Lao rebellion (1826–1828)

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The Lao Rebellion of 1826-1828 (also known as Anouvong’s Rebellion) was an attempt by King Anouvong (Chaiya Sethathirath V) of the Kingdom of Vientiane to end the suzerainty of Siam, and reconstitute the former kingdom of Lan Xang. In January 1827 Lao forces from the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak moved south and west across the Khorat Plateau, moving as far south as Saraburi which was three days march from the Siamese capitol of Bangkok. The Siamese mounted a counterattack, rolling back the Lao forces. The Siamese continued north to destroy the city of Vientiane. Ultimately the rebellion failed, which led to the capture and death of King Anouvong, the destruction of the city of Vientiane, a massive resettlement of Lao people, and direct Siamese administration of the former territories of the Kingdom of Vientiane. The rebellion was a watershed moment for the history of Southeast Asia, further weakening the Lao kingdoms, perpetuating conflict between Siam and Vietnam and ultimately facilitating French involvement in Indochina during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The legacy of the Lao rebellion is controversial. In Thailand it is viewed as one of the most ruthless and daring rebellions to be suppressed, and has given rise to the folk heroes like Thao Suranari. In Laos, King Anouvong is revered as a national hero who died in pursuit of a war of independence, although ultimately he would risk and lose both his life and kingdom.


In 1707 the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang was partitioned into the rival kingdoms of Vientiane, Luang Prabang and later Champasak (1713) as a result of a succession dispute. The Kingdom of Vientiane was the strongest of the three, with Vientiane extending influence across the Khorat Plateau (now part of modern Thailand) and conflicting with the Kingdom of Luang Prabang for control of the Xieng Khouang Plateau (on the boarder of modern Vietnam). Throughout the 1760s and 1770s the neighboring kingdoms of Siam and Burma competed for alliances with the Lao kingdoms, to offset the bitter rivalry and history of warfare between the two powers. For Siam and Burma, alliance with the Lao strengthened their own position vis-à-vis their rival by adding to their own forces and denying them to their enemy. As a result, the use of competing alliances would further militarize the conflict between the northerly Lao kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Between the two major Lao kingdoms if an alliance with one was sought by either Burma or Siam, the other would tend to support the remaining side. The network of alliances shifted with the political and military landscape throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century.

The First Siamese Invasion of Vientiane[edit]

In Siam, General Taksin would emerge and consolidate enough power to resist Burmese invasion and captured the Kingdom of Lanna in 1775. In November of 1778 the Siamese moved to capture Vientiane, based on the pretext of the kingdom’s previous alliances with Burma. The Siamese conducted a pincer attack against the Lao kingdoms. General Chakri took a force of 20,000 overland toward Vientiane; a separate force of 10,000 under General Surasi came up toward Vientiane from the south taking Champasak, Nakhon Phanom, and Nongkhai. The forces combined and besieged Vientiane for four months, finally with additional assistance from the Kingdom of Luang Prabang the siege was broken and Vientiane was captured. Vientiane, was the largest most populous of the Lao kingdoms, and had been the capital of the former kingdom of Lan Xang since 1560. The city was looted but spared destruction, the Emerald Buddha and several other important Buddha images were taken to Siam, the royal family and a large number of families were also captured and forcibly moved to Saraburi northeast to the ruins of Ayutthaya. In 1779, the Siamese left the lands of the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak under temporary military rule, and the Kingdom of Luang Prabang accepted Siamese suzerainty.

Causes of the Lao Rebellion[edit]

The sources of unrest which precipitated the Lao Rebellion can be attributed to changing political identities and population transfers, seizure of international trade which further isolated the Lao kingdoms, loss of national prestige and cultural icons during the wars with Siam in the 1770s, massive transcription and corvee labor projects, and most importantly the policy of Rama III to implement forced tattooing of the ethnic Lao population on the Khorat Plateau.

