BECK index

Siam, Cambodia, and Laos 1800-1950

by Sanderson Beck

Siam's Monarchy 1800-1910
Siam's Monarchy 1910-32
Siam Becomes Thailand 1932-39
Thailand 1940-50
Cambodia 1800-1904
Cambodia 1904-50
Laos 1800-1940
Laos 1940-50

This chapter has been published in the book SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950.
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Siam's Monarchy 1800-1910

Siam (Thailand) to 1800

Chakri, who ruled 1782-1809 as Ramathibodi, appointed a commission in 1805 that spent three years revising Siam’s law code. He wrote and patronized literature, and the Hindu epic Ramayana was expanded to more than 3,000 pages in the Siamese Ramakian.

During the reign (1809-24) of Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Loetla), later known as Rama II, Siam gained some territory in northern Cambodia. He banned the sale and consumption of opium in 1811, but after a while this was not enforced. Trade with China was encouraged, and Chinese planters introduced sugar production. The Portuguese envoy Silveira arrived in 1818, and he made a commercial agreement with Siam and was popular for trading them muskets. When Siamese troops invaded in 1821, the Kedah sultan fled to Penang and appealed to the English. British envoy John Crawfurd visited Bangkok the next year, but restrictions on English trade were not removed.

Before Rama II died, Prince Mongkut, his oldest son by a queen, was ordained a Buddhist monk so that the more experienced son by a concubine Chetsadabodin could become King Nangklao, later known as Rama III (r. 1824-51). Mongkut meditated, studied Pali, and became a Buddhist scholar, founding the Dhammayutika order. He also learned Latin and English from missionaries. Captain Henry Burney negotiated a commercial treaty for the English Company with Siam in 1826 that recognized Siamese control over Malay states. Chao Anu, the Lao ruler of Ventiane, invaded Siam in 1827, and in response Siamese forces spent two years punishing the Laos and moving tens of thousands from the southeast across the Mekong River to the northeastern Khorat Plateau.

An envoy from the United States made a treaty with Siam in 1833, but the King would not accept a consul. Siamese and Lao armies invaded Cambodia, but by 1834 they were badly beaten by Vietnamese forces. The Siamese army failed again in 1836 but resettled Phuan villagers. In 1831 rebels in Kedah had expelled the Siamese officials, but Siam invaded Kedah again in 1839 despite British objections. In 1848 the highest ranking prince, Rakronnaret, was convicted of taking bribes and plotting treason, and he was executed. In 1850 British and American envoys were unsuccessful in their efforts to get Siam to reduce its monopolies over trade. On his deathbed Rama III said that in the future the main threat would not be Vietnam and Burma, but he warned that they should not trust the Europeans.

When Rama III died in 1851, Prince Mongkut and his brother Chudamani were invited to rule as first and second kings of Siam. Both were renamed, and Rama IV sent his brother Wongsathirat on expeditions to protect Chiang Hung in Lu from Burmans and Keng Tung. In 1855 British envoy John Bowring arrived and negotiated a treaty with Mongkut in one month. Mongkut and his chief minister Suriyawong (Chuang Bunnag) were convinced that lower duties would promote more trade. To make up for the lost revenue from duties, the Government imposed excise taxes on opium, alcohol, gambling, and the lottery. In the treaty duty on imported British goods was limited to three percent with none on opium while new export duties averaged five percent. Siam ended its trade monopolies except on opium. The English were allowed to rent or purchase land near the capital, and an English consul would have civil and criminal jurisdiction over British subjects in Siam. This treaty opened the way for Siam to make similar agreements with France and the United States in 1856, Denmark and the Hanseatic cities in 1858, Portugal in 1859, Holland in 1860, and Prussia in 1862. Bowring also made treaties for Siam with Belgium, Italy, Norway, and Sweden in 1868. These became known as the “unequal treaties” because of the advantages they gave Europeans. Siam’s trade went from 5.6 million baht in 1850 to about ten million baht in 1868. The largest export item was rice.

A French envoy was welcomed in 1856, and French missionaries were allowed to build schools, seminaries, and churches. In the 1867 treaty France and Siam delineated which parts of Cambodia they each controlled. Mongkut also hired Europeans to reorganize the administration; most were advisors and teachers, but several were appointed heads of departments. The King employed Mrs. Anna Leonowens to tutor his children, and she described her experience in An English Governess at the Court of Siam. Mongkut promoted the construction of canals, roads, and ships. A year after Mindon of Burma did so in 1860, Siam began minting coins. Missionaries brought a printing press, and Mongkut patronized it to publish a government gazette. He constructed buildings in the European style and began reorganizing the army, but he was careful not to introduce too many changes the people would not accept. His attempt to have judges elected did not work and was abandoned. Mongkut and his oldest son Chulalongkorn both went to view a total eclipse of the sun on August 18, 1868 from the peninsula; both caught malaria, and Mongkut died a month later.

Chulalongkorn was only fifteen years old and still ill when his father died. Chief minister Suriyawong of the powerful Bunnag family was chosen to act as regent. Mongkut had ended the ban on looking at the King’s face. When Chulalongkorn was crowned in 1873, he immediately abolished prostrating in the royal presence. He made the children of the noble families attend the two schools with western curricula. In 1874 he proclaimed that no longer would any child be born a slave, and he made selling oneself for debt illegal, thus phasing out slavery. That year the British and Siamese agreed to bi-national courts to settle disputes involving subjects of both countries. Chulalongkorn began to reform official peculation by creating a Council of State to advise, investigate, and legislate, and he appointed mostly young men. He gave all officers permission to write their opinions to him.

After the Council challenged Prince Wichaichan as heir apparent by suggesting the King had the right to choose his successor, the Prince began drilling troops in the palace grounds at night. When a fire broke out in December 1874, the palace guards would not let Wichaichan’s armed troops in to help put out the fire. Wichaichan took refuge in the British Consulate; but Chulalongkorn held firm, and the British did not intervene. However, after this incident the King abandoned many reforms, neglected the council, and disbanded the Young Siam Society, advising his young friends to respect their elders more.

Siam hired British surveyor James McCarthy from India in 1880 and sent troops with him to map the frontiers. Siamese and Lao soldiers fought the Ho beyond the Mekong for five years, and in 1887 the army returned with captured Ho leaders and thirty young Laotian nobles as hostages. The map they finally produced showed their border going south from Sipsongpanna into Cambodia. The older generation lost influence after the deaths of Suriyawong in 1883 and Prince Wichaichan in 1886. Suriyawong had opposed telegraph lines, and the day after his death the King ordered the construction of a telegraph line to Burma. Chulalongkorn put his brother Narathip in charge of finance in 1885, and in the next three years they took over the liquor, opium, and gambling revenues from the Bunnag house. Siam published its first budget in 1901. Land taxes had often been collected more than once. Royal revenue went from 1.6 million baht in 1874 to 57 million baht in 1906. Commissioners were sent to administer frontier states. Local rulers remained as figureheads; but when they died, the King usually replaced them with his relatives. Chulalongkorn had 26 younger brothers and appointed many of them to high positions. All seven of his wives were his half-sisters or cousins.

In 1878 the commoner Thim Sukkhayang published his nirat (poetic travel account) of a military expedition that failed because of the incompetence and corruption of the noble elite. He was put in jail, and his book was destroyed. Kulap Kritsanon was the son of a Chinese immigrant and the daughter of an official, and in the 1880s his journal Sayam praphet was the first independent press and gained a circulation of 1,500. Thianwan Wannapho was a commoner who became a lawyer, defended the poor, and criticized the exploitation and corruption of the ruling class. In 1882 he was given a life sentence for a legal infraction, but he was released sixteen years later. His journal excoriated the unrepresentative government for patronizing forced labor, polygamy, and gambling. Thianwan argued that Japan was successful because they emulated western progress.

In 1885 a memorial with eleven signatures, including three princes, recommended parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. They suggested removing corrupt officials, reforming taxation, promoting officials based on merit rather than family, and establishing equal rights, justice, and freedom of the press. They argued that Siam did not have justice because the King made all the decisions; but European justice is based on popular consensus. Chulalongkorn replied that Europe also practiced absolute monarchy and that Siam’s king practices justice because he loves the people. Thus they had a paternal form of government.

In 1887 Prince Devawongse came back from England and recommended a cabinet of twelve equal ministers with five new departments of Justice, Education, Public Works, Military, and Privy Seal (civil service). Chulalongkorn appointed half-brother Phanurangsi Military minister and ordered him to plan conscription for a standing army. Siam got its first hospital at Sirirat in 1888, and a medical school was founded in 1890. In 1889 rival Chinese gangs battled each other in the streets of Bangkok for three days. When rice-mill workers went on strike in 1889 and 1892, the Government dispersed them with gunfire and deported the leaders. In 1897 a law required secret societies involved in labor organizing to register.

Prince Damrong Rajanuphap studied education in Europe in 1891, and he organized the Education Department. He founded the Suan Kulap School to educate civil servants; but when commoners began attending, fees were raised to keep them out. Administration and tax collection were put under the Interior Ministry in 1892, and the next year Chulalongkorn appointed his favorite half-brother Damrong to head Interior. The kingdom of Siam was organized into eighteen monthons with a high commissioner for each. By 1914 the Interior Ministry had appointed 3,000 provincial officials.

