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Archive for February 2012

Truth on Siam, A Short history of the long memory of the Thai nation

Thongchai Winichakul Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I. The 1880s-1900s was one of the most critical periods in the entire history of Siam when it faced the serious threat from the European colonial powers. In the eyes of the ruling elite, the country was not colonized because the Thai monarchs undertook the self-civilizing process modernizing the Thai state and society until it earned recognition from the civilized world, and because the great leaders made necessary sacrifices of some territories to preserve the country’s independence. Every Thai, regardless of their educational background, knows the first axiom of Thai history — that is, thanks to the great leadership of the Chakri monarchs, Siam was never colonized by the Westerners.
As a matter of fact, it was not simply a history of the Big Bad Wolf versus the Helpless Lamb. The conflict was not an anti-colonial one as it pretends, nor was Siam an innocent victim. Siam fought the French to protect its aged old imperial supremacy over Laos, Cambodia and parts in the peninsula. It was an uncontestable contest of an old empire of the region versus a global colonial power for the supremacy over the region. The culmination was Franco-Siamese conflict in 1893 in which the outcome was decided when two French gunship pointing their weapons to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The territorial “sacrifices” were the traditional vassals whose people never considered themselves parts of Siam. In case of Laos, its later historiography even thanks the French for liberating it from Siam.
Then, Siam was saved from colonization by several factors. The most important one was probably the agreement between the two superpowers of the time, Britain and France, to guarantee Siam’s sovereignty in order to make it the buffer between their major colonies (British India/Burma and Indochina respectively). These had nothing to do with the brilliant Thai monarchs and their self-civilizing mission, but to geo-politics and the timing that Siam became an issue after its neighbors were already colonized. Siam was not colonized because in the superpowers’ plan, it was not supposed to.
On the other hand, Siam could not escape from the colonial economy. In fact it was gradually integrated to the colonial economy and its division of labor since the mid-19th c. as it brought mutual benefits to both the Thai elite and the Europeans. The modernization of the Thai state and society by the Thai elite themselves in many respects also brought Siam into fold of the global systems. Extraterritoriality in particular forced Siam to transform its entire legal system to meet the standards set by Western countries.
Territorial administration, mapping, the functionalized bureaucracy were fundamental changes to fit the global systems. Many parts of the transformation were under the strong influence of the ideas and models from the West or even took place under the supervision of the Europeans employed by the Siamese government. Siam was not colonized, because it was not needed. In short, Siam was independent in the sense that it was not formally or directly colonized. But it was responsive to colonial economy and performed a necessary function for the colonial system in the region without having to be colonized. This peculiar condition and its consequences have not been adequately examined. A semi-colony normally refers to the condition of partial colonization. In this case, it is a crypto-colonial condition – a colonial situation that did not appear so, or even claims independence as its virtuous legacy. Siam as a crypto-colony bore some peculiar characteristics that also shape its nationalism.
First of all, while the reform faced a resistance from the conservatives within the ruling class, and from some local powers that were suppressed by the new territorial rule, the state faced re no serious challenge for an alternative or a different direction of transformation. Let alone the destruction of the ancient regime. Nor were other fundamental institutions of the old regime, such as Buddhism and the Sangha, radically challenged for change. Let alone a religious revolution. Instead, the major transformations in the name of reform, modernization, and civilization (considered “revolution” by some Thai historians) were initiated and undertaken by the ruling people within those institutions. The old regime were in charge of major “reforms”, for example, the absolute monarchy created the modern state and bureaucracy, the “reformed” Buddhist Sangha was in charge of the foundation of modern education.
The conventional history suggests that the self-civilizing process was the monarchs’ visions to save the country’s independence by earning recognition from the European powers. This is only partly true. Becoming civilized was a self-serving desire of the Thai royal elite to earn recognition of themselves among the world’s elites. While the Thai elite believed that they were successful, thus the country was saved, there was no evidence that Siam was recognized on the same level among the civilized elites of the world or that its recognition helped save the country’s independence. Instead, the assumed recognition was for domestic consumption to reaffirm the superiority of the royal elite among their subjects.
The making of the “nation” and the propagation of the royal nationalism in the 19th- early 20th century Siam were primarily the state’s project, and never a force against a colonial state or the ruling power. It emerged and operated under the intimidating presence of the colonial powers. Therefore the alien enemy looms large in Thai nationalism that always assumes an anti-colonial overtone. But the colonial rule in Siam was permanently deferred. Thai nationalism from its beginning turns inwardly, emphasizing the danger from within and readiness among Thai people themselves, while celebrating the great leaders in whose hands the country’s future and its prosperity will always be assured. The primary mission of nationalism in Siam from its beginning was to reaffirm the state’s control and supremacy rather than to liberate from the alien’s rule.
II. Under the condition described above, modern historiography and the new historical ideology was formulated. It reflected the views, even captures the spirit of the ruling Thai elite of the 1880s-1910s who went through the 1893 crisis and the subsequent years of self-civilizing transformation. The master narrative of Thai history that emerged in the 1910s tells a long history of how the great monarchs have saved the country’s independence times after times since the birth of the nation in the 12th or 13th c. until the modern time, and led it to current prosperity.
The “traditional” history in Siam was the religious stories of the righteous kings, especially the supreme ones or the “Universal Monarch”, in the Hindu-Buddhist political culture. The traditional forms and concepts of historical knowledge began to change since the second half of the 19th c. New styles of historical writing and antiquarianism as a practice were widespread by the 1880s-1890s. Yet the idea of writing a history of Siam as a “nation” did not appear until the mid-1900s. Several ideas of the national narrative were put forward. But it took another ten years for the narrative that eventually proved to be so powerful, ideologically speaking, to formulate.
The modern master narrative of Thai history tells a chronologically national story of how the great kings saved the country. This perception of the past was definitely shaped by the way the elite scholars in Bangkok at the time looked back and understood the 1893 crisis. It was how they made sense of their most recent painful past in the 1890s-1900s.

