Relatively few tourists visit Phrae in Northern Thailand but those who do are well rewarded with exquisite old temples in the northern Lanna Thai style as well as beautiful teak houses dating from the nineteenth century. Phrae is a small quiet town where life moves slowly, a world away from Bangkok or even Chiang Mai which is just 140km away. So it is hard to imagine that this was once the location of one of the most serious insurrections that has ever occurred in Northern Thailand. This insurrection is today remembered as the Shan Rebellion and it began on 25th July 1902.
Early Northern Siam
In the early years of the twentieth century Northern Siam was in a state of transition from traditional to modern methods of rule and control. The region was still remote from Bangkok, taking at least a month of arduous travel by river and jungle track to reach. Between 1893 and 1904 a series of treaties with the French demarcated the modern borders of the region but French officials in the region hoped to expand their influence into Siamese territory and viewed the borders as “an illusory frontier”. Within those borders the new government administration that was being established under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) only had a tenuous control over these remote outer provinces where the traditional hereditary rulers or “Chao” (Pronounced “Jow”) still held power. The Franco-Siam treaty of 1893 that had established the Mekong River as the border with French Indochina also established a 25km “Reserve Zone” on the west bank of the Mekong in which Siam was prohibited to post any military forces, which in practice the French used to exclude any officials such as police or even postal officers. In addition the European powers had negotiated treaties with Siam granting their citizens extra-territorial rights. This meant that a British or a French subject could not be prosecuted by a Siamese court but had to be tried in International Courts established under the treaties. All these factors reduced the control the Siamese government had over people within Northern Siam.
In the final two decades of the nineteenth century Northern Siam was transformed by the arrival of British teak companies moving eastwards from British India and Burma in search of fresh sources of teak. The region became key to British trade interests and the British rupee became the predominant currency rather than the Siamese tical or baht. The British teak companies bought with them large numbers of workers from the Burmese Shan states. The British annexation of Upper Burma in 1885 also created instability and conflict within the Shan states causing increased migration into Northern Siam by ethnic Shan.
Technically these Shan migrants were British subjects but in practice obtaining a passport as evidence was almost impossible. Under the new Siamese administration they were subject to multiple new taxes on their land, cattle and boats, as well as a 4 baht annual head tax. The implementation of strict passport regulations by Siam on the border with British Upper Burma greatly reduced the cattle trade which the Shan were heavily involved in. Thus to avoid Siamese taxation and find alternative sources of income, many Shan resorted to banditry and other criminal activity bringing them frequently into conflict with the police.
Trouble at the Mine
Problems began in July 1902 when Siamese police attempted to arrest some Shan at a ruby mine at Baan Baw Kao south of Phrae. Fighting broke out and the police retreated after some of their men were killed. The Siamese regrouped outside the town assembling a force of some eighty police and soldiers together with elephants and horses. Whilst the Siamese carefully prepared the Shan were not idle either and when the police advance began on 23rd July it was ambushed within a ravine leading to the mine. The advance quickly disintegrated into a panicked flight back to Lampang. At least sixteen Siamese were killed whilst the Shan were left with elephants, horses, mules, provisions, guns and ammunition.
Rather than waiting for the inevitable return of an even larger Siamese force the Shan now decided to take the initiative. At dawn on the 25th July, now amply equipped with guns, at least forty or more Shan entered the town of Phrae under the leadership of two men, Paka Mong and Sala Po Chai.
Their first target was the police station which they quickly seized, killing many of the police in the process. It appears that despite rumours of an impending attack, the Siamese Governor Phraya Chaiyabun had not permitted the release of ammunition to the police (Who were probably recruited locally and hence not fully trusted by Phraya Chaiyabun who was from Bangkok).
Shan residents of Phrae now swelled the ranks of the rebellion which moved on to destroy the Post Office, breaking the telegraph line, the residence of the Siamese Commissioner Phraya Chaiyabun, who had already fled, the jail, whose prisoners enthusiastically joined the rebellion, and the courthouse where the rebels liberated a safe containing 40,000 baht. The money was quickly put to use by offering a 300 baht bounty for every Siamese head delivered.
Success had been achieved surprisingly quickly and many of the rebels now stopped for a celebratory breakfast at the town distillery. It must have made for a wild scene as rebels and recently freed prisoners quickly got drunk, many now bizarrely dressed in clothes they had found at the Commissioner’s Residence. Perhaps wisely the rebel leaders bought the party to a premature halt by smashing the rice wine jars.
As the day progressed rebels continued to search for and execute Siamese. Phraya Chaiyabun was soon found and executed about 4km outside of town. A memorial now stands at the spot on Highway 101. About twenty other Siamese were killed that day, the biggest massacre ever of central government officials in Northern Thailand. Local residents, considered to be Lao, were left unharmed. The Western foreign residents were also unmolested, these consisting of just Dr Thomas and his wife who led the American Presbyterian Mission and a few managers of the teak businesses.