Auguste Pavie wanted to expand French Indochina, and in December 1888 French soldiers forced Siamese forces to withdraw from Sibsong Chao Thai. The French consul in Bangkok asked Siam to recognize the Mekong River as the border, and a joint commission was sent to investigate. The Siamese arrested a Laotian who had been appointed by the French and in 1892 two French traders who had refused to pay Siamese taxes. In April 1893 Siam’s Foreign Minister, Prince Thewawong, proposed submitting the border dispute to international arbitration, but the French rejected this and asked for concessions. The French sent the Comete warship to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. The Siamese warned them not to proceed past the fortress at Paknam and appealed to the British. In May skirmishes on Khone Island in the Mekong River resulted in several Vietnamese soldiers being killed, and Captain Maurice Thoreux was captured.

On July 10 Pavie told Thewawong that he was sending the Comete and the Inconstant to join the Lutin protecting the French consulate, and three days later they did so after a battle at Paknam. The British offered to mediate, but the French rejected that and gave the Siamese an ultimatum to withdraw from the east side of the Mekong River. The French blockaded Bangkok, and on July 29 Siam accepted the French terms. The treaty signed in October 1893 gave France the east bank of the Mekong River south from the Chinese border, a demilitarized zone of 25 kilometers on the west bank of the Mekong, protégé status for all the Vietnamese, Laos, and Khmers in Siam, and Siam had to pay a large indemnity.

After the 1893 treaty Siam increased the number of their European advisors to 139 within four years. Chulalongkorn had been ill during and after the Paknam crisis, and Damrong persuaded the King that Siam would be better off avoiding military confrontations with Europeans while pursuing administrative reforms. In 1896 the British and French agreed to guarantee the inviolability of the Chao Phraya River basin, recognizing the independence of Siam. Chulalongkorn had appointed half-brother Vachirayan to run the new Buddhist Academy in 1893. That year a private company completed the first railway in Siam from Bangkok to Paknam, and the old capital at Ayudhya was connected by rail to Bangkok in 1897. That year Chulalongkorn ruled that no one born in the future could be sold into slavery. The Military Academy founded in 1897 was restricted to those of royal or noble birth. Also in 1897 Chulalongkorn toured Europe while Queen Saowapha was regent. Vachirayan began working on a primary system of education in 1898. The Sangha Act of 1902 organized all the monks into a single hierarchy under the King and the supreme patriarch Vachirayan.

Villages in Khon Kaen revolted in 1895 and excluded officials for three years. In 1899 legislation formally replaced hereditary succession with central appointments. In the northeast 2,500 rebels in Ubon and Laos joined a millenarian movement, and a thousand men led by the Thao Thammikarat sacked Khemmarat in 1901; but the Siamese army killed three hundred and captured four hundred rebels. The next year the southern border was unstable. Patani’s Raja Abdul Kadir asked the British for protection, but he was arrested and exiled to Phitsanulok. In the north several hundred Shans took over Phrae, and they attacked Lampang, killing Siamese. On August 3, 1902 the Siamese army led by Danish adviser H. M. Jensen defeated the Shans and killed their leader. Eleven days later a Siamese army of two thousand led by Surasak crushed the Shan rebellion. Most of these rebellions were over new taxes, and many were led by displaced officials and old rulers. Conscription was organized in three provinces to suppress revolts, and it became national in 1905. Military expenditures went from one million baht in 1898 to thirteen million by 1910 when Siam had an army of 20,000, a navy of 5,000, and 50,000 reserves.

In 1897 Siam made the secret agreement with the British not to cede territory north of 11 degrees latitude or give anyone else privileges without British approval. In 1904 Chulalongkorn made a treaty with France, and in 1907 Siam gave up the northwestern Khmer provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang, and Sisophon for France’s renouncing the extraterritorial privileges of its protégés in Siam. In 1909 the British gave up the same privileges in exchange for the Malay states of Kedah, Kelantan, Trengganu, and Perlis. The Federated Malay States loaned £4,000,000 to complete the railway system between Siam and Malaya.

Canal projects brought more land into cultivation, and rice production increased from under a million piculs (1 picul = 60 kg) per year in the 1850s to more than eleven million by 1900. However, land prices increased from 5 baht per rai in 1892 to 37.5 baht in 1904. Chulalongkorn instructed officials to grant land that big landlords did not cultivate to peasants, and settlers could occupy it as long as it was cultivated. After 1900 he refused to permit new canal projects by anyone except nobles or royals. Rice accounted for eighty percent of Siam’s exports with teakwood second at ten percent.

After 1902 salaries of officials were paid by the central government. That year commissioners reorganized the courts into a single hierarchy, and in 1908 all courts were brought under the Justice Ministry with a formal law code. Adapting the Code Napoleon, the king had absolute power and could do no wrong, being beyond the law. Chulalongkorn’s son Ratchaburi had received a European education and was appointed minister of Justice. He and judges were advised by Gustave Rolin-Jaequemins and Belgian lawyers. Prisons and police were modernized, and police were recruited from India and Burma. Brothels were regulated, but even more illegal prostitution remained. Chulalongkorn encouraged the study of history, and Sukhothai was recognized as the first capital of the Thai. He sent most of his sons and nephews to be educated in Europe. Chulalongkorn suffered from diabetes and interstitial nephritis, and in 1907 he toured Europe again for a change of climate. In 1908 a statue of Chulalongkorn on a horse was brought from Paris and put in front of the Italianate throne hall to celebrate his forty years of rule.

The first Chinese newspaper in Siam was published in 1905. Corvée ended that year, and the triennial tax was abolished in 1909; but a new poll tax on the Chinese in 1910 provoked a mass strike that stopped business in Bangkok for three days in June. Between 1882 and 1910 a million Chinese migrated to Siam, and 370,000 stayed. In the 19th century most were single males, and many married natives and raised their children with Siamese as their primary language; but in the 20th century more women immigrated, and they raised their children with a Chinese language. By 1912 the Chinese owned fifty rice mills.

Siam's Monarchy 1910-32

Chulalongkorn died on October 24, 1910; he had designated Vajiravudh crown prince in 1895. He had spent nine years in England being educated and translating plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, and Gilbert and Sullivan. While the King was in Europe, the Prince acted as regent in 1907. Vajiravudh was crowned on November 11, 1910, but a year later eight percent of the budget was spent on a 13-day coronation celebration attended by representatives of fourteen countries. In May 1911 the King had created a royal guard and the Wild Tiger Corps to defend the “nation, religion, and king” from foreign and domestic enemies. A high initiation fee discouraged the lower classes, and the King organized 4,000 men into his own private army. Three months later he founded the Tiger Cubs, which has been compared to the Boy Scouts but was more militaristic. The number of Tiger Cubs would grow steadily to 8,800 in 1917 and 38,735 by 1925.

Also in 1911 former finance minister Suriyanuwar wrote Sapphasat and urged that Siamese progress depends on paddy cultivation. King Vajiravudh disagreed that the peasants needed help, and he banned Sapphasat and the study of economics. A coup plot by junior officers was discovered, and 92 men were arrested on March 1, 1912. These young men were influenced by the Chinese Revolution, believed that Siam was backward and corrupt, and resented the Wild Tiger Corps. After a trial 23 men were imprisoned until November 1924, and the rest were pardoned.

Vajiravudh was homosexual and appointed his favorites as well as relatives. His 1911-12 budget deficit was more than two million baht, and in March 1912 he appointed a Committee to Inspect State Revenues and Expenditures. By 1913 the budget had a surplus again. King Vajiravudh purchased a newspaper in 1912 to report on his policies. He loved theater and literature, and he organized the Enhancement of Knowledge Club which published a magazine and put on plays. Vajiravudh wrote many plays that were mostly for propaganda, acted in them, and wrote modern essays. He warned against Chinese exploitation in his pamphlet “The Jews of the East,” which was apparently influenced by European anti-Semitism. He also promoted team sports such as soccer. He tried to improve the status of women by encouraging them to mix socially with men, and he criticized polygamy. A royal decree in 1913 gave the heads of families six months to choose and register a surname.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Siam declared its neutrality. Vajiravudh favored the Allies, but Germans had not offended Siam and were important in the shipping industry. The King used creative ways to raise money for a cruiser, which was not purchased until 1920. In 1915 Damrong resigned from the Interior Ministry and began studying and writing history, and in 1920 he published Thai rop phama about Siam’s wars with Burma. In 1916 the Civil Service School was combined with other institutions to form Chulalongkorn University. Vajiravudh simplified the names of the Chakri dynasty by using the name Ramathibodi for all the kings, and thus he became Rama VI. In 1917 the King used security laws to close newspapers. After the United States entered the war in April, preparations were made to intern Germans and seize their ships. Vajiravudh declared war on the Central Powers on July 22, and Siam arrested Germans and cancelled its unequal treaties with Germany and Austria. Siam trained 1,300 men, who arrived in France a year later, too late to be in combat. Vajiravudh changed Siam’s flag from a white elephant on a red field to the tricolor red, white, and blue.

