Ghosts of the past

Shane Barter

From time to time, an edited volume comes along whose table of contents and list of authors are simply exciting. Ghosts of the Past in Southern Thailand is one such volume. Editor Patrick Jory is joined by twelve eminent scholars to uncover not only the history of southern Thailand, but more specifically, its historiography, noting how local nationalists approach the history of Patani.

The authors engage with a great range of topics, from royal Malay symbols, to early Chinese sources, Islamic networks, and contemporary militancy. The reader is treated to newly-uncovered primary documents and fresh insight into older ones. But while the parts of the book are impressive, the whole of it is at times disappointing, suffering from some overlap and incoherence. The forest does not do justice to its trees.

Ghosts of the Past in Southern Thailand is much more than a recount of historical events. It provides in-depth analysis of historical sources, emphasizing how history has been written and then used by various writers in Patani, including those close to the Patani conflict. The chapters are grouped into four parts: historical pluralism, Islamic networks, perspectives on Patani’s decline, and contemporary uses of history. Anthony Reid’s opening contribution resituates Patani away from being a problematic borderland and toward being seen as a centre, a historical crossroads home to intensely cosmopolitan societies. Reid uses first-hand European descriptions, and includes one such primary account as an appendix, to communicate just how international the Patani Sultanate was in its heyday.

Christopher Joll’s chapter on Patani’s creole ambassadors extends this theme of pluralism. While we tend to understand leading ulama in Patani as Indian or Arab, they were more mixed, bringing knowledge from the Muslim world to Patani, but also returning with Southeast Asian knowledge to produce new syntheses. One particularly impressive chapter is Francis Bradley’s study of the Siamese conquest of Patani. Bradley uses primary sources to document this violent episode, but also places these findings in a convincing theoretical shell, challenging the long-standing idea of low-casualty traditional warfare in Southeast Asia. From this point, the chapters progress more or less chronologically, concluding with Duncan McCargo’s insightful analysis of militant leaflets.

Despite several wonderful chapters, the book as a whole suffers from some shortcomings. One drawback is its repetition, as several chapters recount the same historical events. For example, Kobkua Suwabbathat-Pian’s chapter on recent Patani nationalist writing begins with an overview of Patani history. It is not that the overview is not well-written, but it was not necessary this late in an edited volume, taking space that could have been used to extend the author’s impressive research. Related to this, several historical documents, namely Hikayat Patani and Ibrahim Syukri’s History of the Malay Kingdom of Patani, are analysed anew by several chapters. Each chapter repeats the background of the texts and the authors fail to build from previous chapters. Such organizational issues are laid bare in Dennis Walker’s sprawling chapter on national formation. The chapter once again relates historical events, but also jumps between past and present. More substantively, it can be difficult to distinguish between the nationalist texts reviewed and the author’s own position, especially in statements such as “the Thai military and intelligence are acutely aware of what strength the Patanian psyche draws from the oneness of Islam with the memory of a glorious past” (206). The chapter’s chaotic organization is exemplified by a long section on the final conquest of Patani, which wanders to include a paragraph on Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a contemporary politician. While the chapter includes some impressive and interesting discussions, it was difficult to locate a take-away point.

A second concern is how the volume links to the present, especially since this link is used to centre the entire collection. The back cover reads that historical relations between Malays and the Thai Kingdom rest “at the heart of the ongoing armed conflict”, a sentiment echoed throughout the book. No evidence is provided for this assertion beyond the lone chapter on the current violence by Duncan McCargo, which shows how anonymous leaflets credited to the militants mention historical events. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that ongoing ethnic tensions and mistrust among Thai and Malay communities are premised on divergent understandings of history, but this is not the same as a violent conflict characterized by anonymous terrorist strikes. The violence in Patani is treated as if it is led by a traditional ethno-secessionist rebel group, such as those in Aceh, Mindanao, or even Patani in the 1970s. It is not clear how a conflict which lacks an identifiable insurgent group, and where Malays are targeted as much as Thais, can be assumed to be a conflict over competing interpretations of history. Related to this, the contributors fail to gauge the extent to which the historiographies they analyse really matter. Who is reading these essays and blogs? While not the case for some texts, such as Ibrahim Syukri’s widely-read polemic, the magnitude and readership of nationalist historiographies are not clear. It is one thing to identify ghosts of the past, but we need to know who sees them and who is haunted by them.

Ghosts of the Past in Southern Thailand is notable for its sophisticated use of primary historical sources. Those interested in southern Thailand, Southeast Asian history, or historiography should read this book. The individual chapters are interesting and exceptionally well-researched. Taken as a whole though, the volume may fail to live up to the expectations generated by its list of gifted authors.

Shane J. Barter, Associate Director, Pacific Basin Research Center; Assistant Professor, Soka University of America (