How did Siam (modern-day Thailand) manage to avoid becoming a colony?

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The kingdom of Siam, now known as Thailand, managed to avoid becoming a colony of European powers through a combination of several factors. These included a modernization project to bring the country more in line with the European vision of a nation, a campaign to foster nationalization, a focus on...

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The kingdom of Siam, now known as Thailand, managed to avoid becoming a colony of European powers through a combination of several factors. These included a modernization project to bring the country more in line with the European vision of a nation, a campaign to foster nationalization, a focus on clearly delineating borders, and the creation of a professional army. All of these factors were also bolstered by the European perspective of Siam as a buffer zone between already-existing British and French colonies.

Originally, Siam was a loose union of rulers paying tribute to the kings of Siam, but astute Siamese kings perceived that, in order to circumvent colonization, Siam had to appear as a unified and modern nation. With this in mind, Siamese kings made efforts to consolidate their powers and raise a standing army—not so much to oppose the European powers, but rather to present a show of force that would enable them to have power over local rulers.

Centralization of authority was also key to Siam appearing to be a valid nation to European eyes. Although Siam eventually lost some territory in negotiations with European powers, drawing maps that clearly specified borders was another step that proved it was a legitimate country.

One of the most important factors that allowed Siam to resit colonization had nothing to do with Siamese efforts. Britain controlled Burma and Malaya, and France had subjugated Indochina (which consisted of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) to their rule. These two European colonial powers viewed Siam as an independent buffer zone to avoid tensions among their colonies in this region. Therefore, we can add an element of luck to the list of reasons that Siam avoided the fate of its neighbors, which were being invaded and ruled by foreign powers.

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There are various theories why Siam, now called Thailand, was never colonized. One theory is that Great Britain wanted a buffer state between the land that Great Britain had controlled in Asia and the land that France had controlled in Asia. The British controlled India and modern-day Myanmar, while the French controlled Indochina. Since Siam was in between these two regions, it was a way to keep separate the territories of both of these countries in Asia. It also would keep both countries from coming into contact with each other, since they had conflicts in many areas of the world as they tried to expand their empires.

Another theory is that the leaders of Siam were very good negotiators. Since the French were not too interested in having a buffer zone between British and French lands, the French wanted to control Siam. However, the Siamese negotiators worked very hard to convince Great Britain that a buffer zone was beneficial to the British. Britain had a great deal of influence in Siam. They controlled most of Siam’s trade, laid most of Siam’s railroad track, controlled the mines, and had control over Siam’s finances, its banking system, and its gold reserves. Thus, the British decided to agree with the Siamese negotiators, and they reached an agreement in 1896 with France to keep Siam independent and to protect Siam from attacks by other countries, namely Germany and Russia.

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Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Siam (or Thailand) was the only one to avoid being colonized by a European power.  The British colonized Burma, the French colonized Indochina, but Siam remained independent.

The most commonly cited reason for this is that the Siamese rulers gave concessions to Western countries, particularly Great Britain.  By getting these concessions (mostly to do with trade) the British got what they wanted from Siam without having to do to the expense of maintaining colonial rule.

Traditional histories also argue that the Siamese monarchs were skilled diplomats and that they modernized their country in ways that helped avoid colonization.

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