August 13, 2008

Nationalism and the nebulous geography of Siam

Note to the reader: This post may gets more "political" than is the norm for me. I'm not trying raise any hackles, I'm just calling it as I see it. If you don't mind knowing my take on things, then do read on.

There's an excellent post on the blog The Nation's State which helps debunk an email that is making the rounds among Thais.

The email shows a series of maps, ostensibly demonstrating how Thailand has continually lost land over the last couple of centuries, culminating in the ongoing, extremely politicized standoff at Prasat Preah Vihear. For example, here is one slide:

The idea of Thailand as an ancient and expansive kingdom is a new concept that was manufactured in the 1930s and 1940s by Field Marshal P. Phibunsongkhram, Luang Wichit Wathakan, and company. This is, of course, the period when the name Thailand was chosen to replace the foreign term Siam, and establish the supremacy of Thais over other ethnic groups in the country. In particular, the growing immigrant Chinese population at the time, increasingly wealthy and influential, was viewed as a serious threat. In an (in)famous quote from a 1938 public address, Luang Wichit stated that "the Chinese are worse than the Jews".*

Typical Phibun-era propaganda (click for translation).

The maps in this email show a misleading half-truth version of Thai geo-political history, ignoring several realities, including that (1) territorial demarcation only existed after European nations arrived in Southeast Asia, (2) these areas have changed hands many, many times throughout centuries of warfare, and (3) the areas shown may have been part of some Tai kingdom at some point, but there were many Tai (ไต or ไท) tribes. The Siamese (or Thai ไทย) were only one.

Areas in these maps that are counted as part of Siam may have been so only very recently and very briefly, if at all. Even the territory of modern Laos (since Laos as a country is also a recent concept) was only part of Siam between 1788--when the Siamese conquered Vientiane--and 1904--when the last area of modern-day Laos was ceded to France.

It's my understanding that there is a decent level of consensus among international scholars about the early history of the region, based on archeological and other evidence. The Khmuic people are one of the aboriginal peoples of the region. Mon were here at least 3,500 years ago. The Khmer about 3,000 years ago. Malays had thriving kingdoms on the Malay peninsula as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries, AD.

The ancestors of the modern Thai moved into the Southeast Asian mainland quite recently, long after their neighbors. They have been a significant military and economic force in Southeast Asia for approximately 800 years. Prior to that, they were a series of disparate tribes that gradually migrated into the region, with no unified government or particular connection to one another. There have been several major Tai kingdoms, such as Lanna, Sukhothai, and Ayutthaya but even those co-existed, and, contrary to Thai popular history, were not part of some larger unified kingdom.

The Thai belief in their rightful place in Southeast Asia is much like the idea of Manifest Destiny in early United States history. In both places there has been a belief in the racial superiority of one group over others, and thus a belief in their destined right to their adopted homeland, to the detriment of pre-existing groups.

The difference, perhaps, is that the Thais go much further in creating their own history, going so far as to lay claim to ancient kingdoms of other ethnic groups. It would be as if the early Americans claimed that they were the true descendants of the earliest Native Americans. I realize that things are far more politicized than that today, but these are the sorts of false histories that the general Thai public believes, because little effort is made to update textbooks to reflect modern scholarship on the subject of Thai history. Thais are still taught in school that early Tais founded the Nanzhao kingdom, and that they came from the Altai Mountains. Things which no Chinese or Western scholar takes seriously. Widespread belief in these ideas can be traced back to--you guessed it--Luang Wichit and the Phibunsongkhram era.

Even in the last century, Thailand has been no stranger to border conflicts. During World War II, Thailand, as an ally of Japan, invaded Burma, Laos, and Cambodia to reclaim land it felt was rightfully its own. After World War II, Thailand was required to return all land it had taken by force. Since then, there have been many border skirmishes between Thailand and its neighbors, including the 1987-1988 Thai-Lao border war, which resulted in a combined 1000 soldier casualties.

I know this is a touchy subject. And I have no particular expertise in Thai history. So I'll stop now. I won't be getting into any arguments over this. But nationalism is being taken to dangerous places in Thailand at the moment, based on ignorance and emotion. Unchecked, this whole situation doesn't bode well for a stable Southeast Asia. So I hope someone who read this will benefit.

Don't take my word for it, though. Study up for yourself.

Further reading, for those interested:
Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation by Thongchai Winichakul.
Thailand: A Short History by the late David K. Wyatt.
A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit.

*Ironically, Luang Wichit himself was the grandson of a Chinese immigrant, which he publicly denied. In fact, all the kings of the current dynasty have some measure of Chinese and Mon blood, since Rama I was the child of a father of Mon descent and an ethnic Chinese mother.


  1. Thanks for the pointer to he Nation's State blog, I did not know that one before, but it is now in my subscription list.

  2. Where is Vietnam in the map?
    (The area marked in red was supposed to represent Laos only, but it seemed to include Vietnam. Laos is landlocked.)

  3. The maps are really quite sloppy, and don't actually represent the basic shape of Southeast Asia very well at all.

    The territory called Laos in this map includes most of modern day Laos, most of Vietnam, parts of Cambodia, and even parts of the South China Sea. How creative of them. :P

    Clearly geographical accuracy isn't the point here...