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Deo Van Tri

According to Deo Van Tri (Kam Oum), his family was originally from China but emigrated during the Manchu invasion in the XVIIth Century. In fact nothing was known of the family before Deo Van Seng, the father. As a child Deo Van Tri spent several years in Luang Prabang as a bonze, and then he underwent his Chinese literary education in Hung Hoa. To fight the Burmese invasion which, over several years, seized the family towns of Lai and Dien-Bien, Deo Van Tri called on the leader of the Black Flags, Luu Vinh Phuoc, and fought the French at his side, thus attracting the good grace of the Viceroy of Yunnan. As thanks, the latter paid him subsidies for several years and provided him with men to defend his territory. Deo Van Tri was of mixed race, black Thai and Chinese. The accounts of Pavie and his companions describe a great feudal lord who was loved and revered by everyone. In fact the man had to fight on many occasions against populations who rebelled on his own territory, where his banditry and that of the Chinese bands made him detested. In 1886 it was in part because of the ravages committed by the Black Flags, who had escaped from the control of Deo Van Tri, that the Siamese intervened in the kingdom of Luang Prabang. His reaction to his brothers being taken hostage by the Siamese – the sacking of Luang Prabang – showed his violence. The death of the Viceroy of Yunnan, his protector, and the advance of the French, who were threatening his independence, led him to reflect. He laid down his arms after the Pernot column had passed through (January - February 1888) and waited for a propitious moment to meet Pavie.

On 7 April 1890 Deo Van Tri arrived in Lai. "Dressed like his brothers in wide short trousers and a Chinese jacket with wide sleeves, he wore a turban round his head in Thai fashion under which his pigtail was hidden […]. He was a strapping fellow with a powerful neck and whose shaven face resembled that of a farmer from the Beauce, the plains of Northern France. His features were strong, his eyes alert and intelligent but a tic, probably caused by some kind of neuralgic pain, contracted his left cheek, making him blink and pulling up the corner of his lip." Long discussions started. Laughingly Pavie asked Deo Van Tri "if he had ever believed what was said about the barbarism and cruelty of the French." "We kill pigs to have fat to feed our people and to fatten them we kill the pig. To encourage our men we tell them stories. It is good to exaggerate our stature and put down our enemies." "For my part I have never believed what was said of the French." As an intelligent man DeoVan Tri knew where his advantage lay. On 30 April 1890 Pavie wrote in a letter, "As I had hoped Deo Van Tri is completely on side. He likes us and is happy. He will be our greatest strength in these regions." The two men then went to Mong Tze, the residence of Deo Van Seng. Pavie finally met the patriarch. "Seated on his bed of bamboo with his elbow on a cushion, we had in front of us one of those wonderful types of old mandarin, not unusual in Tonkin, but because he is totally Annamite in appearance it was a surprise for us because his sons' features are half Thai and half Chinese. His clothes were dark and in his entire attitude he retained that immobility and dignity so characteristic of the mandarins. His long, rather sparse white goatee completed his image. What is more he did not hesitate to observe how long Mr Pavie's beard was and how thick mine was."

For the French the submission of Deo Van Tri was invaluable. He also provided assistance for their exploratory missions. His submission made it possible to reconnoitre the Upper Black River and the road that led to Pou Fang and met the Yunnan caravan routes going to Laos and Burma.

France was to rely on this new ally without overburdening itself with scruples. "It would be puerile to seek to weigh the value of the moral entity of the individual and to know that there could be real love for France in the heart of this Chinese" wrote Lieutenant Jacob in 1894. "It is enough that it is no longer possible to doubt the sincerity of a long-term devoted submission and, what is more, guaranteed by very great advantages. Every day Deo Van Tri gives us sufficient, concrete proof of his devotion to conquer the scepticism of even the most circumspect." In 1890 Lefèvre Pontalis wrote that despite everything it was necessary to remain vigilant. Even though the death of the Viceroy of Yunnan, his former protector, had tipped the balance, "he has also made it understood that the day he no longer feels the protective arm of France, he will be obliged to provide for his own safety and that of his people. Between the Chinese, the Shans and the Siamese he would be able to side with the strongest. As he is ambitious, he will side with the one who will respect his family situation, provide him with the means to grow rich and recognise his energy and intelligence [...]. France holds the populations through him but will only hold them as long as it can manage the people at the same time as the leaders, and its agents will endeavour to produce effects that are useful to an agreement which could be considered invaluable."

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"He is about forty-six, chubby, of average height and rather full in the face. His small eyes are in constant movement. The left eye is affected by a tic which makes it blink and gives his features a general air of guile and elegance. His moustache is hardly grey. Deo Van Tri must certainly have been a handsome sturdy fellow. Now he seems tired by the delights of Capoue which have taken over from his previous life of wandering. He has a quick intelligence and often when he is asked a question which embarrasses all his features start to move; the left eye blinks more than ever and the right takes on a steady stare which strikes you. His very ordinary clothes consist of a Chinese overcoat, wide short trousers and a turban, all of which are in light colours. He speaks enough French to be able to act as an interpreter at a pinch. As for Laotian, Yunnan Chinese, Canton Chinese and Annamite, for him these languages are used continually. Also when he wants to relax, his conversation becomes exceedingly interesting. You should hear him talk about the battles of Tuyen-Quang and Son-tay in which he took part with Lu-Vinh-Phuoc. He received a bullet in the leg at Tuyen-Quang. His accounts have enabled us to learn about the previously unpublished side of this war which has cost us so dear." (Doctor Lefèvre who was a member of the Pavie mission, 1894)

Deo Van Tri was always loyal to France in spite of the harassments which would certainly have given him cause to have reservations after the departure of Pavie. "He is a clever man, full of character," wrote Lefèvre-Pontalis in 1894, "he is rightfully aware of his personal value. It would be a serious error to place a French leader at his side who had the right but not the means of imposing his authority on Deo Van Tri, particularly one whose low rank or sensitive nature would cause upsets or crises which we should endeavour above all to avoid if we wish to maintain peaceful, friendly relations with the feudal family that reigns over this country [...]."

For Lieutenant Jacob having him as an ally was certain. "He […] dreamt of commanding all the Black River and doubtless of making it a principality. Such an ambition shows a spirit that could never be mediocre. When all is said and done by setting this dream aside, our arrival here has been brought him down quite low. Deo Van Tri, established in the upper regions of the Black River, had been able to claim that he had never had a master other than himself as Annam did not count. It must be agreed that we have been a very big change to his existence. This explains why he considers the advantages we give him as simple, legitimate compensation. It does not occur to him that this is a favour; it is simply his due […] In his mind the principality of Lai chau is the ally of France by virtue of directly made treaties. I firmly believe the ally to be honest. Whilst he lives I doubt that we can change the situation in any way without danger." However, as Inspector Miribel wrote in 1908, the French allowed his influence to grow so that "his power became almost discretionary and he was able to establish a true feudal regime in the country by which he made the forces of the country converge with his own interest." He died in 1908, having been in correspondence with Pavie right to the end.