Population Transfers and Divided Nobility[edit]

In the aftermath of the Siamese and Burmese wars of the 1760s and 1770s, Siam began to take increasing administrative control over the ethnic Lao on the Khorat Plateau. By the late eighteenth century the traditional political and military models were changing and nationalism was on the rise. The traditional relationship among the kingdoms of Southeast Asia is best understood using the Mandala political model. Within the Mandala model wars are waged to control population centers for corvee labor and international trade. Legitimacy comes from Buddhist religious authority, transferred through acts of religious merit (sponsoring the sangha and the construction of temples) and possession of Buddhist palladium images (like the Emerald Buddha). Vassal kings were given a relatively high degree of autonomy, provided that they made an annual tribute of gold and silver (traditionally modeled into trees), provide tax and tax in-kind, raise support armies in time of war, and provided corvee labor for state projects. Vassals retained their power to raise additional tax, discipline their own vassals, inflict capital punishment, and appoint their own officials.

The destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767 cleared the traditional nobility in Siam and allowed for men like General Taksin and Chakri (Rama I) to rise to power. The years of warfare created a huge need in Siam for labor and resources. The capture of the Lao lands gave Siam needed access to labor and materials, the Khorat Plateau was more easily accessible to Siam and provided area for expansion. However, the Khorat was traditionally part of the Lao kingdoms, with a number of important cities and centers of power like Nong Bua Lamphu which was the traditional stronghold held by the crown princes of Vientiane. Beginning in the 1780s Siamese monarchs would reward their regional governors for military service, increases in population or productivity with new titles and cities to administer. The result was to divide, and parcel the Khorat region under a new group of nobility at the expense of areas which were traditionally controlled by the Lao nobility in Vientiane. In 1778, only Nakhon Ratchasima was a tributary of Siam, yet by the end of the reign of Rama I, Sisaket, Ubon, Roi Et, Yasothon, Khon Khaen, and Kalasin paid tribute directly to Bangkok. According to Thai records, by 1826 (less than fifty years) the number of towns and cities on the Khorat had grown from 13 to 35 made possible by Lao population transfers for corvee labor.

Symbols and Identity[edit]

Haw Phra Kaew, Vientiane. Former Royal Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

For the Lao the loss of the Emerald Buddha in 1779 became a symbol for the captivity of the Lao themselves. Important Buddha images serve as protective symbols for the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. King Setthathirath, one of the greatest kings of Lan Xang brought the Emerald Buddha from the Kingdom of Lanna in 1548, and was taken as a protective image for the Lao monarchy and the city of Vientiane. In the 1770s the Siamese were needed royal regalia to reinforce legitimacy along traditional cultural lines, as the Burmese had destroyed Ayutthaya and thoroughly looted the palaces and court. When Vientiane fell in 1779, the Siamese left much of the city but thoroughly looted the temples and palaces for anything of religious significance or cultural value which could be used to reinforce the new Siamese nobility. The loss of religious iconography ironically crystallized the Lao identity further, and created a strong undercurrent of anti-Siamese resentment.

When Anouvong came to power he ordered the carving a replacement Emerald Buddha, not only in Vientiane but in Srichiangmai on the Khorat, Xieng Khouang, and later in Champasak. Anouvong also rebuilt and greatly enhanced the Haw Phra Kaew in Vientiane, which was the royal temple that had originally housed the Emerald Buddha. By drawing continued attention to the loss of the Emerald Buddha to Siam, the religious symbols and acts which Anouvong encouraged had clear political overtones.

The Mekong and the Seizure of International Trade[edit]

In 1812 a succession dispute in Cambodia provided a pretext for the regional rivalries of Siam and Vietnam. When the Vietnamese arrived with an army to support their candidate the Siamese withdrew, the Siamese army spread out placing the Khorat Plateau at their back and in 1814 took the Dangrek Mountains, along with the Cambodian provinces of Mlou-Prey, Tonle Repou and Stung Treng. As a result Siam expanded its territory, but created a wedge blocking Lao trade with Cambodia and Vietnam. The Siamese intended to divert international trade toward Bangkok overland via the Khorat Plateau, where heavy customs duties were in place. With the Mekong effectively blocked, Bangkok grew further in importance as the major port for European and international traders who were en route to Singapore and China.

