PART I: The Holy Men Revolt: A Tale of Two Countries

The Isaan Record’s coverage of the Holy Man Rebellion that spread through the Northeast more than a century ago has focused almost entirely on what was happening in areas west of the Mekong River. Noted Southeast Asian scholar from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Ian G. Baird provides a fuller picture of the rebellion in a three-part series, “The Holy Man Rebellion(s) from both sides of the Mekong.” In this first installment Baird takes us to the “Lao” side of the Mekong, at a time when once-fluid frontiers had just solidified into national borders.

Note: This is Part I of a three-part series, “The Holy Man Rebellion(s) from both sides of the Mekong” by Dr. Ian G. Baird. Part II will be published on April 20 and Part III on April 21.

By Ian G. Baird

The Holy Men Revolts of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century need to be understood as transcending the national borders that presently exist between Thailand and Laos. It also needs to be recognized that dramatic interrelated changes on both sides of the border contributed to the upheaval that occurred. Finally, the role of the Champassak Royal family in inciting at least some of the unrest has been greatly underestimated, and needs to be considered in more detail.

In 1899, Chao Khamsouk, the 11th King of Champassak, died, and his death, along with other changes that were occurring, significantly influenced the uprisings. Following Khamsouk’s death, his deputy, Oupahat Khamphanh, took control of the House of Champassak, undoubtedly with the support of other family members. Champassak is presently located in southern Laos, on the west side of the Mekong River, and it was an important royal family with considerable influence in southern Laos, northeastern Cambodia and northeastern Thailand. However, in 1778, Champassak was forced to become a vassal state under the King of Siam.

After Champassak became a vassal of Siam in 1778, the most important Buddhist image in Champassak, Phra Keo Phaleuk or Phra Ong Khao, was “invited” to go to Thonburi, where it remains up to this day.

Crucially, Chao Khamsouk’s son, Chao Nhouy or Chao Raxadanay, did not officially succeed him until 1903. Thus, the position of the king of Champassak was vacant for over three years. 

There is evidence to suggest that prior to the Bolaven Plateau uprising, in 1895, an ethnic Lao Buddhist monk with royal Vientiane blood named Ong Kam Somdet (also known as Ong Thong) was involved in inciting highlanders to rebel against the French.

On September 7, 1895, a French official based in Ban Mouang, the French headquarters in southern Laos near the east bank of the Mekong River , reported that a millenarian phou my boun [phu mi boon, “Holy Men”] leader had been arrested and put in prison in Muang Khong. 

According to the French, Ong Kam Somdet was born in Bangkok, but was the grandson of the last king of Vientiane, Chao Anouvong. Apparently, in 1828, after the fall of Vientiane, his parents were forcibly taken to Bangkok. Ong Thong was ordained as a Buddhist novice in Vientiane at Vat Sisaket, after traveling out of Siam at the age of 17. He eventually made it to southern Laos. According to the French, “He pretended to act in the interests of the kha [the ethnic minorities speaking Austroasiatic languages] who are oppressed by the chao [Champassak Royals] and has no other purpose but religion.” A French official, the Commissaire of Savannakhet, stated that, “He was just making trouble in the country so I arrested him.”

The Lao world cut in half: French colonial incursions resulted in the 1893 treaty that turned the center of Lao life and culture–the Mekong River–into an international border, suddenly turning “Lao” rebellions into cross-border ones.

On September 6, 1895, the Supérieur Commandant of Lower Laos wrote, in a message to the Résident Supérieur of Laos, 

“I have just read the letter about the phou my boun, who claims to be a descendant of the former king of Vientiane. He is causing problems among the kha of the Bolavens, asking them to rebel against the order of Chao Muang of Sedon, to whom they depend. We can probably believe that he is the source of the rebellion in the Bolavens last year. This adventurer, dressed as a monk, will be kept in jail as long as you wish.”

Later, however, Ong Thong escaped from the French headquarters at Ban Mouang, and became a key figure in the Bolaven Plateau revolt, along with Ong Keo and Ong Kommadam, who are much better known. 

