Tanapong Luekajornchai: 110 years of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty, history without the nationalism

Interview by Kritsada Subpawanthanakun
Photos by Kitti Phanthaphak and Kittiya Onin

On the 110th anniversary of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, let’s talk with the author of ‘Malayan Land Lost: National History, Plot Twist Version’ (Lit: Sia dindaen malayu prawattisat chat chabap Plot Twist; Thai: เสียดินแดนมลายู ประวัติศาสตร์ชาติ ฉบับ Plot Twist) to understand the factors that lead to the agreement. Did Thailand really lose land? What is the wound on the land of Pattani? And how do borders on the map frame our mind and thoughts?

The 1893 Franco-Siamese Crisis is the essence of the story of how Siam lost its land

Did the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 cause Siam to lose land, or was it a mutually beneficial land demarcation?

5 factors that may have influenced the negotiations for the Anglo-Siamese Treaty

Borders are what determines our thoughts and views towards historical events

This story happened 110 years ago, when the borders of Thailand or Siam were still vague, but with the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty, or the Bangkok Treaty, the borders became clear. The Malayan territory was divided into two parts. One part was under the care of Britain, and the other under the rule of Siam. This treaty inflicted two wounds that come from viewing things from different angles.

In Thailand’s mainstream nationalist historical narrative, this was an agonisingly painful loss of land where Thailand was again bullied in the hunt for colonies. The borders that were drawn frame people’s thoughts until today. 

And in another nationalist historical narrative, it was the dismemberment of the Pattani Kingdom to become part of the Siamese empire. This became a wound that fuels the unrest in the Southern provinces.

Tanapong Luekajornchai’s ‘Malayan Land Lost: National History, Plot Twist Version’ does not aim to analyse the second narrative, but invites readers to analyse the first narrative and the factors that led to the treaty. It will shake the foundations of the expression “loss of land” since it was actually a “division of land” that was mutually beneficial to Siam and Britain, with the Malayan provinces simply being pieces of the cake.

To be honest, creating an understanding the Anglo-Siamese Treaty may not help improve the situation in the southern provinces but we believe it will help add perspective to views of the situation, reducing the resentment at losing land and increasing the understanding of the history of the wounds.

Why are you interested in the loss of Malayan territory?

I went back and read the Treaty. If at that time Pattani had gone to Britain, would the Pattani King still be the Yang di-Pertuan Agong? When I read the treaty, I found that the words in the treaty which we refer to as loss of land each time don’t actually say that land was lost. I have the background of a bachelor’s degree in law; I can see that it’s written differently. Why do people refer to it as the same thing? That was the start of my research.

I went back and read the original works of Pensri Dook or Suwit Theerasasawat who had studied primary sources very meticulously. I wondered whether we had really lost land, and went back to read Thongchai Winichakul’s work. I felt that we didn’t lose any land. These two works can co-exist, which means there are parts that conflict. After that I brought nearly all the books on land loss that I could find, around 40-50 books, and made a list of all the books to see what the two groups of works agreed and disagreed on. I was led back to Malayan territory which is a less sensitive issue than the Mekong border or other borders due to the Franco-Siamese Crisis. We were made to bear a grudge against France more than England.

The introduction says that there are 2 concepts about the land: we lost the land; and we didn't. Does this work decide things? This work tries to not get mixed up with losing land because I've talked with the authors as well, and it is very difficult to say that we lost. There is loss in terms of legal ownership. But if it wasn't mine to begin with, then it's not a loss. So, the issue concerning whether we lost the land or not, I didn’t touch on it much, I just wanted to show how it happened, then readers can decide.

To be precise, I think it's a division of land and an exchange on an unequal basis, but still on a diplomatic basis. They didn't use force to seize the land. Therefore, the issue has been through a process of thought and consideration by both sides to a certain level. The land that we may feel we really lost, from the viewpoint of both sides, i.e. the imperialist side, who saw that Siam lost land, and Siam, who also saw that they themselves lost land, is the case of the Franco-Siamese War in 1893. However, in other negotiations, both before and after the Franco-Siamese Crisis, the Siamese elite also aren’t clear on whether they lost or gained any land. Britain and France themselves didn’t know if they lost or gained any land.

That’s why I thought that for a work on losing land, the Franco-Siamese Crisis in 1893 should be used as the nucleus then expanded upon to see whether land was lost or not. The side that says they didn’t lose can use the Franco-Siamese Crisis as a reference point and say that the land there was Lao land. Thus, Siam did not lose any land. Both sides should use the Franco-Siamese Crisis as a reference point.