Transcription, Corvee Labor, and Forced Tattooing[edit]

Between 1779 and 1826 the Siamese and Burmese were in almost perennial conflict (see Burmese-Siamese Wars). Siam sought trade in weapons from the Europeans, and relied upon heavy transcription from the Lao and Malay areas in the south to strengthen the state. It was during the campaigns against the Burmese near Chiang Mai that Prince Anouvong gained military distinction as a vassal to Siam, and a successful military commander.

In addition to transcription, corvee labor was required by the Siamese. Lao laborers were transported to Bangkok for the digging of canals, the construction of a dam at Ang Thong in 1813, and the construction of several forts along the Chao Phraya. Also from 1810-1860 Siam began the intense cultivation of sugarcane in response to growing European trade. The sugar plantations were labor-intensive and in response Siam required corvee laborers among the Chinese, Khmer, Lao and various hill tribe peoples within their domains.

With the accession of Rama III years of corvee labor and transcription were brought to breaking point with a policy of forced tattooing of the Lao population. The tattoos were used by Siamese governors on the Khorat to ensure an accurate census for corvee labor and taxation, each ethnic Lao male was branded on the wrist with their census number and village name. The Siamese tattooing campaign spread across the Khorat region with the economic and political aim to more directly administer the Lao population. Both tribute and taxes were calculated based on the adult male population registered by tattooing. Politically the move also reduced the Lao kingdoms and governors on the Khorat to the level of Siamese provinces, reducing the power and wealth of the vassal Lao nobility. As a result of the tattooing practices both the Lao nobility and general population became more unified, as did the ethnic minorities who had also been forced into Khorat with population transfers.

The Reign of King Anouvong[edit]

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane. Completed by King Anouvong in 1824.

In 1779 with the fall of Vientiane, the sons and daughter of King Siribunyasan were taken as hostage to Bangkok, along with several thousand Lao families who were resettled in Saraburi to the north of the Siamese capital. King Siribunyasan had three sons who were to succeed him as king of Vientiane, Nanthasen, Inthavong, and Anouvong.

On the death of Siribunyasan in 1781, Siam allowed the eldest son Nathasen to return to Vientiane as king and was further permitted to take the Phra Bang, a gold Buddha statue which had been brought from Angkor by the Fa Ngum the first king of Lan Xang and had been taken to Siam in 1779. In 1791 Nanthasan convinced Rama I that the King Anourouth of Luang Prabang was secretly meeting with the Burmese and plotting a rebellion against Siam. Nathasan was permitted to attack Luang Prabang, and took the city in 1792. The Luang Prabang royal family was sent to Bangkok as prisoners for the next four years. Two years later Nanthasan himself was accused of plotting rebellion against Siam with the Lao governor of Nakhon Phanom, for making diplomatic overtures with Vietnam, and was arrested by Siam (and possibly executed) in 1794.

In 1795 Inthavong was installed as king of Vientiane, and his brother Anouvong assumed the traditional post of vice-king (Oupahat). In 1797 and 1802 Burma sent several armies toward Siam, Inthavong as a vassal sent several Lao armies, under the command of his brother Anouvong to aid in the defense. During the defense Anouvong gained notoriety for his conspicuous bravery and he went on to win major victories for Siam in the Sipsong Chau Tai.

In 1804 Anouvong succeeded his brother Inthavong as king of Vientiane. By 1813 Anouvong began a series of religious and symbolic actions which remain highly controversial. Anouvong called a great Buddhist council of the sangha, only the third in Lao history, where it was determined a new Emerald Buddha would be carved. Anouvong ordered the repair of the Haw Phra Kaew and ordered several additional temples dedicated to the Emerald Buddha be built throughout his kingdom. He also ordered the construction of a major bridge across the Mekong. In 1819 he rushed to suppress a rebellion in Champasak, which had been led by a charismatic monk. Anouvong’s son Nyo led an army south from Vientiane and suppressed the uprising, in response Rama II appointed Nyo as king of Champasak. Anouvong had thus succeeded in uniting two of the three Lao kingdoms. Also in 1819 Anouvong ordered the construction of Wat Sisaket, which was completed in 1824. The temple was a major statement of religious authority, and was intentionally oriented so that when Anouvong’s vassals came to pledge annual allegiance they physically have to turn their backs toward Bangkok.

