History is not just a procession of Great Men, kings and generals and high priests. We all know this, we insist upon it. Yet it is difficult to tell the story of history without discussing these figures, not only because we know so much more about them than we do about the commoners for so much of history, but also because of the degree to which their decisions, agendas, and problems influenced, shaped, and determined the lives of those around them. When we want to know something of a particular historical period, history becomes a Shakespearean play, complete with clowns, mad kings, their desperate advisors and the princes eager to see them dead, ladies in waiting, and commoners in the graveyard with their acerbic comments about the whole proceedings.
But when you are looking for the broad-based, basic history of a society, with an eye to imagining its future, you need a good grounding in the broader sweep of their history, the past that informs not only their present but also will continue to inform their future, and often, when we are dealing with the huge timescales of a culture, of a people, much of the historical record has either crumbled to dust leaving only the monuments of kings, or is too specialized and peculiar for a nonspecialist to gain any traction with them.
And so it is with this in mind that I turned to David K. Wyatt’s Thailand: A Short History, an ambitious history of Thailand, and of the earlier history of the Tai people who would eventually create and populate it, which covers a vast period of a complex history in just a tad over three hundred pages. It is quite in-depth, though for the reasons I’ve cited above, the overall focus is on political and territorial history. (This seems to be something of a trend in books on Southeast Asian history, but that doesn’t surprise me, nor is it really a bad thing. With each book, I feel as if I have a better sense of the historical grounding of the past, its shape and echoes in the present.)
The earlier sections of the book deal mostly with kingdoms and proto-empires made up of Tai people, and their battles with Burmese, Cambodian, Lao, Vietnamese, and Chinese powers. At times, it was a bewildering procession of conquering followed by reconquering followed by retribution — that same sad story that has doinated so much of human history anywhere, powered by the machinery of slavery and royalty and tribal rivalry. Of course, these dynamics continue right into the twentieth century, with tensions between ideologically differing states during the Vietnam War era setting all kinds of military and political conflicts in motion that seem, to my eye at least, not so far disconnected from the clashes between various Southeast Asian kingdoms and empires of old.
The deep past is tumultuous, and though at times one tires of (or is dizzied by) the endless litany of who conquered whom when and why, Wyatt nonetheless does a good job of painting relatively vivid images of certain leaders at crucial points in the history of the Tai people. Still, once Wyatt reached the foundation of Ayutthaya, I found myself yearning for something different.
Something different was precisely what Wyatt delivered, of course, for from that point, Wyatt’s project becomes one of mapping the gestation and birth of the modern Thai nation-state. Even for someone like me, someone who basically tires of reading about kings and princes and their power struggles, these chapters were fascinating. One reason is Wyatt’s focus on why the way people did things — in Ayutthaya, as well as in rival states in the region — mattered so much to success. The way bureacracies worked, the way labour was controlled, the way minority ethnic groups were dealt with, are all important elements of the formula for success in Ayutthaya and its successor kingdom, Siam.
In dealing with the last century or so, Wyatt’s account finally grapples with the difficult problem of explaining the thinking of the military dictators to an audience of Anglophones whom one can rightly assume will be likely to resist any such explanations, even as logical as they might be gussied up into sounding. The peculiarities of what military leaders (and civilian ones too) have done with the notion of “democracy” in Thailand is a complex thing, raising questions about ideology and also about the project of democratization.
(An argument I seem to keep having with older Korean men — by older, I mean in their 50s and 60s — about whether democratization can happen rapidly, and whether “development” and modernization need follow a specific trajectory, comes to mind. For some reason, the older Korean men seem to assume, inexplicably, except maybe for my Westerness — for they have not read this blog! — that I am critical of the state of democracy in places like Korea and Indonesia simply because I think everywhere should be like Canada right now. The problem is more complex than that, of course, and one cannot impose a trajectory on all states, nor can one say that societies ought to be forced to democratize in some way imposed from outside. That said, I do side with C. Douglas Lummis in his response to cultural relativistic arguments that democracy is a Western construct, that all societies can become more democratic versions of themselves. Democracy may not look the same in each of its incarnations, and heaven knows that the idea of suddenly handing votes to any random person over a certain age has its problems, in every society the needs, beliefs, and demands of the public — tempered, of course, by ethics, the notion of human rights, and the limits of practicability — can more deeply inform the decision making of those who have the final say in how things shall be.)
Wyatt does not, here, seem often to take sides in the form of democratization advocated by various Thai leaders as much as to explain why they acted as they did, and how they seemed to think. He does so in a way that invites understanding, however, without stooping to apologia. This is a good thing.
Likewise, Anglophones from North America, at least, if not the West in general, are likely to be hostile, as I am, to the notion of absolute monarchy, but Wyatt’s account, to succeed, must articulate the importance and role of the monarchy in the formation of Thailand, both when it was absolute and since the end of monarchic absolutism in Thailand.
On both counts, Wyatt does a very good job of putting together explanations and discussions which, while they may not swing the reader over to the conservative Thai point of view (for most of the military dictatorships have been, for the Thai version of the political spectrum, “conservative”), at least make the cultural and philosiophical logic roughly comprehensible.
The parallels — and divergences — with other East/Southeast Asian development histories with which I’m to any degree familiar, specifically South Korea and Burmese history, are quite tantalizing. Thailand’s recurrent case of military rule makes me wonder what South Korea would look like today if a coup were to reinstate dictatorship… or, rather, if such had happened in 1993 or so, what would Korea look like today? Yet at the same time, Thailand’s story in Wyatt’s book emerges as a series of carefully maneuvered plays which, while they may not have all worked out perfectly, can often be described as lucky near-misses with outright disaster, in contrast to the history of Burma which seems to involve the eager and energetic invitation by leaders of one disaster after another.
One regret I have is that the book, having been published in 2003, has nothing to say about the more recent coup in Thailand in 2006. Also, be warned, as with the book about Burma that I recently discussed, this text has very little to say about the particulrities of Thai culture, and much less to say about the role of religion in Thai society. (Then again, monks are such a major force in Burma that is is an understandable difference.) As I said about that book on Burma, if you’re looking for something of the flavor of Thai culture, Thai urban life, and the Thai imagination, you will need to look elsewhere — probably some modern Thai fiction will serve better for that sort of a glimpse of the country. But for a fairly interesting look at the history of the region, and of how the nation of Thailand came to be, I recommend Wyatt’s book wholeheartedly.
One disclaimer to the above: I’m obviously not an expert on Thailand, and so I can’t evaluate the book on its actual quality, only the quality apparent to a nonexpert. But such as it is, my opinion is that it’s a great book.