14: Indochina and the French (1862->)

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The French backlash

Vietnam: “Although the French assisted my Annanese royalty in suppressing their peasant revolt and regaining their throne, the Annanese still didn’t trust the Europeans. In the early 1800s my government dismissed the French advisors who had come to exploit our wealth - executed 7 French missionaries - and banned Christianity. We thought we were done with them for good. Little did we know, this was just the beginning.

In 1840 the French Catholics began demanding protection from Vietnamese persecution - the abusers pretending to be the abused. They wanted a military reprisal against the Vietnamese for expelling their missionaries and requested military intervention. Simultaneously, there had been an upsurge in French capitalism, which had been infected by the colonial concept of overseas markets. The French branch of the Company began demanding a larger share of Asian territories already conquered by West.

The Church’s missionary propaganda combined with the Company’s business propaganda finally induced Napoleon III to send the French army to invade Vietnam in 1857. Although the French military technology with their guns and cannons was far superior, it still took them quite some time to gain control. In 1862 a treaty was signed which ceded some major towns in the south. It took them 5 more years to conquer my entire southern region and then 16 more years to conquer the rest. In 1883, 26 years after the initial invasion, the French Company was finally in charge of my whole country of Vietnam.”

Southeast Asia’s perspective

Southeast Asia: “How sad. Thanks Vietnam. Although I tend to vilify the European influence, my people were no angels. I’ve already mentioned how the Burmese first attacked their neighbor Thailand and then went on to conquer Assam. This proved to be their undoing - as this aggressive action provided the British Company the justification they needed to conquer Myanmar. I also related how the Vietnamese virtually squeezed the Cham out of political existence and then went on to systematically bite off chunks of the Khmer kingdom. We also mentioned how there were peasant uprisings in both Vietnam and Java, both of which were suppressed with European assistance.

My humans were equally disturbed no matter if were exploited or displaced locally or globally. Somehow I preferred the my local nation-states over the European invaders .

Although there was probably no difference to my individual humans whether they were killed, displaced, or exploited by the European companies who came as robbers to steal my wealth, the local aristocracy or the peasantry, it mattered to me. For some reason, I’ve always sided with the peasantry. This significant section of my human population live in small villages and cooperative communities. They have tilled my land, hunted my animals, caught my fish, and traded for goods and services. Perhaps I side with them because their limited needs did less damage to my ecology. Perhaps it is because there are so many more of them. Perhaps I just side with the underdog. Perhaps it’s because they’ve lived with me for so long, appreciating my bounty, and loving me as their home. For whatever reasons, I love my masses and give them priority in my thinking.

Because of my orientation to the masses who’ve lived on my land for so long, I also prefer the rulers who have treated them well. I’m especially fond of the Khmer of Angkor, the Srivijaya Empire of Indonesia, the Burmese Empire of Pagan, and all the rest of my Empires past, present and future, who’ve inspired my inhabitants to great works of art rather than military aggression. I much prefer my nations that bankrupt their country on art projects to those who dissipate their energies upon domination and conquering adjacent lands.

So my personal hierarchy of preferences begins with the locals who have lived upon my lands since the beginning of time. It follows with the nation states that encourage their creative and spiritual propensities. Then comes locally aggressive countries or empires. This is followed at last by foreign powers that have come to extract my wealth with no thought for the good of my community.

Although this categorization seems quite neat and tidy, it fractalizes at the boundaries, just as everything else does. Humanity is never that clear cut. With my preferences and biases in mind, let us examine the factors that led to the creation of the Union of Indochina by the French.

Birth of the Lao kingdom

From my story so far, it should be evident that the Tai, Burmese, and Vietnamese speakers have been the militarily dominant cultures on my mainland. The Vietnamese exterminated the Austronesian speaking Cham who lived on the southeast coast of my mainland. The Burmese and Tai speaking Shan cultures battled it out for supremacy in Myanmar. They eventually squeezed out the more artistic Austroasiatic speaking Mon peoples. Then we have the Thai people, who migrated as conquerors to my region relatively recently, just in the middle of the last millennium. The Thai first eliminated the Mon kingdom in the west, displacing or enslaving its people. The Thai then went on to sack Angkor and displace the Khmer as the leading empire of the middle of my Southeast Asian mainland. The Thai Empire based in Ayutthaya even expanded to control most of the Malay Peninsula.

