- Siam, contemporary Thailand, was the only country of the Far East, besides Japan and China, never to experience colonial rule. In the early nineteenth century, Siam’s leaders concentrated on rivalry with neighboring Burma until realizing that the main threat came from the British and French Empires. King Mongkut, an acute observer of international affairs, managed to come to terms with the British by granting them extraterritoriality and free trade in the Bowring treaty of 1855.Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn relied on a mixture of modernization, diplomacy, and sometimes good fortune to defend Siam’s independence. Under their leadership, limited but real reforms were introduced, often with the help of experts and advisers recruited from the European colonial services. A Western-style government and a centralized provincial administration were created in the 1890s, as well as an independent judiciary, a body of codified law, and a competent administration of the country’s finances. Reforms helped preserve financial independence, prevent incidents that might provide pretexts for intervention, and win back jurisdiction over British subjects in 1909. Britain was interested chiefly in stability and free trade, whereas France, pursuing territorial rather than economic interests, was harder to placate. Repeatedly, Siam had to offer territorial concessions, beginning with the “Siam Crisis” of 1893 when French gunboats forced their way to Bangkok. After France had accepted to restrain her ambitions in Siam in the Entente Cordiale and Siam had ceded further territory to France in 1907 and Britain in 1909, independence was finally secure.Except through the settlement of Siam’s lowlands by people escaping from the control of the nobility and producing rice for export after the introduction of free trade in 1855 and the immigration of Chinese traders and laborers into Bangkok, Siamese society changed very little and only at the top. Chulalongkorn had received a partly Western education and from the 1880s, princes were educated in Europe. Administrative reforms and the creation of a modern army were accompanied by the training of new staff and resulted in the appearance of a small modern middle class. Universal education remained a distant prospect, however, held back by cautious fiscal policies that also hampered efforts at economic diversification. Siam managed to secure independence and create the structures of a modern state, but social and economic change was limited.See also <
>; < >; < >.FURTHER READING:Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.NIELS P. PETERSSON
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.