A Siamese delegation attended the Versailles Peace Conference and lobbied for autonomy in taxation and an end to extraterritoriality. Foreign Minister Devawongse worked for these goals until his death in 1923, gaining a better treaty with the United States in 1920. Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law Francis Sayre helped Siam get better terms with France and Britain in 1925, followed by treaties with other powers the next year. Foreigners now had to submit to the jurisdiction of Siam’s laws, but tariffs on some British goods were still limited to five percent for ten years.

The value of silver increased during the war, and in 1919 Siam raised its exchange rate from 13 baht per pound sterling to 9.54 baht. Bad crops after the war caused an economic downturn, and with the large trade deficit much silver left Siam despite its prohibition. Siam borrowed two million pounds at seven percent interest in 1922. The next year the exchange rate was lowered to 11 baht per pound sterling, and in 1924 Siam borrowed three million pounds at six percent.

A 1918 education report found that 389,806 boys were in school but only 7,411 girls. In his November birthday speech the King announced the importance of female education. Primary education for boys and girls was made compulsory in nearly half the country in 1921, and within a few years forty percent of children aged 7-14 were attending schools. The percentage of girls in school increased from 7% in 1921 to 29% the next year and to 38% by 1925. Chaophraya Phrasadet wrote The Qualities of Gentlefolk (Sombat khong phu di) as a textbook to educate students to be neat, courteous, likeable, dignified, good-natured, selfless, trustworthy, and to avoid vices. In 1925 Bangkok had seven Siamese, three English, and three Chinese daily newspapers.

Tramway workers went on strike in 1922-23 against the company’s foreign owners. Like his father, Vajiravudh rejected calls for constitutional and representational government, and he refused to accept even an advisory council. In 1923 he enacted stringent press laws; prosecutions for libel and sedition resulted in eight presses being confiscated, and seventeen newspapers were closed. The Government was spending more than 23% on the military. Royal expenditures were consuming 11% of the budget while education received only 3% in 1924-25. Vajiravudh was planning a Siamese Kingdom Exhibition, and in July 1925 he refused to reduce his spending. The King left administration to others and seemed to be living in his own fantasy world. Vajiravudh finally tried to have children and married; but he died on November 26, 1925, two days after he became the father of a daughter. Chulalongkorn’s youngest son Prajadhipok became Rama VII, the last king of the Chakri dynasty.

On November 29 Prajadhipok appointed five members of the royal family to a Supreme Council, including Phanurangsi and Damrong. He cancelled the exhibition and reduced royal expenditures forty percent, dismissing most of his brother’s favorites including all but 300 of the 3,000 Royal Pages. In 1927 he named forty men from the royal family and nobility to the Privy Council. By then Siam had fourteen publishers and 127 printing presses. Prince Sithiporn Kridakara started an agricultural journal to help farmers.

Kulap Saipradit wrote novels emphasizing humanitarianism (manutsayatham). The popular 1929 novel Circus of Life (Lakhon haeng chiwit) by Akat Damkoeng described a young man going abroad and then coming back to Siam to work for social change. Wichit Wathakan published his Universal History (Prawatisat sakhon) in 1929 to show Thai progress toward nationhood, and it became the first non-fiction best-seller. His 1928 essay “On Great Men” included Napoleon, Bismarck, Disraeli, Gladstone, Okubo Toshimichi, and Mussolini. The attributes of great men that Wichit emphasized most were ambition, determination, concentration, self-confidence, and will power.

After the Japanese army killed 5,000 Chinese on Shandong peninsula in May 1928, Chinese leaders in Bangkok organized a boycott that cut Japanese imports in half. The King warned that dangerous ideas were coming in from China, and Communists were arrested. The price of rice dropped by two-thirds from 1930 to 1932. The Government ran a huge deficit and could not borrow money, and severe economic adjustments divided the cabinet. The large trade deficit caused gold to leave Siam, which delayed going off the gold standard until May 1932. Journalists were intimidated, and immigration laws were used to deport critics. During the Depression most peasants managed to keep their land because local resistance prevented outsiders from foreclosing. The Government cut the land tax, and many traders and millers went broke. After the Depression the rice trade was controlled by five families—Wanglee, Lamsam, Bulakun, Bulasuk, and Iamsuri.

Siam Becomes Thailand 1932-39

Pridi Banomyong was born in Ayudhya on May 11, 1900. He won a scholarship to study law in France. In Paris in February 1927 Pridi, Phibun, and five others founded the People’s Party to work for independence, public safety, and economic planning with education, equal rights, and liberty for all. Pridi taught law at Chulalongkorn University, and he drafted a constitution. Pridi and Phahon Phonphayuhasena organized 65 civilians and 49 army and navy officers in the People’s Party, and they took control in Bangkok on June 24, 1932 by capturing the commander of the royal guard and arresting about forty officials, many from the royal family. King Prajadhipok was away from the capital, but he returned two days later and accepted the provisional constitution in order to avoid bloodshed. The People’s Party manifesto announced that the country belongs to the people, not the king, and the principles of their government were to:

1. maintain securely the independence of the country
  in all forms including political, judicial, and economic, etc.;
2. maintain public safety within the country
  and greatly reduce crime;
3. improve the economic well-being of the people
  by the new government finding employment for all,
  and drawing up a national economic plan,
  not leaving the people to go hungry;
4. provide the people with equal rights
  (so that those of royal blood do not have more rights
  than the people as at present);
5. provide the people with liberty and freedom,
  as far as this does not conflict
  with the above four principles;
6. provide the people with full education.1

The provisional constitution was promulgated on June 27 and was signed by King Prajadhipok six days later. Power was to be executed on behalf of the people by the king, the Assembly of Representatives of the People, the Committee of the People, and the courts. Any action of the king had to be approved by the Assembly, which had the power to pass all legislation. Voting was to be by both sexes who met the qualifications. They excluded princes from ministerial posts and the army, leaving the King only the right to pardon. They appointed a People’s Committee to promulgate laws and nominated a Senate of seventy members. They chose Manopakon Nithithada to preside as chairman. He had been educated in England and was a judge on the appeals court. By the end of the year they had closed ten newspapers while government funds supported papers favoring the People’s Party.

After negotiation a new constitution was presented as a gift from the King in December, replacing the Senate with an Assembly of 156 members; half were to be elected every four years by universal suffrage, and after ten years all were to be elected. The King gained the right to dissolve the Assembly, but an election must follow within three months. He could veto legislation, but the Assembly could override it. The King could also decree an emergency if the minister responsible approved.

Pridi published his “Outline Economic Plan” early in 1933. The government was to manage the economy by dividing it into different cooperatives with the purpose of fulfilling the third principle of improving the economic well being of the people. Every person would be insured by the government from birth to death. Labor is wasted when the economy is not well managed or when machinery is not used. The government would not appropriate the property of the wealthy but would buy the land with bonds, paying a fixed interest for the loan. Taxes would be collected from inheritance, income, and indirectly from government monopolies on salt and a lottery.

The King persuaded the People’s Party to become a social club instead of a political party. He and Manopakon convinced the Committee to reject Pridi’s economic plan to nationalize all land; it was considered Communistic, and he was exiled. After vacant land was promised to the unemployed, Manopakon prorogued the Assembly. Another military coup forced Pridi’s colleagues to resign, and Phahon replaced Manopakon on June 20, 1933. They appointed a new Council and recalled the Assembly. Wichit wrote that he hoped that nationalism would bring prosperity to Siam as Mussolini had used Fascism for Italy. He also emphasized supporting Buddhism as the national religion, respecting the constitution and the king, and totally opposing Communism. Wichit knew Inazo Nitobe, who wrote Bushido, and he valued honesty, perseverance, bravery, compassion, politeness, honor, duty, and self-control.

The popular Pridi was allowed to return in September 1933. On October 12 Prince Boworadet led an attempted military coup with garrisons from the provinces that occupied Don Muang airfield; but Luang Phibun Songgram maintained control of the army and shelled them with artillery for three days, killing 23. Boworadet and 21 officers fled to Saigon, and the People’s Party put 230 rebels in jail. Wichit was the first to use Siamese radio for a propaganda campaign against these royalists. A Constitution Association was formed, and monks and teachers explained the constitution to people. In the November 1933 election less than a tenth of the electorate voted, and Pridi’s supporters won. The cabinet resigned, but Phahon was still popular and chose new ministers. Royal princes had supported the failed revolt, and in January 1934 King Prajadhipok went abroad to see an eye doctor. In February an assassin shot Phibun in the neck and shoulder, but the wounds were not serious.

Phibun became Defense minister, and the military portion of the budget was increased to 26%. In the next four years education spending increased fourfold while the military budget doubled. Siam purchased 24 warships from Italy and Japan, and the Air Force acquired 200 modern warplanes. The 1934 Press Act prohibited publishing anything not submitted to the government Press Bureau for censorship. Radio broadcasts were also censored. In March an investigation cleared Pridi of the charges of Communism, and he was appointed minister of the Interior. When the Assembly reduced the King’s authority and removed the need for his signature on death warrants, Prajadhipok insisted on a new election for the Assembly. They could not agree, and on March 2, 1935 Prajadhipok abdicated while in England. His ten-year-old nephew Ananda Mahidol, who was at school in Switzerland, was proclaimed king, and a Regency Council was appointed.

