GEORGE TOWN: The old Kedah sultanate had the freedom to enter into contracts, such as the purported lease of Penang, despite being a subordinate, vassal state of the Siamese Kingdom, a Thai historian said.
Thongchai Winichakul also said the current debate on Kedah doing so without the Siamese kingdom’s knowledge also does not hold water.
He said this was because the arguments were based on modern concepts of what constituted a country and its territories, which was wrong.
Thongchai said what Siam and the old Kedah had was an overlord-vassal relationship. Despite Kedah being subordinate to Siam, the sultanate had autonomy in administering their territory.
He said the same argument was in the minds of the British back in the 1820s, which led them to think that the deal Francis Light struck with the Kedah sultan over the occupation of Penang was illegitimate.
British diplomat Henry Burney was sent to meet the Siamese King to check if he was upset or opposed to the lease of Penang, he said.
“Burney then found out that Siam did not oppose the lease of Penang. It acknowledged Kedah’s agreement with the British, as long as Kedah observed its obligation to send tributes to Siam,” he told FMT.
Thongchai is an emeritus professor in Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.
British ‘mesmerised’ by Siamese concept of territory
Thongchai said Siam’s response that they were okay with the occupation of Penang “mesmerised” the British, as it contradicted their modern view of what territorial sovereignty should be.
“In the 1820s, the British applied their modern, western view of a territorial state with territorial sovereignty to this pre-modern, vassal-overlord relations that remained in place in the region.
“This mission (by Burney) helped the British understand the vassal-overlord relationship better. Therefore, some of them pushed Kedah to break up the submission (to Siam),” he said.
Thongchai said later, when Kedah failed to pay tributes as scheduled, Siamese forces mounted several invasions to pressure them to pay up.
He said most of the invasions were merely a show of military force by the Siamese, without an actual battle as Kedah gave in. Tributes, in the form of “bunga mas” (gold) was previously sent once every three years to the Siamese king.
Thongchai said at one point in the late 1830s, Kedah had refused to submit to Siam, which saw the sitting Sultan replaced by a new one deemed loyal to the Siamese King.
“While such an event could be misunderstood as colonisation, it was not. Instead, it was merely the restoration of ties between an overlord and a vassal.”
Thongchai said the use of maps denoting the loss of territories by Thailand only served its “chauvinistic nationalism” and did not help get people to understand history better.
“Such maps of the loss of territories are all based on anachronistic, bogus interpretations of history. The Thai state has been using them as propaganda for decades,” he said.
Thongchai is the author of the critically-acclaimed book, “Siam: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation” which looks into the old Siamese Kingdom and its borders.