A little bit of Thai history: Siam meets the West, part II: This time it’s serious!

by gonzotrooper

So, to recap: Last year, I was helped out of trouble by a good friend.  Who happens to be part Thai. As part of my repayment I plan to write a little piece about Thai history once every month, for a year. It’s mainly my little way of showing gratitude to my friend. Also: It’s a great way to learn about the history of another country. Which I like to do. Cause I’m a nerd.


So last month (last year actually. Happy New Year!) I wrote about Siam (as Thailand was called until 1939) rebuilding itself from a crushing defeat by Burma, and the rise of  a new kingdom from a new capital. As we left Siam around 1850, it was viewing the Western great powers with a combination and apprehension. On one hand, the Western world was scientifically and technologically  the leading mover bar none, and great strides in development could be made if one had access to the learning and inventions thereof; On the other hand, this very technology was enabling Western empires to conquer and colonize kingdoms and even empires all over Asia at will. But the threats of the new afe were not only from the outside. The very success of Siams reforms in agriculture and trade were creating a society rapidly growing too large and complex to rule effectively with traditional methods.


One growing problem was the Chinese immigrant society. Although it would be a mistake referring to it as such, really. You had a large numbers of Chinese laborers in the North and East of the Siamese kingdom, many of them refugees from the increasing number of rebellions and uprisings in China (one of them, the Taiping rebellion would claim twice the loss in human lives than the grand total of WWI). Others were merchants in Bangkok and the big trade centers. All in all some 300 000 Chinese people were living in Siam. At this point the Chinese empire had tried to take a stand against the foreign opium traders and banned the import of opium. The British responded to this flagrant breach of the principles of free trade by sending in gun boats up the Yangtze river, and the Opium War was a fact. After seeing what used to be the great power in Asia sign a humiliating treaty they took prompt and decisive action, and signed a treaty with Great Britain allowing opium trade (with a state monopoly in Siam of course. Because why waste good revenue?).


The Chinese trading communities were not necessarily into that, and smuggling started. it should be said here that not all Chinese  activity was the Triad or anything. In fact you had expats forming self-help groups, networks   and societies like immigrant communities in all places.  The king tried to integrate them but the tools were becoming obsolete.  At first several Chinese leading figures were given offices of liaison between the Chinese community and the royal court but the sheer number of Chines (not to mention different groups and affiliations of Chinese) made it impossible to have control of the Chinese expatriates in this way.   Another roadblock was the way the Chinese were viewed by the Siamese officials: All groups of Chinese were referred to as “secret societies”. Now these groups were skeptical back, and especially the drug/gambling/smuggling gangs (OK these guys qualify as Triads) were better armed than the military and police forces sent to root out the (contraband) opium and gambling dens, driving them back with gunfire (at least one time with cannon).


The country side was faring little better.  Most tax collection was done by tax farming. This meant basically that the tax collection work  was subcontracted to local nobles. The noblemen would give a set amount to the central government, and skim the rest into their coffers. This gave them a whopping access to revenue, a strong role in the national power structure, peace to exploit peasants as much as they wanted provided the Government got its cut, and a whole bunch of pissed off peasants. So around the countryside more and more uprisings were blossoming up, with peasants revolting against tax collectors, Chinese miners striking and the noblemen not giving more revenue than they absolutely had to.


The first thing the king, Mongkut did, was ensuring his heirs and the royal family children in general got Western educations. He gave his children language lessons and a Western upbringing by hiring a British governess (Anna Leonowens. (Yes, that woman from that film. I will not mention the film again). After his death his son and heir sent junior family members to be educated in Singapore and Europe, and had several European constitutions translated to Thai (he liked  the French the most). He started reforming the Buddhist monks, creating a national hierarchy. And of course he started modernizing the military. A Royal Guard of 500 rifle-armed soldiers, trained after British pattern, were the first, followed by other units as rolyal family members returned from different military academies in Europe and started organizing a Western type military. This was financed mainly by nudging in a “loyal” family member every time one of the tax farm owning nobles died (one thing was that Thai culture is not so much about open conflict. The other is that powerful people often get really attached to having their own cash cow, and will get UNPLEASANT if confronted). The peasant and miner uprisings were less subtle, seeing as drinking holy water for invulnerability does not stop gatling machine gun bullets after all. So gradually the Siamese kingdom was integrated into one country, just as the British and French empires came sniffing at the edges of it.


The first difference between the thoughts of Western powers and Siam on territory  boundaries, is, well… The Siamese were fussy on boundaries. Historically in Siam settlements were isolated by jungle or mountains, so a ‘boundary’ between two towns or cities was usually  a cairn or toll post midway on the road between them. So when the British (who had taken over Burma and was gobbling Malaya) ad the French (Who had taken Indo-China and were set on gaining entry to China via the Mekong river) insisted on a boundary the Siamese court were bewildered and irritated and hired a British map maker to set them. Followed by a ‘protective’ column of troops who would set up defenses, install loyal local rulers in the border towns and generally cement Siamese supremacy in his wake, they ended up with the first physical documentation of the actual Siamese kingdom, including tributary states Laos and Cambodia. The French waited some five minutes contesting this, claiming Laos and Cambodia were not Siam.


The thing with France was, they had found out the Mekong is not navigable by boat into China, derailing the whole “Sneaking into South China when they’re not looking and colonize them” plan. Having decided Siam was a good consolation prize, and started with Laos. So was Cambodia. And was not the Siamese kingdom full of ethnic Indo-Chinese and Laotians, after the re-settlements the previous century. In fact come to think about it, was not Siam basically a small elite of mongrel  Thai speakers ruling an empire of suppressed subjects? If France took over everything from the bay of Ton kin to Bangkok, hey, it would basically be LIBERATING people, right?


Well the physical response of Siam was to mobilize the army when the French occupied Siamese holdings on the eastern bank of the Mekong. The mobilization would be some 180 000 levies. No force that big had ever been launched in the history of Siam. And as it turned out, this one wasn’t either. Almost nobody came, as the system had been hollowed out by… Well, read  my “Same same but Different” post earlier. So, with Laos and Cambodia gone, and the old feudal levy system proven worthless Siam started a Western system of drafting people for military service. This system applied to all nationalities and minorities living in Siam. At the same time a new people was being invented through royal decrees and a newly formed basic educational system: The Thai people. If you spoke Thai, you were one people. If you lived in Siam, you were one people.  Basically the next project of the Siamese elite was to integrate all the citizens of Siam into one ethnicity, the Thai people.And I think I will dedicate my next post to how the Thai people was created. Stay put!