Laos Table of Contents

The Hold of Siam

This conflict had a long history. At the time of Siam's retributive campaigns against Vientiane in 1827-28, relations between Vientiane and Annam were good. The Vietnamese called Vientiane Van Tuong (the Kingdom of Ten Thousand Elephants). But when Vientiane's ruler, Chao Anou, sought refuge in Hué following Siam's destruction of his capital, it caused serious embarrassment to the Vietnamese. King Rama III of Siam wrote to the Vietnamese emperor, Minh Mang, explaining that Chao Anou had refused obedience to him and had started hostilities. Minh Mang, pursuing a consistently cautious policy toward Rama III, lent Chao Anou two companies of men to escort him back to Vientiane, instructing them to return immediately after accomplishing their mission. Siamese and Vietnamese sources--the Laotian primary sources having for the most part disappeared--give conflicting versions of what happened next. In any event, in mid-October 1828, Chao Anou found himself once again engaged in hostilities with a stronger Siamese force. He again fled to safety, this time to Muang Phuan because a Siamese force was encamped at Nakhon Phanom, blocking the Mekong downstream.

The arrival of Chao Anou on their doorstep with a Siamese army in pursuit confronted the leaders of Muang Phuan with a dilemma. When the Siamese commander issued an ultimatum to surrender Chao Anou under penalty of an attack on Xiangkhoang, the leaders of Muang Phuan quickly accepted. The Siamese took Chao Anou to Bangkok and kept him captive.

What followed was illustrative of the consequences of the constant meddling in each other's affairs that went on among the Laotian principalities. The reigning prince of Muang Phuan was Chao Noi, son of the ruling family. Vientiane had attempted to take advantage of Chao Noi's youth when his father died to install Chao Xan, the head of a rival family from Muang Kasi. The Phuan elders of Xiangkhoang refused to accept this candidate, so power was shared under a compromise arranged with help from Hué. Chao Xan, however, led a delegation to Hué, where he accused Chao Noi and his cousins of bringing dishonor to the emperor by surrendering a vassal prince to another king, of obstructing passage of a tribute mission from Louangphrabang across the territory of Muang Phuan to Hué, and of negotiating to acknowledge Siamese suzerainty.

Chao Noi was accordingly summoned to Hué to explain himself but sent his eldest son, Po. Angered by this flagrant disregard of a direct order, Minh Mang took no action, awaiting news of the fate of Chao Anou, who was the nominal suzerain and ordinarily would have dealt with the Phuan on behalf of Hué. Once word was received that Chao Anou had died, Minh Mang sent a Vietnamese detachment to Muang Phuan and arrested Chao Noi and most of his family. In May 1829, the prisoners were taken to Annam, where Chao Noi and his cousin were executed in January 1830. Chao Noi's young sons and their mothers were kept in exile in Nghe An. The Muang Phuan succession thus fell to Chao Xan. Minh Mang, however, posted a quan phu (commissioner), supported by a garrison of 500 soldiers who were rotated seasonally, to reside permanently at Chiang Kham (Khang Khay), at the headwaters of the Nam Ngum, as a precaution against a recurrence of conflict with the Siamese king.

Rama III sent a further letter to Minh Mang in early 1829 outlining his view of Chao Anou's treachery and thanking the emperor for his presents. But the king failed to provide an explanation for a serious incident at Nakhon Phanom in which three Vietnamese mandarins had been killed. In November 1829, Siamese envoys returned home with a letter from Hué reiterating earlier demands for punishment of those people responsible. When it became obvious that Rama III would not revert to the old arrangement of joint administration, Hué gave administrative control over the entire eastern half of the former kingdom of Vientiane to Vietnamese officials in Annam and Tonkin. The territory was virtually annexed by Hué in 1831 under the name Tran Ninh Phu Tam Vien. The Vietnamese presence at Khang Khay continued until the mid-1850s.