In other words, it was the history that was shaped by, and seen through, the 1893 crisis and its consequences. In certain ways, it looks similar to an anti-colonial history of many postcolonial countries. But upon a closer look, it reveals peculiar characteristics of Siam nationalist history. As the religious stories of great monarchs were reconceived and rewritten to fit the new theme of struggles for the country’s independence, the politico-religious story was turned into one of international domination and resistance. Strikingly, the struggles for independence were retrospectively accounted for many times since the early kingdoms of the Siamese in the 12th or 13th c. Some went further back and found even more. The experience of the 1890s-1900s was pivotal, providing a meaningful historical conceptualization that generated the whole series of similar past. In other words, I would argue, ALL earlier episodes of the Thai past were merely allegories of the memory of the 1890s-1900s traumatic transition. These allegories help disguise their origin that was also the moment of the birth of the modern nation and the birth of the country’s modern history.


In doing so, however, the significance of the European colonialism of the 19th century is diffused, becoming just another episode in the long historical series of the struggles for independence. To put it in another way, colonialism is not the target of this historical ideology as much as an enemy – any enemy – of the Thai nation. It is a nationalist history, but not an anti-colonial one. Who were the enemies in Thai history? The Europeans? France was an unforgettable enemy. Yet it was one of many historical foes. The master narrative turns the traditional archrival, the Burmese kings, from the evil (i.e. wicked, untrustworhty, heretic) into the foreign enemy of Siam. Other vassal and rival kings of pre-modern polity (for instance, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) were similarly turned into enemies of the Siamese nation. The same old enemies of the pre-national history, i.e. of an imperial kingdom, are persistent.


Certain characteristics of the traditional story of great monarchs and their empires are alive and well in the emerging nationalist history of Siam.


The traditional religious history of the righteous kings is a story of their glories and failures. Among the highest glories were the conquests and victories over the not-so righteous ones or over the evil enemy to achieve the supremacy over all other lords.


Although the righteous kings did not fight for the nation or its independence, this story was compatible with, thus conveniently reconceived to fit, the new theme and ideology of history. The result is the royal-nationalist history that entirely focuses on the leadership of great monarchs who were the nation’s heroes, but never on their people, or a social or popular movement. It is a history that reaffirms the power of the regime but distrusts people.


III. The royal nationalism and its kind of history is distinctive, thanks to the crypto-colonial condition that gave birth to both of them. Except its ebb during the 1930s-1950s following the revolution in 1932 that ended the absolute monarchy, it has been the dominant kind of nationalism in Thailand throughout the 20th c. It has become even stronger and more influential since the 1960s when royalism was revived.


The royal-nationalist history has been very powerful in two ways, namely as an epistemic discourse of history and as a historical ideology. It sets the parameter and dictates the interpretations of Thai history even up to now. Most Thai historians subscribe to it subserviently. It has stifled historical scholarship and made it a servant of nationalism and the state. By doing so, nevertheless, the field has become a sensitive intellectual battlefield where radical scholarship often wages an ideological war.


As an historical ideology, it shapes public perception of the past, and the characteristics of Thai nationalism. So far, the opponents of this historical ideology have not been successful. The anti-monarchists of the 1930s-1950s tried to produce a nationalist history that was critical to the past monarchs. Yet their history virtually remained within the conceptual box of the royal-nationalist history. Moreover, it never challenged the royal elite’s view of the history of the pivotal event that gave birth to the nation and was the foundation of the entire history of Siam, i.e. the 1893 crisis and the transition during the 1890s-1900s. A radical history such as the Marxist one was even more critical to the royal-nationalist history. Nevertheless, in many ways, it is not without the influences of the royal-nationalist history, partly because radicalism in Thailand advocates a form of radical nationalism. Besides, it never takes root in Thailand.

Written by Kham

29/02/2012 at 7:45 pm

Myanmar election body rejects challenge to Suu Kyi

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar’s election commission has rejected a challenge to the parliamentary candidacy of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and confirmed her place on the ballot.

Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said Wednesday that the commission’s division-level office rejected the complaint of a rival candidate from the small Party for Unity and Peace.

The challenger alleged that Suu Kyi enjoys benefits of a foreign citizen stemming from her marriage to her late British husband. That would make her ineligible to run in the April 1 by-election under Myanmar’s constitution, but her party says she enjoys no such benefits.

In 1990, Suu Kyi filed to run in the general election, but was disqualified after a similar objection.

Literacy group commemorates milestone

By Ou Mom,the PP Post,29 february 2012

After more than 20 years working to fight illiteracy and develop public reading programs in Cambodia, a French non-profit charitable organisation hopes to spread its mission to prisons, hospitals and remote communities.

120229_17bChildren enjoy the books at one of SIPAR’s mobile libraries. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Soutien á L’Initiative Privée pour L’Aide á la Reconstruction (SIPAR) presented its past work and future plans with partners at an event held last weekend at the National Library  to mark its 20th anniversary.
“It is very hard to develop schools and public reading in our country after enduring frequent battles or wars,” Im Sithy, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, said at the event.   “It is not a high-quality education if there is no library. Students have to strengthen their knowledge by reading many documents, not just textbooks with their teachers.”
SIPAR co-founder Bernadette Chaventhon also shared her enthusiasm for the program at the anniversary event, particularly relating to the mobile libraries SIPAR has set up.
“Imagine the pleasure of children when they discover hundreds of books that they can touch, because until now they have read only from a whiteboard without having held a book before,”  Chaventon said.
She added that in its two-decade history, SIPAR had opened 230 libraries that had benefited more than 100,000 children.
SIPAR also wants to promote reading beyond primary schools.
“We are also focusing on reading for all by creating and developing libraries outside schools – for instance, in prisons, hospitals and communities – and also to train some officers there to be the librarians,” SIPAR director Hok Sithik said.

