Saturday, February 7, 2015

Paknam Incident: Near the Edge

The Comte and the Inconstant
Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia spared from the sufferings of becoming a colony. Thanks to political situation occurring a continent away and its efforts to modernize, the Thai people remained free and independent. The program of making progress at home of King Mongkut and Chulalongkorn paid out. Nevertheless, there were instances that their independence was threatened to be taken by a western power. Siam was on the brink of being conquered in the event known as the Paknam Incident in 1893.

What caused the Paknam Incident? What happened during the Paknam Incident? What were the effects and legacy of the Paknam Incident?

The Paknam Incident was a result of the clashing interest of French imperialism and Siamese interest in Laos. During the 1850’s – 1870’s, the rival of Siam for influence over Laos and Cambodia, which was Vietnam, had fallen to the French. In 1867, Mongkut made comprises with the French which relinquished Siamese claim over the rest of Cambodia except the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap. Mongkut knew that territorial concessions to western powers was necessary in order to maintain control of the core lands or the areas originally occupied by the Thai or Siamese people. Nevertheless, Siam still continued to exert control in the areas of Laos and Cambodia as long as they can. In the 1880’s, France began to eye an expansion of its dominion to all lands east of the Mekong River. The interest to the lands was brought by their interest in controlling the Mekong River. They thought that the poorly explored Mekong River ran up to Central China which was a targeted area by the French for economic reasons. However, the French knew that Siam had exerted its control over Laos during the 1880’s. The Kingdom of Luang Prabang, the most prominent kingdom in Laos was highly controlled by Bangkok. Also, garrisons of Siamese troops had poured to the kingdom under the pretext of protecting it from the hostile Ho tribes. However, in the early 1890’s, an imperialist party known as the Colonial Party succeeded in persuading the government to take tougher actions to take Laos. The French government then sent Auguste Pavie to Indochina in order to do the task. Eventually, in 1892, Pavie became also the French minister in Bangkok.

French aggression in Laos escalated after the appointment of Auguste Pavie. In April 1893, French forces began to pour into Laos. Three columns of French troops were organized and marched into northern, central, and southern Laos. A confrontation with the stationed Siamese troops in Laos was inevitable. And indeed it transpired. A Siamese commissioner was ousted by the French. But the Siamese commissioner retaliated and orchestrated an ambush against the French. The ambush succeeded in killing a French inspector in the Vietnamese militia named Grosgurin. The killing of Grosgurin was the opportunity of the French to launch a gun boat diplomacy against the French.

The killing of a French officer then led to what became known as the Paknam Incident. The French used the killing of Grosgurin as a pretext in order to pressure Bangkok even further in giving up its claims to lands east of Mekong River. In July 1893, from the French fleet anchored in Indochina, the Comete and the Inconstant were dispatched to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, to the district known as Paknam.

Upon the arrival of the two French naval warship in Paknam, officials in Bangkok debated whether to fight of negotiate with the French. Prince Devawongse Varopakar urged for a military confrontation. As the Foreign Affairs Minister, Prince Devawongse argued that when it comes to conflict, they believed that Great Britain would support Siam in its in endeavors. In addition, the adviser to the Justice Ministry, the Belgian Rolin Jaequemyns, who had prejudices against the French, also advised to attack the French warships. Eventually, those who wanted a battle with the French won the day. King Chulalongkorn decided to attack the French warships in Paknam. In July 13, 1893, the fort in Paknam, Phra Chulachomklao, began the attack against the French. The two French warships was then towed by the French steam boat, Jean Baptiste Say, into the Chao Phraya River. The French warships retaliated to the Siamese and began to fire back. The result was a 25 minute gun battle between the two sides causing casualties on both sides. At the end, the French warships successfully passed the Phra Chulachomklao Fort and sailed to Bangkok. There, they aimed their guns to the Grand Palace of Bangkok, threatening the home of Siamese King Chulalongkorn.

On July 20, the French Minister Auguste Pavie handed over to the Siamese an ultimatum. The ultimatum contained the following: 1) Siamese withdrawing its troops and claim over the lands east of the Mekong River; 2) Payment of indemnity worth 2 million Francs. The French gave the Siamese two days to answer. Failed to do so, France threatened to launch a blockade of the Gulf of Siam. Eventually, the Siamese government agreed. However, they rejected the relinquishing of its control over Laos. The French then ordered the blockade of Gulf of Siam. After few weeks of the incident and the high potential of economic catastrophe by the blockade and probability of war, Siam agreed to halt its claims of Laos. French gunboat diplomacy succeeded. In August 3, the French removed its blockade. And on October 3, 1893, France and Siam signed a formal treaty to enforce the July 20 ultimatum. In addition, the Mekong River became an off limits for warships. Also, France barred Siam from conducting any military activity within the 16 miles of the banks of the Mekong River. The treaty, said by some stories, caused anxiety to King Chulalongkorn so much so that he temporally stop his work for years.

The Paknam Incident was a brush of death for Siam. Mishandled terribly, France might have decided to invade Siam. However, luckily for Siam, it had a wise king and a favorable diplomatic situation at its side. Britain and France had agreed to make Siam a buffer state between the French Indochina and the British Burma. Nevertheless, France only wanted to get as much lands as possible from the Siamese and also paranoid by British plans for Siam. The Siamese also showed caution but also bravery. Even though faced with a stronger enemy, they showed their capability as a nation to defend its sovereignty even though it still ended with the loss of Laos. Nevertheless, at least, Siam kept its independence and its core lands remained at Siamese hands. Paknam Incident just strengthened King Chula’s resolve to protect Siamese independence and later on, travelled to earn recognition among the world’s great powers. The Paknam Incident brought Siam near to the edge of becoming a colony.

See also:
Dommen, A. Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Hogan, A. Pacific Blockade. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908.

Mishra, P. P. The History of Thailand. Califronia: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2010.

Ooi, K. G. (ed.). Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, From Angkor Wat to East Timor. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2004.

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