Chao Anou's wars with the Siamese had stirred massive disruptions of villages on the right bank. Terrified Lao fled every which way. When the Siamese arrived at Nakhon Phanom in 1827 they found the town deserted, the officials having fled across the river to Mahaxai. In the aftermath of the war, however, the Siamese established new towns--Chiang Khan, Nong Khai, Mukdahan, and Kemmarat--at key points on the Mekong to serve as administrative centers and as logistical bases for expeditionary forces operating across the river toward the mountains.

On the left bank, where the writ of Siam ran as far south as Stung Treng, the Siamese followed a policy of depopulating the country. This policy had actually been initiated as early as 1779; the first Phuan carried off by the Siamese arrived in Bangkok around 1792, where they were used as workers in the fields of the official classes. By removing people from the left bank, the Siamese deprived any invader from Annam of food supplies, transport, and recruits. Sporadic resistance, however, led for some time by the latsavong (first prince), of the old Vientiane kingdom continued at Mahaxai until 1835, when the leading Lao official there agreed to become governor of Sakon Nakhon on the right bank, and the Siamese resettled there. From 1837 to 1847, the Siamese carried out depopulation raids annually during the dry season in Khamkeut and Khammouan and in the valley of the Xé Banghiang. Entire Lao villages were uprooted.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Houaphan principality, fearing that the example of Muang Phuan might be applied to them, submitted to the suzerainty of Bangkok through the intermediary of Louangphrabang. Events were not going well for the Siamese in Muang Phuan. After the Siamese removed Chao Xan and some of the elders to Bangkok in 1836, the Vietnamese in effect ruled the state directly, appointing local officials as administrators. The depopulation activities the Siamese carried out on the Plain of Jars and elsewhere in Xiangkhoang caused the remaining population to migrate eastward and southward, forming new villages in the upper reaches of the Nam Mat and around the northern extremities of the Nam Kading basin, around Muang Mo, Muang Mok, and Muang Ngan. This expansion of the Phuan state was encouraged by the Vietnamese in their administrative reorganization. Some of the Phuan, however, perhaps enticed by Lao governors acting for the Siamese, moved down the river valleys toward the Mekong. There, new towns such as Bolikhamxai and Pakxan were founded and given satellite status by the Siamese in the 1870s.

Tu Duc, on his accession as Vietnamese emperor at Hué in 1847, allowed the sons of Chao Noi to return home with their families and to reestablish Xiangkhoang as the Phuan capital. They were given administrative responsibilities and the eldest, Prince Po, at last was permitted to replace the commissioner. Meanwhile, King Tiantha Koumane of Louangphrabang (r. 1851-69), one of three sons of Manta Thourath who succeeded to the throne in succession, while in Bangkok to receive the investiture, quickly arranged with the new Siamese king, Rama IV, to become once again the suzerain over the Phuan state. The Vietnamese had no objection to vassal relations of the Phuan with Louangphrabang. But Rama IV was deeply suspicious of the Phuan elders and set as a condition for accepting this arrangement that the Phuan send an annual tribute mission to Louangphrabang. Tiantha Koumane hence was able to reestablish his authority over Muang Phuan.

A new element--the Hô--entered the picture, further complicating the situation in northern Laos. The Hô first appeared in mid-1869 in the upper valley of the Nam Ou, where they made common cause with some Lu dissidents displaced from the Sipsong Panna during a civil war lasting twenty-five years. An army from Louangphrabang attacked these bands and withdrew with prisoners.

The Lao and Siamese were ill prepared to face up to the new danger of anarchy in their domains. Tiantha Koumane was dying of malaria, and the Siamese, preoccupied with preparations for the cremation of their own monarch, Rama IV, demanded that a tribute mission from Louangphrabang arrive in Bangkok in time for the ceremony. Many princes and senior officials had to absent themselves from Louangphrabang at this critical time and had to remain in Bangkok afterward for audiences with the new monarch. Oun Kham, who was already fifty-eight years old, did not receive his crown from the Siamese until 1872.

