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A Question of Identity

By Bertil Lintner

"Thainess" is a rather debatable aspect of Thai nationality, because it is sometimes moulded according to the will of different leaders. The same applies to multi-ethnic Burma.

A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun. University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland; 2005. 189 pages.

What does it mean to be Thai? Well, it depends. Khwampenthai, or "Thainess," has been consistently used by successive Thai leaders to legitimize their grip on power and to defend their economic interests. But rather than defining what is uniquely Thai, the creators of Thainess often pursue the national identifying process with the recognition of un-Thainess, and that has varied greatly over the years. Burma, because its military forces sacked the ancient capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, was the first in line to be picked as an enemy of Thainess. In more recent years, "Westernness"--and "Western" concepts such as democracy, freedom of speech and human rights--has come to represent a threat to the power of certain Thai leaders, including the present prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thais love Thais and nobody else.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Singapore-based Thai academic, examines the concept of khwampenthai in the context of Thailand's relations with Burma, from the confrontation of the 1950s and 1960s to the appeasement of the 1990s and 2000s. The old military strongman Phibun Songkhram saw Burma as the main threat to Thailand and the Thais. Ethnic minority armies from Burma were encouraged to set up camps along the Thai frontier, thus providing it with a convenient border buffer that kept the evil Burmese at bay. In the late 1980s, however, prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan wanted to turn battlefields into marketplaces, and began trading with Burma. This policy was refined under Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. He and other like-minded Thai leaders dismissed international condemnation of the Burmese dictatorship as a "Western" concept, alien to "Asian values."

Thainess, Pavin argues, is not only "mouldable" but, in his own terms, "rather plastic," and his country has long been ruled by "leaders with their insatiable greed for private interests." He even goes as far as stating "the fact that Thainess is volatile and changeable, depending on the power of the authority at the moment, shows the lack of a clear definition of Thai nationhood and its artificiality." A damning conclusion, to say the least, which many of his countrymen would find rather offensive. But he presents his arguments very well, and anyone interested in the evolution of Thai nationhood--and how and why Thai perceptions of "the Burmese threat" have changed since the 1950s and 1960s--should read this book.

On the other hand, is Burma any less "plastic" as a nation? Apart from apologists for the present regime like Robert Taylor and Michael Aung-Thwin, who specialize in reinventing history, there is no one who believes there was any strong and well-organized "Burmese state" before the British colonized the country in the 19th century. Rather, Burma is a colonial creation, and that is its main problem today. It includes territories and peoples who had little or nothing to do with any pre-colonial Burmese kingdom, and have no desire to be inside the boundaries that Britain established in the 19th century.

Pre-colonial Burma was ruled by warrior kings who were adept at conquering land from their neighbors, including parts of what today is Thailand, but failed to consolidate their conquests by establishing functioning administrations in their new acquisitions. Consequently, Burmese kingdoms rose and fell with a certain ruler. That warrior-king mentality, not any ancient notion of a "Burmese state," is the main legacy of "old Burma," and is the reason why the country even today is fractured and in a permanent state of civil war.

It may be hard to define what khwampenthai actually means, but it is even harder to say what a "Myanmar" identity is. If "Myanmar" meant the Burmese and all other nationalities--as the country's military rulers claim--how could there be, according to the Myanmar Language Commission, a "Myanmar language?"

The confusion is an old one, and when the Burmese independence movement was established in the 1930s, there was a debate among the young nationalists as to what name should be used for the country: Bama or Myanma. In the end, according to the official Burmese history of the movement, they concluded that "Myanma means only the part of the country where the myanma people live...[but] different nationalities live in this country, such as the Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Chin, Pa-O, Palaung, Mon, Myanmar, Rakhine and Shan. Therefore, the nationalists did not use the term Myanma naing-ngan but Bama naing-ngan. That would be the correct term...all nationalities that live in Bama naing-ngan are called Bama."

Thus, the movement became the Doh-Bama Asiayone ("Our Burma Association"), not the Doh-Myanma Asiayone--and we are now waiting for a Burmese scholar to write a book about his or her national identity which is as critical and well researched as Pavin's

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, March 2006

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