The Chargé in Siam (Williams) to the Secretary of State

No. 167

Sir: I have the honor to enquire whether it is the understanding of the Department that within the provisions of the Treaty of December 16, 1920, the right of owning land in Siam obtains for American citizens and American corporations.

I would state that from the date of ratification of the Treaty by the American Government enquiries have continuously been received at the Legation as to the rights, if any, of American citizens to own land. Such requests for information were quite apart from any questions of title to Missionary properties. In the past, however, Mr. Hunt2 did not deem it to be within his province to express any opinion in this regard, prior to the exchange of ratifications of the Treaty and without a clear lead from the Department in the matter.

Following upon the entering into effect of the Treaty, Dr. Eldon R. James, Adviser in Foreign Affairs to the Siamese Government, approached the Legation and requested a definition of Mr. Hunt’s views as regards land-ownership. Dr. James stated frankly that the exact position under the Treaty was to him an unknown quantity, and accordingly he preferred that an expression of official American opinion should be made. It did not appear that the Minister for Foreign Affairs would assume an attitude hostile to the American viewpoint. Mr. Hunt indicated at that time his reluctance to take action of any character without instructions from the Department, adding his belief that such instructions would no doubt be received at an early date.

More recently, the opinion of the Legation has again been sought by Dr. James, and I desire therefore to explain the situation in detail. Dr. James prefers that the issue of land-ownership be disposed [Page 894] of completely in advance, before there shall have arisen any cases of doubtful status tending to complicate a solution of the difficulty. With such a view I am in full accord, insofar as no attempt is made to rush the matter too hastily to a conclusion, offending thereby the susceptibilities of the Siamese. I do not consider it probable that the question of American land tenure will involve considerations of a diplomatic nature in the immediate future: it is assumedly possible that Dr. T. Hey ward Hays may intentionally bring the subject to the fore by attempting direct purchase, but there has not so far been notification of such intention conveyed to the Legation.

Mortgage rights, however, raise the question in an indirect way. It has been in Siam the practice when establishing inland branches of a commercial enterprise to place the provincial store-keeper under bond, to take over his insurance policy, or even to assume mortgage rights over his property. Such has been the procedure followed here by many firmly-established British corporations. The assistance of the Legation has now been sought by representatives both of the Standard Oil Company of New York and of the Vacuum Oil Company, who have intimated to me a desire to take over mortgage rights upon the real property of their agents, up-country. It has been made clear to me that the assumption of mortgages is a necessary corollary to the trade activities of these firms.

The Bangkok Times devoted an editorial to the land question upon the twenty-second instant, copy of which is enclosed, herewith,3 and I was constrained by it to mention the subject casually in the course of a long conversation, during that evening, with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In accordance with my expectations, Prince Devawongse avoided any expression of opinion upon the general subject, beyond agreeing with my observation that it appeared inopportune to raise the issue directly at this time. I enquired, however, whether it was in any degree likely that objection would be seen by the Siamese Government to the assumption by American citizens, or by American corporations, of mortgage rights in the provinces, insofar as such procedure was “incident to or necessary for trade”, within the context of Article I., of the Treaty of December 16, 1920. Prince Devawongse indicated his belief to the contrary. I have accordingly notified to the representatives of these American corporations this expression of official opinion.

Such then is the situation. Americans resident in Siam are as a unit anxious that the right to own land shall be definitely established without delay. It has been expressed to me that American [Page 895] trade expansion is impossible without the existence of the right absolutely to possess real property, wherever in the provinces commercial competition makes this desirable. Moreover, the Siamese are in a receptive mood and the official atmosphere appears genuinely pro-American. It would therefore seem possible to obtain the right of land ownership in this country, without reference to controversial phases of the California land legislation. Siamese interests in America are too small to render an arrangement of this character unfairly unilateral.

I venture respectfully to suggest, for the Department’s consideration, that the Legation be instructed to propose to the Siamese Government an exchange of notes, ensuring to American citizens, and to American corporations, the right to own land in Siam, wherever it is “incident to or necessary for trade”, within the meaning of Article I., referred to above. Whether in any particular case the ownership were actually incident to or necessary for trade, might in that instance form the subject of diplomatic discussion between the Legation and the Foreign Office; otherwise, the right would generally obtain. I believe such a proposal would meet with the approval of Dr. James, and would secure his advocacy to the Siamese Government.

I do not anticipate any obstacles in the way of securing these assurances, but it would be best to face the situation squarely. …

It is a curious commentary upon the foregoing that the majority of the British membership in the business community in Bangkok hold the belief firmly that Americans have been assured rights of land-ownership through an unpublished understanding with the Siamese Government, or possibly by a secret protocol. Indeed, this opinion was expressed to the Legation, only yesterday, by a member of the leading firm of Solicitors. I have accordingly indicated marginally a pertinent passage in the Bangkok Times article of above date.

I have [etc.]

Curtis Williams
  1. George W. P. Hunt, formerly Minister in Siam.
  2. Not printed.