Friday, May 28, 2010

The Haw Wars, 1865-1890 (สงครามปราบฮ่อ)

Around the time that Louis Napoleon Bonaparte's regime was ending in France, the Taiping rebellion having failed in China, King Mongkut (Rama IV)had just gained an acceptance for Siam as a rightful nation in world diplomacy. Between the years 1865 and 1890, the Thai Kingdom's northern parts which was then bordering with the French protectorate Tonkin, were being raided by Chinese rebels that had fled southwards after their defeat in Nanking and other rebellions.

Rama IV

Armed, organized and trained but outlawed warriors banded together under different leaderships who distinguished their different groups by using colored flags. There were red, black, yellow and stripped groups of flagged bandits roaming the country side. The Black Flag group, led by Lui Yongfu was the most legitimate of the colored flags and fought for both the Viet and Chinese rulers against the French.

The Yellow Flags, led by Huang Chongying, were modeled after, but rivalled the Black Flags, failed to gain legitimacy and were pursued by both Qing and Vietanamese armies, as well as their original contenders, the Black Flags.  They were broken and on the run, raiding, looting, and harassing defenseless towns.

Many of those rebels roaming the countryside in the South of China towards the ending of the 19th century were Muslim Chinese, known as Hui in China and Panthay to the Burmese, while in Siam and Laos they were known as Haw.  

By 1872, bandit groups had drifted across the frontier of Laos and were occupying a large part of Laos which was then a tributary state of Thailand. In 1873, the Red Flags sacked Dien Bien Phu (a place where, at that time, French opium dens were making fortunes), and the Stripped Flags gained control of the Plain of Jars and the area of the Phuan (Xieng Khouang).

Several unsuccessful attempts to subdue the rebels were pressed upon by Viet, Laos and Thai kings.  A prince of Phuan was killed in one attempt and a Thai Praya was shot at in another. Each time that the Siamese army retreated, the rebels came back to raid towns. The rebels had equipped themselves with modern repeating rifles and Birminghan-manufactured ammunition and were skilled in guerilla warfare.

The Thai army was mostly made up of untrained men recruited from the North and Northeastern farmlands.  The commanders sent by King Chulalongkorn were unfamiliar with the terrain and logistics.  In one campaign, supplies were lost to the rebels, in another campaign an outpost was lost because its captain fell ill with malaria.  The Thai army's offensive to subdue the Haw bandits took so many years because it was also difficult to fight during rainy seasons.  Without success in one year, the army would have to regroup again the next year to push for another offensive.

In the end, the Thai army was supplied and trained with foreign weapons to match the fighting power of the Haw rebels. A British surveyor, James McCarthy, under hire by the Thai king to map Thai terrain during that period, was an observer of the Haw Wars.  He had noted that on one occasion some of those weapons carried by Thai recruits weren't even loaded!

A successful strategy was finally planned and the Thai army moved in a more coordinated offense, and managed to squeeze the perimeters of the bandits into a smaller territory. After some key towns the Yellow Flags had taken were freed, the Haw bandits were pushed out of the Northeastern borders of Siam and Laos back into China. 


The observation of this particular historical moment is very interesting for me personally due to an unquenchable curiosity to know more about a hometown and family that I hadn't grown up with.  In answer to my constant pestering questions about the past,  my Mom once recounted to me that the Promasakha Na Sakon Nakhon family was related to ours, the Singhakul family (a story that I will tell later in another blogpost).

Sakon Nakhon is a province in the Northeast of Thailand, about two hours from the Mekhong River border with Laos.  When I unearthed, in the scantily recorded history of this town, an interesting record of how the name Promasakha Na Sakon Nakhon was given to a highly esteemed governor of the Muang, relating his role for recruiting and leading people in support of the offensive against the Haw bandits, the Haw Wars became for me an important reference point to find out more about events that had shaped the times of my mother's grandparents.

Since I am now able to use the internet to access sources in English and increasingly more in Thai, I am seeing a clearer picture of how a sleepy town on the edge of empires is, in fact, not as insignificant as one had perceived. Several connections to many other important world events could be drawn from this single event.

The little details recounted by McCarthy of repeating rifles and Birmingham manufactured ammunition opened my eyes to how British imperial ambitions, whether intentional or not, were entwined in that moment.  The name "Haw", before just a name of an ethnic group, led me to discover that they were the same as Hui, Muslim Chinese who were, at that moment in history, leading a serious rebellion against the Qing dynasty.  Those rebels weren't just mindless raiders, they were pretty likely sent to that specific area. Whether as part of mercenaries simply following a campaign to harass French powers in the area, or as part of the Panthay Rebellion's leader's plan to occupy as much area as possible in readiness for his planned move into Burma, I will have to investigate further.

The lengthy campaign against the Haw also revealed in finer details the growing pains and mistakes of then a still evolving administration of the fourth, fifth, and sixth reign of the Chakri dynasty, learning, modernizing bit by bit, on the ground, less than 150 years ago.

The picture of elephants standing in formation with the Thai army above recalled to mind a funny anecdote of how King Rama V had once offered to send elephants to aid the US during its Civil War.

A revelation more relevant to the present, was the idea invoked of how, in actuality, not so far away China is, from the frontiers of Thailand. Our modern maps show that the space between the center of Thailand and the heart of China is quite immense, but if in the 19th century, all that space was takable by rebels, refugees moving over land, in a matter of months, fighting prolonged for decades, the illusion of that safe distance seems rather foolish indeed.  If anything such as a serious political unrest were to happen in that great land up North, Thailand would be receiving the brunt of an unimaginable deluge of refugees. We've never really overcome problems generated by refugee situations of the Vietnam wars, and even now, we are having increasing difficulties managing illegal immigrants in a million or two, escaping the oppression of the Burmese Junta. 

The different colored flags was also an odd reflection on the yellow and red colored political polarization happening currently in Thailand.

Recommended further reading:

Islam and Commerce in Old Yunnan
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haw_wars
สงครามปราบฮ่อ
Surveying and exploring in Siam, by James McCarthy

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