Written by Kham

29/02/2012 at 7:11 pm

Tribunal receives cash injection from donors

By Brogit Di Certo,the PP Post,29 February 2012

The cash crisis at the Khmer Rouge tribunal will be stemmed by immediate monetary contributions totaling US$15.5 million from donor countries, court officials said yesterday.
Donor countries have pledged the funds after budget meetings between court administrators and donors at UN headquarters in New York last week.
“Following the meeting between the group of interested states held on 24 February 2012 in New York, new funding has been pledged from donors for both sides of the ECCC,” tribunal public affairs spokesman Huy Vannak said yesterday, adding that the funds were expected to be accessible in the next “few weeks”.
Six countries have pledged a total of $12 million to the national side of the court and Cambodia and Japan have pledged $3.5 million to the UN side of the court.
Acting director of administration Tony Kranh sent an official note to all Cambodian staff at the court to inform them they will receive their salaries in a few weeks, said Huy Vannak, who leaves his post at the court today to take up a new role at Cambodia’s new 24-hour news station CNC.
Cambodian staff at the court have not received any salary yet for 2012, and some judges and legal officers have not been paid since October.
The court had asked for $89 million for 2012-2013 operation expenses, with $20 million to go to the national side and $69 million needed by the UN side.
Sources close to the matter said the tribunal’s steering committee had approved the full $89 million budget for the next two years.

Written by Kham

29/02/2012 at 7:05 pm

Cambodia’s debt a concern

By Don Weinland,the PP post,29 February 2012

An International Monetary Fund and World Bank report has questioned Cambodia’s ability to deal with future financial crises if government borrowing increases.

120229_07Construction work continues on a new Chinese-funded bridge spanning the Tonle Sap river yesterday in Phnom Penh. heng chivoan

While the report indicated that Cambodia was at low risk for severe debt problems, it highlighted the need for effective management of new debt and rapidly growing build-operate-transfer, or BOT, projects, which include the hydropower dams and road reconstruction conducted by Chinese companies.
This month alone, the Kingdom courted more than US$800 million in Chinese loans for infrastructure projects.
In two different speeches in February, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Cambodia would borrow $302 million from China for roads and irrigation systems, and would apply for an additional $500 million for similar construction.
The joint report estimated Cambodia’s debt to countries at about 28 per cent of gross domestic product for both 2011 and 2012.
Although debt levels were projected to increase from about $4 billion to $5.6 billion over the next four years, its share of GDP will decrease by about a percentage point to near 27 per cent.
Threatening to increase this otherwise sustainable share of GDP were the potential liabilities of BOT projects, should investment in the large-scale works be lost.
An additional 5 per cent of GDP would be added to the debt stock if investments in 10 per cent of the projects were lost, according to the report.
“It comes down to the quality of the infrastructure. If Cambodia gets a loan to build a road, and substandard materials are used, it then has to be rebuilt in a year’s time,” former ANZ Royal CEO Stephen Higgins told the Post this month.
The result is outstanding debt and further building costs.
“And there have been a couple of examples where the work hasn’t been up to the quality it should be,” he said, although he declined to name the parties responsible.
Liabilities posed by BOT projects do not always surface in the standard measures of an economy’s health, Olaf Unteroberdoerster, deputy division chief of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, told reporters during a press conference in December.
Unlike public debt, the projects are most often contracted to private companies and are not reflected in the national budget, he said.
“The issue here is, because these projects are undertaken by private-sector partners, these projects don’t directly go through the budget and affect the fiscal indicators … We do not necessarily have the full picture,” Unteroberdoerster said at the time.
Few statistics or studies have been conducted on China’s BOT work in Cambodia, Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said yesterday.
The lack of information has left the public in the dark on the costs and liabilities of the projects.
“Transparency is the key issue here,” he said.
China holds the largest bilateral loans to Cambodia, at 66 per cent at the end of 2010, the joint report showed.
In October, Cambodia owed more than $730 million to China at interest rates substantially higher than that owed to other sovereign creditors, according to information compiled by the NGO Forum on Cambodia.
Cambodia has proven its ability to weather financial crises, and the country can expect continued growth for the next few years, National Bank of Cambodia director general and spokeswoman Nguon Sokha said yesterday.
Ongoing diversification of the country’s economy has lessened its susceptibility to external shock, she said, adding that the risks mentioned in the report were all contingent on a future financial crisis.
“We are confident we will continue to grow in the short term,” Nguon Sokha said.

