From the Jaws of Victory
Photo Caption from the Bangkok Post:
Try Not to Laugh: A shy schoolgirl giggles as she walks past a line of sailors during a ceremony to mark the 119th anniversary of the Royal Thai Navy’s defeat of an intruding French battleship sailing up the Chao Phraya River in July 1893.
One August some years ago the Bangkok diplomatic corps received a heavily embossed piece of cardboard inviting each of them to a vin d’honneur to commemorate the anniversary of successful Warsaw Pact manoeuvres in Czechoslovakia. The host was supposedly the then Soviet Union Embassy, that nice pink building on Sathon Road.
A surprising number of white-plated limos had to be turned away by exasperated security guards who explained to the canapé and cocktail crowd that no, the Soviet Union was not holding a bash to celebrate its invasion of its comrades behind the Iron Curtain.
A very well-worked spoof. But I wasn’t aware that the Bangkok Post was in the same line of business.
A defeat of a French battleship? In the infamous Paknam incident?
Let us set the record, and the Bangkok Post, straight with a potted account of What Really Happened.
It was an era when the western imperialist democracies were busy snaffling up would-be-imperialist non-democracies around the globe and in this part of the world the two main contenders were Britain and France. The French were looking at British Injuh, the eastern reaches of which were groping into the teak forests of Northern Thailand and the Straits Settlements that were creeping up from the south. And feeling sort of left out.
The French had gobbled up Vietnam, which for some centuries had been playing a sort of suzerainty tug-of-war with Siam over what is now Cambodia and Lao. So the French reckoned it was their right, nay duty, to take over Vietnam’s role in the alternating oppression of the peoples of the Mekhong basin.
And what could be more enlightening than the French colonization of Cambodia and Lao? Why, they even gave them the foppish French spellings of ‘Cambodge’ and ‘Laos’. Who else would think of adding a totally useless final ‘s’ to the name of a country whose main language never has one? (To say nothing of perverting ‘Wiang Jan’ into ‘Vientiane’.)
So the French were itching for some punch-up or other with the Siamese just to let them know who’s the new kid on the block. A couple of murky incidents took place along the wilder stretches of the Mekhong, murky enough for both sides to claim ‘We Woz Robbed’ and the next thing you know the French navy turns up in the Chao Phraya ‘to protect French interests’ and won’t go away.
The Siamese install some new-fangled artillery at Paknam, which by all accounts they didn’t really know how to work, sink a few old junks to narrow the channel, line up a few warships of their own, and even float off some mines, which seem to have achieved nothing. They may still be there. The message was clear. No paserán.
Sure enough in July 1893, two French warships appear at the river mouth and on the 10th request permission to sail up to Bangkok. Permission refused. At sunset on the 13th, in the pouring rain, the French ships, headed by a pilot boat, start moving up anyway.
Now ‘the Royal Thai Navy’s defeat of an intruding French battleship’ must refer to the fact that they managed to hit the pilot boat and force it to beach on a sandbar; they capture the crew next day and knock them about a bit.
Because everything else about this operation was a failure.
The French ships carried on up the river unmolested and left a force blockading the river mouth. They parked outside the Grand Palace, trained their guns on the seat of Siamese power and generously offered to negotiate a treaty over the territorial integrity of Thailand’s eastern borders, ha ha. The Thai elite went into a blue funk, by October the treaty was signed and to this day if a Thai wants to pay a condescending visit to Lao or Cambodia and blame their backwardness on their colonial past, they need to carry a passport.
Now if this was a victory whose 119th anniversary is worthy of an honour guard, then we should be able to look forward to more celebrations.
Come 7 April next year, for example, we might look forward to the Royal Thai Army’s knees-up on the occasion of the 246th anniversary of their victory over the invading Burmese at Ayutthaya, when the victorious Siamese set fire to their own capital city in celebration, fireworks being unknown in those days, and then all set off in every direction to spread the good news, with many opting to go to Burma in chains, just to let them know who’d won.
There’s ample scope for revisionist history, even though a sizable amount has already found its way into the schoolbooks and hence the population’s subconscious.
But at least I think I now know why that shy schoolgirl in the photo is giggling. It may be that she knows a sight more Thai history than the Bangkok Post.