The Funeral of Rama II[edit]

In 1824 Rama II the Siamese king had died, and it was unclear who would be the chosen successor. The two claimants were Prince Mongkut, who was the son of Queen Sri Suriyendra, and his elder half-brother Prince Jessadabodindra (Rama III) who was the son of a court concubine. The succession crises was avoided when Prince Mongkut entered the Buddhist sangha as a monk. The potential succession dispute lead to the military being on high alert, and the British who had recently begun the First Anglo-Burmese War, were closely monitoring the situation.

Against these events the vassal kings of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak made their way to Bangkok for the formal funeral ceremonies held a year later in 1825 according to royal custom. Rama III by that time had begun implementing the census and forced tattooing policies throughout the Khorat region. During the funerary period Anouvong’s retinue and one of his sons was impressed into several corvee labor projects, including the digging of canals, felling of sugar palms, harvesting of bamboo, and the construction of the Phra Samut Chedi. During one of the projects it appears that Anouvong’s son was mocked and possibly beaten by the Siamese. Anouvong was furious and cut short the traditional obeisance to the Siamese court.

The next events are controversial, because it is unclear if Anouvong decided during his stay to rebel or if he had been planning to rebel for some years and was awaiting an adequate pretext. Anouvong demanded the return of the Emerald Buddha, the return of his sister who had been taken forty-five years earlier in 1779, and the return of the families living in Saraburi who had been forcibly relocated. Thai historians have asserted that Anouvong rebelled due to personal slight, when he was denied each of these requests and told he could return with one dancer from his original retinue. However, the widespread intensity of the Lao rebellion suggests the motivations for the rebellion were more complex.


Shrine to General Bodindecha, Thailand

In 1826 Anouvong was actively making military preparations for rebellion. The Lao strategy involved three key points: first was to respond to the immediate crisis caused by the popular unrest with forced tattooing, second was to repatriate the ethnic Lao on the Khorat Plateau to Vientiane conducting a scorched Earth policy to slow the Siamese pursuit, and finally to seek a diplomatic victory by receiving support from the Vietnamese, Chinese or British.

Anouvong may have believed that the balance of power in Southeast Asia was tipping away from Siam. The factionalism at the Siamese court, the presence of the British in Burma, the growing influence of Vietnam in the Cambodian provinces, and the regional dissatisfaction in the Lao areas suggested that Siamese power was waning. However, by 1827 the British had arrived to finalize the Burney Treaty between Siam and Britain, and the presence of the British fleet may have raised false hopes for Anouvong that an invasion was imminent. The most serious miscalculation that Anouvong made was in the disparity of military power between Siam and the Lao. From at least 1822 the Siamese had purchased large quantities of firearms and munitions from the British that had been used during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.

In December 1826 the Lao rebellion began with a force of 10,000 making its way toward Kalasin following the path of the Siamese tattooing officials. A second larger force was led by Anouvong toward Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat City) in January and was able to take the city. From Anouvong’s army a smaller contingent was sent to Lomsak and Chainyaphum before making their way to Saraburi to escort the Lao across Siamese territory. A fourth army under Anouvong’s son Nyo the king of Champasak, was dispatched toward Ubon. All the armies moved under a web of misinformation and false dispatches that warned of impending attacks on Siam from neighboring powers.

The Lao armies planned retreats were slowed by the number of refugees which occupied the roads and passes. Lao commanders delayed in order to search for the officials responsible for tattooing, and forced these officials to march north as prisoners. Among these seized officials Anouvong delayed for over a month searching out the governor of Nakhon Ratchasima, who had been a key figure in the tattooing and forced population transfers.

Victory Chedi, Wat Tung Sawang Chaiyaphum

Siam organized a massive counterstrike and dispatched two armies, one with the goal of taking Nakhon Ratchasima by way of Saraburi, the other was sent via the Pasak Valley toward Lomsak. The Lao withdrew to Nong Bua Lamphu, the strongest Lao fortress on the Khorat Plateau, and traditionally held by the crown prince of Vientiane. After a three day battle Nong Bua Lamphu fell, and the Lao fell back to a second line of defense. The Siamese numbers and arms were superior and the armies continued to march north toward Vientiane. Vientiane put up a defense for five days, Anouvong fled to east near the border with Vietnam, while the rearguard aided in the defense of the capital.

