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Beyond the Tales of Kings and Wars

By Bertil Lintner

A bold new interpretation of Thailand's history.

A History of Thailand, by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & New York, 2005. 301 pages

There is no shortage of books about the history of Thailand, glorifying its real or imaginary rulers and their wars against aggressive neighbors, usually the Burmese. In a way, this is a reflection of Thailand's unique social and political development in a continent that for decades, even centuries, was ruled by Western powers. As the American historian Craig Reynolds has pointed out: "The country's much-vaunted escape from colonial domination meant that no group or class or party rose up to demand, and ultimately to wrest, sovereignty from foreign masters and also that the institutions that responded to the pressures of Western imperialism in the nineteenth century survived and adjusted to contend with the internal and external challenges of the twentieth."

Consequently, Reynolds argued, "Western writers inevitably convey to their readers the idea of 'Thailand--a conservative state'," and the writing of Thai history in English "remains monumentally non-controversial." Many Thai scholars in the past also tended to avoid anything that could be interpreted as controversial and contrary to the officially accepted version of Thai history.

The first real attempt to break with that tradition--in Thai, though --came when, in 1957, a young and idealistic academic, Jit Phumisak, wrote his now classic The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today. The following year, the book was banned and its author sent to languish in Bangkok's notorious Lard Yao prison. He later fled to the jungle where he joined the insurgent Communist Party of Thailand--and was killed in an encounter in the Phu Phan mountains in the northeast in 1966.

Today, Thailand is a far more open and democratic society, and serious historical research is possible, without the scholars having to risk their lives, or go underground. A more mature, less polarized society also means that historians can be more balanced and less politically biased in their interpretations of Thai history. But even so, few historians have dared to approach the country's past and present with a critical eye--not until Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit wrote their history of Thailand. Published this year by Cambridge University Press, it is not only the first published history of Thailand for two decades but also the first, in English, to look beyond the tales of kings and wars.

Baker and Pasuk examine the emergence of modern Thailand in the context of the abolition of slavery at the turn of the last century, which turned unfree labor into a rural society of smallholder peasants, and the development of urban centers populated mainly by poor migrants from southern China, who later became the new plutocracy. A traditional polity was transformed into a new nation-state under a strengthened monarchy. A new Thai national identity was forged on the basis of newly-interpreted traditions and values that may not necessarily be older than the struggle to maintain Thai nationhood and independence at a time when colonial powers were closing in from all sides.

Urban nationalists, ambitious generals, Sino-Thai businessmen and bankers, peasant organizers in rural areas, communist rebels and various social and religious movements all contested to control this emerging nation-state and define its purpose. That struggle is not yet over, as a new generation of business-politicians now have come to the fore and challenged traditional institutions and social structures without providing any real alternative other than corporate power.

Somewhat ironically, the massive reform movement in 1992, which epitomized the liberal values of the new middle class, in the end had to give way to a new form of money politics. At the same time, the new rulers have played heavily on Thai nationalist feelings. Today, the Thai flag can be seen on every Bangkok bus with the old-era invocation to "unite the Thai blood-and-flesh-lineage-race," while the sky trains display massive advertisements for the latest electronic gadgets.

Baker and Pasuk are well-placed to analyze this development in its rightful social and economic context. Baker taught history at Cambridge University and has lived in Thailand for more than two decades. Pasuk took a PhD from Cambridge and has written extensively on the Thai economy, the intertwined problems of corruption and democratization, labor and migration. Together, they present a comprehensive picture of modern Thai history, making sense of forces and events that to many outsiders may appear bewildering, confusing, and even contradictory. It is also a bold book, published at a time when "advocates of the strong state repeatedly revert to nationalist arguments to denigrate opposing ideas as 'un-Thai'." Baker and Pasuk's book may present a different interpretation of Thai history, but it is certainly not "un-Thai." It is an excellent account of the development of modern Thailand, written by two knowledgeable and very concerned social commentators.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, October 2005

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