AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 225

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Session 225: Newly Changing Landscapes of the Thai Past: Impossible Histories and Possible Futures in Thailand Since May 2010

Organizer: Michael J. Montesano , SOJOURN, Japan

Chair: Tyrell C. Haberkorn, Australian National University, Australia

Discussant: Niti Pawakapan, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

Writing in the mid-1990s, Thongchai Winichakul argued that the events of 14 October 1973 permanently and radically changed the meaning of the Thai past. The transformations effected by students, farmers, workers, and other dissident actors during the three years following those events exposed the elisions of oppression, resistance, and life on the margins of the nation that characterized previously unchallenged elite historical writing. They led Thais to look for “history” in realms of their country’s life that had not previously been deemed worthy of scholarly study. In consequence, Thongchai noted: “A new past was needed.” Historians, economists and other critics responded by re-interpreting the past in Marxian, political economic, local, and other deconstructive modes. Thirty-seven years after the tragedy of 1973, events on the streets of Bangkok have again brought the Thai past, and the possible futures implied by that past, into sharp relief. The papers on this panel focus on the possibility that those events have fundamentally shifted both what stories can be told about the past, and what kinds of political and social futures can be imagined in Thailand. They engage the institutions, processes, and ideas that have animated the country’s ongoing crisis. Drawing on diverse contemporary and historical cases centered on ideas of capital, sedition, violence, and law and also examining longer-term currents in Thai history, the papers on this panel recall Thongchai's claims, and their authors write in the service of new critical Thai histories.

Engendering Sedition: Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, Ethel Rosenberg, and the Violence of Intention
Tyrell C. Haberkorn, Australian National University, Australia

On 5 April 1951, Ethel Rosenberg was sentenced to death for allegedly conspiring to commit espionage and sell U.S. atomic information to the Soviet Union. On 28 August 2009, Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for allegedly insulting the royal family of Thailand. This paper argues that these two cases, separated by an ocean, nearly sixty years, and different legal systems, were both diagnostic of looming national crises and of the use of fear as a tool of repression by the state. Taking the disjuncture among the severity of the charges and the paucity of the evidence presented as a point of departure, this paper interrogates the legal instruments under which Rosenberg and Darunee were charged, namely the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917 and Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, the logic of the courts which convicted them, and the public discourse surrounding both trials. As both cases unfolded, it became clear that Rosenberg and Darunee were on trial for far more than the charges listed in their indictments; they were both on trial for disloyalty to the nation, and part of this disloyalty was in their refusal to conform to particular ideas of womanhood. The new history, or landscape of the past, articulated in this paper is a comparative understanding of how narrow ideas of what it means to be a woman, manipulation of the law, and flawed justice systems construct ideas of sedition and, in turn, of the national community.

Bangkok in March-May 2010 and the Poverty of Historographic Exceptionalism: Post-1945 Thailand in Gerschenkronian and Myintian Perspective
Michael J. Montesano , SOJOURN, Japan

As a manifestation both of deep socio-economic divisions and of intrigues among political elites, the protests and violence that scarred Bangkok between March and May of 2010 reflected patterns of Thai historical development that began in the second half of the nineteenth century and continued in the decades after 1945. Appreciation of these patterns demands rejection of the exceptionalism that has long defined Thai historiography and recourse to comparative and theoretical perspectives. In contrast to the national cases of movement out of “economic backwardness” studied by the Russian economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, Thailand neither followed a path of technological leapfrogging nor demonstrated the distinctive institutional or intellectual characteristics of “late” developers. Instead, well into the 1970s remained on the track of “vent-for-surplus” growth described in the writings of the Burmese trade economist Hla Myint. Gerschenkronian and Myintian perspectives on modern Thai history make clear the roots not only of today’s deep divisions in Thai society but also of the nature of contemporary Thai political elites during the two decades beginning in the late 1950s. They help explain patterns of capital accumulation and land exploitation, related trends in investment in human capital, continued reliance on economic liberalism, and the emergence of neo-royalism as the defining institutional and intellectual innovation of that period. These perspectives thus make more comprehensible the crisis of March-May 2010. And they challenge prevailing historiographic understandings—Thai and foreign, traditionalist and progressive, cultural and economistic.

Murder and (un)Progress in Modern Siam, Episode II: An Omen for Thailand’s Future
Prajak Kongkirati, Australian National University, Australia

Since the revival of the parliamentary system in the 1980s, Thailand has witnessed the increasing frequency of assassination of members of parliament, nouveau riche tycoons, local bosses, and vote canvassers by professional gunmen. In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, Benedict Anderson advanced an odd but telling “murder and progress” argument: the increasing prevalence of politically motivated murder reflected the “market value” of MPs in Thailand. The widespread murder of candidates and their canvassers therefore indicated the decline of long-standing military-bureaucratic dictatorship and the development of parliamentary democracy. Beginning in 2009, the failed assassination of Sonthi Limthongkul and several other attempts to kill public figures indicated a new deepening of political violence in Thailand. During the events of April-May 2010, political violence expanded to include the presence of the “men in black” among the red shirt protestors, the assassination of Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol (“Sae Daeng”), the Abhisit government’s open use of snipers to shoot protestors, the mysterious murders of red shirt supporters, and bombings in the capital. Engaging and extending Anderson’s argument, this paper investigates the episodes of political killings that have occurred during Thailand’s current crisis. The pattern of political murders -- perpetrators, victims, method, motives, timing, and geography -- will be thoroughly examined in order to see whether political killing in Siam has assumed a new character and what this pattern tells us about the changing structures of Thai politics, as well as to assess what pathology Thailand may face in the future.

An “Ethnic” Reading of “Thai” History in the Twilight of the Century-old Thai National Model
David E Streckfuss, Khon Kaen University, Thailand

The events of April-May 2010 shed light on a long darkened, neglected, and dangerous corner of “Thai” history. An oceanic shift in Thai politics is only beginning to be tracked, but that shift already threatens the nationalist model set out in the early twentieth century, a model based on the construction of a culturally and ethnically homogenous “Thailand.” Made near complete under military dictatorship after 1958, and perfected after the bloody crackdown of 1976, this model enjoyed apparent rejuvenation since the 2006 coup, now with the monarchy at its center. Is this model in fact in a state of collapse? Even after a century of imposed “Thai-ness,” “ethnic” aspects of Thai history are more apparent. It seems that the protests of 2010 pitted Bangkok/Thai-ness against submerged and regional identities, that the South, North, and Northeast of “Thailand” are coming apart, literally and figuratively. This paper traces a set of regional histories and places them alongside the “national” one. What are the connections among revolts against centralizing “Thai” power in the early 1900s, attempts to erase ethnic identity by Prince Damrong Rajanuphap or under Phibun Songkhram in the 1930s, regionalism in the Northeast (and maybe other areas) in the 1940s and 1950s, the locations of strongholds of the Communist Party of Thailand, the Assembly of the Poor, and finally the red shirts? An an “ethnic” history of “Thailand” has unfolded during the past century. Attention to that history helps illuminate both the pasts and possible futures of the country.