Thailand: A Struggle for the Nation

Adrian Perkasa

In this book, Charnvit Kasetsiri, a prominent historian of Thailand, presents a history of the nation-building efforts of his own nation, ranging from King Mongkut's reign to the contemporary period. While placing his book in a series of 'the history of nation-building' in Southeast Asia, Kasetsiri borrows his concept of nationalism largely, if not wholly, from his mentor, Benedict Anderson's work Imagined Communities. Kasetsiri extensively quotes Anderson's argument on the rise of nationalism in Thailand/Siam, especially in the first chapter of this volume.

Chapter 1 is about the transformation of dynastic-era Thailand into the official modern history of Thailand. According to the author, understanding this process is an indispensable part of imagining a nation's continuity that has existed since a long time ago. There was a term phongsawadan for the history subject taught in the school until the 1910s. However, phongsawadan is more a dynastic chronicle centered on Ayutthaya and Bangkok, rather than the history of a nation. Later on, there was a change initiated by Prince Damrong, the half-brother of the incumbent king, Chulalongkorn, to extend the scope of phongsawadan beyond the realm of Ayutthaya-Bangkok and pay more attention to the origin and spread of Thai people. Therefore, the Prince was known as the Royal Father of Thai history. