AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 359

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Session 359: The Intellectual Legacy of Southeast Asian Historian Constance Wilson - Sponsored by Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Studies Group

Organizer: Nicola Tannenbaum, Lehigh University, USA

Constance Wilson was known for her breadth and depth of her historical research on Tai peoples throughout mainland Southeast Asia. Her careful detailed historical works provides the solid empirical base for scholars currently working in the region. No one panel can do justice to the scope of Constance Wilson’s research. Our focus is on Tai peoples outside the central region of Thailand and we have drawn our inspiration from her recent edited volume, The Middle Mekong River Basin: Studies in Tai History and Culture. John Hartmann, her colleague at Northern Illinois University, will chair and introduce the panel. Ratanoporn Setthakun’s paper, “Politics Across the Mekong River: the Relationship Between Nan and Sipsong Panna in Early Nineteenth Century” explores the political interactions among Nan, 19th century Siam, Sipsong Panna, all topics of interest to Constance. Ian Baird’s “The 1901-1902 Millenarian Revolts of Southern Laos and Ubon Ratchathani: Considering the Influence of the Champassak Royal Family,” connects two topics of interest to Constance: Champassak and millennial movements. Nicola Tannenbaum’s, “Nation Building, the Nation State, and Shan in Maehongson Province, northwestern Thailand” builds on Constance’s suggestion that we consider the ways in which nation states have affected peoples on the periphery. Finally, Richard O’Connor’s paper, “Whither Southeast Asia?: Constance Wilson, the Middle Mekong, and Scholarship” places Constance’s work on the middle Mekong within the broader context of her other work and the work of other historians of the region.

Nation Building, the Nation State, and Shan in Maehongson Province, northwestern Thailand
Nicola Tannenbaum, Lehigh University, USA

I began doing research in the Shan community of Thongmakhsan in Maehongson Province in the summer of 1979. Then I could imagine that being part of Thailand had little relevance to the cultural, political, and economic lives of the people living in the community. Admittedly this was not true but the community felt very far away from Bangkok and the larger political, economic, and social processes of the nation. Now, in 2010, even imagining Thongmakhsan as separate is not plausible; schools, international trade, government policies about land use, local governance, etc. all impinge on their day-to-day lives. In her introduction to the Middle Mekong volume, Constance suggested we shift our perspective away from the assimilation or separation of minorities to “ask instead, what has been the impact of the concept of a “nation-state” on indigenous peoples of Mainland Southeast Asia? What have these groups lost and what have they gained as a result of the major political and conceptual shifts that have taken place in the region?” Here I will attempt an answer by considering Shan in Maehongson Province and the ways in which the Thai nation state has their lives, livelihoods, and ways of being.

Politics Across the Mekong River: the Relationship Between Nan and Sipsong Panna in Early Nineteenth Century
Ratanaporn Sethakul, , Thailand

Nan was considered one of Siam’s most important tributary states since it guarded the northern frontiers. The Siamese kings recognized Nan’s importance; like Chiang Mai, the ruler of Nan was given the title of Phrachao Prathetsarat (king of a tributary state). Nan’s role was also crucial for protecting the territory Siam claimed across the Mekong River into Luang Phrabang and further into the Sipsong Chuthai area in northern Vietnam. Expanding its power to the upper Lao area where many Lue communities were located, Nan moved a large number of Lue people from Laos and Sipsong Panna to fill its own land. Geographical location and the historical relationship between Nan and Sipsong Panna facilitated the settlement of the Lue in Nan. In this essay I examine the relationship between Nan and Sipsong Panna in early 19th century to explore the causes of the Chiang Tung wars of the 1850s. I argue that the close relationship between Nan and Sipsong Panna and the problematic Tai tributary system were the main causes of these wars. In spite of the Siamese failure to seize Chiang Tung, Nan continued its expansionist policy across the Mekong River until the border were established by the French and the British in 1893. My research builds on Dr. Constance Wilson’s research into late pre-modern Siam and on the complex political relationships that Siam had with its tributary states.

Whither Southeast Asia?: Constance Wilson, the Middle Mekong, and Scholarship.
Richard A. O'Connor, University of the South, USA

Constance Wilson was trained when indigenous history and Southeast Asian Studies were coming into their own. Where does she fit in these two projects and how have they fared? My paper looks at the Middle Mekong, the focus of her last work, to sort out three realities: the land, its ever-changing peoples, and the fashions in how scholars put place and people together. I’ll focus on the scholarship to suggest that the remarkable success of Wilson’s generation now threatens to hide her work as well as the regional perspective they sought.

The 1901-1902 Millenarian Revolts of Southern Laos and Ubon Ratchathani: Considering the Influence of the Champassak Royal Family
Ian G. Baird, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

The late Professor Constance Wilson had an interest in both the holy men millenarian uprisings of mainland Southeast Asia, and the Royal House of Champassak in what is today southern Laos. Her historical scholarship in both areas has influenced my own work significantly. However, she never attempted to seriously link the 1901-1902 millenarian revolts in southern Laos and Ubon Ratchathani with what was happening to the Champassak Royal family at the time. This paper is designed to do exactly that. Despite the large amount written about the 1901-1902 revolts, there has been a surprising dearth of discussion about the role of local Lao elites, including the Champassak Royal family, in these revolts. Yet Champassak was in disorder at the time, considering that the King of Champassak, Chao Youthithamathone (or Chao Khamsouk) died in 1899 or 1900, but was not succeeded by his son Chao Rasadanai until 1903. Moreover, the first uprising in Ubon Ratchathani began just after the King of Champassak was cremated. Here, I examine the available literature regarding the links between Champassak and the 1901-1902 millenarian uprisings in southern Laos and Ubon Ratchathani. Although the full extent of Champassak Royal family involvement may never be known, there is a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence to support the conclusion that they played a much more important role in spurring on the revolts than has previously been recognized.