It was not until 1873 that the Siamese sent an army up the Nam Ou to attack the Hô and drive them out. Some Hô retreated into Houaphan, while others overran the Plain of Jars, where Chao Hung had succeeded his brother Chao Pho as ruler of the Phuan state, which became the main theater of conflict. The Hô camped at Chiang Kham and demanded "tax" payments from the local population, threatening to kill anyone who resisted. Chao Hung raised a small army and led it to assist the beleaguered governor of Chiang Kham in 1874, but a fatal bullet wound prompted the withdrawal of his army. Chao Hung's son, Prince Khanti, appealed to Annam for aid. A joint attack was made on Chiang Kham but was also repulsed.

Early the following year, the Hô began plundering the lowlands along the Mekong as far upriver as Chiang Khan and as far south as Nakhon Phanom, directly threatening Siam's security. The teenage King Rama V was unable to mount an effective response. The governor of Khorat took a force of men across the flooded Mekong at the height of the monsoon and attacked the Hô encamped in the ruins of Vientiane, killing their warlord and forcing the others to retreat to Muang Phuan. A concerted campaign against the Hô in their stronghold was finally put in motion in 1876, but it resulted more in pillaging and looting the inhabitants than in stopping the Hô, who, with their horses, were more than a match for the Siamese and Lao foot soldiers. Rama V blamed the Phuan for having brought trouble on themselves by giving rice, silver, and horses to the Hô, which in fact they had done in a desperate effort to appease them. He rejected further appeals for aid on the grounds that the local leaders would prove incapable of dealing with the situation after the army withdrew.

Meanwhile, the troubles in the upper valley of the Nam Ou continued. Siamese commissioners had to assist Oun Kham in restoring order in 1876 and to prod him into reorganizing the towns under his rule. Affairs remained in a state of flux for the next six years, and when in late 1882 Oun Kham appealed again to Bangkok for help against the Hô, the Siamese sent a major military mission. Subsequently, the Siamese maintained a permanent garrison at Louangphrabang.

The Eviction of Siam

The French, meanwhile, had imposed a treaty of protectorate on Annam in 1884. This treaty implied a French interest going beyond exploratory involvement in the affairs of Laos. In June 1885, the French consul general in Bangkok notified the Siamese government that a vice consulate would be established in Louangphrabang under terms of a most-favored-nation clause contained in a Franco-Siamese treaty of 1856. A new Franco-Siamese convention of May 1886 acknowledged the role of Siamese officials in Laos for the conduct of administrative matters but avoided implying French recognition of Siamese claims to sovereignty there.

Auguste Pavie arrived at Louangphrabang in 1887 to assume his post as vice consul. Pavie played a key role in saving Oun Kham's life from raiders from Lai Chau, earning the king's gratitude and a promise that he would place his kingdom under France's protection. Incidents between Siamese and French officials on the left bank, where the French had made themselves advocates of Vietnamese claims to suzerainty, continued in 1887-93. Finally, in March 1893, the French government, acceding to a campaign by the colonial lobby in Paris, decided to send three French commissioners, each with a small armed force, to evict the Siamese from outposts they had established in central and southern Laos. The commissioners had secret orders to avoid exchanges of fire if at all possible; ironically, the Siamese were under identical orders from their government.

The French government dispatched two warships to the Gulf of Siam, and, in what became known as the Paknam incident, forced the passage of a fort at the mouth of the Menam River on July 12 and anchored in the river with their guns trained on the royal palace. On July 20, the French gave an ultimatum to the Siamese government to recognize the rights of Annam to the left bank territories and to meet a list of other demands within forty-eight hours. The Siamese replied on July 22, accepting the first demand in central and southern Laos but rejecting the rest. The French declared a blockade of Bangkok, whereupon the Siamese accepted the rest of the French demands. By terms of the treaty concluded on October 3, 1893, between the Government of the French Republic and the Government of His Majesty the King of Siam, Siam renounced all claims to territories on the left bank and to islands in the river.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress