Thailand: An Empire that would be a Country

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The continuing unrest has brought into focus Thailand’s hidden diversity. Despite a strongly unifying cultural tradition, Thailand has been, for the past century, engaged in a lively and at times violent dialogue with itself and with the rest of Asia.
When stereotypes are getting crushed, it helps to take a step back and find a new vantage point that is neither in the centre of events nor too removed from them. Thinking about the sources of Thailand’s current instability, we may well find that point in Ipoh, the capital of Peninsular Malaysia’s state of Perak, which borders Thailand’s Yala Province. The linkages and metaphors we will come across are rich and manifold.
To start with, there are remnants of the styrofoam replica of a royal Thai palace, built by the producers of the 1999 film Anna and the King, a 19th century story of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens who joined the court of Thai King Mongkut. The historical Anna herself was no stranger to Malaya, having earned her invitation to Bangkok by teaching British officers’ children in Penang and Singapore. Although her journey was one of an itinerant expatriate, it mirrored the broader dynamics of contemporary Southeast Asia. For example, the Father of Malaysia’s Independence (Bapa Malaysia), Tunku Abdul Rahman, was born to the daughter of a Thai nobleman from Nonthaburi Province.
Of course, Thailand back then was known as Siam, a multi-ethnic and multi-racial empire with a mix of indigenous Thai, Khmer, Lao and hill tribe aboriginal people. Like the rest of the region, it witnessed successive waves of immigration from China and India. The Muslim population swelled as a result of the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty that transferred the control of northern Malay sultanates to Siam.
Although Siam was never colonised, it often entered into allegiances with major powers. Its rulers were also prone to a fin-de-siècle infatuation with all things Western, an affliction they shared with Indian maharajahs and the leaders of China’s May Fourth Movement. The administrative buildings they erected in central Bangkok would certainly be more congruous with London than with their tropical setting. But loyalties to foreign powers were also fluid and swift to change, as was the case with the 1942 fall of Singapore to Japanese forces, an event described by Winston Churchill as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. What made the invasion so unexpected and ultimately devastating was that, instead of attacking from the sea, the Japanese troops arrived on bicycles, having secured the Thai King’s permission to traverse his territory.
Just a few years earlier, inspired by the rise of formerly fragmented European powers like Italy and Germany, Siam’s rulers changed the country’s name to Thailand, meaning “Land of the Free” but also “a country of Thai people”. Today, suggestions that the government grant a degree of cultural and language autonomy to the troubled South are often met with statements such as “This is a country of Thai people who speak the Thai language”.
Perhaps this is where the seeds were planted of a country that doesn’t quite coincide with itself geographically, politically and racially. Where Singapore and Malaysia opted for accommodation, Thailand chose the opposite direction of assimilation, a process that was facilitated by the prevalence of Buddhism across the country’s ethnic groups.
Much of this cultural – and political – homogenisation unfolded under the aegis of Thailand’s monarchy. Since World War II, most of Thailand’s neighbours have done away with kings and sultans altogether (Indonesia), or subordinated them to a largely ceremonial role (Malaysia). By contrast, Thai royalty continue to elicit a near-divine reverence and fascination. Discussions of the current King’s life, let alone the circumstances leading to his inauguration (after his older brother was found shot dead at the age of 20) are strictly off limits. Anna and the King was never screened in Thai cinemas.
The arrival of the eclectic and iconoclastic leader Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 strengthened the logic of homogeneity even further: the grandson of South China immigrants, and inspired by the economic rise of China, the success of majority-Chinese Singapore and the forces of financial globalisation, Mr Thaksin sought to eliminate politics as such. Instead, the country was to focus on the glory of making money, much as he and his family had done to great effect. From this perspective, the escalation of violence in the Muslim South was but a vexing distraction. Asked to comment on a 2004 incident in which 78 young Muslim protesters suffocated to death inside police trucks, Mr Thaksin famously replied “they were already weak from fasting [during the month of Ramadan]”.
Thaksin’s reforms found favour with the rural masses but alienated the urban middle class. His regular radio shows poured vitriol on Bangkok’s traditional elites – academics, judges, intellectuals. Since his ousting in 2006 (at the hands of a Muslim general), both camps have been locked in an increasingly violent stand-off over the country’s resources and political process. The protests have also displayed a measure of peculiar cultural dynamics: in particular, one is reminded of the ancient Chinese notion of faxie (fa-hsieh in older romanisation systems), whereby people living in a strictly hierarchical society eventually cannot help but ‘dissipate’ an accumulated sense of hardship, often through violent means, before things revert to their natural equilibrium. Carnivals held in medieval Italian cities arguably served a similar purpose, even if only for one day at a time.
There are other, institutional considerations to the current crisis: a monarchy that won’t be reduced to a cog in the wheel of checks and balances; a religious community that may not be as keen to mediate in the social conflict as Poland’s Catholic church was in the 1980s’ clash of communism with the labour movement. But a closer look at Thailand’s history, especially in the past 70 years, and the country’s long-standing approach to diversity and fragmentation may be the best way of deciphering the social forces that drive today’s conflict.

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