I don’t agree with the work of the group that says the state’s borders are not functioning, but I think that its function has changed. That’s why I wrote in the introduction that borders change people’s lives and livelihoods more than just divide the land. Borders are still important as boundaries to the state’s policies, legal jurisdiction, and perceptions. So interstate borders are still worth studying. For example, we are quite sensitive to the three southern border provinces, but the Killing Fields in Cambodia, despite being closer to Bangkok, don’t affect us as much because the state border tells us that the issue belongs to another country. So borders block people’s perceptions.

Why is the Franco-Siamese Crisis the reference point in telling us whether Siam lost any land or not?

Because it’s the clearest event. Siam was most clearly attacked, and it was explained many times. Foreigners call is the Pak Nam ‘crisis’ but if we read the Thai literature it’s been developed into something akin to a war. The image was created that we kind of lost a war and that we had to pay 2-3 million francs as war reparations. It was enlarged into an incident where Siam was threatened most unjustly. In comparison, this was our deepest wound, then we can use this wound to explain other wounds as lesser wounds that we have received, narrating the climax first.

This means that before the Franco-Siamese Crisis, Siam had lost land before?

For me, I’d call it land separation, but many works call it losing land, such as losing Penang island. I don’t think we lost Penang island. I’ve also never felt that Penang belonged to us. Or another case is losing outer Cambodia . Oddar Meanchey is also called a loss of land, but I have never felt that it was a loss at all; or when I read the work of King Rama IV, I don’t really feel that so much. However, the Franco-Siamese Crisis was a case of land loss. King Rama V felt that he was about to lose, and France published in the newspaper that they were about to gain land. It’s almost the only event where the feelings of gaining and losing were most clear and straightforward.

But Thailand’s mainstream history accepts that land was lost and this is still being used today

That’s right. I tried to analyse the two groups of work. If we compare Acharn Thongchai’s work as a point of overlap, in the past 20 years or more, both sides have existed, sometimes hitting each other, but have never exchanged blows. How did they co-exist? I found that, actually, the side which says we didn’t lose any land doesn’t dispute even in the slightest the account that we lost land. They argue about feelings and ownership. For example, Acharn Thongchai was most clear that he’s not disputing that the entire incident that happened was a threat to Siam, but he argues that this land was never ours to begin with. He changed the perspective but didn’t touch on the main story. Or the works of Charnvit Kasetsiri and Thamrongsak Petchlertanan which say that King Rama VI in the next reign had never felt that we were enemies of France or that we lost land to France. They emphasise that the land was never ours, we never felt any loss. We only started to feel a loss in the era of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram but have never discussed directly in the main story about where the accounts of land loss  are wrong, or Acharn Thongchai’s work puts the blame on it being a historical thesis like the plot about losing sovereignty. But the main accounts which are primary sources weren’t looked at, so the two sides never confronted each other. They are in different dimensions.

Why did Siam and Britain have to sign the treaty?

Siam had to sign, but Britain didn’t. In my work, it is clear that Britain wanted the tin in the southern region, but almost all the tin mines in the southern region already belonged to Britain. Britain had no need to annexe any more land. They also still had special rights under the secret treaty that Siam and Britain had made which almost made Siam lost some of its sovereignty over the land in terms of law. So it was Siam itself that wanted to get this full legal authority back, and Siam was also beginning to feel that the Sultans in the southern region were starting to become dissatisfied and trying to free themselves and escape to be with Britain instead. So Siam had to decide to sign this treaty. Mainly it was to revoke the secret treaty which took away our legal power, together with building railways to enable better control over this territory.

Siam in fact wanted some things from this treaty more than what Britain wanted from us?

That’s right. Siam was the one to open negotiations, was the one who made proposals by listing conditions. The negotiations may not have followed their conditions as they had hoped, but they were still conditions proposed by Siam.

From the results of the negotiations, what did Siam lose and gain?  What did Britain lose and gain?

What Siam definitely gained was the revocation of the secret treaty. They also revoked part of Britain’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and got a loan at a low interest of 4%.  It borrowed from Britain and had Britain build the railways. But if we look at it from the perspective of Strobel who was an adviser to Siam, he also thought that Siam didn’t need to be responsible for these lands.

