Legacy of the Paknam clash

Published on November 02, 2005

The Paknam Incident in 1893 is remembered as one of the bitterest incidents in Siam’s history. The dispute, over a large chunk of Laotian territory on the banks of the Mekong River, led to a military clash between Siam and France on the Chao Phya River near Bangkok.

The battle, which began on the evening of July 13 on the Chao Phya River, lasted for only 25 minutes, but left Thais feeling embittered for generations to come. Many Thais still remember the incident as one of Siam’s greatest territorial losses and that it was a cause of great grief for King Chulalongkorn.

In the wake of the battle, the king told his young brother Kromlaung Dheva-wongse Waroprakarn that he felt like a frog in coconut shell...like a prisoner waiting for execution while waiting to hear France’s demands (to settle the dispute).

The Treaty of Peace and Convention that France and Siam signed in Bangkok on October 3 left the king heartbroken. Under the pact, Siam had to renounce all rights to the territories on the left bank of the Mekong, as well as to all islands in the river. Siam also agreed to the creation of a demilitarised zone, 25 kilometres wide on the right bank of the river.

Although the Paknam Incident happened 112 years ago, the reasons for the loss of territory are similar to those at play in the violence in the South today, which is pitting soldiers unprepared to meet enemy combatants employing new forms of warfare.

While some historians argue that the incident highlighted the whole misconception of “our” [Siam’s] territory, Chalong Soontravanich, a noted Chulalongkorn University historian, said he wanted Thais to learn other lessons from the Paknam Incident in order to prevent further losses from the current conflict in the deep South. It is all about lessons learned from military operations of the past, he said.

Siamese troops, as told by Henry Norman, who lived in Siam when the Paknam crisis took place, lacked good training. Norman wrote in his book “People and Politics of the Far East” that many young men recruited to be soldiers often disappeared from military training, while many others never even got the chance to shoot a rifle. Norman also reported that a brass part of a cannon was stolen soon after it arrived.

Norman’s book in the eyes of other Western observers of his time was a biased view of Siam. But Chalong said Norman was correct when writing that Siamese troops in 1893 were not trained for modern warfare or to handle the high-tech weapons of the time. Cannon and rifles were very new to the Siamese military.

The situation is not much different to what is going on today in the South. Chalong said he doubted whether the soldiers deployed in the conflict area have had enough training to deal with the rebels’ tactics, which he labelled as “terrorism”.

While keeping an eye on the southern violence and news reports about the daily loss of soldiers’ lives, Chalong said he wondered if members of the armed forces had not been sent to their deaths.

But he hastened to add that he did not want to see Thai armies trained to be cold-blooded killers.

“My concern is that they should be professionally trained for at least self-defence in dealing with the situation,” he said.

Lt-Colonel Perapol Songnuy, a young historian and lecturer at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, agreed with Chalong, adding that the military’s limited budget was part of the cause of the poor military training in 1893.

Siam was taking its first steps to reform its bureaucratic and military systems. So the military budget couldn’t provide good training for its forces.

That problem seems to persist today, he said. Perapol is a PhD graduate in history from France. He is the author of the book “Thai-French Conflict in 1893”.

While Chalong wonders where the current military budget has gone, Perapol said the budget wasn’t not sufficient for the training.

Perapol cited his own experience as a student at both the Thai Royal Military Academy and in the French Military Academy.

“I was trained to shoot 20 shells in France, but during my training in Thailand I got the chance to fire only one shell,” he said, adding that the shell used for training in Thailand was of Vietnam War vintage.

However, the young historian said his students in classrooms at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy have learned lessons from the past and from his observation, they seemed not to need weapons to deal with the conflict in the South.

“Of course, a few of them were emotional and wanted to fight eye to eye, but they were the minority in the class,” he said, adding that there had been a lot of changes in the military’s perspective on how to best deal with the conflict.

For Perapol, as a historian, it is understandable and acceptable to allow talk of autonomy to be on the table if it could end the violence.

But the Constitution, which states Thailand is one indivisible Kingdom, is always at core of the military’s stance, he said.

Sidebar:

The Sound of guns broke out over Paknam on the evening of July 13, 1893 when Siamese troops opened fire on French gunboats sent up the river to Bangkok. The French fired back and the 25-minute-long battle ended with the loss of 151 Siamese soldiers and 32 French troops. The two French war vessels won the battle and finally anchored on the river in front of the French Consulate in Bangkok as night fell.

Following the defeat, Siam was forced to sign a treaty giving the French government right to the disputed land, about 143,800 square kilometres that is home to about 600,000 people.

The treaty has been remembered as the greatest single loss of territory in the history of Thailand.

Excerpted from “The Crisis in the 112nd Rattanakosin Year, Siam’s Grievance” written by Wilas Nirunsuksiri, published in Art & Culture Magazine, October 1, 2005 edition.

Subhatra Bhumiprabhas

The Nation


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