Seditious Histories. Contesting Thai and Southeast Asian Pasts

Niels Mulder

In this collection of eleven essays, Professor Reynolds' last essay 'National Identity and Cultural Nationalism', presents us with the lively entwinement of the past in the present and the present in the past, while demonstrating that, in the Thai public sphere, there is no such thing as disinterested history. Whether in the past or now, history is vital to collective memory, to dynastic succession, to an individual's identification with his place in the social hierarchy, and, in modern times, to a citizen's identification with the nation-state. If, in former dynastic circumstances, history was a form of political intelligence, then, in the present, it has become a political instrument in which culture, identity, and security are fused in order to foster national stability.

Naturally, the author anticipates these ideas in the 'Prologue' in which he promises that his brand of history is concerned with the politics of memory. In that endeavour, he proposes to root historical narratives in thinking about the past in the conviction that it acquires meaning through confrontation with the mentality of a later period. Such interpretative historiography should transcend differences in mentality and so make the past accessible to the modern imagination. As a result, Reynolds is less concerned with facts, let alone the quest for new ones, and more with history that lives on as collective memory.

Whereas the author sounds a clear caveat against history and national identity as hegemonic constructs, the material that is available to him restricts his analyses to the upper layers of society and state. In that vein, the 'Seditious Histories of Siam' that constitute the book's second section, stem from late 19th century writings by highly educated commoners who, whether purposely or not, challenge royal or court-affiliated authority. Now as then, and in spite of expanding education and nominal democratisation, the guardians of official history remain vigilant. Their interpretation was challenged by authors on the political Left in the 1950s, who were then mocked, punished, exiled, and even killed by the time the military asserted its 'despotic paternalism'.

After the popular uprising that sent the ruling marshals packing in October 1973, history became a blunt political instrument and a focal point for debating social ills that was rigorously suppressed when the military seized power again in the bloody event of 6 October 1976. Since then, however, the intellectual renaissance of the short-lived open society has proven to be irrepressible, even as the authorities still refuse to memorialise that fatal date. This observation of the taboo that rests as a dead weight on the past that is in living memory still reminded me of my investigations into Southeast Asian schoolbook history and my exasperation at the fact that we can never understand the present through fabricating a power-friendly past (Mulder. 1997). Even so, this is what is being done, presented in school, and even elevated to a matter of national security.

Why this is so, and why officially defined Thai culture and its subtext, "the Thai way of life", has become as sacred an object as the monarchy, or institutionalised Buddhism for that matter, becomes more than plausible from the discussion of the state-threatening crime of lèse majesté under the 'Seditious Histories' and from the reconstruction of pasts in the third section, 'Cultural Studies'. This section comprises among others the essays 'Religious Historical Writing in Early Bangkok' and 'Buddhist Cosmography in Thai Intellectual History' that dwell on the interlacing of kingship, religion, and realm, and on the interweaving of the social order, original 'animist' ideas, and Buddhism.

In his exposition of the said topics, Reynolds succeeds in bridging the gap between the modern western mind and the Thai world of thought in which extreme reverence for moral hierarchy and king, and Buddhist-animistic syncretism come 'naturally'. With this feat, he generously fulfils his promise of sharing with his readers the 'historical sensation' of transcending differences in mentalities and language. It is precisely this that makes the collection a most valuable asset for students of Southeast Asia in general and those of interpretative historiography in particular.

In its title, the book also refers to Southeast Asian pasts that are discussed at a theoretical level in the two chapters of the first section. Under a 'New Look at Old Southeast Asia', we are presented with a survey of historical models that became the foundations of the region's distinctiveness as a region. This may or not be so because of its distinctive features, and certainly so because of a unity of shared historical experience and comparability of the immensely varied cultures and societies within it. The other chapter, 'Paradigms of the Premodern State', also puts forward an inventory of models. Whereas most old birds will be familiar with this presentation, the two chapters will definitely provide helpful introductions to all students aspiring to work on the region.


Mulder, Niels. 1997. Thai Images; the Culture of the Public World. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books. See also, 2000. Indonesian Images (Yogyakarta: Kanisius) and 2000. Filipino Images (Quezon City: New Day)