Controlling any territory, whether it’s by Siam or Britain, has costs. It’s not the more the better. Sometimes more means spending more budget on control. Strobel thought that Siam had wasted a lot of money in trying to keep this land, and it would be better to let it go and use the money to develop something else, while the Siamese nobility had both those who agreed and those who disagreed. Some thought that no matter what, land was still the most important thing. For example, King Rama IV thought that land was most important. Even though what they got had some value, It could not be compared to land. But Krom Phraya Damrong Rajanubhab thought that it was worth it. Because they had never governed over the territory they had gained and they couldn’t collect any tax from it, there were only the expenses spent on keeping it under control.

What is the secret treaty? Why did Siam want to cancel it?

The secret treaty was signed after the Franco-Siamese Crisis. If we were to be really precise, I’d have to say after Britain and France had declared that they would maintain Siam’s sovereignty as a buffer zone and sphere of influence. This buffer zone was created by Britain and France, which means that it didn’t concern Siam, but concerned each of them. Thus, the southern region which was outside the sphere of influence was left out. There was no agreement, and at that time Germany and Russia started to enter the picture. Britain felt that the problem was that Germany tried to get involved.

Even though Britain was able to control the Siamese government to a certain degree, Britain found that the sultans of some states were ready to sign treaties with Germany without listening to Siam. So any recognition with Siam was a problem. Britain then talked to Siam that Britain would help protect all this land from any invaders, and in exchange Siam would prevent any other superpowers from signing treaties with the Sultans. Siam had to be in control. In the end, it was something like a mutually beneficial treaty. That was why Siam tried to control Malayan land with British help, since Britain was afraid that other sultans would sign treaties with other superpowers.

At that time, Siam was afraid of being taken over, so they signed the secret treaty because then at least their land would still be there. But Britain found that Siam wasn’t able to control this land. The sultans were ready to sign treaties with America and Germany which they thought were beneficial to them. Siam saw that other countries had approached them, but with the secret treaty they had to ask Britain before they could do anything. Britain took over a year to say if they approved or disapproved of anything, which was usually 90% disapproval . Siam couldn’t say why they did not approve anything, and so Germany and Russia were dissatisfied at why Siam allowed concessions only to Britain. Siam felt that letting things go on like that would break up their relations with other countries. Meanwhile, since these countries weren’t able to get approval from Siam, they instead went to directly ask the sultans where the actual resources were.

Actually, there was an earlier attempt to solve the basic problem in 1902, when the rebellion of the seven sultans happened. The informant who told Siam that the sultans were planning to rebel was Britain. The sultans had asked if Britain could help them. Britain said no, and so the sultans said that if Britain wouldn’t help them then they would ask other superpowers for help. But Britain had signed the secret treaty to safeguard this territory. They couldn’t seize it but couldn’t leave it for other nations to meddle in either, so they sent the information to Siam. Siam then sent a warship and dealt with it. Not long after that, Siam and Britain together appointed an adviser to Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah. Once the adviser had been appointed, Siam was able to deal with the seven sultans. Britain was satisfied that Siam was able to control the land; other nations couldn’t invade anymore, so Britain didn’t have any reason to take over the land. The 1902 incident caused both Britain and Siam to perform according to the secret treaty; Siam and Britain almost joined hands in subduing Malaya and giving it to Siam because the treaty said that Britain wasn’t allowed to take it.

When Britain had what they wanted, there was no reason to sign any more treaties. It was Siam which felt that if they let this go on, they’d lose more in the long term.

You said that there were 5 factors that influenced the negotiations of the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty

I used the words that there were 5 factors that may have influenced the negotiations, then analysed how much influence each factor had and how. Some factors may not have had a clear effect on the division of land, because the work I’ve studied thinks that if the side that believes that Thailand lost land, then why didn’t Britain also take Pattani? On the other hand, why did Siam only lose this much, not more? Or why didn’t Siam protect Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah like before? What is the reason that led them to divide the land like this? Especially for Satun, that was part of Kedah; why did they only cut a part of it? Or Tak Bai, where a little was divided off, or Raman where a little was divided off. Why did these things happen? So I set up the factors and assumed that these factors should have had an influence.

The first factor is nationhood and ethnicity, because Siam at that time had to progress to a modern state, which some people tried to assume meant to progress to a nation state, but you have to define ‘nation’ again. At that time, Siam didn’t control much land and had a lot of ethnic groups. What criteria of nationhood or ethnicity would you use to determine if that land was yours or not yours? Back then, the Siamese elite was considering who belonged to them. Malaya clearly did not since we call them Malays. Then why did they try to keep Pattani? What happened? Aren’t they also Malays?

