Book Review: "A History of Thailand" by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit

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Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, third ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Kindle Edition.

Years ago, I read David Wyatt's "Thailand: A Short History" but it was a bit too dry and not too short. I nearly gave up as he went on and on reconstructing the pre-history of Thailand. But Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit's “A History of Thailand” has been a completely different experience. The authors have written a briskly moving narrative that gives you the big picture, highlighting the important people and events in the development of the country without getting bogged down in the details. The first chapter (Before Bangkok) takes you through early history to the founding of Bangkok in 1782. In not too many pages, the authors give a helpful picture of the 15-18th century, the empires of Southeast Asia, the old Thai feudal system, and the steps leading up the founding of the Chakri dynasty. And it is the Chakri dynasty and the last 200 years of Thai history that form the bulk of this book.

As the book unfolds however, tracing the political, cultural, and economic development of the country from Rama 1 (1782) to the pre-coup political climate of March 2014, it becomes obviously that writing a history of “Thailand” is problematic. As it were, there was no “Thailand” per se, until the colonial powers forced the kingdom of Siam to define it borders in response to French and British colonial acquisitions in Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Siam spread across what is now Central Thailand into Western Cambodia, while the Lao kingdoms and Shan States functioned rather independent of Siam to the north, albeit many of them in a tributary relationship to Siam. The region that constitutes modern day Southern Thailand was also only loosely connected to Bangkok. But as the colonial powers claimed some of these territories and agreed that others belonged to Siam, the government of Siam felt that it was necessary create a sense of unity and nationhood among these different territories and peoples in order to consolidate power and ward off interference from foreign aggression. These reasons, along with the belief that the majority of “Thai” people are passive peasants, led to justifications for a strong state with Bangkok as the center. The strong state was first embodied in the absolute monarchy, but after the revolution of 1932, the strong state re-emerged on-and-off in the form of military dictatorships up through the 1970s and beyond.

Through this time period of emerging nationhood, there has been a struggle to define who is a Thai person. Some have defined “Thai” as all who are loyal to the Siamese king. Alongside this definition, others (particular in times of authoritarian rule), have added a long list of Thai values, history, traditions, beliefs, qualities, forms of dress, speech, etc. that one should adhere to in order to truly be Thai. The history of “Thailand” has been written and re-written many times, often times ignoring or papering over local histories, beliefs, identities, and languages, in order to produce a cohesive national narrative of unity and uniformity.

But efforts at creating national unity through enforced uniformity have not gone unchallenged. As commoners with money and education began to be exposed to ideas from outside Thailand in the early 20th century, a minority voice of dissent developed. Not all of the so-called passive peasants were happy to be passive, and an increasing number were not peasants anymore. Ideas of democracy, liberalism, capitalism, and communism filtered into Thailand and alternative ideas of what it meant to be Thai developed alongside the mainstream narrative. In the post-World War II era, rapid developments in transportation, communication, and industrialization accelerated the conflict between the differing ideologies competing for the hearts and minds of the Thai people. The modern has been increasingly in conflict with the traditional, even as scholars, business people, and ethnic and religious minorities question what traditional “Thai” really means in a nation sewn together from a divergent assortment of peoples and kingdoms in the not-too-distant past.

As a foreigner living in Thailand for a number of years, I found this book very helpful in piecing together the bits and pieces of history, culture, religion, and politics that I’ve picked up over the years. As an American, I have been unable to equate the various sides in Thai political conflicts with equivalent political parties in my own country, and this book has shown me the foolishness of even trying to make any one-for-one correspondences. The forces shaping Thai politics and culture are quite different than anything I know from my home country, and this book has helped create categories in my mind for the various political statements and events that are occurring today.

As a Christian who works with various Protestant churches and organizations in Thailand, I was interested to see how the pressures and forces of unity and uniformity have created a culture where minority viewpoints and beliefs are often seen as a threat to communal well-being. At various points in Thai history (and in some cases, in the present), it has been seen as “un-Thai” to be ethnically Chinese, ethnically Lao / Isaan, Muslim, Christian, etc. With increased globalization and communication between various peoples within (and outside) Thailand, openness to diversity is increasing, as seen in some media. However, the official narrative of a unified, uniform Thai history stretching back to the Sukhothai era is still firmly embedded in school textbooks and the popular imagination. The voices of dissent still have a lot of work to do if they wish to see a different concept of what it means to be Thai take hold.

Overall, I found “A History of Thailand” to be vastly informative, and feel like I have a much better understanding of Thai history and politics now, especially how themes from the past keep popping up again and again, informing and forming the present. I found this book especially helpful in thinking about and understanding the major, competing Thai conceptions of the nature and purpose of the nation, the nature of what it means to be "Thai", and the most prevalent models of leadership in society.

Of course, any single volume introduction leaves out a lot, but this book gives a good overview of the past 200 years, in particular. I found it very easy to read, which is saying a lot for a book about political history. I'd recommend it to anyone living in Thailand who wants to get better insight and understanding of the bigger context of the Thai people and nation.

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