In Part I of our special three-part series, “The Holy Man Rebellions from both sides of the Mekong,” Ian G. Baird described how the political dynamics between the French, the House of Champassak, and the Siamese all played a role in sparking sporadic millenarian movements in both the newly established French colony of Laos and the Bangkok-colonized Northeast of Siam.

In this segment, Baird explains how the “holy men” of the period moved back and forth across the Mekong River, making it a significant cross-border set of events.

Note: This is Part II of a three-part series, “The Holy Man Rebellion(s) from both sides of the Mekong” by Dr. Ian G. Baird. Part I was published on April 19 and Part III will be published on April 21.

By Ian G. Baird

On March 30, 1902, Ong Man’s followers attacked Khemmarat, which was sacked and burnt. Two assistants to the governor were killed. The governor was also captured. It would appear that since Ong Man’s group was linked to the funeral of the king of Champassak two weeks earlier, as they referred to the king of Champassak when asking for “protection.” 

As a French official wrote, “The rebel leaders are from Bassac [Champassak], others are from Laos, they were the instigators of the riot.” Soon, the number of followers of Ong Man had expanded to over 2,500.

The French, in response, sent 200 Vietnamese riflemen reinforced by 30 Europeans to Ubon, which was in the so-called 25-kilometer “neutral zone,” ostensibly to protect the French Consulate and generally support the Siamese army in suppressing the rebellion in Khemmarat. 

According to a French official, the rebel group could have easily taken Ubon, had they chosen to march on it. Instead, however, to the surprise of the French, they stopped for a big celebration. This gave Khorat the chance to send a telegraph to mobilize 300 men to defend Ubon, and suggested that the rebels were not following conventional strategic logic.

A group of the rebels arrested by Siamese soldiers, after losing the battle at Ban Saphoe, Ubon Ratchathani. Photo: Thai National Archives. 

On April 4, before Ong Man’s men had left Saphoe Village, 50 kilometers northwest of Ubon, where the group had been celebrating, two powerful Siamese military cannons blasted them. Despite Ong Man’s instructions to his followers earlier to sit down, meditate and draw strength from past lives, over 200 rebels were killed, another 500 were injured, and 120 were captured, apparently without a single Siamese casualty. 

Dissident losses were high because they attacked as one large group, apparently believing they were invincible. This brought a quick end to the rebellion west of the Mekong. However, Tej Bunnag claimed that some local nobles who had not admitted their involvement in the uprising continued to operate quietly even after it was suppressed. Ong Man crossed back into Laos and disappeared with many followers. Mopping-up operations netted a number of other phou my boun and their followers on the Siam side.

The Song Khone, Phin and Savannakhet Uprisings and Links to other Rebellions

Pho Kaduat was the key leader of the uprisings that began in Song Khone and later spread to Savannakhet, east of the Mekong. He left his parents when he was young to study magic (visa akhom) with his uncle on the Bolaven Plateau. He became politicized, and later encouraged villagers in Phin to resist paying taxes or becoming coolies to serve the French colonial government. In 1899, he moved to Champhone District in Savannakhet Province to escape from French authorities. An ethnic minority village called Khamsida, near Kengkoke, in Champhone District, became his and his followers’ base, and support for the rebels rapidly increased.

Unrest began in 1899 when people from Khong Chiam, on the west side of the Mekong River, crossed the river to warn of an impending uprising. Anyone who disobeyed would suffer, they were threatened.

In 1900, key rebel leaders in both southern Laos and northeastern Siam met in Khemmarat. Pho Kaduat attended, as did Ong Man and Ong Keo, who knew each other. It was agreed that Pho Kaduat and his deputy Keo would lead the resistance in Savannakhet. According to the French scholar, Bernard Gay, they utilized the “popular belief in magic and the millenarian expectation of the coming of a universal ruler (known as phagna thammikarat), as a means of gaining the trust of the population and provoking them to rise against the authorities.”

In 1901, Pho Kaduat drew heavily on Buddhist symbolism to resist the French, just like Ong Keo and Ong Man. One of Pho Kaduat’s colleagues was apparently a member of a royal family, as his name is given as “Chao On,”, indicating that he was a royal. 

The rebellion began in the middle of the sixth Lao lunar month, around May. Initially, the authorities were not very concerned, since the rebels were organizing on religious grounds. After a large party brought together people from 120 villages for seven days and seven nights—at which time Pho Kaduat and his colleagues emphasized their opposition to the 1893 treaty that cut Laos into two—basic weapons collection began in preparation for resistance. 

In May 1901, Song Khone was successfully attacked. This built confidence and convinced others to join. The harvests were also poor that year, leading to hunger, and driving more people to join the resistance. The French sent reinforcements from Vietnam. Ong Keo’s allies on the Bolaven Plateau were linked to Pho Kaduat’s group, as Ong Keo specifically mentioned that Pho Kaduat would be one of the holy men in a letter he wrote in May 1901.

In April 1902, Pho Kaduat and Ong Man led rebels to attack Savannakhet on three occasions, but were driven back by the colonial Garde Indigène of France. Between 100 and over 200 rebels were killed. The dissidents, including Ong Man and Ong Kommadam, withdrew to the Bolaven Plateau after attacking the French Commissariat.

Pho Kaduat and other rebels fled east to Xepon to regroup, but the French pursued them, although Pho Kaduat was able to escape to the forests near Khamsida. He remained there until 1903, when he and 300 of his followers were captured.

In May 1903, after the uprising ended, the Vice-consulate of France in Ubon wrote that in the aftermath of the rebellion, and in the run up to Champassak being transferred to the French, the Siamese were strongly encouraging inhabitants of Champassak to relocate to Ubon, a familiar strategy. They wanted to depopulate Champassak as much as possible before their departure. The Siamese also wanted to transfer the government administration in Champassak to Siamese territory in Ubon. The oupahat was said to be leading the effort. He was not mentioned by name, but they must have been referring to Oupahat Khamphanh. 

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