Setting the record straight
Bangkok Post 20/6/99
Traditional histories portray Laotian ruler Chao Anou who challenged the might of the Siamese as a foolhardy rebel. But an enlightening reassessment points out that he was anything but that.
In a few weeks’ time, scholars from all over the world will gather in Amsterdam for the triennial Thai Studies Conference. During the week-long gathering, one book has been singled out as so important and fascinating that it has been considered deserving of a whole panel discussion to itself. That event will probably be one of the highlights of the conference.
Yet this book is invisible in Bangkok. I have not seen it in any bookshop. Which is a great pity because readers in Thailand are missing a great deal.
In January 1827, the Laotian ruler Chao Anou led his troops down from Vientiane to Korat. His son went ahead over the pass to Saraburi. His son went ahead over the pass to Saraburi. They began hearding some 40,000 ethnic Laotians from Isaan back to Vientiane.
Bangkok reacted immediately to this “armed and popular insurrection”. It mobilized Thai conscripts, Mon refugees, paroled prisoner, Japanese mercenaries and Portuguese artillery-men into three armies dispatched north.
Over the next five months, detachments marched and skirmished over a vast area of Isaan, Laos, and northern Cambodia. At the end of May, Anou fled in defeat to Vietnam. The Bangkok armies levelled his capital to the ground, and torched Champassak for good measure. Anou returned for a final stand, but was captured, brought to Bangkok, tortured, publicly humiliated, and died probably by self-administered poison.
As Mayoury and Pheuiphanh state, this was a “cataclysmic” event in the region. It secured Isaan for Bangkok and helped create the shape and population of modern Thailand. It made Laos a dependency. It created a martyr figure, celebrated ever since in Laotian folk ballads.
Five years ago, Mayoury and Pheuiphanh published an elegant and detailed tirade against Bangkok domination over Laos (Kith and Kin Politics). Here they document the historical origins of that domination. The research sources include Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese, English, French and a snatch of Chinese. With David Wyatt’s editorial help, the book reads superbly. This is a major work – academically solid, splendidly passionate and fascinating.
Earlier histories of revolt have been dominated by the Thai chronicles, which picture Chao Anou as a rash insurgent and puppet of Vietnam. Mayoury and Pheuiphanh rewrite him as a visionary, a strategist and a nationalist. They argue that 1827 was not an impulsive revolt. Chao Anou nurtured the desire to rebel over at least four decades.
The account begins from 1778-9, when Taksin of Thonburi sacked Vientiane as a domino effect from the fall of Ayutthaya a dozen years earlier the authors detail the “many provocation” which motivated Anou. Personal slights. Raped relatives. Resentment at Bangkok’s growing arrogance. The sufferings of Laotian captives in Siam.
But the main reason lay in geo-politics. Bangkok and its new dynasty were growing rapidly rich on the profits of maritime trade. They were gradually extending their power over the interior. They diverted all internal trade to Bangkok. They swept up people from the Laotian regions (and elsewhere) to dig their canals, build their temples, fight their wars.
Finally they started to register the Issaan population for tax and corvee, and triggered the revolt. Chao Anou, the authors conclude, “reacted as a representative of the Lao to insults and ill-treatment that had accumulated against his people as a result of regional power struggles and prejudices encouraged among members of Bangkok’s ruling class.”
Once we reach the battlefield, the account is detailed, graphic and gripping. Besides any other qualities of this book, it is far and away the best account of the warfare of this period.
Detachments of one to five thousand men march and counter-march across the Isaan plain in the growing heat of the dry season. On the advance, they conscript men and seize food. On the retreat, they raze villages and burn granaries. Troop commanders send out false letters designed to fall into enemy hands and deceive. Rulers entice allies with entreaties and threats coded in the florid language of diplomacy. Engagements last through several days of confusion. In the background, ordinary people run for their lives.
Although, Mayoury and Pheuiphanh argue the revolt was premeditated and valiant, the numbers show it was doomed. The Laotian armies probably numbered around 10,000. Only one in 10 had gun. Only one cannon was in working order. By contrast, the Thai may have fielded 100,000 men. They had one gun per head at the major encounters, and whole volleys of cannon. The colonial arms-traders had been doing wonderful business in Bangkok.
The Laotian hope was that the English and Burmese would force Bangkok to fight on a second front. That would induce the other interior states of Lanna and Luang Prabang, who were playing spot-the-winner, to side with Vientiane. But it didn’t work. From the first engagement, the Laotians were on the retreat.
Mayoury and Pheuiphanh portray Chao Anou as a nationlist here, and the revolt as Laotian versus Thai. But maybe this interpretation, founded on the idea of a “nation”, is more relevant to the present.
Certainly the ordinary Laotians had good reasons to resent the arrogant Thai. But they had even better reasons to resent all rulers and their ambitions.
When Chao Anou’s recruiters swept down across Isaan in early 1827, they asked one question: “Laotian or Thai?” The wrong answer meant whoosh. A few months later, King Rama III’s troops swept up from the opposite direction. Same question. And again the wrong answer meant whoosh.
For the ordinary Laotian or Thai, warfare was conscription, forced marches, butchery, rape, crops burnt, villages destroyed, towns torched, sickness and famine. There was probably little difference to them between victory and defeat.
But now, at the fag end of the age of nationalism, these past victories matter. Mayoury and Pheuiphanh want their book “to restore to the Lao people, rendered amnesic by the shock therapy forced upon them by the victor of the day, a part of their roots and a piece of their lost history”.
They also hope it will improve Thai-Laotian relations. That seems optimistic.