Written by Kham

29/02/2012 at 7:00 pm

Cambodia finalizes law to protect endangered Mekong River dolphins

PHNOM PENH, Feb. 29 (Xinhua) — Cambodia has finalized a sub- decree on the protection and conservation of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the country’s eastern provinces, said a government official on Wednesday.

Through the sub-decree, the areas of 180 kilometers along Mekong River from the border of Laos to Cambodia’s Stung Treng and Kratie provinces will be protected as dolphin habitats, Touch Seang Tana, chairman of Cambodia’s Commission for Conversation and Development of the Mekong River Dolphins Eco- tourism Zone, said in a press briefing.

The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin has been listed as critically endangered on the World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species since 2004, he said.

“The sub-decree reflects the government’s efforts in protecting and conserving this endangered mammal species for the next generations,” he said. “The conservation will be a boost for the development of eco-tourism in the areas.”

The sub-decree is expected to be passed by the Cabinet in the next couple of weeks.

Under the sub-decree, villagers will be allowed to use only cast nets to fish in the areas, while other fishing devices such as gill nets and fish cages are banned from the areas, he said, adding that floating houses are also banned from the areas.

Last year, three dolphins had been killed by gill nets.

“We believe that the measures will save dolphins from deaths by trapping in gill nets or fish cages,” he said.

Touch Seang Tana said that it is estimated that currently the total population of Mekong river dolphins in the areas is around 180 heads, but the World Wildlife Fund put the number at 85 only.

Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed as eligible candidate for April by-elections

YANGON, Feb. 29 (Xinhua) — Myanmar’s Yangon Region Election Commission has finally approved Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy as eligible in the upcoming by-elections on April 1, totally turning down an appeal by a candidate of another political party against her eligibility.

U Ko Ko, chairman of the Yangon region election commission, told Xinhua about the confirmation Wednesday.

U Tin Yi, who is the candidate of the Unity and Peace Party ( UPP), objected Suu Kyi’s eligibility with Yangon South District Election Commission earlier on Feb. 6 to the district commission but was rejected on Feb. 10.

U Tin Yi then appealed to the higher election commission at region level which was also turned down on grounds that the appeal produced no enough and strong evidences.

Three candidates– Aung San Suu Kyi, chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Soe Min of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and U Tin Yi of the Unity and Peace Party (UPP)– will contest in Yangon region’s Kawhmu constituency for a seat of House of Representative.

With a population of 135,000, Kawhmu has 83,000 eligible voters.

In the coming April 1 by-elections, there are 48 vacant constituencies scattered in 10 regions or states among which 40 are for the seats of House of Representatives, six for House of Nationalities and two for region or state parliament. Of the 48 constituencies, Yangon region shares six vacant seats of House of Representatives.

Both NLD and the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), will contest in all 48 vacant constituencies, constituting the main contestants.

In addition to NLD and USDP, 15 political parties including old and newly-registered parties will run in some constituencies in the coming by-elections.

By-election campaigns have been underway by contesting political parties and allowed by the Union Election Commission. The parties will partly campaign through the state radio and television starting on March 7 until March 23.

Presentation of policies and work programs will be allowed through the state media in turn for 15 minutes for each contesting party, the commission said, assuring a free and fair election.