Siam, not Kedah, lost Penang to the British, says expert

(FMT) – As a debate over an annual honorarium rages, a heritage expert has given a brief outline of Penang’s history since Kedah leased it to the British in 1786.

Clement Liang, a council member of Penang Heritage Trust, said Kedah had no territorial right over the island when it agreed to the lease because it was Thailand, then known as Siam, that had sovereignty over it.

Kedah leased it without the Siamese king’s knowledge, he said.

Thai history textbooks and the national museum in Bangkok show that Penang island, or Koh Mak, was the first territory that Siam lost to a western power.

Liang said Saiburi, as Kedah was known then, was in subsequent years raided frequently by the Siamese force for its disobedience. In 1821, a war known as Perang Bisik saw Kuala Kedah destroyed and thousands of Kedahans escaping to Province Wellesley for safety and resettlement.

In 1826, King Rama III and British officials signed the Burney Treaty to establish Siam’s independence from European powers.

The treaty recognised Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Pattani as Siamese provinces and Penang and Province Wellesley as British territories.

“The Burney Treaty effectively nullified the leasehold status of Penang as agreed earlier between the sultan of Kedah and the East India Company,” Liang said.

“Boundary stones marked Siamese and British territories, some of which are still in existence in Seberang Perai today.”

He said it was only in 1909 that the Siamese kingdom returned Kedah and three other northern Malay states to the British. However, Kedah was given back to the Siamese in 1943 during the Japanese occupation.

He said Penang had long been under British control and the question of its being Kedah’s territory was moot.

“Kedah suffered years of non-recognition and dubious sovereign status, worsened by power struggles in the royal court.

“So, the question of Kedah having the right to claim Penang or even collect the annual leasing fees is no longer valid,” he said.

Lawyer Haniff Khatri Abdulla told FMT Kedah lost its right to reclaim Penang when it signed the Federation of Malaya agreement in 1948 along with other Malay states.

He said the Kedah ruler signed another Malayan federation agreement in 1957 but did not make any territorial claim over Penang.

“With no specific clauses in the agreements of 1948 and 1957 on Kedah’s claim over Penang, Kedah effectively relinquished its claim on its former territories,” he said.

“The Kedah ruler did not make any claim on Penang and Province Wellesley (now Seberang Perai) in both these agreements.

“Furthermore, the Federal Constitution recognises the state of Penang as having rights equal to any other state in the country.

“Hence, any claim to reclaim it or seek payments for a so-called lease is weak.”