Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Threats to National Independence : 1886 - 1896

Threats to National Independence 1886 - 1896

    In 1886, Monsieur de Lanessan published a book entitled France's Colonial Expansion. During this period, the French Government was pursuing an expansionist policy in Africa and Asia, and was competing with Britain for colonies. After the British had established themselves in Burma and the French had occupied Cambodia, Cochinchina, Annam and Tonkin, the next step was Thailand.

    Thailand had signed a number of treaties with European nations, starting with a treaty with Britain in 1855. Since then, Thailand tried to foster friendly relations with all countries, sending Phya Montri Surawong (Chum) as special envoy to Great Britain in 1857 and Phya Sripipat (Pae Bunnag) to that same country in 1861. H.R.H. Prince Prisdang Chumsai was appointed Thai Minister to Great Britain in 1882. Phya Sripipat was also appointed special envoy to France in 1861. In 1882, H.R.H. Prince Prisadang was named as Thai Minister to France as well as to Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain and Portugal. H.R.H. Prince Naresvoraridhi became the first Thai Minister to the United States in 1885. Phya Suriyanuwat (Kerd Bunnag) was named Thai Minister to Russia in 1897 and Phya Riddhirongronnachet (Sukh Chuto) was sent as Minister to Japan in 1899.

    In 1885, Thailand became a party to the Postal Union Convention, which might be considered to mark her formal entry into the family of nations. However, some argue that since the Postal Union Convention was a technical rather than a political document, Thailand did not really join the family of nations until 1899 when she signed the Hague Convention on the Laws of War.

    In any case, between 1886 - 1896, Thailand had to face a number of threats resulting from the competition for colonies between Britain and France. During this period, the latter expanded into Thai territory, annexing Cambodia, which had been a Thai protectorate, in 1867, and moving further into Thai territory, beginning in 1886. In that year, France signed a treaty with Thailand establishing a French consulate in Luang Prabang, situated on the left bank of the Mekong River. The treaty also recognized the jurisdiction of Thai courts over French citizens and subjects in Luang Prabang, although this was a special court on which the French Consul could also sit. In any case, in signing this treaty, France seemed to recognize that Luang Prabang was part of Thailand.

    There was a problem, however, concerning the extent of Thai territory on the left bank of the Mekong River. Between 1886 - 1887, the Haws had mounted a number of raids on Thai territory against the towns of Sibsong Chuthai and Huapan Tangha Tanghok, located between Luang Prabang and Tonkin. Thai forces were deployed to suppress the raids but the French also dispatched their own troops to the area, claiming that it belonged to Annam, which at that time was a French protectorate. A temporary verbal agreement was reached between Thailand and France whereby both sides agreed to retain the territory occupied by their own troops. In effect, this meant that France was able to gain control of Sibsong Chuthai and Huapan Tangha Tanghok.

    The French believed that the Mekong River could be used as a route for navigation to China. After surveying the river, the French Consul in Luang Prabang, Monsieur Auguste Pavie, arrived at the same conclusion. In succeeding years, the French sent a number of survey teams into Laos in an attempt to expand France 's influence all the way to the Mekong River.

    France 's decision to use the Mekong River as a navigation route for transporting goods from China had an impact on Britain, which had annexed all of Burma by the year 1886 and was expanding toward the Mekong River around territory occupied by the Thais extending north of Chiangsaeng all the way to China. As a result, the French and the British, which were already competing for colonies in Africa, continued their rivalry on Thai territory.

    France wished to acquire the territory along the left bank of the Mekong River extending to Cambodia. To this end, the French cited the Treaty signed in 1867, which stated that French ships were free to sail in the parts of the Mekong River and the Great Lake bordering on Thai territory. They interpreted this as meaning that Thai territory extended only as far as the Mekong River and did not include the River itself. On the other hand, if the Mekong River actually belonged to the French, then there was no need for the Treaty to state that French ships were free to sail on it. This clause thus demonstrated that Thailand had a share in the Mekong River, and since the French wished to use the river for navigation, they had to provide for this in the Treaty. In any case, the Treaty of 1867 referred only to Cambodia and did not cover Laos. Therefore, the French had no grounds for demanding the entire left bank of the Mekong River other than to claim that Annam, a French protectorate, exercised suzerain rights over Laos. However, the inhabitants of Laos were Thais, not Annamese, and the Annamese Cordilleras formed a barrier between Laos and Annam. Moreover, the maps published by the French prior to 1893 showed Laos as being part of Thailand.

    When the French expanded into the left bank of the Mekong River, which belonged to Thailand, it was inevitable that clashes should break out. On 14 March 1893, Monsieur Pavie, the French Charge d ' Affaires in Bangkok, was instructed to demand Thailand 's immediate withdrawal from the left bank of the Mekong River and compensation for French subjects whom France claimed had sustained damages. With the French gunboat Le Lutin anchored in Bangkok, the Thais had no choice but to comply.