By June 1901, the French had become especially worried, as a number of ethnic Lao officials had joined the Bolaven rebellion. The rebellion was far from simply a struggle of ethnic minorities, as some have imagined. The French Pavie Mission surveyed Laos for a number of years before forcibly taking over all territories east of the Mekong River in 1893. Thus, the French had only been governing the areas for eight years at this time. 

Stockpiling Weapons in Champassak

There is evidence that prior to the beginning of the uprisings, the House of Champassak had already been secretly and illegally stockpiling weapons imported from Phnom Penh. The commander of southern Laos wrote, in August 1901, that, 

“Another explanation is that the weapons sold on the right bank in Bassac were intended to end up with the rebels. So far, I have no proof. We know that crews of bandits have boxes of powder from there. This trader has received 200 kg of powder since last September [1900]. The last steamboat just brought him 30 kg more. This powder comes from a Phnom Penh company with simple police authorization. I have asked the Résident Supérieur of Cambodia to disallow any permits for powder and ammunition going to Laos. The Laotian population could complain but does not because they know of the good being done to them. But we can only regret that those people are too peaceful to help us fight the Khas.” 

It appeared that someone in Champassak was importing unusually large quantities of arms, including a considerable amount of gunpowder, and that at least some of that gunpowder was reaching the rebels.

Crucially, members of the House of Champassak would later have a history of inciting upland minorities to justify and increase their own power. During the 20th Century they often caused upheaval to demonstrate their importance in quelling it, thus positioning themselves to take more control. There were examples from northeastern Cambodia in 1915 and 1930, and there was a plan launched in 1945. The tactic of inciting highlanders to revolt was a tool that was periodically used by the House of Champassak.

Links between the Funeral of Chao Khamsouk and Uprisings in Khemmarat

The cremation of Chao Khamsouk, who had died in 1899, coincided with the Khemmarat uprising. In 1902, Paul Patté, the acting Vice-Consul of France in Ubon, sent a message to the Ambassador of France in Siam about the phou my boun rebellion west of the Mekong River. He wrote that, “On March 15-16, on the way to Bassac, a group of people, as soon as the cremation of the king of Bassac was completed, said that they would attack both Siam and France.”

Chao Khamsouk (Chao Nhouthithamathone), the 11th King of Champassak, died in 1899. His funeral would spark the Phu Mi Boon revolt.

Ong Man had claimed to be thao Thammikarat, a holy and just monarch, following a messianic prophecy that such a holy man would come to the Khorat Plateau. He apparently intended to establish his sacred rule in Ubon Ratchathani by deposing Chao Sanprasittiprasong, a brother of the king of Siam, the chief kha luang [royal commissioner] there, who took over in 1893. During this time the mandala system was being replaced by the thesaphiban system, which was negatively impacting the authority and revenue of former local leaders, such as the Champassak royals. This caused considerable resentment. Similar government reorganization efforts were also occurring in French Laos, which was also marginalizing former leaders.

Reforms were frequent and continued until 1899, the same year the name of Monthon Lao Kao was changed to Monthon Tawan Awk Chiang Neua (the Northeastern Monthon). A year later the name was changed to Monthon Isan. All the government positions and titles were changed between 1897 and 1899, as Siamese central government control increased. This caused considerable tensions and confusion, even though efforts were made to give positions to those who had held important positions previously.

Ong Man was responsible for convincing some disaffected local officials from the downgraded muang of Khong Chiam to cross into Laos and claim to be phou my boun, literally people with merit. By February 1902, the rebels were estimated to have 6,000 followers. One minor player, who was interviewed after the uprising that he had led was suppressed, stated that all the phou my boun had the same objective, “to establish a kingdom which was not under either the Siamese or the French” – referring, perhaps, to the kingdom of Champassak which was then partially under French control and partially under Siamese control.

Dr. Ian Baird is a professor of Geography and the Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.