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How Siam Avoided Colonisation

The history of Thailand is a history known for its survival of colonisation. Thailand was one of the few countries not under the rule of an imperial European power. That makes this country indubitably inquisitive to explore. This article will mainly focus on her avoidance of colonisation. What measures did the Siamese take to keep the country completely under their own control? Was there any luck involved or was this entirely determined by a good approach?

First contact with European power

The first European power to make contact with the Siamese were the Portuguese. This was the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (c. 1350–1770 AD). These contacts with the Portuguese were mainly for commercial reasons. The trade consisted in “rice, tin, ivory, gum benjamin, indigo, sticklac and sappanwood“.

Under King Chairacha, there was also a military collaboration with the Portuguese. Predominantly due to fear of the neighbouring territory Burma. The Portuguese mastered musketry, thus this technology also transferred to the Ayutthaya.

But that is where the Portuguese involvement ended. There had been failed attempts to convert the locals to Catholicism from the 16th until the 17th century.

Some Portuguese were still able to settle in the kingdom as a result of the decision taken by Chairacha, who in 1540 decided to reward mercenaries a piece of land. There was also no huge Portuguese cultural influence. Apart from the weapons, its cuisine and some linguistic elements, the cultural elements of the Siamese were preserved.

Nineteenth century colonial expansions

It is not the first time in this blog that we include nineteenth century colonisation to understand the powers of today. The nineteenth century, as seen in Congo Free State but also Dutch East Indies, was a turbulent period of European powers expanding their power for political, cultural, religious and above all, economic reasons. However, as said before, Siam will be one of the few countries that will be able to resist European colonisation.

Siam was, however, surrounded by the European powers. For example, the largest empire in history, the British Empire, had a settlement in Burma since 1824. The territory was handed over after the First Anglo-Burmese War that was won by the British.

On the other hand, another dominant European power was present, the French Third Republic. The French had been campaigning for some time to expand their territory in Asia since the Second French Empire conducted its Cochinchina campaign (1858-1862). This was a battle with the Nguyễn dynasty which is present day Vietnam. The conquered territory, however, was full of protectorates. The Tonkin campaign allowed the territories to unite into 1 union.

This made both dominant European powers a huge threat to Siam. There was a great union of two colonies, British Raj and French Indochina who will surely see Siam at some point as a potential target to territory since Siam was a good border between the two rival powers. That would make it a good vassal state. However, if the conquered territory were to border with the other colony, it could lead to further tensions between France and England. This will therefore play an important role in Siam’s remaining independence.

Effective changes that prevented colonisation

Siam’s independence has always been linked to the king, Rama V or also named Chulalongkorn. This figure is one of the most notable historical figures in Thai history. He introduced effective changes keeping the independence of the Siamese kingdom in mind. Rama V is the son of Mongkut. He worked in terms, further on what Mongkut was trying to realise, legislative reformations to counter Western pressures.

However, with the rise of Chulalongkorn, Siam was already under pressure from the French who were already in the Chao Phraya River, whereby the Lao terrotiries were taken over by the French and later in the early 20th century, Cambodia. However, despite some territories that France will take over from Siam, it will still not fall under European power. As mentioned before, this is due to various changes.

To begin with, political changes. For example, Siam will then adopt a new government system of ministries with a central bureaucracy. This will centralise power without compromising the autonomy of the territories. This is also very related to the departmental system or ministerial systems in Europe. Slave trade will also no longer be approved and courts will be established to change and apply the law more strongly.

Siam will also have its own army following the policies regarding centralisation. Now it is no longer necessary to collude with other powers, but Siam can defend the country independently. This also potrayed unity and power.

Some technological changes will take place. Because the topography of Siam has not yet been fully mapped out, Siam will conduct its own studies to map the country properly. European powers greatly appreciate that.

Indirectly, the culture will also shift to a more European culture. For example, the army will adopt a typical European uniform, but everyday clothing will also become very standard and basic. What the Europeans take as decent will therefore be regarded as such by the Siamese.

However, education will be reformed later, that’s because of Vajiravudh who studied at Oxford University. A university will therefore be created on the model of European universities. This university will be named after his father, Chulalongkorn.

Worldwide recognition

What helped for the independence of Siam and later Thailand is the worldwide recognition that the country will receive. In these respects, Siam is certainly fortunate as the 20th century will become a century of the two world wars. Siam will certainly join in the first world war to prove its power. The kingdom will fight with the Allies at sea, but also by sending volunteers against the Central Powers.

Siam will then change name on June 23rd, 1939 to Thailand under Phibunsongkhram. This was partly a result of the Siamese revolution in 1932 that brought an end to absolute monarchy. There then will be an urge to take back the old territories in Laos and Cambodia. Japan backed these decisions yet, Thailand sided with the British and the French. There was then a brief battle with the Japanese, which eventually resulted in an alliance. However, the war was to the detriment of the axis that Thailand joined, yet this had no immense disadvantages for Thailand’s independence.

Conclusion

The kingdom of Siam was able to maintain its independence due to the political changes that took place, for example the centralisation policy. But also the cultural changes, the country became more “European” which the major powers appreciated. It also started to have its own army, so that the country could defend itself and did not have to rely on other powers.

What also played an important role was the fear of tensions between the French Indochina and British Raj. To limit tensions at the border, Siam was a good border between the two colonies. The kingdom thus fled colonisation in the 19th century.

Still, as seen in the article, it’s important to mention that the two world wars were an opportunity, a kind of luck, for the Siamese. This delayed the process of the French to further take over the country. But the Siamese were also able to prove themselves and that they can certainly rule their own country.

By Yaron

History for me is more than just a passion, it's a way of understanding mankind.

3 replies on “How Siam Avoided Colonisation”

Nice article on an topic which will probably be discussed back and forth for ever in Thailand. But I think to fully answer the question of luck or good governance you must not just study events in and around Thailand. For all its reforms Siam was never in a position to stand up to the European powers militarily (As demonstrated in 1893). The answer more lies in the fears and power plays between Britain and France who genuinely feared that a dispute on a shared border between British India and French Indochina could spark war in Europe. This ultimately led to the “Siam clause” of the Entente Cordiale (1904) which is what enshrined Siam’s independence without her participation.

Hey Peter! Thank you so much for your reply. I indeed could agree with you, there certainly would have been a fear for border disputes between France and the British Empire. This most likely played a major role in the independence of Siam. Now I find it salient not to ignore the national changes introduced by the Siamese king Chulalongkorn. He introduced policies as stated in the article, that most likely made Siam less interesting for the European powers to conquer. Now I would kindly agree with you, the expediency of it laying between the colonies of two hegemonic European powers was one of the keys of its success. Making it so important for it to keep its independence. Although as the case for many states in Europe, I take Belgium for example. It was also made to prevent, for example border disputes, thus was created with the idea of it being a satellite state. The territories under the Siam could have been satellite too, but that means it had to get invaded in any way. Which it prevented for the most part (French annexation of the North Eastern territories as exception). Again, thank you for the reply, it certainly is a topic for discussion. It was an abondance of reasons that caused its succes, and that kind of concludes my article, that coherence of successes, was luck but also driven by identity.

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