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.
Prince Damrong and other relatives set to work. The centerpiece of their history was a monarch with layers of loyal, obedient, mono-racial Buddhist subjects. Damrong also understood that an ever-hostile enemy Other sharpened the definition of nationhood. The Burmese, his choice, have always remained a popular enemy, but in the ensuing decades they’ve often been eclipsed by the devious, violent Vietnamese, Chinese, communists, Japanese and the white Western farang.
Baker and Pasuk haven’t done any primary research themselves, but they do make apt use of studies done in the past few decades that chip away at the accepted history of Siam. Consider the recently-unearthed early Bangkok bourgeoisie: in the first half of the 19th century, members of this class actually had a greater chance for upward mobility and self-expression than they did in the subsequent era of modern kings and so-called reform. It turns out that criticism by commoners of hereditary privilege and elite corruption has a long history. Moreover, General Phibul, dictator in mid-century, didn’t invent harsh reprisals. In fact, when newspapers appeared in the first decades of the 20th century, they were full of complaints and reform proposals.
The tug-of-war to define nationhood sheds light on why, at least since the 1932 overthrow of the absolute monarchy, constitutions have been so essential to democrats but derided by elitists. Unfortunately, the latter half of this book is unfocused and slapdash.
Because Thailand is still far from a democracy, the authors can only obliquely note that while the present king has resurrected respect for the monarchy, he has always tilted his considerable weight behind military strongmen, a centralized state, hierarchy and paternalism. Although not cited, anthropologist Charles Keyes covered similar ground more concisely in his 1987 book Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State.
Overlooked completely is Thailand’s decades-long military engagement in Laos, which ended only in 1988; the generally callous treatment, over 25 years, of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees; the even longer, more hidden history of Burmese refugees; and the entire 1980s period when Vietnamese and Vietnamese-backed Cambodian troops spilled across the border. Incredibly, Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations remained united in their insistence that the Vietnamese leave Cambodia.
The authors’ anti-American animus also blurs their judgment. They don’t like American scholarship (U.S-educated Thais excepted), American development (often set in quotation marks) programs, American patronage, or a never defined “Americanization” of Thailand. Sometimes they resemble simple Thai folk who blame all the country’s problems on ghosts or the designated “other.” A prime example is the chapter on “the American era and development.”
As usual, the authors cite no sources …
A History of Thailand