You are here
Home > Laos > The Vice-Consulate of Luang Prabang > The political situation in the region
A- A+ Print


The political situation in the region

After having recruited staff in Phnom Penh, Pavie arrived in Bangkok on 19 March 1886. Given the obstacles the Siamese put in the way of his departure for Luang Prabang, he could not leave the city until 30 September. He took eight Cambodians and two domestics with him.

The situation he found was a real mess. Siam had gained a foothold in a part of Laos. In 1830 it had annexed the state of Vientiane, deported a section of the population to the west of the Mekong and imposed tribute-money on the principality of Luang Prabang. The north-east of Laos was a dependency of Annam. The British had occupied Burma since September 1885. The ambitions of England, which was interested in the principalities of the Upper Mekong, were great. It also wanted to extend its trade as far as Yunnan. The Sip Song Panna (twelve thousand paddy fields) on the upper river were dependent on China and Burma. The Sipsong Chau Tai (twelve districts) on the borders of the Black River, dependencies of Annam, were in the hands of the hereditary chiefs. The Hua Phan (six districts) to the east and the Pou-Euns (Tran Ninh) to the south were also dependencies of Annam. As for China, it was in turmoil after several years of revolutionary movements. Armed groups crossed the border areas, practised contraband in arms and opium, kidnapped and terrorised the population. These were the Black, Yellow or Red Flags depending on the colour of their banners. The territorial complexity of the region, where small principalities were vassals of several states, was immense and the risk of conflict considerable.

The kingdom of Luang Prabang, to which Pavie was appointed, was both a dependency of Siam, Annam and also China for the territories in the north of the country. However the Kingdom of a Million Elephants had ceased to pay its tribute-money (an elephant) to China since 1856, as it had to Annam. At the end of 1886 the King of Siam sent a 5000-man expedition to Laos to fight the Black Flags. His objective was also to demarcate the borders with its neighbours. He had reinforced his position by gaining a foothold in Laos. He knew that if he succeeded, there would be a homogeneous Thai block.

For the King of Siam, Rama V, extending his sovereignty would mean knowing his territory and his borders. It was what was required to enter into the modern world. It was for this reason that, since 1884, his troops had always been accompanied by cartographers. The demarcation of the borders between France and Siam was to last numerous years. Several regions were concerned. Even if since the Treaty of 1867 the provinces of Battambang and Angkor were part of Siam, the question of demarcation in the south-east between the sea and the Great Lake was still on hold. There also remained the Mekong with some cities to which Siam was attached, including Luang Prabang. In 1884, the king had given the Englishman, Mc Carthy, who was in his service the responsibility of mapping the territory of Luang Prabang and "as yet unexplored countries in the Mekong Basin as far as the line where the waters divide, which on this coast forms the limit of the possessions where our authority is respected and makes a natural and suitable frontier." Lorgeon, the Consul, reacted immediately and replied, "…. I find myself forced, whilst assuring Your Majesty of the conciliatory dispositions of the government of the French Republic, to reserve in the most formal of manners the rights of the Empire of Annam and of France concerning the limits to be determined between the Annamite and Siamese territories."

The kingdom of Luang Prabang was of capital importance for all the protagonists. France operated in both the diplomatic and military fields. In response to the suggestion of Jules Harmand in September 1885, "if we were to occupy the city of Luang Prabang in any way whatsoever, either by establishing an agent there assisted by a force of Annamite soldiers, or by a more or less regular protectorate, the dangers we face due to the English influence would be warded off for a long time [...]. For us the region of Luang Prabang must be the subject of a race against time to which we must commit ourselves without wasting another minute", the Vice Consulate entrusted to Pavie was created. On 2 January 1886 the French Consul in Bangkok in his turn wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, "It seems that we cannot view favourably the formation of the empire dreamed of by [the King of Siam]. Above all we cannot allow it to be made up by absorbing territories which belong by right to Annam. I think that we have already reserved the rights of Annam over western Laos quite sufficiently. The Siamese have heard this and they are acting. To make these reserves once more would therefore be useless […]. If we want to safeguard the rights of Annam and our own, I think that first of all it will be necessary to show our flag on the plateau which we will reach either by leaving from Baoha or from Laokay. If the Siamese go there to fight the bands of Chinese, we have the same pretext for being there." Several weeks later two columns led by Colonel Pernot and Lieutenant Oudray were sent to hunt the Flags and pacify the upper region of Tonkin up to the Black River districts.

The conventions establishing the Vice Consulate of Luang Prabang was signed in Bangkok on 7 May 1886. It put French subjects residing in this province under the jurisdiction of the international court in the same conditions as the Anglo-Thai convention of 1883. This convention was also the prelude to "a duel that would last ten years (1883-1893)" the two protagonists of which were Prince Devawongse and Pavie, "both great patriots serving the interests of their countries with all their courage and their intelligence. One, the Frenchman, dynamic, daring and a good organiser; the other the Thai Prince, young but exceptionally gifted in diplomacy and opposing the enterprising manoeuvres of France, a courageous wait-and-see policy, a courteous but firm opposition, ceding the least possible, reasoning, finding arguments for refusing the French encroachments, always dignified but distant, knowing how to shy away at the opportune moment so as not to commit his country." The methods were different. In opposition to Siam, which used demonstrations and military expeditions, Pavie put forward "a peaceful policy of negotiations with the statesmen and men of humanity concerning people who had to be won over for France."