Stefan Hell, Siam and the League of Nations: Modernisation, Sovereignty and Multilateral Diplomacy, 1920-1940. With a foreword by Tej Bunnag.

Bangkok: River Books, 2010. Pp. 283; maps, photographs, apps., bib., index.

Reviewed by Arjun Subrahmanyan

Siam occupied an ambiguous place in the nineteenth and early twentieth century world of European empires and their colonies. The country managed to stave off direct colonization by agreeing to a series of treaties with foreign powers that opened the country to foreign trade, limited its fiscal and tariff autonomy and gave foreign subjects the right to be tried in their own consular courts for crimes committed on Siamese soil. Around the turn of the last century, Britain and France – the two chief imperial powers that confronted Siam – forced Siam’s monarchy to cede claims to territories that had long been cherished by an expanding state. The country thus became, as the Thai Marxist Udom Srisuwan would later term it, a semi-colony in a European-dominated world. Siam appeared free, but it could not make any important decisions without consulting its powerful neighbors.

New Mandala readers are likely familiar with the history outlined above. They also are undoubtedly aware that Siam’s conditional sovereignty had not only political and economic effects, but also profound psychological ones as well. In September 2010, Thosaeng Chaochuti reviewed The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand for New Mandala. That book addresses directly the affective and intellectual dimensions of Siam’s semi-coloniality. The attempt to measure up to Western ideas of being modern, we learn from The Ambiguous Allure of the West, was an important aspect of Siam’s complex encounter with the West. The Siamese elite of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century copied techniques of colonial administration from the country’s neighbors not only for practical purposes. Modern administration, financial discipline and an expanding legal code also showed the world that Siam was a civilized country able to manage its own affairs.

Stefan Hell’s finely detailed study Siam and the League of Nations addresses international diplomacy, an aspect of Siam’s engagement with the West that resonates with the topics broached above. After the First World War, Siam presented itself on the world stage in a capacity never before imagined: as a free nation proud and capable to be a member of the modern world’s first attempt at international governance.

According to Hell’s thesis, Siam made the best of this opportunity and successfully played the diplomatic game. Most crucially, by the late 1920s the diligent efforts of Siam’s diplomats working through the League paved the way for the restoration of full sovereignty to their country. The powers that had forced Siam to accept the extraterritorial treaties and tariff restrictions in the nineteenth century finally committed themselves to near-term abolition of the agreements.

We discover, moreover, that the League meant much more to Siam than a way to abolish its semi-colonial status. Siam joined League-sponsored international efforts to curtail the illicit drug trade, modernize healthcare and end human trafficking. Engagement with these issues was both practically beneficial and symbolically important.

These three topics are treated in three consecutive chapters of Hell’s book, and those chapters make for interesting reading. We find Siam cautiously trying to advance its interests. The country’s image, it turns out, was a large part of these interests. Prince Traidos, Siam’s delegate at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and Foreign Minister in the 1920s and early 1930s, asserted that The Bangkok Opium Conference of 1931 was a “unique chance to glorify Siam.” Focusing on the appearance, however, obscured more mundane matters. The international press noted for example that the conference’s actual results were very meager. Only a few years later, an opium smuggling scandal in Siam became headline news and involved a cabinet official. Opium was a significant contributor to government revenue right through the inter-war years. A move on the part of the League to strictly monitor the drug foundered in Siam because of rampant smuggling across the border with Burma. In another example, Hell describes how public health officials were able during a League visit to Siam for a health conference around the same time “to impress (their visitors) with their hospitality and professionalism.” A later report by a League official on rural health in Siam noted that healthcare was “practically non-existent.” A lack of funds and of trained doctors often stymied health campaigns. Sometimes, Siam’s international engagement seemed insincere. Siam’s elite, according to Hell, was not interested in human trafficking and prostitution as social issues until League initiatives forced it to pay attention.

Despite the limited short-term success of the international efforts at social development and the possible pretentiousness of Siam’s engagement, Hell maintains that these areas became for the first time an important part of international politics during the era of the League’s existence. Decades later, Thailand and other countries would try again, with much better results, to coordinate international development programs. These programs then became much more than various ways to present Siam in a positive light on the world stage. Hell thus argues that social development initiatives are an important, positive legacy of the League of Nations, and that Siam played a significant role in their planning.

The League is best remembered, however, for its abysmal failure to ensure international peace. The idealistic hopes for a new world order were short-lived and ended in bitter disillusion. Beginning in the early 1930s, the League found itself unable to stem a rising tide of militarism; by the end of that decade, it had faded into utter irrelevance.