The Siamese general Phraya Bodindecha (เจ้าพระยาบดินทรเดชา) took the city of Vientiane, he sacked the palaces, leveled the city’s defenses but otherwise left the monasteries and much of the city intact. With the sack of Vientiane the princedoms of Lanna (Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun, Nan, and Phrae) and Luang Prabang pledged renewed allegiance to Siam, although Bodindecha noted that the six had “waited to see the turn of events, and their actions greatly depended on the outcome of the war.” For several months Bodindecha organized the deportation of the remaining Lao and the confiscation of any arms and remaining munitions. Bodindecha placed the city in the hands of a small contingent of defenders and returned to the Khorat region.

Anouvong returned to Vientiane with 1000 soldiers and 100 Vietnamese observers, the small force was intended to negotiate a settlement with Siam. However, upon returning to the city of Vientiane Anouvong heard about a nine-spired chedi erected as a victory monument at Wat Tung Sawang Chaiyaphum (วัดทุ่งสว่างชัยภูมิ) in the town of Yasothon. The act enraged him; Anouvong crossed the Mekong, and attacked the roughly 300 defenders and leaving only 40 survivors. Bodindecha was ordered by Rama III to totally destroy the city of Vientiane, and to find and capture Anouvong.

Anouvong was pursued to Xieng Khouang, where according to some accounts he was betrayed and handed over to the Siamese. Once the Siamese had captured Anouvong, he and his family were placed under heavy guard and marched to Bangkok. British observers recalled:

[The king] was confined in a large iron cage exposed to a burning sun, and obliged to proclaim to everyone that the King of Siam was great and merciful, that he himself had committed a great error and deserved his present punishment. In this cage were placed with the prisoner, a large mortar to pound him in, a large boiler to boil him in, a hook to hang him by, and a sword to decapitate him; also a sharp-pointed spike for him to sit on. His children were sometimes put in along with him. He was a mild, respectable-looking, old grey-haired man, and did not live long to gratify his tormentors, death having put an end to his sufferings. His body was taken and hung in chains on the bank of the river, about two or three miles below Bangkok.


The city of Vientiane was totally destroyed and the population was totally deported. The destruction of the city was so thorough that the first French explorers in the 1860s found only ruins where the capital had been. The remaining Lao kingdoms in Champasak and Luang Prabang came under strict vassalage and arms limitations from Siam; the Khorat Plateau was permanently annexed by Siam. Regional rivals from Siam and Vietnam came into increasing conflict for control over inland trade and Lao territories leading to the Siamese-Vietnamese Wars of the 1830s. Vietnam annexed the Lao principality of Xieng Khouang. Chinese rebels from the Taiping rebellion were able to force their way down the Mekong River in what ultimately became known as the Haw Wars of the 1860s, and the first French explorers navigating the Mekong used the political vacuum as pretext for the creation of French Indochina.


The most significant legacy of the Lao Rebellion was the impact of forced population transfers throughout the region. Today as a consequence of warfare and transfers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century there are over 19 million ethnic Lao living in the Isan (Khorat) region of Thailand, and only 6 million in Laos. During the French colonial period, Vientiane was chosen and rebuilt as the colonial capital in a deliberate attempt win favor among the Lao and to demonstrate French authority.

Several accounts of the Siamese-Lao fighting are recorded by various historians and authorities, many in direct conflict with one another. In particular are accounts of legendary Siamese heroines (Thao Suranaree or “Lady Mo,” and Khun Ying Boonleu). During the 1930s field Marshall Phibun promoted the Siamese legends as part of a wider political and military campaign to unify all Tai peoples.

Similarly among the Lao and Lao-Isan the stories of Anouvong and the crown prince recall their legends. Since the 1990s the Pathet Lao have re-appropriated the story of the Lao Rebellion as a war of independence against cultural and political domination. In 2010 a large statue and surrounding gardens was dedicated to the Lao king in Vientiane.


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