Paka Mong led his followers to the residence of Chao Luang Piriya Thepawongse, the hereditary ruler of Phrae, then 66 years old. They found him alone, all his household having fled in fear of the rebels. Paka Mong presented the Shans’ case, that all they wanted was to restore the ruler’s former power and to oust the oppressive Siamese. Other members of the ruling family were bought from their hiding places across the town to drink the waters of allegiance to the rebels and to sign a declaration ending Siamese rule in Phrae. Well aware of their status as British subjects the rebels also presented their grievances of “constant oppression by the Siamese officials” to the only British officials in town, these being employed by the Siamese Forestry Department.
Defeat at Lampang
Although the attack on Phrae began as a spontaneous pre-emptive strike against the police the remarkable success of the action that day seems to have emboldened Paka Mong and Sala Po Chai to dream of freeing Northern Siam of oppressive Siamese rule. At this point Sala Po Chai led 150 men south to head off the Siamese army that would inevitably be approaching through the mountain pass from Uttaradit. Paka Mong would lead 200 men to attack Lampang, the nearest important town.
News of Paka Mong’s planned attack leaked out almost immediately and an intercepted letter even revealed the planned date of the attack and details of their plan to continue on to Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Phayao and Chiang Saen. The ruler of Lampang, Chao Bunwatwongse Manit, mustered about 1000 irregular troops for the defence of the town. Meanwhile all the prisoners in Lampang’s jail were summarily executed to prevent them joining the rebels as had happened in Phrae. A 24 year old Danish Captain, Hans Markvard Jensen was sent across from Chiang Mai with 54 armed police to support the defence. Arriving on 29th July Jensen found that the town’s most substantial defences were nine V-shaped teak barricades that had been erected across key roads under the instructions of the British teak company officers. This operation was led by none other than Louis Leonowens, son of Anna Leonowens, tutor in the 1860’s to King Mongkut’s children.
The attack came at dawn on 4th August with Shan forces approaching Chao Bunwat’s Residence from the east along Bunwat Road and also along by the riverside. The group by the riverside succeeded in seizing the barricade there from its defenders but at the Bunwat Road barricade Captain Jensen’s men held firm. Jensen then led a small number of men to a position from which they could fire upon the Shan within the occupied riverside barricade. The Shan now found themselves under fire from all directions, including rifle shots from Louis Leonowens who was in his house across the river protecting Chao Bunwat and the Siamese Commissioner. The Shan lost heart and began to flee east, pursued by Siamese forces who had also been promised 300 baht for every Shan head they produced. By the end of the day some 25 Shan heads had been delivered, including Paka Mong’s, which were displayed on sticks outside the Chao Bunwat’s residence.
Despite the victory, the authorities in Lampang and Chiang Mai were not confident that the rebellion had been decisively ended and prepared for further attacks. Chiang Mai barricaded its city gates and mustered some 5000 troops for its defence. Under the instructions of the Commissioner of Chiang Mai, Chao Bunwat was evacuated from Lampang, escorted by Captain Jensen and Louis Leonowens. The departure of the town’s ruler resulted in a state of anarchy for three days with widespread killing and looting. Order was only restored when Chao Bunwat at his own insistence returned to his official residence on 7th August.
On 5th August the 24 year old British vice-consul Harold Lyle based in Nan arrived in Phrae, which was now largely deserted. He moved into the residence of the assassinated Commissioner Phraya Chaiyabun as a symbol of restoring authority to the town and then sent urgent letters to Sala Po Chai urging him to disperse his forces and not attempt to confront the approaching Siamese army. And after that Lyle organised a game of polo to lift the spirits of the beleaguered foreign residents of Phrae.
Two days later Shan began arriving back in Phrae from their defeat at Lampang. Again Lyle encouraged them to disperse and return quietly to British Shan territories. Down south Sala Po Chai’s forces did disperse as Lyle had urged and on 13th August Lyle rode out 8km from Phrae to meet with the first of the Siamese forces that had reached the area without encountering any significant resistance. Lyle attempted to stop the Siamese forces from entering the town for fear that the Shan, British subjects, would be massacred. He succeeded in delaying the entry of the Siamese for three days after which more troops arrived under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Gustav Schau, the Danish Commander in Chief of the Siamese Provincial Military Police. On the 20th August Field Marshall Chao Phraya Surasakmontri arrived with yet more troops and carrying full military authority from Bangkok.
The rebellion was over, the Shan now leaderless and without any hope of ousting the Siamese from the region. Most dispersed but several unfortunates were captured. Ten of these were executed in Phrae whilst another sixteen were taken back to Bangkok for trial.
From the outset the Siamese authorities suspected that Chao Luang Piriya Thepawongse had supported the rebels. His son and other high ranking members of the ruling family were arrested and on the 24th September King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) stripped Thepawongse of his title. Thepawongse fled Phrae the following night and successfully escaped to Luang Prabang, the Siamese only half-heartedly pursuing him since his quiet departure suited their interests very well. In absentia Thepawongse was charged with rebellion and sentenced to death, although in fact he lived out his remaining 10 years quite comfortably in Luang Prabang. The extent of his involvement in the whole affair is to this day unclear.
