In this final segment of our series, “The Holy Man Rebellion(s) from both sides of the Mekong,” Ian G. Baird focuses on the role of the Lao royal family in the House of Champassak and the role they would come to play in colonial Laos and how its influence declined in Siam’s Northeast.

Note: This is Part III of a three-part series, “The Holy Man Rebellion(s) from both sides of the Mekong” by Dr. Ian G. Baird. Part I and Part II were published on April 19 and April 20, respectively.

By Ian G. Baird

According to a member of the Champassak royal family, the French Commissaire based in Ban Mouang asked Chao Nhouy, who had replaced his father, Chao Khamsouk, as the leader of Champassak, was still in Siamese territory. He helped convince the ethnic minorities in the mountains east of the Mekong not to join Ong Keo, the resistance leader in the Bolaven Plateau, in French Laos.

Assembled Vassal States of Siam: Prince Damrong Ratchanuphap, head of the newly formed, centralized Ministry of Interior, sits among heads of Siam’s vassal states in 1896. Vassal lords pictured from (starting left, back row) Prae, Lampang, Saiburi (Kedah), Chiang Mai, and Lamphun. Seated in front are the head of Nan, Prince Damrong, Chao Khamsouk of Champassak, and the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior. Chao Khamsouk died three years later in 1899.

Chao Nhouy was accompanied by a French military leader and a large unit of Vietnamese soldiers. The French at one point shot at some ethnic minorities suspected of being rebels. Later, the minorities hit back, using crossbows, which had the advantage of not making a sound. They also used traps to inflict injury on the soldiers, including killing their French leader. 

The minorities managed to capture and tie up most of the Vietnamese soldiers and Chao Nhouy. However, when the leader of the minorities arrived, he recognized Chao Nhouy. He was happy to see Chao Nhouy, and he cried, and strongly apologized for capturing him. The minority leader said they thought that the group was just French, and did not realize that Chao Nhouy was with the group. 

Chao Nhouy (Chao Ratxadanay) did not officially replace his father as the King of Champassak until 1903.

Soon all the minorities were prostrating themselves before Nhouy, and asking for his help. They considered Nhouy to be their “ya yo,” a term used to refer to fatherly figures. A huge party was organized, and all the leaders of the minorities came to show their respect. Meat was offered to the ancestors. Three days later, the minorities brought Chao Nhouy to the Mekong River and released him.

The French learned that Chao Nhouy had returned and called him to meet. Some Vietnamese working with the French were suspicious of why so many Vietnamese soldiers had been injured and killed, while Nhouy was unscathed. The latter then explained that there was a long relationship between Champassak royals and the minorities. He also explained that it should be no surprise that the ethnic minorities attacked them, since the French shot first, thus inciting the harsh response.

Although the main uprising was over by 1903, rebels remained on the Bolaven Plateau for many more years. However, Ong Keo surrendered in October 1907 and was executed in November 1910. Crucially, the upland peoples were particularly upset with the disruption of their tribute relations with the Lao. Indeed, many had a problem with the switch from paying tribute, which was part of an exchange process, to paying tax in money and receiving nothing in return. 

Scholar Patrick Jory writes that, “The evidence suggests that a number of them were disaffected members of the former Lao nobility who saw both Thai and French rule as a foreign imposition.” 

As the Frenchman Bernard Bourotte put it in 1955, 

“The Lord of Bassac, a devoted follower of the Siamese, saw this agitation as a chance to regain the importance which Bangkok had denied him by signing the treaty of 1893, under which he  forfeited his former ascendancy over the authorities of Attapeu and Saravan. Besides, the phou my boun had promised to sweep aside all outside powers, beginning with that of the French commissioners.”

Vestige of a time before Laos was split into two: When the In 1904, the French took over Champassak from the Siamese. Some members of the House of Champassak fled to Siamese territory, including Oupahat Khamphanh. A chedi built in his name is located in Khan Nok Ho Village, Amphoe Surinthon, Ubon Ratchathani.

King Rama V of Siam also saw that the main goal of the rebellions was to return to older forms of government. Chao Nhouy not only “sided with the rebels,” but the House of Champassak may well have played a role in planning and instigating the revolts on both sides of the border, and possibly as far as the Central Highlands of Vietnam. 

The Siamese began to discourage the slave trade in 1872, when it dissolved the system of kan sak lek, or the branding of the bodies of slaves, and ordered that slave should be allowed to live where they wanted, although in reality the trade continued long after then. 

The abolition of slavery, which Siam gradually implemented during the later part of the nineteenth century, and the prosecution of slave traders organized by the French administration at that time, seriously cut into the profits of the former ruling classes. Therefore, southern Lao officials were willing to support “tradition” in order to justify their continued income from the slave trade. This made them natural allies with some ethnic minorities who had previously benefited from serving as slave trade middlemen.

The rebellion died down during the 1910s and early 1920s, although Ong Kommadam remained in hiding. In 1924, however, he sent out a series of manifestos, or letters, called nangseu khome, written in a script that he had developed from scratch. Then he declared himself to be “King of the Khome ” in 1926. 

Earlier in the same year, he wrote in a letter to the Résident Supérieur of Laos that he was willing to pay taxes to the chao nakhone, or king, of Champassak. Crucially, he explained that in pre-colonial times, as well as before the arrival of the Siamese in Laos, the Khomes had paid an annual head tax to Chao Anou of Vientiane, which was collected by the House of Champassak. 

The emblem of the House of Champassak, and in particular, Chao Khamsouk (Chao Nhouthithamathone).

Those coordinating the rebellions were not stupid, and many were former nobles who wanted to make their living as previously. Resistance to change was especially evident in areas far from Bangkok, such as the north, northeast and far south. 

Although the Siamese government had insufficient human and financial resources to implement the reforms effectively, in cases where former local rulers were given senior positions in the new administrative system, the transition was smoother. The problem was, however, that due to limited funds, many leaders of small muang, and their deputies, were not initially allocated positions.

Chao Sanprasittiprasong, the kha luang yai, only realized in July 1903 that some of the holy men were actually petty nobility and others who “wished to make a living in the old ways.” Essentially, they resented the formation of large administrative units and the steady reduction of local autonomy. In addition, the abilities of those initially hired in the new administration were often low.

On the east side of the border, the French implemented their own set of dramatic reforms. In addition to the people east of the Mekong having been cut off by a new border from their previous leaders in Champassak, the economic and political positions of those Lao elite who remained east of the Mekong were severely compromised. Debt-slave trading was prohibited and the tribute system was rapidly replaced with a new system involving taxes and people contributing corvée labor. 

All these changes led to the type of rapid destabilizing political and economic change that is frequently linked to millenarian movements in the region, which the Champassak Royal House hoped would benefit them. In the end, their plan was not successful, but their role in the holy men rebellions, and the cross border nature of the uprisings is important to recognize.

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