Phibun had contacted the Japanese legation in 1933, and Siam was the only country in the League of Nations that abstained from censuring Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. In 1935 Siamese officers went to Japan for training, and the Japan-Siam Association was begun. New laws removed aristocratic privileges, outlawed polygamy, repealed the requirement of parental consent for marriage, and promoted education. The number of pupils in primary schools went from 700,000 in 1931 to 1,700,000 in 1939. Pridi founded Thammasat University that emphasized ethics and political science. Local governments were given more power, and roads, hospitals, and electricity were better funded. Treaties were revised so that Siam could protect its industries with tariffs. The Chinese had 271 schools by 1933, but the new government closed most of them, suppressed Chinese newspapers, and deported thousands of opium addicts.

Wichit became head of the new Fine Arts Department in January 1934, and in May he started a special school for dance and drama. He wrote self-help manuals such as The Power of Thought and The Power of Determination. He argued that the elite should rule as the “nation’s brains” until more people were educated. He praised the creativity and freedom of Sukhothai but believed that Siamese culture declined during the Ayudhya era because of the Khmer’s divine royalty and slavery. Wichit wrote plays showing how the heroes Naresuan and Taksin and heroines defended Siam against Burma. The 1936 The Blood of Suphan (Lu’at Suphan) is a romance set during a Burmese invasion in the Ayudhya era. Copies of the play were sent to government schools. In the 1937 Ratchamanu the hero quells a Khmer revolt during the kingship of Naresuan. That year The King of Thonburi (Prachao Krung Thon) portrayed Taksin defeating the last major Burman invasion. Because Taksin was half Chinese this play improved relations with China, and a percentage of the profits were donated to relieve famine in China.

After Japan invaded China in 1937, the Chinese revived the boycott of Japanese goods. Merchants were blackmailed into making contributions, and 61 who failed to do so were killed. Wichit reacted against the anti-Japanese movement, and on the radio he called the Chinese “worse than the Jews.” He noted the anti-Semitic campaigns in Germany and Austria, and he suggested that Siam should consider dealing with their “own Jews.” The Assembly demanded an inquiry into his offensive remarks, and Wichit made a public retraction. In 1938 his The Princess of Saenwi (Chaoying Saenwi) celebrated the unity of the Thai and the Shan people of northern Burma. His 1939 play Nanchao portrayed the Chinese driving the Thai from their homeland. The immigration fee was doubled, and only one Chinese newspaper and two Chinese schools remained open. Legislation aimed at the Chinese reserved much of the economy for the Siamese. The Thai Rice Company was formed and took over three-quarters of the rice trade.

In 1938 a National Nutrition Project urged people to eat more protein. Schools added physical exercise, and more was spent on medicine and hygiene. Phibun wanted to increase the population, and Mother’s Day was celebrated. Phibun claimed to have a million soldiers out of a population of fourteen million. Phahon had survived the election of 1937 in which 26% of the people elected half the Assembly, but a conflict over the budget forced the cabinet to resign in September 1938. New elections were held in November. Phahon retired, and Phibun became prime minister on December 26, 1938. Pridi was appointed Finance minister, and he cancelled the poll tax and the land tax. Phibun survived two more assassination attempts in late 1938, and in January 1939 he had seventy people arrested for plotting a royal conspiracy. After trials before a special court fifteen were executed; twenty-two were imprisoned, and three were exiled. His new revenue code passed in March and reduced taxes on the peasants.

In 1939 the Government monopolized rice, tobacco, salt, petroleum, and pork while imposing fees on aliens for many jobs. In April a law permitted people to change their nationality to Thai, but they had to disclaim China, speak Siamese, change their names, and educate their children in Thai schools. Only 104 did so in the first year, but they were mostly wealthy industrialists. The name of the nation was changed in June 1939 from Siam to Prathet Thai (meaning Land of the Free) or Thailand. Other culture mandates emphasized national security and urged people to speak Thai and simplified the language. Regional ethnic names were abolished as people were called Thai. Patriotic mandates required saluting the flag and knowing the national anthem.

Thailand 1940-50

Thailand signed a treaty with France in June 1940, but it was not implemented because of the German invasion. Phibun gave the Japanese permission to cross Thai territory in October, and Thai planes began retaliating against French air attacks on border areas. During this war Wichit made emotional broadcasts on radio describing French brutality and oppression in Indochina. In January 1941 Phibun sent troops to take over parts of French Cambodia, and after three weeks Thailand had regained much Cambodian territory. Japan mediated an agreement signed in March that allowed Thailand to keep most of what it had occupied. By its National Industrial Plan the Government took over mining, shipping, tanning, sugar, rubber, and fisheries, taking many factories from the Chinese. Thailand loaned Japan 10 million baht and gave them 25 million in credit to buy Thai rubber and produce. On December 6 Pridi was removed from the cabinet and was made regent.

Prajadhipok was sued for transferring 4.2 million baht from the Privy Purse to his private bank accounts overseas. He died in May 1941; but he was eventually found guilty, and his palace was seized. Most of Phibun’s cabinet were military men, and the military portion of the budget went up to 33%. When the legislators protested this, he dissolved the Assembly. After an election the Assembly still opposed him; so he ruled by decree, and in 1940 he postponed the Assembly becoming completely elective for another decade.

In 1941 laws were passed against making unnecessary noise, using improper language, and ridiculing those who promoted national customs. Phibun even imposed the wearing of shoes, hats, and western clothes. No official could marry an alien without special permission. Labor associations were allowed to form, but leaders of strikes in rice mills were arrested.

Japanese troops invaded Thailand in nine places on December 8, 1941. Phibun was away from Bangkok, but the next day he ordered a cease fire and granted the Japanese safe passage. A few days later Thailand formed a military alliance with Japan, and on January 25, 1942 they declared war on Britain and the United States. The Regent Pridi refused to sign the declaration and went into hiding. Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, believed the war declaration was so wrong that he refused to deliver the message and began organizing the Free Thai movement with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In May the Japanese let the Thai army take over the Shan states in Burma. Phibun passed the Sangha Act that took away the privileged position of the Thammayut sect and the patriarch in favor of councils of elders.

The Japanese kept an army of at least 50,000 in Thailand throughout the war. They ravaged the Thai economy to supply their army in Burma, and in August 1943 they turned over the four Unfederated Malay States to Thailand. Because of inflation in January 1944 Japan doubled its loan from Thailand to 45 million baht a month. Phibun dismissed Finance minister Vanich Pananond, had him arrested, and refused to release him. Thai radio broadcasts stopped criticizing the Western Allies, hoping they would stop the bombing raids. Resistance groups called Seri Thai (Free Thai) supported the Allies by working with the American OSS and the English Force 136. Early in 1944 some men and equipment were parachuted into Thailand. That year the Code of National Bravery was based on the Bushido code of the Japanese samurai; but many realized the war had turned against Japan. On July 24, six days after Tojo resigned, the Pridi supporters in the Assembly removed Phibun from power so that the Allies would not treat them as enemies. A week later Khuang Aphaiwong became prime minister to deal with the Japanese while Pridi worked with the Free Thai and the Allies. Pridi also got amnesty for 61 political prisoners. By 1945 Bangkok had suffered more than 4,000 Allied bombing raids, and 60% of the population had evacuated.

On August 15, 1945 Emperor Hirohito broadcast on radio that all Japanese forces were to lay down their arms. Thailand was still officially at war until Thai Regent Pridi disavowed Phibun’s declaration of war. Mountbatten told Pridi to announce also that the Seri Thai had called off their uprising against the Japanese. The British sent in Force 136 covertly to help the 20,000 British, Australian, and Dutch prisoners who were still dying at the rate of fifteen a day because of the forced work on the “Death Railway” to Burma that had taken the lives of 12,000 Allied prisoners. The Americans kept the British from taking over Thailand’s stockpiles of rice, but Thai rice was sold to the British at fixed prices. Seni Pramoj was brought back from America to replace the collaborating Khuang as prime minister in September and to lead the peace negotiations. Seni and his brother Kukrit Pramoj formed the Democrat Party, and they opposed Pridi in the Assembly. Thailand was known as Siam to other nations again from September 1945 until May 11, 1949.

Two parties supporting Pridi won a majority in the January 1946 elections. Seni lacked political experience, and Pridi made Khuang Aphaiwong prime minister again. Dissatisfied Pridi became prime minister himself in March. He supervised drafting of a new constitution with a fully elected House of Representatives that would elect a Senate. In April under Allied pressure the highest court in Thailand stopped the prosecution of Phibun for war crimes as retroactive and unconstitutional. Pridi’s new constitution came into effect in May. King Ananda was found dead from a bullet wound in his forehead on June 9. Pridi as regent was suspected; but an inquiry could not decide whether it was murder, suicide, or a gun accident. The King was succeeded by his younger brother Phumiphon Adundet, who was also being educated in Switzerland. Pridi made Thamrong Nawasawat prime minister in August and went abroad.

Pridi proposed that boundary questions with French Indochina be referred to the United Nations. In November 1946 France promised not to veto Thailand’s admission into the United Nations in exchange for the return of its territories. Thailand agreed to this and also annulled its law against Communism to please the Soviet Union. Thailand became a member of the United Nations in 1947. The Association of United Workers of Thailand was formed in April, and within two years they had 60,000 members.

