Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Chulalongkorn (Part 4): On the Brink

King Chula and Tsar Nicholos
For almost two decade, King Chulalongkorn continued to modernize the Kingdom of Siam. His father, King Mongkut, began the process. However, they were aware that modernization needed to be slow. And so, when King Mongkut passed away in 1868, the process was passed on to King Chulalongkorn. King Chula did continued the program and succeeded in making in various fields, from the military, administration, to education, and even health services. All of this efforts made in order to protect his kingdoms independence and to equal the state of the western powers.

During the 1880’s to 1890’s, the West had been active in establishing colonies, protectors, and spheres of influence in Asia. The British had been advancing in the Malayan Peninsula and Myanmar. The French advanced its interests in Vietnam and Cambodia. And most of all, all western powers had been dividing China among themselves. Southeast Asia, in particular, was almost devoured by the western powers. Only few Kingdom, including Siam, made efforts to remain independent.

Nevertheless, Chula knew that anytime threats towards Siamese independence were always present. In the 1890’s, France wanted to push their agenda westward from their colonies in Vietnam to the lands of modern day Laos and to the east bank of the Mekong River. The areas, however, were part of the sphere of influence of Siam and King Chula. A clash seem imminent, and France was determined to see their plans realized. They sent an official, named August Pavie, to execute the expansion of French borders to Laos. French troops then poured in to the area in order to lay claim on it. The Siamese also mobilized its troops to the area to defend their interests. Eventually, a skirmish flared up and took the life of a French officer. The killing of the officer then led to the events known as the Paknam Incident.

Direct confrontation between the French and the Siamese culminated in the event known as the Paknam Incident. Tension rose between the two countries. Pavie decided to retaliate after the killing of the French officer. In July 1893, two gunboats from French Indochina were dispatched to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and to the district known as Paknam. In Bangkok, government officials debated on how they would react to the threats just near to their capital. Officials and princes exchanged arguments whether to negotiate or to open fire against the French gun boats. Chula’s minister of foreign affairs advised him that any confrontation with France, Britain would support the Siamese. Chula then decided to open fire against the French gunboats. In July 13, 1893, the forts in the Paknam District used their newly acquired artilleries and open fired against the two French warships. The French did not hesitated to fire back. For minutes cannons sounded and carnage were made. In the end, both side suffered casualties. A ceasefire then followed. Then, the French minister in Bangkok, who was also Auguste Pavie, sent an ultimatum to King Chula. The ultimatum included Siam’s abandonment of its claims to Laos and payment of damages. The Siamese government was given few days to give an answer. Chula had to check his cards. For the following days, Bangkok received messages from the British that they would stay neutral in an event of a war. Chula then also thought that his army was not strong, experienced, and capable enough to defend Siam from any western invasion. Hence, Chula had no choice but to accept the French ultimatum. As a result of the Paknam Incident, Siam relinquished its claims to the lands east of the Mekong River. In addition, they had to pay 2 million Francs in indemnity to France. Nevertheless, Chula was still lucky that Siam still held control of the core lands or the lands traditionally occupies by the Siamese. The Paknam Incident also cemented the mind of Chula that Siam was not yet safe from western aggression and more were needed to be done in order to secure its independence.

Years after the incident, Chula thought that in order to secure recognition of Siam as a member of the international community, a charm offensive was needed. Gifts and missions were not enough to smitten the west. He decided that he himself would go in order to meet his fellow leaders and secure his recognition as an established world leader and Siam as part of the international community. Chula went to a world tour twice. One was in 1897 and another a decade later in 1907. His tours led him to Russia where he met Tsar Nicholas II and secured Russian recognition of Siam. He also visited Germany and had an audience with Kaiser Wilhelm II and received as well German recognition of Siam. Then, he also made a visit to the capital of the largest empire in the world – London. There, he attended the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. The British courteously treated the King and even invited him to stay at the Buckingham Palace. He also paid visits to Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium. During his stay in Belgium, he was invited by French President Felix Faure to visit Paris. Chula accepted the invitation and proceeded to Paris. He was welcomed by the cheers of the French people. He made humble and charitable deeds in Paris by giving alms to the poor Parisians. Nevertheless, the French never returned Laos to Siam. But, the trip achieved its purpose. At every visit of Chula, the European heads of states respected and treated Chula as an equal. They truly did began to see Siam and Chula as part of the world community and gave their recognition. Then after, no western country attempted to colonize of take Siam. Chula succeeded in maintaining his Kingdom’s independence for the next century and onwards.

Hinks, P. et al. Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Mishra, P. The History of Thailand. California: Greenwood, 2010.

"King Chulalongkorn, Rama V: The Fifth King of the Chakri Dynasty" Welcome to Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai. Acessed on June 23, 2013. www.chiangmai-chiangrai.com

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