* A History of Thailand

A History of Thailand
By Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
Cambridge University Press, 2005, 320 pages
$60.00 (hardcover), $19.99 (paper)
Reviewed by Susan J. Cunningham


Be wary of promises on book jackets: A History of Thailand  by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit is not the first new history of Thailand in English in 20 years. First of all, although there has been a muang thai in the Chao Phraya River basin since at least the 16th century, the state’s first 300 years are compressed into two brief chapters. By chapter 3, we’re already embedded in the 20th century and the much-studied “modernization” era of King Chulalongkorn. Even so, the book doesn’t quite qualify as a history of Thailand in the 20th century because some of the most significant events of the last three decades barely rate a mention.


This is disappointing given the authors’ track record. Ms. Pasuk is a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. Her husband taught Asian history at Cambridge University in the 1970’s, then spent most of the next two decades in business in Thailand. Beginning in the 1990’s, they co-authored lively books, such as Thailand’s Boom and Bust (1998) and Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand (2004), that made economic and political trends comprehensible to a wide public.


Instead of a strictly chronological approach, here they attempt to frame the 20th century as a series of contests to define and control the nation-state. The contestants have included royalists, commoner intellectuals, generals, students, communists and agrarian leftists. Yet the character of the struggle has remained between absolutist, centralized rule and an inclusive, egalitarian vision that would allow even peasants to participate in politics and define progress for themselves. The reign of Chulalongkorn, from 1868-1910, is pivotal. As is well known, the clever king fended off the designs of the French and the British by launching massive infrastructure projects, sending his young relatives to study in the West, and acquiescing to demands for geographical borders. Yet Chulalongkorn, like his father, realized it was just as important that the colonialists perceive Siam as a “civilized” nation. That required a unified, formidable heritage that would be respected and feared. Continue reading

* Not the usual nostalgia tour

Down Highway One: Journeys through Vietnam and Cambodia
By Sue Downie
Asia 2000. 325 baht.
Reviewed by Susan Cunningham.

Among books about Vietnam in the doi moi era—since the acceptance of capitalist-style economics was unveiled in l987–Down Highway One by Sue Downie offers a refreshing perspective. It’s not yet another bittersweet nostalgia tour by an elderly U.S. veteran or a former war correspondent. Neither is it a quickie travelogue by someone whose prior knowledge of the country was derived from the Lonely Planet guidebook, too many viewings of “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” and a skim through Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Downie is above all a diligent reporter trying to describe how Vietnam looks and feels today. Or rather, how it looked and felt between 1988 and 1990. In 1988, she was the first Western Bloc journalist (apparently she’s Australian) since at least the 1950s to travel overland from the Chinese border town of Lang Son down the length of Vietnam and from Saigon to Phnom Penh. Her route was the 2,100 kilometre-long Highway One. She describes it as “a D-grade road–narrow and potholed with disintegrating edges.” Continue reading