In September 1947 Pridi founded the Southeast Asia League. The military feared that Pridi was organizing a Communist revolution, and Phibun took power again on November 8 with another coup, this one directed by Col. Sarit Thanarat. They made Khuang Aphaiwong prime minister, and the election in January 1948 gave him and the Democrat Party a slim majority. Pridi was ordered arrested for complicity in the murder of the King, and he fled from Thailand. The chief police investigator Phinit was a brother-in-law of the Pramoj brothers and was bribed to implicate Pridi. Three of Pridi’s associates were arrested and were executed in 1955 before the bribery was discovered in 1979.

Khuang and the Democrats wrote a new constitution; but the military forced Khuang to resign, and Phibun was made prime minister again on April 8, 1948. Once again he went after Chinese Communists; he purged the army of Seri Thai, and he replaced and arrested Pridi supporters. He also arrested Malay leaders, and that April aerial bombing and troops were used to put down an insurgency in the south. General Net Khemayothin and sixty officers were arrested in October for plotting a coup.

Pridi came back to Bangkok in February 1949 and tried to seize power with help from Seri Thai arms; but Col. Sarit bombarded them in the Grand Palace, and they fled. A month later four of Pridi’s legislative supporters were shot to death by police who claimed they were trying to escape. In March the Democrat party promulgated a new constitution with a Senate appointed by the King. Under Phibun the police arbitrarily arrested dissidents and tortured them, killing some. Thugs beat up critical newspaper editors. Yet Supha Sirimanon and Kulap Saipradit with Pridi followers founded the Adviser (Aksonsan) journal. Phibun was accused of rigging the June elections that gave his pro-government party a majority in the lower house. Even though Phibun had been their enemy during the war, because of the Cold War the United States now made millions of dollars available for his military government. In July 1950 Thailand was the first Asian country to offer troops to support the US in the Korean War.

Cambodia 1800-1904

Cambodia to 1800

Cambodia’s king Ang Eng died in 1797, but his young son Ang Chan II was not old enough to be crowned king until 1806. Chan paid tribute to Vietnam as well as Siam. He refused to attend the funeral of Rama I in 1809, and he executed two Cambodian officials who did attend. When Siamese forces supported a dissident brother of Chan in 1811, the Vietnamese came to the aid of the King. Chan’s three brothers fled to Bangkok. Twice a month Chan prayed ceremoniously for the Emperor of Vietnam. Starting in 1817, Cambodian workers were beaten by Vietnamese supervisors as they excavated the Vinh Te Canal in southern Vietnam. Soon after it was completed, the former monk Kai led a revolt that attacked Vietnamese military posts. A local force of Khmers and Vietnamese refused to fight them; but Vietnamese soldiers from Saigon defeated them, and some rebels were executed in Saigon and Phnom Penh. A Buddhist account of this rebellion suggests that they lost the invulnerability they gained from prayer because they began killing people. Cambodia continued to send tribute annually to Bangkok until Rama II died in 1824. Then the Vietnamese supported a rebellion against Siam around Vientiane.

After Vietnamese governor Le Van Duyet died in 1832, Emperor Minh Mang replaced officials in Cambodia, provoking Duyet’s son to rebel. Siam’s Rama III took the opportunity to launch a campaign into Cambodia led by Chaophraya Bodin. Ang Chan II and the Vietnamese abandoned Phnom Penh. General Bodin occupied the capital, but Chan’s brothers Im and Duong did not gain support from the Cambodians. In 1834 Bodin left with four thousand Cambodians; but most escaped after they reached Udong. Bodin’s forces with Im and Duong settled in the northwest region of Battambang and Siem Reap. Vietnamese general Truong Minh Giang defeated the rebellion at Saigon and was appointed to govern Phnom Penh. When magicians persuaded Chan to let some people out of jail at Phnom Penh, Truong had the magicians shot.

Ang Chan II became ill and died in 1835. He had no sons, and his oldest daughter Baen favored Siam; so Chan’s second daughter Mei was made queen. The Vietnamese changed the name of the region around Phnom Penh from Annam to Tran Tay (Western Commandery). They divided Cambodia into 33 provinces with names associated with Cochinchina and built fifty strategic forts. The Khmers were armed, but many more Vietnamese immigrated. Emperor Minh Mang urged the Cambodians to learn Vietnamese and improve their agriculture by using oxen for plowing and by raising mulberry trees, pigs, and ducks so that the Vietnamese occupation would not be an economic loss.

When Vietnamese emissaries tried to lure Ang Duong back to Phnom Penh, he was arrested and taken to Bangkok in 1837. That year uprisings against the Vietnamese in Cambodia began. In 1839 Prince Im defected to Phnom Penh, believing the Vietnamese would make him king, but they arrested him and took him to Hué. A Siamese garrison was posted to Battambang, from which most of the Cambodian officials had fled. In 1840 Minh Mang ordered a land survey and improved tax collection that now included fruits and vegetables; he also demoted Mei and her two sisters while arresting and taking to Saigon the six highest Cambodian officials for having falsified records so that 15,000 people would not be drafted. This caused a major rebellion in September 1840; but the uprising collapsed after a few months because no Siamese invasion supported the insurgency. Also Minh Mang ordered crops and orchards burned down, and the rebels lacked supplies. Sporadic guerrilla resistance against the Vietnamese occupation continued until 1847.

In August 1841 the Vietnamese arrested Mei and her sisters, made them drunk, and deported them to Vietnam with the royal regalia. General Bodin had 35,000 men and attacked the Vietnamese garrison at Pursat. He advised Bangkok to release Duong, who returned to Battambang with gifts from Rama III. Truong Minh Giang recalled Prince Im and the princesses; but this was such a failure that he took them and 6,000 Vietnamese back to Vietnam. There he wrote a letter to Hué, saying he lost Cambodia, and then he poisoned himself. Bodin’s army occupied Phnom Penh, but by 1844 they were starving and returned to Udong. The Vietnamese reinstated Mei as queen. The Vietnamese fought the Siamese army, but a stalemate led to peace negotiations.

In 1847 the Vietnamese returned the Cambodian regalia and royal family, and both sides crowned Ang Duong as king of Cambodia. He had the fortifications at Phnom Penh leveled and used the bricks to build Buddhist monasteries near Udong. Ang Duong managed to play off his neighbors, and he sponsored many reforms and public works. Eventually he appealed to the French, and their envoys arrived in 1856 with a proposed treaty; they wanted teak for shipbuilding and access for their Catholic missionaries. Duong also built forts and suppressed rebellions in Cochinchina and by Muslim Chams. He died in 1860.

Ang Duong was succeeded by his son Ang Vody, who had grown up in the Siamese court and was not popular. When his brother Si Votha rebelled in 1861, Ang Vody fled to Bangkok. Bishop Miche used diplomacy and French gunboats to help quell the revolt, and Ang Vody came back the next year. Admiral Bonard told him that Cambodia’s tribute that previously went to Hué should now be paid to the French in Cochinchina. In 1863 Lt. Doudart de Lagrée was established at Phnom Penh as resident. Admiral De La Grandiere went to Udong and agreed to protect Ang Vody from Siam in exchange for consulates, timber concessions, and mineral rights. The French failed to stop piracy in the Gulf of Siam, and so most trade went through Saigon. Some suspect that the French gave the British a secret promise that they would not enforce this treaty for twelve years, but France’s problems with Germany may account for their lack of action. Ang Vody assured the Siamese king that he was still loyal and made a secret treaty on August 11 that recognized him as their viceroy in Cambodia the following January.

In March 1864 Ang Vody was going to leave for Bangkok; but when Doudart de Lagrée threatened to take over his capital, Ang Vody changed his mind and signed a treaty in April that gave France control over Cambodia’s foreign affairs and trade concessions. In June a crown was passed from the Siamese ambassador to the French envoy to Ang Vody, who crowned himself King Norodom. In 1866 he moved to Phnom Penh. In 1867 Siam made a treaty with France that gave up their sovereignty over Cambodia to the French except that they retained the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Sisophon.

King Norodom was criticized for excessive drinking. He patronized French business, and in 1872 he made a contract with German businessmen to collect taxes in two Cambodian provinces for five years. In 1877 he promised to abolish slavery, renounce royal land ownership, reduce the number of top officials (okya), and rationalize tax collection. In exchange the French promised to help defeat Si Votha’s rebellion. However, he escaped, and the reforms that would have affected power bases were not implemented. In 1881 Norodom signed a convention that abolished the tax on the French in Cambodia. The following year he renounced importing arms and ammunition except through Saigon, and in September 1883 he leased out the collecting of duty on opium and alcohol. Early in 1884 Norodom agreed to give customs duties to France for administrative expenses.

In June 1884 Cochinchina governor Charles Thomson came from Saigon to Phnom Penh on a steamboat with a hundred armed guards who forced Norodom to sign a treaty in which

The King of Cambodia accepts all administrative,
judicial, financial, and commercial reforms
which the government of the French Republic
will judge in future to be useful
for facilitating the realization of the protectorate.2

The treaty also authorized the French government to name Residents and Deputy Residents “to control local authorities,” and Cambodia was made responsible for paying the expenses of the protectorate as well as the kingdom. Slavery was abolished, and land ownership was institutionalized. King Norodom sent a letter of protest to the President of France.