So I surveyed the ethnicity in that area to see if they were called something else or if we called Malays something different. I found that Pattani was quite different from Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah in that Pattani was a large area, and one that Ayutthaya always wanted to be a tributary state, not let free. Even in the reign of King Rama I they had to attack Pattani. I don’t know if this was the only territory, but Pattani was the main place where people were forcibly moved to Bangkok. Siam almost never went to attack Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah; the first time was in the reign of King Rama V. We’ve never sent an army to do anything like we did to Pattani. So I assumed that maybe we either had some kind of bond with Pattani, or that we had to make it a dependency. The studies of Sujit Wongthes found that in Bangkok, there is a Tani Road; we can say it is more that there was relationship with Pattani. This is opposite to Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah which we don’t have real contact with except for when they sent silver and gold trees (bunga mas dan perak) as tribute.

Other than the ethnicity factor, there is also the matter of successor states. I applied the approach of Nidhi Eoseewong on politics during the reign of King Taksin, because I also believe that Ayutthaya had already collapsed. I went back and looked at which territory King Rama I tried to take control of, and how. I found out that the seven provinces were earlier the Pattani Kingdom, and then they were divided by Siam. However, in that era we never bothered with Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah even though they asked to become tributary states at about the same time after they saw Pattani lose to Siam, but the seven provinces were under our control all the time. It could be that in the reign of King Rama I, the people may have been led to see that the new king of Rattanakosin was from the start as great as the Ayutthaya kings. Thus, they first had to get back the territory of Ayutthaya’s tributary states.

And the other 3 factors?

The other 3 factors are rather clearer. The first is economic and administrative. I didn’t separate the two because they are related to each other. I went back and looked at what the economic and administrative agencies of Siam there were in the all the Malay territory there. I mainly found out that Pattani was partly a rice-growing area and there were people, but it wasn’t a large source since it was far and wasn’t worth it. How was this land important to Siam? Why must they have it? I didn’t find anything especially important other than to have them accept Siam’s prestige. It wasn’t until the west came and wanted the tin mines that this land started to become important since it became a source of income, from before where there was nothing. At that time, there were various small and large wars happening across the world. Tin was an important material in producing canned food whose prices soared. Malaya was one of the world’s important sources of tin and as time went on Malaya made more and more income for Siam. The more the west requested concessions, the more income Siam gained.

On the other hand, the more the west came in, the more Siam began to feel that they couldn’t keep things under control. They started to lose governance since tin wasn’t important to Siam; Siam didn’t have any technology that used tin at all. It was Britain that wanted the tin, and so Britain wanted the land where there is tin. But Siam didn’t care as long as they get the complete income. But when Siam started to feel that they were losing control over the territory, they felt that they had to do something. The result was the signing of the secret treaty to control the land, but in the end, on the day they signed the 1909 treaty it was clear that Britain only chose the land with tin mines; Britain didn’t care about anything else at all. Pattani didn’t have tin, Satun also didn’t have any resources that Britain wanted. So this may be one of the factors why Pattani wasn’t included.

But dividing the land like this was the same as Siam losing the concession fees?

They did lose the concession fees, but at that time they had to weigh the good and the bad. Strobel saw that the expenses Siam had to spend in order to send in soldiers would probably exceed that. There was no reason to keep this land when the expenses were about the same as the income. Another factor was image. Many think that it was about extraterritorial jurisdiction, but I think that it was about Siam’s image since Siam wanted to become one of the world leaders at that time. The Treaty of Westphalia set the principle that modern states have to accept other states as equals. That means they have to accept the laws of that nation as well. In my eyes, extraterritorial jurisdiction in Siam was seeing Siam as uncivilized rather than a problem of judicial process.

The cancellation of extraterritorial jurisdiction was another factor that allowed Siam to be accepted as civilised. This was something the Siamese elite at that time were very serious about; they wanted Britain and France to accept Siam. I analysed that the extraterritorial jurisdiction which Siam really agreed to allow was with France. Siam cancelled France’s extraterritorial jurisdiction first, but with Britain it wasn’t that serious. The reason they weren’t the same was because when we lost extraterritorial jurisdiction due to the Bowring Treaty, then other nations followed the lead. On the other hand, Strobel thought that if France would allow the cancellation, we could use this point to pressure other nations to cancel without needing to give anything in exchange. It’s like when, later on, Britain and Germany cancelled extraterritorial jurisdiction without us needing to lose any more land. That’s why I think that the case where we asked Britain to cancel extraterritorial jurisdiction along with the 1909 Treaty wasn’t the main reason we allowed land to be taken in exchange for freedom from extraterritoriality, unlike with France where it was our main reason.

