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The escalation in Franco-Siamese relations

In Siam, where he arrived on 9 June 1892, Pavie hoped to obtain agreement from the court in Bangkok for it to renounce its territorial pretentions by negotiation. The Minister for Foreign Affairs had given him specific instructions. “The main objective of your mission must be the development of the feelings of confidence and the entente cordiale which have, up to now, directed our relations with Siam. In particular as far as the question of demarcations is concerned, I agree with you in thinking that until things change we must abstain from any initiative. It is preferable to await directives from the court of Bangkok. So you will withdraw into an attitude of reserve and prudent observation." The welcome Pavie received was worthy of his rank. The Siamese troops formed a guard and the band played the Marseillaise. “The king, whose welcome was extremely gracious, replied by stating his goodwill towards the Republic. He had very much wanted to confer on me the Grand Cross of the Siamese crown [...]. [He} toasted the President of the Republic and spoke again of his friendship for France and the twofold secular links which united it to his kingdom.” Even though for the French government the time was still for talking, some papers such as the Progrès de Saïgon on 27 August pushed for confrontation. “It is time to act vigorously on the diplomatic front in Bangkok, and by sending missions and even armed detachments to the right bank of the Mekong to put an end to the encroachments of Siam, which every year pushes the frontiers of its possessions to the west ….. whilst the Siamese march forward without loss of courage in the face of difficulties, the French government lacks energy.”

Pavie himself started to lean towards a test of strength with the Siamese but he sensed that Paris was not with him. On 12 December he wrote to Le Myre, "I received your letter in which you told me of the arrangements of the offices. I knew of them before my departure and I have always thought that there they would be happy to see me fail [...]. I know what I can do without the support of the minister and I will not go beyond that and will not show my teeth if I am reproached for not doing so or if I am invited to do so. It is, however, extremely curious to see how our affairs are conducted. And I have been refused everything that should enable me to take advantage. There I do not see the intention of the minister but only the bad grace of the offices […]. You are right in thinking that you do not have to be in Bangkok for long to know that these good offices are hostile to me [...]. Finally I have managed to take the upper hand here, but with efforts of patience which I will have to pay for one day …The Siamese are advised in a manner that is totally hostile to our views. They are told they can be as bold as they wish, that we have too many concerns and besides we would avoid any serious difficulties because of the coming elections and so on. If we do not speak firmly to stop their intrigues, we will find ourselves committed to a situation that is very difficult to rectify. I hope it will be recognised that I was right not to rush anything but I want someone to enable me to make it understood that the current Siamese attitude cannot be tolerated any more. All my time is taken doing small things which reduce my prestige and tire me without advantage.”

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“It is therefore necessary for us to adopt a firm, unwavering attitude in claiming our rights. I believe I am right that the Siamese government will cede immediately to any of our demands if it is convinced that the agent of the French government speaks not of his own conviction but because of his categorical instructions, which he is able to show. Your Excellency knows how much I am in favour of maintaining amicable relations with Siam and what result has been the aim of the my long years of work. You will recognise that if I recommend that you take an absolutely firm and decided attitude it is because we cannot continue the policy of moderation we have observed up till now without compromising our dignity and weakening our prestige. What is more we will gain no advantage. Conditions have changed. While we needed to study the regions that we counted on governing, it has been necessary to avoid the difficulties which would have hindered us, even at the price of some concessions. The studies are finished. Today we are in a position to apply our programme when the day arrives. So there is nothing to prevent a change in our attitude which has become necessary. On the contrary we will gain great advantage from doing so. The Siamese government, seeing that it has exceeded the limits that our forbearance had seemed to authorise, will doubtless move from one extreme to the other as is generally the case with Asiatics and our situation will be singularly improved, not only because we have been proactive but also because I will not let another opportunity to take advantage of the circumstances escape.”