After preparing for six months the Cambodians reacted to the French treaty by launching a major revolt that lasted two years. On January 8, 1885 Prince Si Votha attacked a French military outpost at Sambor, and his rebels controlled the northeast. The Cambodians began by destroying telegraph lines. Lacking modern weapons, they used guerrilla tactics. The French suspected Norodom of supporting the rebellion, but they got his younger brother Sisowath to appoint pro-French officials. The Cambodians lost 10,000 men in the war, but most of the French losses were from disease. Filippini replaced Thomson as governor and was instructed to end the uprising as soon as possible. He began negotiating with Norodom in July 1886. After the Cambodians realized that the French had a steady supply of men from Algeria and Tonkin, Norodom traveled around telling his subjects to submit to the French and lay down their weapons. The French promised to respect Cambodian customs, but they insisted on a council of ministers. Norodom lost his sovereignty as French Indochina annexed Cambodia.

The insurgency died down by the end of 1886, and by late 1887 even Si Votha had retreated to the Laotian frontier, where he died in 1891. In the late 1880s King Norodom appointed governors in exchange for gifts, and officials were replaced by wealthy contributors. The King was favoring the rebellious Prince Duong Chacr as his heir, but in 1888 Resident Superior de Vernéville persuaded Norodom to have him arrested. Duong Chacr fled to Bangkok and then went to Paris in 1893. Norodom approved his son’s being exiled in Algeria, and the Prince died there in 1897.

By 1892 the French were controlling the collection of direct taxes, and they installed residents in all ten provinces by 1894. Although slavery was abolished, debt still kept many in servitude, often for life. As Norodom’s health declined, he became more addicted to opium, which the French supplied for free. In 1897 the résident supérieur Huynh de Verneville cabled Paris that Norodom could no longer rule the country, but Indochina’s Viceroy Paul Doumer came to visit him and restored his royal seal. The resident superior took more control over the council of ministers and appointed Um prime minister and Thiounn secretary general over Norodom’s objection. The King disagreed with other appointments also. Prince Yukanthor visited France in 1900 and criticized French colonial domination in Cambodia. He sent a long memorandum to the French prime minister and his cabinet, and Jean Hess got his complaints published in Le Figaro. Norodom was pressured to cable his son to come home, but Yukanthor feared punishment and lived in exile at Bangkok until his death in 1934. Chinese immigrants helped Cambodia export its surplus rice. The French controlled education, and the only school was for the children of the royal family. King Norodom got cancer in 1902 and died on April 25, 1904. He was mourned by his people for three years.

Cambodia 1904-50

The French chose 64-year-old Sisowath to be king of Cambodia. He was dedicated to Thanmayut Buddhism, and after two years of performing ceremonies the Governor-General crowned him in April 1906. The French supervised 750 students attending schools in Phnom Penh and 400 in the countryside. The French also supplied Sisowath with 113 kilograms of opium per year. After his coronation he attended the Colonial Exhibition at Marseilles with the royal dance company. In Paris he concluded the negotiations for the treaty with Siam that returned the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Sisophon to Cambodia in 1907. The French and Cambodians began to restore Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and in 1909 a Cambodian translation of the Buddhist Tripitaka was placed in a monastery there. That year the French residencies were given typewriters, and the paper work increased. The 1908 French census counted 60,000 Vietnamese in Cambodia and nearly that many Chinese.

The French could require up to ninety days of corvée per year from those too poor to pay taxes, and many of these worked on building roads. During World War I the French coerced Chinese merchants to float war loans, raised taxes, and sent volunteers to fight abroad. In November 1915 about three hundred peasants from the northeast came to Phnom Penh to petition Sisowath to reduce the taxes that were collected by Cambodian officials. The King ordered them to go home, but much larger delegations with as many as three thousand came from the east to the palace. Police estimated that a total of 40,000 came to the capital in early 1916, but others said 100,000. King Sisowath toured eastern Cambodia in an automobile, urging calm and announcing that no more corvée would be required in 1916. A royal ordinance in 1918 prohibited monks from “teaching reforms or … spreading among the faithful modern ideas.” To reduce the influence of Bangkok on the Buddhists the Protectorate promoted the establishment of the Pali School in 1920. Two years later they reserved places in the administration for its graduates, but this was revoked after a few years. King Sisowath had a royal palace built for a million piastres even though times were hard.

The French granted Cambodians a consultative assembly in 1922 and a residency council two years later, but they still held the power. The French took over the administration of local justice in 1923 and the next year began expanding education. French officials were paid up to 1,200 piastres per year but owed only 30 piastres in tax while most peasants earned about 90 piastres annually and owed up to 12 piastres in tax. A. Pannetier noted that fewer Frenchmen were bothering to learn the Khmer language. In 1924 Félix Louis Bardez, the resident in Prey Veng, began collecting more taxes, and he was soon promoted to Kompong Chhnang, which had low revenues and banditry. On April 18 he had several tax resisters handcuffed and did not allow them to eat while he ate lunch. This provoked about two dozen people to beat to death Bardez, his interpreter, and the militiamen. Then about seven hundred Cambodians marched to Kompong Chhnang, demanding remission of their taxes, but they were dispersed by armed militia. The name of the village was changed to mean “Bestiality,” and eighteen men were prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders.

King Sisowath died in 1927 and was succeeded by his son Sisowath Monivong. He preferred spending his time with his wives and concubines rather than on official business. Tiounn had become minister of Finance, Palace Affairs, and Fine Arts, and he governed the country. By 1930 Cambodia had 9,000 kilometers of paved and gravel roads. Four years were required to complete a 500-kilometer railroad in 1932 connecting Phnom Penh with Battambang. In 1930 a Buddhist institute began in Phnom Penh to study the differences between the sects in Siam and Cambodia. The French also used propaganda to divide the Cambodians from the Vietnamese and the Chinese; the slogan “Cambodia for Cambodians” became popular. During the Depression the price of rice fell from three piastres per picul to one. Tax delinquency reached sixty percent in 1932 before the resident superior granted remissions. The first Khmer newspaper called Nagara Vatta (Angkor Wat) was published in 1936. Their editorials complained that the Vietnamese dominated the civil service and that the Chinese cornered commerce while educated Khmers lacked employment. By 1937 they were circulating more than 5,000 papers. In 1936 Cambodia’s high school became Lycée Sisowath, but the French spent little on five thousand primary schools. By 1937 five hundred graduates had formed an association. Immigration increased the Chinese population to about 300,000 by 1940.

From July 1940 to March 1945 Cambodia fell under the Vichy French government of Vice-Admiral Jean Decoux. They promoted Cambodian patriotism and raised the salaries and responsibilities of indigenous officials. Nagara Vatta became more anti-French and suffered repression. After monks’ demonstrated, more than thirty Cambodians were given long prison terms. In a short war with Thailand the French planes bombed Nakon-Panom on November 28, 1940. Thai forces advanced toward Battambang, but the French claimed victory at sea. A cease-fire was ordered on January 28, 1941, and the Japanese persuaded the French to return Battambang, Sisophon, Siem Reap (except Angkor), and parts of Laos to Thailand for six million piasters. King Monivong died in April 1941, and Governor-General Decoux chose 19-year-old Norodom Sihanouk as more malleable than Monivong’s son Monireth. The annual French gift of opium was cancelled, and Palace Minister Thiounn was persuaded to retire.

In December 1941 the Japanese army invaded Cambodia through Battambang, and by August 1942 the Japanese had posted 8,000 troops in Cambodia. Nagara Vatta supported Japan and opposed colonialism, and the French censored at least 32 issues, including ten leading editorials. The monk Achar Hem Chieu taught Pali in Phnom Penh and advocated Gandhian nonviolence against colonial rule. He was arrested for an anti-French plot on July 17, 1942 even though a monk was supposed to be defrocked first. Monks were beaten but did not retreat, and several Buddhist elders were also arrested. Son Ngoc Thanh took refuge in the Japanese legation and fled to Bangkok. Hem Chieu was accused of urging Cambodian soldiers to desert. The Japanese sponsored a Cambodian nationalist rally three days later that demanded his release. Nagara Vatta editor Pach Chhoeun led the march and was arrested as he presented a petition in the French Residence. Vichy commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. In 1943 Hem Chieu died of illness on the French penal island of Poulo Condore. That year the Japanese bought a million tons of rice in Indochina at the low price of a quarter piaster per kilo. Most of it was not used for food but to power engines and military vehicles. Also in 1943 French resident Georges Gautier announced that the 45-letter Cambodian alphabet would be replaced by Roman letters.

On March 9, 1945 the Japanese disarmed French forces and cancelled the Romanization. Four days later the Japanese authorized King Sihanouk to proclaim Cambodia’s independence, changing their name from the French Cambodge to the Khmer pronunciation Kampuchea. Two weeks later the Vietnamese rioted in Phnom Penh because they feared being interned. The Japanese took the French into protective custody until the end of the war. Son Ngoc Thanh returned and became minister of Foreign Affairs. Those with incomes less than 1,200 piasters were exempted from the capitation tax. Sihanouk appeared at a rally on July 20 to commemorate the Buddhists’ demonstration of 1942. An anti-royalist coup was suppressed on August 10, the day Son Ngoc Thanh became prime minister. Later that month a nationalist rally was attended by 30,000 people, and Thanh organized a referendum that got 541,470 votes for independence. The half-Vietnamese Thanh urged the Cambodians to join the Vietnamese resistance against the French. The French returned to Cambodia on September 12, 1945 and arrested Thanh one month later, deporting him to France. The French protectorate was reimposed on October 15.

In early 1946 bandit gangs calling themselves Issarak took over the countryside from the French. In April they killed the French garrison at Siem Reap and captured their weapons. King Sihanouk made an agreement in May with the French, who promised Cambodia a constitution with the right to form political parties, but they retained control over finance, defense, and foreign affairs. Son Ngoc Tranh was accused of treason for collaborating with the Japanese. The Democratic party (Krom Pracheathipodei) was led by Prince Sisowath Yuthewong and was supported by Nagara Vatta and the ideas of Chhoeun. The Liberal party (Kanaq Sereipheap) led by Prince Norodom Norindeth was conservative and was supported by large landowners. More than sixty percent of the newly enfranchised voted on September 1, 1946. The Democrats won 50 seats, the Liberals got 14, and 3 seats were independent. More than three thousand Khmer Issaraks accepted amnesty in December under a new constitution.

In 1947 the Democrats agreed to the constitution modeled after the Fourth Republic of France that gave power to the National Assembly. The Issarak insurgency faded as Battambang and Siem Reap were returned to Cambodia, and the Bangkok regime had little sympathy for them. Most of the noncommunists who opposed the Viet Minh accepted the amnesty that was offered in 1949. On November 9 King Sihanouk signed a treaty with the French that he called “50 percent independence,” but the Assembly led by the Democrats refused to ratify the treaty. Early in 1950 the United States recognized Laos and Cambodia as independent and began giving them aid.

Laos 1800-1940

Laos to 1800

Siam’s Rama I objected to his Laos vassal Chao-Nan, oldest son of Ong-Boun, seizing part of Luang Prabang and replaced him with his younger brother Chao-In (r. 1792-1805). To please imperial China, Siam released the fugitive Anourout to govern Luang Prabang; he worked to rebuild the city until he abdicated in 1817 for his son Manta-Tourat. When he died in 1836, his son Souka-Seum was a hostage at Bangkok and was not sent to Luang Prabang until 1839.

Ong-Boun’s other son, Chao-Anou, helped the Siamese expel Burmans from Chiengsen and became Vientiane’s king in 1805 when his brother Chao-In died. The next year Chao-Anou strengthened relations with Vietnam. In 1819 he put down a revolt in Champassak and appointed his son Chao-Ngo governor of the province. Chao-Anou wanted independence from Siam. He sent gifts to Emperor Gia Long of Annam (Vietnam) and proposed a secret alliance with Luang Prabang. He went to Bangkok for the funeral of Rama II in 1825 and requested that Laos families, which had been deported to Siam, be allowed to return home. This was denied, and so Chao-Anou used a rumor that the British were threatening Bangkok to march on that capital with three armies. This device got them past Korat, but General Pya Bodin led the Siamese army and soon forced the Vientiane troops to retreat all the way across the Mekong River. In 1828 the Siamese army devastated the entire kingdom of Vientiane and deported many people. Chao Anou escaped to Hué, but the troops that Emperor Minh Mang gave him soon deserted. Chao Anou then fled to Tran Ninh, where King Chao-Noi turned him over to the Siamese army; Chao Anou died in a Bangkok prison in 1835. A Vietnamese army seized Chao-Noi and publicly executed him at Hué as Annam made Tran Ninh a prefecture in their empire.

For more than a half century Laos was absorbed by Siam and Vietnam. Siam garrisoned Champassak in 1846. In early 1884 James McCarthy left Bangkok with two hundred men for Nongkhai to survey the Phuan state and Luang Prabang, which Siam garrisoned in 1885. The French began negotiating the frontier between Siam and Vietnam in 1886, and they were allowed to install Auguste Pavie as consul in Luang Prabang in February 1887. The next month Siam’s Wai Woronet brought back hostages to Bangkok from pacified Sipsong Chu Tai and claimed the region. The White Tai chief Khamhum (called Deo Van Tri by the Vietnamese) with six hundred Ho (Chinese) and upland Tai warriors overcame the Siamese garrison and took over Luang Prabang. While the city was being sacked, Pavie rescued the ill King Unkham from his burning palace and took him down river to Paklay. Pavie’s diplomacy brought Sipsong Chu Tai into Tonkin in 1888. Three teams of explorers and scientists began exploring and mapping the territory; they kept records to collect tribute from Lao principalities (meuang).

French Indochina’s Governor-General Jean de Lanessan wanted a forward policy, and in February 1892 he sent Pavie as consul to Bangkok to obtain Laos. A Siamese governor expelled two French opium smugglers from the middle Mekong in September. The ill French vice consul left Luang Prabang and committed suicide. Pavie demanded that the Siamese evacuate all their military posts on the east side of the Mekong River from Khammuan south, claiming that it belonged to Vietnam. On July 12, 1893 two French ships were fired on by the Paknam fort as they went up the Chaophraya River. They threatened the palace at Bangkok, and on July 20 the French gave Siam an ultimatum to turn over the territory and an indemnity of two million francs. The treaty they signed on October 3 also created a demilitarized zone 25 kilometers wide on the west side of the Mekong. France made a treaty with China in June 1895 that gave them Luang Namtha and part of Phongsali. The next year the British accepted the Mekong as the border between French Laos in the north and the British Shan states of Burma. In 1904 the French signed another treaty with Siam that gave them Xainyaburi and part of Champassak west of the Mekong.

With the Mekong River as the main border the Laos became divided between Siam and French Laos. Most of the royal family of Champassak fled to Bangkok; but Prince Chau Nyuy remained, and the French appointed him governor of Champassak. French Laos was divided into upper and lower regions in 1895, but after four years it was all administered by Lt. Col. Tournier, the first résident supérieur in Viang Chan. Sisavangvong succeeded in 1904 and was king of Luang Prabang until his death in 1959. In other places a French resident was in charge. French officials tried to end slavery, but they imposed ten days a year of corvée on the Lao Lum and Lao Thoeng. They monopolized the alcohol business and made every household pay the alcohol tax even if they consumed none. Vietnamese paid double head tax but were exempt from corvée, and the Chinese paid five times the head tax. There was no tax on land until 1935.

Various tribes revolted against the French domination and taxes. In the south the “Holy Man’s revolt” began in 1895, and the Boloven region was not subdued until 1910. After a French commissioner at Salavan burned a pagoda dedicated to the holy man (phu mi bun), several hundred Lao Thoeng attacked him and his guards with flintlock rifles in April 1901. Their leader Ong Kaeo (Bak Mi) was a former monk and claimed to have supernatural powers. In June the Lao Lum joined his movement, and some came from west of the Mekong. Ong Man led the revolt on the Siamese side. One Frenchman and more than a hundred of the Indigenous Guards were killed in the next six months, and the insurgents destroyed much property and crops. Other “holy” leaders emerged, and the revolt reached its peak in 1902. On April 21 more than two thousand Lao Lum attacked posts guarding Savannakhet, believing they would be protected from French bullets. Three times Ong Kaeo’s followers launched attacks that resulted in about 150 being killed and many more wounded. After this massacre the Indigenous Guards began burning villages and shooting suspected leaders, quelling most resistance by August.

After rebels led by Ong Kommadam slaughtered 39 Lavens in November 1905, the new commissioner of Salavan, J.-J. Dauplay, decided to crush the rebellion. By October 1907 Ong Kaeo and most of his followers had surrendered. However, Ong Kommadam held out and asked for lower taxes for the Lao Thoeng. Ong Kaeo was still considered a phu mi bun, and Dauplay had him arrested on November 11, 1910. The next day a guard bayoneted him to death, claiming he was trying to escape. Two days later Dauplay met with Ong Kommadam to negotiate, but he pulled a revolver out of his hat and shot Ong Kommadam, who was wounded but escaped with his brother. Dauplay had their village burned and guillotined three of his lieutenants; others were imprisoned at Poulo Condore. Kommadam survived, and in 1925 his offer to unite the Lao Thoeng tribes under French administration was rejected. Finally in September 1936 a military operation to the mountains killed Kommadam, and two of his sons were captured. A revolt against corvée and taxes by Lao Thoeng followers of the sorcerer Sembran spread from southern Vietnam into Laos, but it was subdued in 1939.

In the north Leu chief Vannaphum escaped an attempted arrest in March 1908 and led a revolt for two years before he was captured and killed during an attempted escape. Chinese Ho in northern Laos were agents for opium merchants, and they objected to the French monopoly on opium and the suppression of their trade. In November 1914 about forty Chinese and forty hill Tai attacked the garrison at Xam Neua, killed the French resident, and took arms, opium, and money. The town was regained the next month, but the revolt spread into Vietnam and Phongsali. By February 1915 rebels controlled northeastern Laos. In November, Tonkin sent 160 French troops with 2,500 colonials, and after six weeks of fighting they drove the rebels across the Chinese border. Phongsali was declared Military Territory V next to four other military territories in Tonkin. The local Hmong also resented the extra taxes collected by the Tai chiefs, and in October 1918 hundreds of Hmong attacked Tai villages around Dien Bien Phu. The Hmong shaman Pachai led the revolt and promised an independent Hmong kingdom. They withdrew from Vietnam into Laos. There they cut telegraph lines, burned villages, and enslaved the Khamu. The French military campaign began in September 1919, and in 1920 many Hmong submitted. Leaders were executed; weapons were surrendered, and reparations were paid. The revolt was ended by March 1921, and Pachai was finally killed by the Lao Thoeng in November 1922.