Retreat into the Reserve Zone
After the defeat at Lampang the Shan rebels dispersed but they did not disappear. They soon regrouped at Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong, towns on the Siamese bank of the Mekong within the Reserve Zone where they were protected from Siamese military action. From these towns the Shan continued to cause problems throughout 1903, including a failed attack on Chiang Rai. In early 1904 the troubles in Chiang Khong reached such a point that the local chief fled and was replaced by one of the Shan themselves. By May that year the town was reported to be in a state of “complete anarchy”.
The Siamese for their part set about crushing militarily any continued signs of rebellion. Field Marshal Surasakmontri’s forces destroyed the village of Baan Baw Kao where all the trouble had started. Other villages suffered a similar fate if any signs of Shan were found. One incident of “unspeakable atrocities” became particularly notorious because of the diplomatic ramifications with the British.
On 26th October 1902 several hundred Siamese troops entered the village of Ta Pha near Chiang Kham, the location of a British owned Bombay Burmah Teak Company (BBTC) compound. Shan rebels had built some barricades on the roads leading to the village but the rebels quickly fled as the Siamese forces arrived. Nevertheless the Siamese forces fired salvos into the village and entered the BBTC compound, taking down the company flag as they did so.
At least five locals found at the compound were killed and several more injured. The dead included several women. One Burmese and one Shan teak worker were taken prisoner and later executed outside of the village. The troops spent another five days pillaging and destroying the village. This killing of BBTC workers caused outrage with the British who insisted upon a lengthy investigation. At the end of 1903 a Siamese court sentenced the Siamese commander responsible to twelve years imprisonment.
Finally in April 1904 the Siamese received intelligence telling them that the Shan were preparing for another attack on Chiang Rai. They now requested permission from the French to enter the Reserve Zone to deal decisively with the Shan. Local French authorities had long hoped to expand French control into the Reserve Zone and beyond and had quietly been playing a dangerous game giving shelter and support to the rebels that were destabilising Siamese control of the region. But in Bangkok a new treaty between France and Siam was now nearly settled, one that would eliminate the Reserve Zone whilst giving France territory west of Luang Prabang and opening negotiations over the Cambodian border. Now France also wanted to suppress the troublesome Shan. The Governor General of Indochina quickly approved the Siamese request and in mid-May Siamese troops equipped with artillery headed across the Reserve Zone towards Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen. Chiang Khong was reoccupied quite easily with the Shan quickly retreating across the Mekong into French territory, but at Chiang Saen stiff resistance was encountered and it took two attempts for the Siamese to take the town. But now finally Shan resistance to Siamese rule was over.
Winners and Losers
The direct cause of the Shan rebellion of 1902 was no doubt simmering discontent with new taxes and restrictions on trade imposed by the Siamese. But the presence of the somewhat lawless Shan in Northern Siam had been caused by Britain’s annexation of Upper Burma in 1886 and it was regional competition between Britain, France and Siam that created the environment in which the Shan could operate within and between the lines of British, French and Siamese control. After the rebellion a Siamese investigation uncovered a web of complex plots leading all the way to the Burmese Prince Myingun, a half-brother of King Thibaw Min who had been deposed by the British. It was probably Myingun who had instilled the idea within the Shan community that the region’s traditional rulers could be restored to power.
The result of the rebellion was the very opposite of what the Shan had hoped. Bangkok was motivated to speed up consolidation of the northern city states under the Ministry of Interior. The hereditary rulers were viewed with increased distrust and Bangkok took every opportunity to replace them with appointed officials. It also influenced budgetary decisions which would shape the future nation, the government choosing to invest in the building of railways that could quickly carry troops to the north, rather than invest in an expensive scheme being proposed at the time to improve agriculture through irrigation in the Chao Phraya delta.
Today the Shan Rebellion is usually seen as a small bump on the road to establishing the modern Thai nation. But this story is also that of a people whose territory and culture didn’t fit within the border lines drawn up by colonising nations, and who never had the opportunity to establish their own “nation” with all the trappings that go with this in the modern world. For a few brief weeks in 1902 a small band of Shan believed that they could turn back the immense forces of change around them, but perhaps even then they were simply deceived by a prince seeking to restore his own power. But more than one hundred years later when so much has changed, the Shan are still taking up arms against oppressive rulers.
Title Photo : Sixteen Shan prisoners photographed after they were sent to Bangkok for trial and punishment
Where to Go
- Seditious State-Making in the Mekong Borderlands: The Shan Rebellion of 1902–1904. Andrew Walker. Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia Vol. 29, No. 3 (2014), pp. 554–90
- Borders in Motion on the Upper Mekong: Siam and France in the 1890’s. Andrew Walker. ANU Research Publications. 2008.
- The French Wolf and the Siamese Lamb. Patrick Tucker. White Lotus. 1995
- Louis and the King of Siam. W.S. Bristowe. Chatto & Windus. 1976.