While these Tai speakers had a common culture and language, they were fragmented politically for geographic reasons.

When the Nan Chao kingdom migrated south after the Mongol onslaught, one group, the Shan, went west into Myanmar; the second, the Thai, went into the middle of my mainland - migrating gradually down to my Gulf; the third, the Lao, migrated into my northeast territory. Each of these cultures formed their own kingdoms. Actually the Thai people originally had two kingdoms, one based in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, the other based in the fertile Chao Phraya delta. There was yet another kingdom that spoke a Tai based language. These were the Lao.

They had moved into territory that had previously been ruled by the Khmer. As the Khmer political mandala collapsed, the Lao moved in to fill the void. They established their own kingdom in 1353 CE. The kingdom of Laos was protected geographically. The mighty Mekong River defends the Lao from the Thai, their aggressive cousins to the west. The rugged Annamese Cordillera mountain range protects the tiny nation from Vietnam to her east and China to the north. Plentiful forests guard the southern border of Laos from the Khmer. Forests still encompass over 50% of the land. Due to this relative geographical isolation, the kingdom of Laos coexisted relatively peacefully with her neighbors.

She was not on any major trade routes and didn’t contain an abundance of natural resources that anyone else wanted. Hence none of her aggressive neighbors had any real reason to conquer and occupy this Lao kingdom. The Thai kingdom sent a few military expeditions into Laos to raid their treasures, but they never intended to stay. The Jade Buddha, which is housed in the Grand Palace in Bangkok and is venerated by the citizens of Thailand, was but one of these stolen treasures. Humans, sheesh! One Buddhist nation steals from another and then worships the loot.

Fragmentation of the formerly proud Khmer Empire

While the kingdom of Laos was protected by its geography, unfortunately this was not true of the Khmer kingdom to the south. Aggressive neighbors were eroding their territory from all directions. The Vietnamese gradually annexed the rich Mekong delta that had belonged to the Khmer. Simultaneously, the expanding Thai kingdom to their west gradually began absorbing the Khmer’s western borders. The once mighty Khmer Empire was shrinking. The Lao had assumed control of her northern territories; the Thai were encroaching on her western border; and the Vietnamese on her southeastern border.

For the duration of the second millennium - after the Thai people first sacked Angkor, the rulers of Cambodia were forced to play a balancing act to survive. The once proud nation was surrounded by wolves ready to absorb its territories piece by piece. The Khmer rulers would first ally with the Thai kingdom to prevent absorption by the Vietnamese and then ally with the Vietnamese to ward off Thai attacks. Each alliance was combined with territorial concessions. To further weaken their crumbling empire there were constant internal struggles, which included problems with dynastic succession combined with rival factions vying for power. While the degeneration of the Khmer was somewhat pathetic on one level, it is amazing that they were able to maintain any type of sovereignty, if one considers her militarily aggressive neighbors.

As the Reader might suspect, I was rooting for Khmer - partly because his Golden Age had provided such beauty to my land and partly because I loved the cultural diversity that his Austroasiatic culture provided my mainland. The Mon and Cham kingdoms were already gone for good. I sort of hoped to retain at least one of my original Indianized kingdoms. But I was trying not to attach, because there seemed to be some inevitability associated with Khmer’s disintegration.

Funded by the international trade funneled through Bangkok and facilitated by the Chinese traders, Thailand was on the rise politically and militarily from the end of the 18th century. Similarly Vietnam, once she had consolidated with the help of the French at the beginning of the 19th century, was feeling particularly voracious for new land. Khmer’s time as an independent kingdom seemed short. His ineffectual leaders signed treaty after treaty hoping to appease the wolves on his west and southeast. There seemed to be no hope. I went into some deep meditations to detach from his fate. Although I try not to favor any of my children over the rest, he was really one of my favorites. I just can’t seem to get over the incredible artistic achievement of Angkor.

An Unlikely Savior?

Then disaster occurred for the Vietnamese, which turned into a major blessing for Khmer. The French invaded Vietnam - neutralizing her power. In similar fashion China had conquered the northern Vietnamese cultures a millennium before, which had provided some protection the Cham kingdom. . The French were now providing the same function for the Khmer. The containment of the military energies of the Vietnamese saved the Khmer from annexation from the east. However seeing her rival out of the picture, Thailand decided to invade from the west to finish the Khmer off.

When things looked most bleak, a savior appeared from an unlikely direction. The Khmer royalty - playing the same balancing game which had preserved her autonomy for centuries, appealed to the French for assistance. Alarmed by the growing power of Thailand, the French stepped in to protect her perimeter. She established control of Cambodia, not calling her a colony, but a protectorate. This was in 1863.

You might wonder what the difference is between a protectorate, a colony, and just plain being conquered? It’s big. If the Khmer had been conquered by the Thai or the Vietnamese, the invading cultures would have moved in, turning the Khmer into a minority in their own land. The Khmer would have gone the way of the Cham or the Mon. If they had been turned into a colony, then European powers would have eliminated the local traditions and attempted to replace them with their own. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines provide such examples.

However becoming a French protectorate allowed the Khmer to retain their local traditions including their king. It was similar to when the Chinese required the local kingdoms to respect their sovereignty in exchange for trading privileges and protection. While the French overlords assumed far greater control than the Chinese ever did, it allowed the Khmer culture to exist a little while longer. Hooray for the French. See what I mean about a fractalized boundary.”

Company: “See I’m not so bad after all. My profit orientation does have its advantages.”

Southeast Asia: “The Universe does work in strange ways.”

Universe: “I certainly do. Some times I even amaze myself. But then I realize that there is probably some greater force that has allowed me to do such marvelous things and I bow and pray before the glory of Just Being.”

Southeast Asia: “Amen! Well said brother.”

Universe bowing: “Thank you. Thank you.”

Southeast Asia: “But sometimes I question your method of operation, your MO.”

Universe: “Why do you say that?”

Southeast Asia: “My Khmer were saved from one wolf to be exploited by another. His tribulations were in no way over. The worst was still to come.”

Universe: “The Khmer of Cambodia experienced a little pain - no doubt about that. But then - through the looking glass - turned inside out - and right back upon his feet. A little worse for wear - but leaner and more prepared to face tomorrow than Khmer had been since his glory days at Angkor - some 600 years earlier. Who would have ever thought that day would ever come. One of my miracles - to be sure.”

Southeast Asia, sarcastically: “How modest.”

Universe: “Modesty is an overrated virtue.”

Formation of Indochina

Southeast Asia: “In 1862, the French Company signed treaties giving it control of parts of South Vietnam. Then in 1863 Cambodia, after seeking assistance, became a French protectorate. In 1867 the Company finished establishing control of Cochin China, which is what the French called South Vietnam, and Annam China in the middle of Vietnam. France’s overseas possessions were growing more rapidly than expected. Finally in 1887 the Company finished conquering my eastern coast.

To celebrate and consolidate, they created the Union of Indochina. This political association joined Cambodia, and the three sections of Vietnam into one administrative unit. Six years later Laos, the kingdom of the Lao people, fearing absorption by Thailand, sought and was granted protectorate status. In 1893 she became my fifth territory to be included in the Union of Indochina. With the final addition of Laos, the French had successfully annexed the entire eastern section of my mainland.

The French, in contrast to the British, preferred to govern through centralization and assimilation methods in an effort to integrate their colonies into the greater French community. As a Catholic country, France was interested in conversion as well as exploitation. They wanted to include their overseas possessions in their empire, rather than just extract wealth from them. As such, they allowed the royal families of their colonies to continue to rule under a federal style central government headed by a French governor general. Just as with Malaysia and Indonesia, this eventually led to the growth of a modern state.

Despite this seemingly more enlightened colonial approach, the French tampered with the agricultural economy for their financial gain. This artificial manipulation of the local economy threw many Vietnamese peasants into debt slavery. Although the French Company protected my diversity of cultures from assimilation and absorption by their neighbors, they aligned with the ruling classes to continue to exploit the agricultural peasantry. This was to have repercussions more severe than we could have ever anticipated in the coming century.

While this economic exploitation was true of all the French territories, it was especially true of Vietnam, who had more natural resources to exploit. Further, the Vietnamese had seized the Mekong delta with all the major ports from the Khmer. As such, neither Laos nor Cambodia had any major ports for shipping and were both relatively isolated in terms of trade with China, India or Europe. Because of this greater impact, I’m going to let Vietnam tell what happened to her people. The Reader can extrapolate this colonial attitude to Laos and Cambodia. The French influence in these territories was generally more benign. As we shall see, Cambodia still had much more to fear from her neighbors than she did from France.”

Exploitation by the French branch of the Company

Vietnam: “As soon as the French Company had assumed control of my territory, they moved steadily to impose a western style administration to open up my people to economic exploitation on all levels. Although they allowed my country to retain our emperor, he was politically subservient to a French governor general, who was at the top of the corporate hierarchy. He was our new absolute monarch, removing our figure-head emperor at will. Vietnamese loyal to the French Company replaced our traditional leaders. Although the French paid lip service to local leadership, the Vietnamese were forced to cooperate with the French or they were replaced. Eventually French rule was imposed on all levels of administration.

Apologists for colonialism say that vast improvements were made in medical care, education, transportation and communication, but statistics indicate otherwise. Railroads, highways, harbors, bridges, canals and other public works were all aimed at systematic exploitation.”

Company: “You say that as if it was something new. Road building has been used as a means of military domination ever since the wheel and chariot were invented. We were just participating in a time-honored tradition employed by conquerors everywhere, or at least in our part of the world. It worked for the Romans, who are famous for their long lasting roads. And it worked for their prehistoric predecessors, as well, who needed good roads for their chariots. Efficient transportation is needed for supply lines as well as the rapid deployment of troops. Economically it is needed to efficiently transport goods from the interior to the coastal ports.

Early on we realized that Vietnam could be a great source of valuable raw materials. Because of de Rhodes, we expected to find silk, spices and gold; instead we found rice, coal, minerals and later rubber for exportation. We actually increased rice cultivation four fold from 1880 until 1930.”

Vietnam: “But this economic progress only benefited the French and a small class of rich Vietnamese. The actual consumption of rice by my peasantry dropped.”

Company: “But, of course. The world market was so hot that we needed all the rice we could get for export. The advanced agricultural technology that we introduced, for their own good of course, allowed us to increase rice production dramatically.”

Vietnam: “Not really. My people had always been experts at rice production. Your mounting export figures were due to the increase in arable land as a result of deforestation. The French exploitation of my peasantry also contributed to rice production. Small landowners were loaned money at exorbitant rates and then lost their land when they were unable to make payments due to artificially low prices imposed by foreign middlemen.”

Company: “We were just following practices that were introduced by the British in Burma. Great for profits. And remember that’s what I’m all about. So don’t try to guilt trip me. I am guilt free. I’m just doing the job I was set up for.”

Vietnam: “As well as sucking up our raw resources, you sold manufactured goods back to my people at artificially high prices.”

Company: “That was the carrot for the people back home so that their morals wouldn’t get in our way. We treated our colonies as a market sector for tariff protected French industries. This way everyone got to share in the profits.”

Vietnam: “Except my people.”

Company: “Don’t look at me that way. Everyone else was doing the same thing. The British, the Dutch, the Spanish and Portuguese and later on the Americans. It was the thing to do. It was a great technique. Sweeten the pot for the people back home so that their compassion for these indigenous people doesn’t get in our way. We didn’t develop any local industry because that would compete with our business back home. There was no systematic development of our colonies because that would erode our profits. My investors are all about the attainment of immediate high returns. Because of their insatiable greed for more, only a small fraction of our profits were reinvested in the local economy - as little as we could get away with. But don’t tell that to the people back home. They want to feel good about themselves. Criticism is bad for self esteem.”

Vietnam: “We certainly don’t want to hurt their self esteem.”

Company: “No, you never know what they might do. They are fairly unpredictable. For instance we tell them that our efforts have financed public works, which are supposedly good for of country. But we have actually funded many of these through taxes and indirect taxes, which, of course, impoverished your peasantry. But they are neither stock holders nor voters.”

Vietnam: “Too bad for them.”

Company: “Yes, in Buddhist terms they must be paying back bad karma from past lives.”

Vietnam: “Under this logic your people will probably be reborn as beasts of burden under a cruel master.”

Company: “Perhaps. Yes it might affect my servants, er I mean my stockholders, but that has nothing to do with me. I am just a company. I’m about profits, not people. That was why it was easy for me to enslave your local population to do my bidding - er I mean, to organize the recruitment of forced labor to do some honest work for the good of the country. One has to be so careful about wording these days. We live in such a politically correct time.”

Vietnam: “How did you treat your livestock, er I mean slaves, no I guess you prefer to call them your work force because your people back home have passed laws against slavery.”

Company: “Yes, please be careful how you phrase things. It could get me in big trouble. In terms of our work force, we really didn’t care for them that well. Because there was so many of them, they were very replaceable. We worked them to death and then brought in someone new. Why should we care about job safety when our work force was so plentiful? Why should we provide them with medical care when that would erode our profits? But let’s keep this between just you and I. We want the people back home to feel good about themselves. We don’t want them passing any more legislation that inhibits our profit making ability. They have already passed a few laws to protect the rights of your people. We never enforce them, but it makes our people feel good that they have done something. Then the profits roll in and they forget all about our overseas endeavors.”

Vietnam: “But I thought they were in charge.”

Company: “They think they are in charge, but we are separate, just like parent and child. They attempt to loosely control our activities, but we just pretend to comply so that they can pretend to be in control. Everyone feels good that way.”

Vietnam: “Except my people.”

Company: “Cry me a river. All of my friends are doing the same thing. The Spanish government attempted to reign in the abuses of their conquistadors in Mexico and South America, but were largely ignored. The British Parliament passed laws against slavery. At the same time their navy was enslaving, er I mean impounding, their own citizens to work on their death boats. And in recent times the American Congress has frequently, but unsuccessfully, attempted to eliminate the atrocities committed by their CIA who is the military arm of their Company.”

Vietnam: “Why keep up the charade?”

Company: “We Companies pretend to be part of our parent countries and comply with her wishes because it’s easier to receive military and economic funding that way. If the citizens think that we are acting in the national interests, they are willing to give us anything we want. If they think we are acting autonomously or immorally, they immediately cut our funding. Much easier to keep up the charade.”

Vietnam: “Clever.”

Company: “Aren’t we though. For instance, we tell them that we brought literacy to your country. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Under our regime only 15% received schooling, while prior to colonization literacy was very high due to the Chinese and Buddhist influence. We even forced your people to adopt quoc ngu, the Romanized script that de Rhodes developed. Initially the Vietnamese who had converted to Catholicism was only ones who used the script. However in 1910 we made its use mandatory in schools. Even after we left, the Vietnamese continued to use this phoneticization of their language. Now it is used universally.

To allow our people back home to feel good about our endeavors, we also told them that we introduced modern medicine for the good of the Vietnamese. That’s a real joke. Medical care costs way too much money. We were proud that the Vietnamese had only 2 doctors for 100,000 compared to 76 in Japan and 25 in the Philippines. Saved us bundles of money. We insisted that we freed your people from the clutches of an evil dictator, while we enslaved the peasantry and reduced civil liberties. We said that we were encouraging their growth into a modern state, when we allowed no local participation in business or politics. We have not permitted the rise of an indigenous propertied or middle class, because they always get these ideas about self determination which lead to messy revolutions.”

Vietnam: “I can see that you’ve been just great for my people.”

Company: “Don’t try to guilt-trip me with your sarcastic comments. We were just employing the same tricks that the rest of our international friends were using. The Spanish and Portuguese Companies started our traditions in the 16th century and the American Company has maintained our profit-oriented traditions into the 21st century. Of course, as we shall see, they have refined our techniques.”

Vietnam: “So it makes it right because everyone else is doing it?”

Company: “Exactly. We are always looking for new techniques to maximize profits.”

Vietnam: “And this is moral?”

Company: “Of course. I keep telling you that I’m just a company with morals based around profits.”

 

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