In the latter part of his book, the author explains the context of Siamese participation in this collective security failure. He argues that Siam was generally interested in participating in areas where it could gain the help of the international community and where it could show itself as a modern country, but very reluctant to engage in the complexities of international geo-politics. Thus, when faced with choices in the latter arena, the Siamese elite chose the path of least offense. Siam’s lukewarm participation in global security issues allowed the international community to form its own opinions about what the country was thinking. The best case in point is Siam’s well known abstention from the League’s condemnation in 1933 of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. From the Siamese perspective, there were no good options: a vote with the League against Japan risked offending the largest Asian power; a vote with Japan would gravely tarnish the image of neutral Siam, especially with the European powers that it constantly sought to please; and staying away from the meeting at which the vote was held would likely be seen by the Western powers as a vote for Japan by another means. Abstention from voting thus became the only option, but it was in fact not a winning decision. After the vote, the diplomatic world read Siam’s abstention as a pro-Japanese stance. Hell combed through archival sources to try and find some inkling of a pro-Japanese stance in this critical issue, but found none. Nonetheless, soon thereafter the Japanese applauded Siam’s courage in standing up to the world community. Such publicity caused considerable embarrassment to the Siamese government.

In another episode, Siam went along with world opinion but realized that its support had no practical value. In the autumn of 1935 the League – Siam included – moved to condemn the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. By then, the League’s reputation had already taken a battering for its failure to control either Japanese or German militarism. While the international body applied sanctions against Italy, it seems that most members were only half-heartedly interested. As Hell explains, the sanctions made no difference to Italy’s prosecution of the war, or to Siam’s relations with Italy. In fact, Siam purchased torpedo boats from Italy and had them successfully exempted from the limitations imposed by the sanctions.

Should Siam be taken to task for its bad-faith participation in international diplomacy in the 1930s? Historians might argue that the country’s diplomatic posture was intended solely to please powerful countries, not to make a substantial contribution to peace efforts. Hell asserts that this is the wrong way to interpret Siam’s diplomacy. He concludes that no small state anywhere could afford to be too idealistic about politics in the 1930s. By the time of the Ethiopian fiasco, the government in Bangkok understood very well that the League was doomed. As Hell explains, in Siam the feeling grew that without a strong military the country would go the route of Abyssinia. Further, the great powers of Europe bore primary responsibility for ensuring collective security.

How then should we evaluate Siamese participation in the League of Nations as a whole? Among his conclusions, Hell argues that it is most important to remember that Siam’s work with the League of Nations had a positive modernizing impact on the country. International pressure and help in tackling disease, monitoring drug use or human trafficking made these issues of public concern for the first time in Siam and brought important administrative and legal reforms to the country. Siam was not responsible for the collective security failure of the 1930s, and it tried its best as a small country to stay out of the fray.

These reasonable conclusions portray the Siamese elite in a positive light and have considerable merit. Hell’s narrative thus follows the example of other histories, most notably those of the fifth Chakri reign, that give high marks to that elite for its skilful diplomacy. The reader, however, may close the book with other equally arresting impressions. It is striking, for example, how “top down” the story is–a fact that Hell freely acknowledges. Siam’s inter-war international presentation involved a remarkably small number of people. All of them were men, and all had an elite, often foreign, education. Further, most of these civil servants were royals and aristocrats. Even after the Thai revolution of 1932 – in its own way an outcome of Woodrow Wilson’s inspired rhetoric that gave birth to the League – princes largely ran the show in foreign diplomacy. This is not to slight the contribution of commoners in post-1932 diplomacy, especially that of Pridi Phanomyong who negotiated the final abolition of the extraterritoriality treaties in the late 1930s. But it remains a fact that the constitutional government continued the foreign policies of its absolutist predecessor, and often with the same people in charge. The League’s impact on Siam thus presents a stark contrast to the post-First World War moment in the colonial world. The Wilsonian platform inspired nationalists in the colonial world to become increasingly forthright in their demands for independence. In contrast to the Siamese case, the “Wilsonian Moment” in other countries saw mass rallies and political agitation that involved widely different social classes. The effect of Wilsonian idealism in the minds of Princes Charoon, Traidos or Wan was thus worlds away from that of B.G. Tilak in India, Nguyen Tat Thanh in Vietnam or S’ad Zaghlul in Egypt.

Of course, European powers never formally colonized Siam; a mass nationalist movement was thus a doubtful outcome of the country’s experience of a post-1918 world. Still, a commoner revolt did end absolute kingship, and the People’s Party movement held ambivalent feelings about the Western powers strong direct and indirect influence over the monarchic state. The People’s Party admired and adapted Western political ideas, while it also in some ways challenged Western dominance. It turned out, however, that both princes and young bureaucrats of more modest backgrounds had similar opinions about Siam’s international relations and about the need carefully to manage its image. That a small elite alone was entitled and able to supervise gradual domestic reform and the intricacies of foreign policy remained an unchallenged assumption in Thailand’s national politics long after the League of Nations experiment had faded into history.

Arjun Subrahmanyan is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of California-Berkeley.