In January 1933, the editor of the Pinang Gazette in Penang, Malaya, received a letter from a reader writing under the pen name “An Indian well wisher”. The two-page note was posted from the southern Siamese town of Hat Yai and was an urgent call for help for a group of mostly Tamil labourers who were under severe distress.

“It seems that the Immigration authorities are, perhaps, unaware of the fact that there are hundreds of Indian coolies wandering about in search of employment in Siam, chiefly in the Southern part,” the letter said. “When rubber estates in Malaya were closed down, many of these coolies instead of returning to India turned their course and found entrance into Siam through two principal routes namely, Padang Besar and Sungei Golok.”

Few places in Asia were as badly affected by the Great Depression in the United States in 1929 as Malaya (now Malaysia). “The sale of passenger cars in the US declined from 4.5 million in 1929 to 1.1 million in 1932, with predictable effects on the US demand for Malayan rubber, which tumbled,” according to the Economic History of Malaya, a website supported by the Sultan of the Malaysian state of Perak. “The scale of human suffering in Malaya during the Depression was immense, particularly in the west coast states. Workers were laid off, and many, especially Indian plantation labourers, were repatriated.”

At the time, Indian subjects of the British Empire did not need a passport to enter or live in Malaya. Neighbouring Siam (now Thailand) too allowed Asians to freely enter and live in the country. Making use of this policy, many Chinese businessmen, or Towkays, started poorly-regulated enterprises in Siam, and some of them convinced Tamil, Malayali and Telugu labourers to cross the border from Malaya to work for them.

The British did not appreciate this. Under their pressure, the Siamese authorities banned Indians without passports from entering the country. But while it was relatively easy to stop those Indians who took a train from Penang and hand them over to the colonial authorities in Malaya, those crossing the porous borders were able to sneak in.

Hospitable kingdom

For well over 2,000 years, people, ideas and goods had moved freely between India and Thailand. It was once European colonialism introduced Asia to the concepts of nation-states and passports that this movement slowed down. Like colonists were wont to, the British regulated the movement of Indians once India was in their firm grip.

By the late 19th century, the British Empire was at the gates of the Kingdom of Siam. On its western flank, the British had annexed Burma and to its south, parts of modern-day Malaysia had become British protectorates.

The region had its share of conflicts. There were a host of territorial claims and counterclaims from the Siamese royalty and the sultans of the Malay states that were British protectorates. To sort out the muddle, Siam and Britain demarcated the boundaries in the south by signing the Anglo-Siamese Treaty in 1909. As well as settling the border question, the treaty protected the business interests as well as the property and residency rights of British subjects in Siam.

“People of many nationalities find a home in the hospitable kingdom of the yellow robe, and, amongst them, the Indians and Burmans are not the least important in numbers and wealth,” The Statesman wrote in January 1910.

The treaty, however, sowed the seeds for discrimination towards Asian subjects of the British Empire. The Statesman wrote, “The point that has been strongly criticised (by English critics) as the one blot on the treaty is the slight distinction made between Asiatic and non-Asiatic British subjects. The point, stated in briefest form, amounts to this, that Siamese courts dealing with non-Asiatic British subjects will have an Adviser who will act as a judge; whereas when dealing with Asiatic subjects the Adviser will act as an adviser only.”

At times, Indians faced other kinds of discrimination too in Siam. A letter to the editor of the Pinang Gazette in 1918 noted that there were restrictions on Indians’ movements within Siam. The letter from one C Scharry from Penang said the Siamese authorities required Indians to obtain a paid permit to travel from the south to the north of the country, although Europeans, Malays and Chinese were exempt from this rule. “No one would surely deny that Siam is closely following India – in religion, the naming of places and persons, and as such it is a strange irony of fate that Indians have to put up with this, although after all they form the minority of the population,” Scharry wrote.

By the 1930s, there was a thriving Indian community in Siam comprising recent immigrants. As Lanka Sundaram, a lawyer and intellectual who would later be elected to the Lok Sabha, wrote in the Malaya Tribune after a visit: “The British consulate puts the total strength of the Indian community in Siam as running up to anything like the hundredth thousand mark. But no figures are available to sustain this statement. Still, it is a common sight in Bangkok and elsewhere in the interior to find the sturdy Punjabi, the willing Bhayya from the UP, the shrewd Hindu from Kathiawar, and Ramaswamy from Madras, engaged in different trades, from hawking to vending milk, from being watchmen (Indians are in great demand for keeping peace round about shops, warehouses and hotels) to keeping well appointed shops.”

