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Siam under the reign of Rama V

At the end of the XIXth Century, Siam took its first steps towards modernity. The group of elites in favour of modernisation – in other words the country being westernised to a certain degree – finally prevailed over the traditionalists who were opposed to this opening up of the country. An initial victory was the accession to the throne in 1851 of King Rama IV, who was considered to be the favoured candidate of the western powers. This king, then 47 years of age, would reign for seventeen years. He provided the initial impetus by opening up Siamese commerce, first to the British, then to other European nations. Above all he succeeded in inculcating a desire for modernisation in his children, and especially his successor, Prince Chulalongkorn, the future Rama V (1868-1910). Chulalongkorn was the first king of Siam to travel abroad, visiting Singapore, Indonesia and India, and making two trips to Europe. In 1897, after his first European visit, he declared that he was "ready to do everything in his power to make Siam a free and modern country". Reform had become necessary in all areas – economic, administrative and judicial. King Chulalongkorn undertook radical measures to change the social structure of Siam. In this way, between 1874 and 1905, he progressively abolished the various forms of slavery. The king relied on western advisers, but also on his family entourage. At his side, his brothers, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab (1862-1943), Minister of Education and the Interior, and Prince Devawongse (1858-1923), Minister for Foreign Affairs, played an essential part in this policy of modernising the kingdom and safeguarding the independence of Siam.

Britain was more or less omnipresent in Siam. The opening up of the kingdom to British merchants had been an objective of the London government from the early 1820s. A first British ambassador was sent to Bangkok in 1821 during the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824). Two other missions followed, in 1825-1826, then in 1850, during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851). The agreement signed in June 1826 was evidently only a preliminary step. In 1855, four years after Rama IV was crowned, a new British ambassador, John Bowring, at the time governor of Hong Kong, succeeded in signing a friendship and commercial treaty which opened up the country extensively to the British. British subjects were allowed to live in the country and buy land there whilst at the same time benefiting from extra-territoriality status. Over the following years, the majority of western nations, including France in August 1856, signed equivalent treaties.

France did not react in the face of the ascendancy of the British, to whom the king had allowed complete freedom in the economic sphere. Only Jules Harmand , the consul in Bangkok from 1881 to 1883 attempted to draw the attention of the French Foreign Ministry to the situation: "The English based in Chiang Maï will soon, at least morally, have become masters of the Mekong valley and of the important position of Luang Prabang. Cut off in this way from the great Indochina river, moreover threatened as we are with seeing, if we do not pay more active attention to Siam, England capturing the protectorate of this kingdom and bringing its gunboats to the Great Lake of Cambodia which our lack of foresight has clumsily allowed to be cut in two by a fictitious border, our situation in Conchinchina and Annam may become extremely precarious."

France, which had acquired Annam and Tonkin, needed to define and protect its borders. Its situation was still delicate. It was unable to resort to force, because public opinion and the parliamentary majority were hostile to any new colonial conquest. In 1893, France resumed its policy of expansionism and became a military and political threat to Siam. Most observers were convinced that Siam would either be shared between the French, who would take the western half of the country, and the British, who hoped to link their colony in Burma with the Malay States, or become completely French. Faced with this threat, one of the great skills of the Siamese leaders was not to not rely exclusively on Britain, even if the powerful trade adviser was still an Englishman, but to call upon several countries. The king surrounded himself with police and naval advisers from Denmark, Japanese silkworm breeding advisers, French and Belgian advisers on the legal system, and fine arts counsellors from Italy… For a long time the General Adviser was a Belgian, Rolin Jacquemyns (admittedly more of an Anglophile), followed by two Americans.

The crisis of 1893 would bring about a change in Franco-Siamese relations. Siam losing its rights to the territories on the left bank of the Mekong would result in political changes. The king accelerated his major administrative reforms and sought support from Britain. The British intervention in the conflict between Siam and France allowed the signing of an agreement between France and Britain in 1896 guaranteeing the independence and integrity of Siam.

The Bangkok court was described in journals kept by Pavie and his companions, who were witnesses to the struggle for power that tore the royal family apart. In contrast to the custom in Asian countries, where the crown was passed to the king’s brother, the King of Siam wanted his eldest son to succeed him. He therefore distanced his brothers and half-brothers: some were provided with lucrative offices, "others with missions either to the interior to go and assess disputes that were likely to amply compensate them amply for the strains of the journey, or abroad to study the administrative and political organisation of provinces subject to domination by a European power, studies that were generously remunerated by the royal exchequer." Only those who had ministerial roles remained at court, such as Ong Noi, the youngest brother of the king, who was commander-in-chief of the army, and Prince Devawongse, Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1885 to 1923, the closest adviser of the king and chief adversary to Pavie.. "Prince Devawongse, more Chinese than Siamese in origin, has that lively intelligence that lacks depth of certain Annamites (Petrus Ky, for example). He is skilled at all games; in showing this he thinks that others will believe that this skill indicates that he possesses others. Serious considerations do not always occupy his attention, while other more insignificant ones will cause him to hesitate and change his decisions. Profoundly treacherous - this should be underlined - his smiling, beardless face, his expressions, by turns calm and cheerful, and his modest, self-effacing air, are of singular assistance to him in duping the unsuspecting. If he fails to persuade, if he does not carry the discussion, if he is no longer in control of his expressions, anger or pique can be read on his face just as plainly as worry or fear. Thoroughly convinced of a superiority that the other princes do not question, and possessed of extreme vanity, he strives to find solutions other than those suggested to him, no matter how wise. For the 10 years he has been in power, his wishes have been carried out and always met with approval, he has not wanted for praise from the Europeans." (Pavie)

Map of Siam