Strobel wrote it clearly; if he didn’t die before they finished negotiations, he would have wanted to divide the Treaty into 2 agreements. One on land, and another on extraterritorial jurisdiction. This is because he was afraid people would misunderstand that Siam allowed the loss of land for the sake of cancelling extraterritorial jurisdiction, and that would make other nations follow. So, I analysed that it was only a minor factor.

The last factor is the policy of imperialism itself. Britain had many lands all across the world. This land was only a small part of their empire. It was the same for France. Therefore, don’t just think that Britain or France made decisions concerning Siam like Siam made decisions concerning them. The truth was Britain wanted Malaya because they wanted to control 2 things; one was the Strait of Malacca, which is the maritime route from India to China, and second was the tin mines. If it was because of these reasons, Britain wouldn’t want land that was deep in Siam.

All of this resulted in…

It resulted in the land being divided according to the 1909 Treaty. From an overall view, no one would dare really confirm what they were thinking. People in that era probably weren’t that clear. I had a chance to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and saw that sometimes negotiations change back and forth. This was even more true of the 1909 Treaty negotiations which started in 1907 and where the negotiators were changed many times. But the 5 factors summarised above led to the land division as it is today.

Dividing the land caused dissatisfaction, while Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah wanted to stay with Siam?

They wanted to stay with Siam as tributary states. They didn’t want to stay with Siam as part of the same state. They thought that if they joined Britain, there would be various systems which would interfere with their governance. They wanted to stay as tributary states of Siam and control their territory like before, where their only duty was to send tributes. However, if they were in the same situation as Pattani and were forced to become a monthon [administrative are in Siam], I don’t think they would stay with Siam either.

But Pattani didn’t want to stay with Siam

Pattani was attacked with a warship. Pattani saw that cities which had stayed with Britain were better, so they wanted to stay with Britain. At least they had authority over their own territory. Even if Britain sent an adviser to oversee them, they would still be the rulers. But if they stayed with Siam, then they wouldn’t be the rulers. Politics is about interests. If staying with someone provides good benefits, then they would prefer to be with them.

How does the Anglo-Siamese Treaty 110 years ago affect today?

It definitely has an effect.  At least it affects people’s way of thinking, that this piece of territory belonged to Siam since a long time ago, and that this group of people are Thai people. They have to stay with us. This reaction is that it is a geographical problem which erases the border so that you see it as a domestic problem. This leads to ways of dealing with the problem that are different. I had once told my girlfriend in a taxi that we should give the three southern provinces self-governance like Pattaya. The taxi driver turned around and said, no, we could not. That territory belongs to Thailand. We cannot let them govern themselves. This blocks people’s thinking. Borders make you learn that the sultans thought of rebellion. If you were in Malaya, you may get to learn that the sultans tried to liberate themselves. The clearest problem with modern borders is that they don’t really block people, but they block feelings and views.

But if you ask if the border itself creates problems, I believe King Rama V and Krom Phraya Damrong Rajanubhab already knew that it may cause problems. At that time Krom Phraya Damrong governed the Pattani monthon in quite a special way, making many compromises. There was no military conscription. Instead they had police conscription. He allowed Islamic courts to judge cases themselves and didn’t force people to believe in Buddhism. Later, from the reign of King Rama VI to the time of Field Marshal Pibun, these things were revoked because this land was definitely mine; there was no indecision like there had been during the reign of King Rama V.

Land and borders are the things that block our feelings and views and that is the most important wound.

And they are a wound that is one factor in the present unrest.

That’s right. The more hardcore the side is that believes that the land was lost, the more hardcore the narrative becomes. One has to read the history of the Pattani Kingdom. It reads like Pattani nationalism, equal to Thai nationalism. The more hardcore it is, the more serious the confrontation, the more problems keep occurring. I would like to say that the division of land on that day wasn’t this strict, where the loss of even 1 square inch of land is unacceptable. It was a relaxed talk, and you should look at the territory there as land within the Malay Peninsula; we don’t know who it belongs to but it’s the port of an ancient civilisation no different from Ayutthaya. This would tone down the border and tone down people’s feelings concerning the border on both sides.