In 1907 all of Laos had only four French teachers, and in 1910 there were only five French doctors. The French granted the Laos provinces advisory councils in 1920 and an Indigenous Consultative Assembly to advise Résident Supérieur Jules Bosc in 1923. Laos lacked education and did not even have a junior high school until 1921. Most of the civil servants were Vietnamese, but the French established a Practical School of Law and Administration in 1928. By 1930 Laos had six hospitals and 6,500 students in 82 schools with 208 teachers, of whom 21 were French. In the 1930s only 52 Laos and about twice as many Vietnamese graduated from the junior secondary school called Pavie College, which in 1939 had 120 students with only 17 girls. In 1931 the Lao Buddhist Institute began offering courses in Pali, and the College of Pali opened at Viang Chan in 1937.

Prince Phetxarat Rattanavongsa graduated from the Ecole Coloniale in Paris and over French objections studied at Oxford for a year. In 1923 the Résident Supérieur appointed him Indigenous Inspector of Political and Administrative Affairs. He tried to bring more Laos into the civil service. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) founded at Hong Kong in 1930 by Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) was named to include Cambodians and Laos, but the ICP was mostly Vietnamese. In 1931 Sureté investigated sabotage in Nam Pataen tin mines and arrested ICP members. The next year cells formed in Viang Chan, the tin mines, and at Thakhaek. A Regional Committee organized in 1934 was reduced by more arrests by 1935, and the Communist Party was banned in 1940.

Laos 1940-50

A period of change in Laos began with the Vichy war regime in 1940. Taxes were reformed according to five levels of income. Between 1940 and 1945 more schools were built in Laos than in the previous half century. Lao Nyai (Great Laos) began publishing in January 1941 with eight pages in Lao and two in French. In the treaty signed at Tokyo on May 9, 1941 Laos lost the west bank of Champassak and Xainyaburi to Thailand. The military government in renamed Thailand threatened to take over the Tais in Laos, and the Movement for National Resistance was formed with French support from Public Education director Charles Rochet and Governor-General Jean Decoux. The School of Lao Arts was founded in the south at Khong to counter pan-Thai propaganda.

In 1944 Public Education director Charles Rochet proposed using the Roman alphabet for writing Lao, but this idea was resisted and dropped. After France was liberated from the Axis powers, the Japanese seized Viang Chan from the French on March 9, 1945; but they did not take Luang Prabang until April 5, allowing the French time to retreat. The Lao Seri had formed in 1944 to fight the Japanese, and Crown Prince Savangvatthana urged Laos to resist and assist the French. However, the Japanese persuaded King Sisavangvong to declare independence from France on April 8, and Phetxarat became prime minister.

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Lao Pen Lao was formed to resist the return of the French; but the French sent orders by radio for the underground groups to restore the French administration. On August 27 Phetxarat took over Viang Chan from the Japanese and would not acknowledge the French, who evacuated to Thailand. He brought together the National Renovation Movement, Lao Seri, and Lao Pen Lao into the Lao Issara. Phetxarat believed that the French failure to defend Laos from the Japanese cancelled all the Franco-Laos treaties. On September 2 he appealed to King Sisavangvong; but he had already welcomed the French Commissioner Col. Hans Imfeld, and in the south Prince Bunum of Champassak also cooperated with the French. On September 15 Phetxarat proclaimed the unification of Luang Prabang with the south and declared an independent Laos. General Charles de Gaulle sent the King a telegram recognizing his sovereignty over all of Laos, and the King dismissed Phetxarat. The Allies had designated the Chinese and the British to accept the Japanese surrender in the north and the south respectively. The Nationalist Chinese Division 93 refused to recognize any French officials and disarmed them in Luang Prabang, plundering the country. Phetxarat welcomed the Chinese, and the Lao Issara held Thakhaek and Savannakhet. In September the British helped the French return to Pakxe and Salavan.

A People’s Committee in Viang Chan promulgated a provisional constitution and the Pathet Lao government with a 45-member provisional National Assembly. The King declared all this illegal, and on October 20 this National Assembly passed a resolution deposing the King. Phetxarat’s friend Khammao Vilai became prime minister. Suphanuvong came back to Laos from Vietnam in October with twelve Viet Minh soldiers, and he replaced Un Xananikon as Lao Issara’s commissioner for the five southern provinces. Un became deputy to Suphanuvong, whom the provisional government made commander of the Army for the Liberation and Defense of Laos. Phetxarat refused to appoint Suphanuvong defense minister but made him minister of Foreign Affairs. Another brother Suvanna Phuma became minister of Public Works. A joint Lao-Viet general staff coordinated the efforts of the Lao Issara and the Viet Minh. On November 13 the Pathet Lao declared martial law, and Major Sing Rattanasamai was sent to retake Xiang Khuang and Xam Neua. By the end of the month the French had withdrawn from northern Laos except for Luang Prabang. French property was nationalized, but the Chinese army continued to occupy the north.

In January 1946 Lao and Hmong partisans helped the French recapture Xiang Khuang while the Lao Issara suffered from a lack of money and equipment. Suphanuvong and the Lao Issara tried to defend Thakhaek, but on March 21 the French used airplanes, armored cars, and artillery to defeat the poorly armed Laos and Vietnamese. Suphanuvong was badly wounded, and the Lao Issara suffered a thousand casualties; but Un led three hundred survivors into Thailand and back to Viang Chan. The French and their Lao allies had only 19 killed and 20 wounded.

King Sisavangvong and the provisional government compromised to form a constitutional monarchy, and Phetxarat attended the ceremony in Luang Prabang with his ministers. However, after the Chinese forces withdrew from Viang Chan, French troops reoccupied the city on April 24, 1946. In May the French regained Luang Prabang as the Lao Issara and about two thousand supporters took refuge in Thailand. Thousands of Vietnamese also fled from Laos. The King appointed Phetxarat’s half brother Kindavong interim prime minister. A Franco-Lao commission in July led to the modus vivendi signed on August 27 establishing Laos as a constitutional monarchy within the French Union. A secret protocol guaranteed that Prince Bunum would be inspector-general of Champassak for life. Under the Indochinese Federation the résident supérieur would govern Laos, but provincial councilors replaced the residents in the provinces. A Constituent Assembly of 44 deputies was elected by universal male suffrage in December.

In March 1947 the Assembly began debating the constitution, and Phetxarat’s half brother Suvannarat led the provisional cabinet. The constitution was adopted, and 35 deputies were elected to the National Assembly in August. The King’s Council of twelve members acted as a high court and reviewed legislation. In November the Assembly met and confirmed Suvannarat as prime minister. Ministers Bong Suvannavong and Ku Voravong formed the Lao National Union as the first officially recognized political party, and they published New Laos (Lao Mai). The College Pavie became a senior high school in 1947, and junior high schools opened in Pakxe, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet. Education was given 17% of the national budget, and health services were improved. Laos gained a little more independence when the General Convention signed in July 1949 led to an amended constitution in September.

The Lao Resistance in the East had formed at Vinh in September 1946. A year later Pridi’s Bangkok government backed the League of Southeast Asia, and Suphanavong was elected secretary-general. However, in November 1947 a military coup in Thailand made the Lao Issara unwelcome there. Many of the moderates in Thailand returned to Laos while the radicals joined the Vietminh. In January 1949 the Raxavong brigade was organized in southeastern Laos under Kaison Phomvihan of the ICP. The next month Suphanavong broke with the Lao Issara and formed the Lao People’s Progressive Organization in northern Laos. The returning Lao Issara leaders agreed to the transfer of powers to the Royal Lao government on February 6, 1950. The French retained control over the administration of justice, internal security, and command of the Lao army, which was formed by conscription. The next day the United States and Britain recognized the independence of Laos, but the only country to exchange ambassadors was Thailand. The admission of Laos into the United Nations was vetoed by the Soviet Union.

Vietnam and the French 1800-1950


1. “Announcement of the People’s Party No. 1” in Pridi by Pridi, p. 72 and 165-167.
2. Quoted in A History of Cambodia by Manomohan Ghosh, p. 184-185.

Copyright © 2007 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950.
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British India 1800-1848
British India's Wars 1848-1881
India's Renaissance 1881-1905
India's Freedom Struggle 1905-1918
Gandhi and India 1919-1933
Liberating India and Pakistan 1934-1950
Tibet, Nepal, and Ceylon 1800-1950
Burma, Malaya and the British 1800-1950
Siam, Cambodia, and Laos 1800-1950
Vietnam and the French 1800-1950
Indonesia and the Dutch 1800-1950
Australia to 1950
New Zealand to 1950
Summary and Evaluation


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