    In the meantime, two incidents broke out in Laos. First, a French captain by the name of Thoreaux was captured. Then, Monsieur Grosgurin was killed and the French claimed that he was murdered. The Thai Government proceeded to release Caption Thoreaux and agreed to pay compensation if it was determined that Monsieur Grosgurin had actually been murdered. The French, however, resorted to harsh measures by sending Monsieur Le Myre de Vilers as special envoy to Bangkok, with instructions to withdraw the entire French diplomatic mission and to send French warships to blockade the mouth of the Chao Phya River if Thailand refused to recognize France 's right over the left bank of the Mekong River or to pay compensation to French subjects.

    Upon seeing the harsh actions undertaken by France, the British decided to send 3 warships to provide protection to British citizens in Bangkok. The French therefore took the opportunity to step up their actions and instructed Monsieur Pavie to notify the Thai Government that France was sending 2 more warships to Bangkok. The Thai Government requested, and obtained France 's agreement, that negotiations be held between the two sides before France carried out such a move. However, the French naval commander in Saigon ordered the warships to proceed to Bangkok in contravention of the French Government 's agreement. The Thai naval forts therefore had no choice but to offer resistance.

    On 20 July 1893, France issued an ultimatum with a 48-hour deadline, demanding that Thailand carry out the following : 1) formally recognize and respect the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong River and the islands in the Mekong River, 2) with draw Thai forces from the left bank within one month, 3) pay compensation for damages inflicted on French troops and warships, 4) punish Thai offenders and offer reparations to the families of French subjects who were adversely affected by Thai actions, 5) pay an indemnity totalling 2 million francs to French subjects for various claim, 6) deposit a sum of 3 million francs as guarantee that Thailand would abide by all the above demands.

    The Thai Government accepted France 's ultimatum but requested that the rights of Annam and Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong River be recognized only up to the 18th degree parallel. Thailand also sought joint use with France of the islands in the Mekong River. The French were displeased with the Thai proposal and proceeded to withdraw all their consular officers from Bangkok as well as to blockade the Gulf of Thailand.

    Such actions constituted a threat to the country 's independence. The incident caused relations between France and Britain to grow tenser but France still refused to back down. Consequently, Thailand was forced to sign a treaty with France on 3 October 1893 which contained the following main points :

    1. The Thai Government renounced its claims over the territory on the left bank of the Mekong River as well as the islands in the river.

    2. The Thai Government would not construct any fortifications or military establishments within a 25-mile radius of the right bank of the Mekong River.

    3. The French Government had the right to establish consulates wherever it deemed appropriate, such as in Nakhon Ratchasima and Nan.

    Moreover, a convention was also concluded which set out terms for the withdrawal of Thai forces from the left bank of the Mekong River, the punishment of Thai offenders, and the occupation of Chantaburi by the French until Thailand complied with all the terms of the Treaty.

    However, despite Thailand 's compliance with all of the terms of the agreement, France still refused to withdraw from Chantaburi. Relations between Thailand and France were therefore far from smooth during this period. The French and the British continued to compete with one another for the territory to the north of Chiangsaen extending to China, believing that the Mekong River could be used to navigate the entire route.

    France used the registration of French subjects in Thailand as a tool to expand her influence in the country. In the year 1880, only a small number of people were registered as French subjects - 29 Frenchmen, 21 Annamese and Indians, and 96 Chinese. In actual fact, the Chinese should not have qualified as French subjects, but the French considered that their employees should also be accorded protection by the French Legation. This constitued a broad interpretation of the terms of the Treaty. Between 1893 and 1896 the number of persons registered as French subjects increased from 200 to 30,000, with the French Legation actively encouraging all French employees to register as French subjects. In Bangkok alone, the number of Chinese registered as French subjects in the year 1912 totalled 724 persons. In contrast, only 36 Chinese were registered as British subjects during the same period in Bangkok.

    The actions of the foreign legations and consulates in increasing the number of their subjects by registering all their employees posed considerable problems to the Thai Government in the administration of the country. Such subjects, whose civilization was no different from the Thais, were not limited only to Bangkok but could also be found in upcountry areas. Even then Cambodians, who by the Treaty of 1867 had been placed under the jurisdiction of Thai courts, were registered as French subjects. Therefore, as long as France continued to entertain political designs, there was no way to limit the power of French consular courts.

    In 1896, France and Britain concluded an agreement concerning their colonial expansion in Africa (the lower Niger River and Tunis) and the Far East (the territory north of Thailand extending to China). In 1893, the two countries had agreed to maintain this territory in the Far East as a neutral zone, but they now decided to divide the territory between them, using the thalweg in the Mekong River as a boundary line. A declaration was also concluded concerning Thailand, which contained the following main points :

    1) The French and British Governments vowed not to send troops to the region between the Mekong River and the Tenasserim Mountains without the prior consent of the other party. Moreover, the nationals of either party residing in the region would not receive special privileges or benefits which nationals of the other party did not receive.

    2) The agreement should not impede any action which both sides may concur to take and which is considered essential for the preservation of Thailand 's independence. It was also prohibited to enter into an agreement with a third country in matters forbidden by this declaration.

    It is worthy of not that Thailand played no part in concluding this declaration. Moreover, the terms of the agreement merely stated that France and Britain would not violate Thai sovereignty without the prior consent of the other party, which meant that they could both concur to violate Thailand 's sovereign rights. This declaration, therefore, did not offer any guarantee of Thai independence but merely indicated that France and Britain would not go to war over Thailand.