Pavie no longer wanted just the attachment of the left bank of the Mekong to Indochina because, he said, the river was not the limit of any territory. “Besides the Siamese are the first to be surprised and rejoice in a statement that gives them such a basis for discussion and enables them to lay claim to these same entire principalities with more logic. History, the inhabitants and several rare documents prove that these same principalities were dependencies of Annam many centuries before Siam, only just born today, existed.” In fact Pavie wanted France to occupy the entire Mekong Basin and, pushing further, even envisaged making Siam a protectorate. The Bishop of Bangkok, Mgr Vey, held the same opinion and declared that "if France takes advantage of circumstances that are so favourable for it at the moment and takes all the countries of Indochina, it will have rendered a service to humanity. It will no longer have anything to regret in the loss of the empire of the Indies." Pavie was to find support in the government in the person of Alexandre Ribot, President of the Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs until March 1893, an Anglophobe and advocate of colonial expansion. In the Chamber of Deputies, the colonial party took the offensive.

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“The Siamese do not know or pretend not to know the rights of Annam over its ancient vassal, the principality of Luang Prabang. The Siamese do not know or pretend not to know the rights of Annam over the small Laotian states to the north of the former Cambodia, on the right bank of the Mekong, a certain number of which sent tribute-money to Hue until the last few years. The Siamese do not know or do not want to know the absolute rights of Annam over all the territories placed between the sea and left bank of the Mekong, that is the countries of Attopeu, Saravane, the Phus of Cam Lo, Lac-bien, Tranh-tinh, Tran-dinh, Tranh-ninh, Tran-bien, the Muong-Lu, etc. which from time immemorial have been part of the Annamite empire and should be purely attached to the direct administration of our residences. Finally the Siamese do not know or pretend not to know the rights of Cambodia over the former provinces of the Cambodian kingdom that Siam holds wrongfully and despite the treaty of 1867, ordering a demarcation which the court of Bangkok has always refused. Thus it is that patiently and silently the Siamese have one by one usurped all the dependencies of our protégés, the Emperor of Annam and King Norodom. In vain have our protégés protested and demanded our protection against this invasion. We allowed it to happen in the last few years with such an appearance of resignation that the Siamese audacity grew every day and the good patriots asked themselves with concern just how far Siam would go […]. We have been duped by Siam for five or six years; that is enough." February 1893, Charles Deloncle).

Siam prepared itself for conflict. For Prince Devawongse it was better to fight because the resistance of Siam would attract attention to its rights and perhaps prevent it from being “eaten up” by France. In March 1893 he tried once more to propose a modus vivendi “with the specific aim of suppressing for the past and preventing in the future any possible conflict resulting from the closeness of our respective posts." Indeed for Siam evacuating would be to leave"the field open to interpretations that are harmful to [its] interest. Consenting to this would be to accept as true the unmerited accusation of having encroached on Annamite territory, and to admit that the territorial claims of Annam are well-founded, even though up to now no proof to support these has been produced […]. The purpose of the modus vivendi is to remove certain causes of local conflict on the borders in places where such conflicts had taken place, [...]. It is not to anticipate a definitive ruling on the borders in a favourable sense for one of the parties." And to remind Pavie that he had "travelled in these regions under the protection and with the assistance of the Siamese authorities, [and] that the inhabitants of these regions have never given you proof of the rights of Annam because I have never heard anything about this."

Siam found no support from the other foreign powers, even though Britain encouraged it to resist. Conflict took place. In March, the gunboat Lutin entered Bangkok harbour. From April to July there were frequent skirmishes. On 13 July the Inconstant and the Comète crossed the bar of the Menam. Coming under fire from the Packnam forts and Siamese buildings (18 people were killed on both sides), the Comète sank beside the Lutin in front of the French legation. On 19 July the French government issued an ultimatum which specifically contained recognition by Siam of the rights of the Empire of Annam and the Kingdom of Cambodia over the left bank of the Mekong and its islands. The Siamese government had 48 hours to respond.

Britain protested forcefully against the violation of the French promise that gunboats would not enter the Menam. In addition the French pretentions over the left bank of the Mekong worried it. However, Britain did not want to intervene and so urged the Thai government to accept the ultimatum. On 26 July Pavie left the legation, placed the protection of French nationals in the hand of the Dutch Consul and embarked in the Inconstant. It was necessary to institute a blockade. On 30 July the Siamese government accepted the ultimatum. On 8 August Pavie returned to Bangkok and on 9 August the gunboat Lutin was to occupy Chantaboun as a guarantee of the acceptance of the ultimatum. On 16 August Le Myre de Vilers arrived as Plenipotentiary. The treaty was signed on 3 October 1893.