Sundaram noticed that Indians were “flourishing” in the clothing trade in Bangkok. But he was also aware – from the 1933 letter to the Pinang Gazette – of the plight of the Tamil labourers in southern Siam.

Fraught with dangers

“Without obtaining proper passports or Immigration papers from the authorities, they walk all the way following the railway track and reach these two places [Padang Besar and Sungei Golok], and at midnight or the very early hours of the morning, they slip over the boundary, directly enter into the jungle and hide there for a few days,” the “Indian well wisher” wrote in the 1933 letter to the Pinang Gazette. “Having thus escaped the vigilance of the Siamese Immigration Officials at the boundary, those who enter via Sungei Golok make their way towards Patani, where there are many Indians, the majority of whom have turned Mohammedan and more or less settled down there.”

The letter writer claimed that the route was fraught with dangers and a Malayali labourer travelling alone was robbed and murdered. The body of the unfortunate labourer was apparently left to rot and the culprits were never found.

“The writer has personally observed a party of about 20 Tamil coolies walking on the road from Haadyai to Senggora and on getting into conversation with them, was informed that they had come all the way from Kelantan by foot following the railway track and that their ultimate goal was Senggora where they hoped to find work in the rice mills.” the letter added.

Some of the labourers who reached Haadyai (now Hat Yai) managed to work as water carriers in the hot season, while others worked in tapioca plantations. A few were even employed by the railway department. A large number though were at the mercy of Towkays, who were contractors for projects.

“I found the Indian Labour Force is housed in huts made of wooden stakes, cut from the jungle, roofed with attap and partitioned off with bamboo matting,” the “Indian well wisher” wrote. “These huts are not always kept in repair and during the rainy season, if the coolies do not repair the roofs themselves, they have to dwell in houses that let in the rain.”

The letter said there were no sanitary or anti-malarial measures and that the “filth and stench in the lines” were “indescribable”. To make things worse, the workers were not entitled to any kind of medical assistance and had to pay for their own treatment.

“In cases of ill treatment, the Indian coolie has not the least chance of obtaining justice,” the letter said. “He cannot go to the police station, or the District Officer’s court and explain matters, due to ignorance of the language.”

Abusive relationship

The British consular authorities in Bangkok and the Agent of the Government of India in Malaya were aware of the situation. The former passed the buck to the latter. The agent, N Kunhiraman Nair, who was based in Kuala Lumpur, received a letter from a desperate and illiterate labourer by the name of Palani who dictated his call for help to a person who could understand English and Tamil.

“Myself and my wife with 4 children, were working in Kedah,” Palani said. “A Chinese ‘Towkay’, Ben Seng Shong, induced us to go to ‘Kelangoo Thottam’ in Thongloon, Siam, with our own bullocks and cows, and promised to pay good wages. We were working here. Now we have no work in Kelang.”

Palani said the Towkay was enraged when a watchman falsely told him that the Tamil labourer had taken his bullock cart to other places on hire. In fury, the Towkay beat him up and broke his teeth. “After he beat me, I came out of the estate with my children,” Palani said. “My bullocks and properties are in the Chinese estate.”

Palani managed to approach the police, which did file a case against the Towkay, but the Tamil labourer said he was not sure of getting justice in court. “If the Chinese Towkay spends some money in court, our reports will not receive proper attention,” he said, adding that one of his bulls was killed, while the other two worth $250 were stolen.

Nair informed the colonial authorities in India about the letter from Palani and sent a clipping of the letter in the Pinang Gazette to them, adding that a bilingual newspaper in Kuala Lumpur called Tamil Nesan wrote an editorial demanding that he go to Siam and take up the matter.

The Tamil labourers were mainly in Senggora (Songkhla), Pattani and Hat Yai, and a visit from a senior British official could have pressured the Siamese authorities into taking stronger action. But the correspondence in the Indian National Archives suggests the authorities dilly-dallied over sending Nair to Siam. When the British did finally take up the matter with the Siamese authorities, they were told that they should man the border better to prevent Indian labourers from crossing over.

Despite the prejudices and ill-treatment, some of the Tamils, Malayalis and Telugus stayed on in Siam. In May 1939, they were part of the group that formed the South Siam Indian Association.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.