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SIAM

The Siamese as seen by Pavie and his companions

Behind a polite façade, there was a great deal of hostility between Pavie and the Siamese, and grievances built up. The accounts of Pavie and his companions constantly describe conflict with the Siamese authorities. At Luang Prabang, Massie was keenly confronted by this: "What strikes the people who live here the most is the relentless hostility of the Siamese attitude towards France and the continual attempts by the representatives of the Siamese government in Luang Prabang to hamper our development and profit from the respite that the settlement of the border question has allowed to establish Siamese authority where it was uncertain and questionable, and to extend it to places where up until now it has never before been apparent. The Siamese general in command in Luang Prabang is a man of far greater intelligence than that of the average Asian, and possessed of an unremitting determination, who chafes at European civilisation, and who has good, local advisers. He has a keen awareness of our situation and how to take advantage of it every day to increase the power of Siam, by using our particular position here, which obliges us to remain silent witnesses vis à vis the Laotians to every minor encroachment by Siam on the former liberty of Laos, thus giving us the appearance of having sanctioned them."

In fact, the Siamese policy of resistance was expressed by perpetual harassment which peppered the daily lives of the French. Without doubt it was Pavie who suffered the most. Right at the very start of his stay in Luang Prabang, the Siamese kept him in deep isolation and in a state of impoverishment that was offensive to his reputation: "The formal instructions brought by the commissioner from Bangkok were to isolate me completely and to prevent any native person from accessing my house. I will continue to feel that this way of doing things is infantile, and to believe that it will enhance our influence far more than it damages it. I do not doubt that the misfortune that Luang Prabang has suffered as a result of the incredible self-importance of the Siamese officials can only be the starting point for the serious establishment of French influence." "In forcing me to travel the road on foot, by obliging me to resort to the most costly and difficult means of transport, it is clear that the intent of the government in Bangkok is to diminish the importance of my mission in the eyes of the mandarins and the people." Pavie was far from being taken in : "For 2 years, the government that you represent here has behaved towards me in a way that has the outward appearance of appreciation, but which commands me to accept nothing from it. If I lack provisions it is because first of all my luggage was burned in Luang Prabang; secondly it is because that sent to replace it has been held for 6 months on the banks of the Menam," he told the Siamese commissioner in Luang Prabang on 16th March 1888.

Another Siamese tactic was to keep the members of the mission under constant surveillance. "Feigned or real, the almost maternal solicitude with which, by order, they surround the officers of the mission does not leave them free and unmonitored for a single moment," wrote Cupet. "Should one wish to take a light sampan across the river or to visit a place, no matter where, it is impossible, the mandarin is always there, or the interpreter, or one of his retinue. He will claim that the boat that has been selected is not comfortable enough, object that it may capsize and tremble at the idea of an officer drowning. He thus has a sampan requisitioned by whatever authority, and so an infinite amount of time is lost waiting and 20 people are mobilised, of whom at least half must accompany you. It is also impossible to take a step either by day or by night without being flanked by two soldiers, who, under the pretext of escorting you to prevent dogs or snakes from biting you or buffalo from charging you, follow you like your own shadow, which is always extremely bothersome."

The Siamese also forbade the local people from offering any material assistance to the French, such as in Xieng Khong in 1894, where Lefèvre-Pontalis and Macey had great difficulty in establishing their base. "No water, nor wood for cooking, nor mats upon which to lie down, and the wind blows right through the house... This is the type of resistance we have come to expect. It must be broken without delay, as it is the work of the Siamese who expected to see an inexperienced official arrive here. As anticipated, obtaining provisions is a serious issue. The locals have been given their orders, and as there is no market during the rainy season, we are obliged to send our staff to the new village of Lu one hour from here to find a few vegetables."

When relations were less strained, when they were met with a friendlier attitude, Pavie and his companions remained mistrustful. In Nan, where the Siamese commissioner was the son of a former minister in Paris, "polite, and even gracious behaviour prevails here; but beneath these feline features, it is easy to see the Siamese evasion break through."

Pavie’s companions, who were compelled to maintain a diplomatic attitude, took revenge in their letters through cruel portraits of the Siamese that they met. From Vang Kam, from the pen of de Malglaive, we hear of an official who "hardly deigns to move himself to welcome us but feels obliged to favour me with a smile that shows - wonder of wonders - a marvellous set of perfectly white teeth in his grubby face. If he is not chewing then he is smoking: his large, thin body is topped by a large head, carefully oiled and combed, in which are set the two large dark eyes of a feverish smoker. The impression is completed by a nervous tic that constantly shakes the two long, dark hands that he tries vainly to hold together to give the appearance of composure." The Siamese of Kammon were the target of Rivière’s expression of violent anger in 1891: "I will not mention here the disjointed discussions with people who seem to consider that a migraine will automatically follow on from the employment of logic. The boldest insincerity, the most cynical contradictions combined with an impertinence and an insolence that are truly insupportable characterise the everyday proceedings with the Siamese in Cam-Mon […] I will not return to the absurdity of the Siamese and their foolish pretension of practising European customs of which they know nothing. An example of this is the way in which, to begin the meal, a bizarre receptacle was brought to us containing an unlikely soup in which two spoons were bathing, doubtless having been forgotten from the previous year’s reception."

Nevertheless, Pavie had developed throughout these years. The simple traveller had become a skilled diplomat. He made use of the hostile attitude of the Siamese to build his own reputation among the local people and Lao chiefs. In November 1887 he proposed a new policy: "Do not let us ask anything of Siam other than that which it cannot refuse. Let us allow them to exhaust themselves on our borders, let us advance there without hurrying, but without hesitation. When we hold Lai and Theng, we will no longer need their assistance for our supplies and our prestige will be such in northern Laos that they will really have to consider and be more accommodating towards us. If our native companions have also suffered, they know that they have not been the only ones and have the satisfaction of being able to say that with us there is no retreat, and they will be able to share this conviction with the people who live in the country where soon we will be."

Indeed he took inspiration from the attitude of the Siamese: "Some Siamese, not supposing that the truth was my only language, attempted, in order to destroy me, to pass me off as a formidable interlocutor telling everyone that if they wished to know my thoughts, they should not believe what I said, but the very opposite. This great error in the assessment of my character was astonishingly to my advantage. During my years of travel, my good Cambodian friends had explained to me that trickery was the Siamese weapon, that their adversaries, while being aware of it would still fall victim to it, such was their genius for deceit; that in these conditions by not lying, I would always run the risk of seeing myself defeated. I replied: "I cannot deceive, a difficult and extremely contemptible thing. They believe that I lie. I can do nothing about it, and this will be to my advantage."

Map of Siam