the Thai judicial system.

Part  2

(1) Law Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. LLB (second class honors) Chulalongkorn University, M.C.L. Indiana University - Bloomington U.S.A., LL.M. Indiana University - Bloomington U.S.A.
(2) The Vietnamese.
The dying words of King Rama III in 1851.
(4) Ugo Mattei, Three Patterns of Law: Taxotomy and Change in the World's Legal Systems, 45 Am. J. Comp. L. 21 (1997).
(5) See 27. The deeply rooted tradition of Hindu law, and the strong oriental flavor of the Indian culture limit the influence of the modern layer and place Indian law within the rule of tradition law.
(6) Tilleke & Gibbins Ltd., Thailand Legal Basics, Publications of Tilleke & Gibbins Ltd. (2003), at
(7) Kittisak Prokati, the Reformation of Legal System of Thailand (2003).
(8) Id. at 39

Originally Published in The Chulalongkorn Law Journal (August 2005)

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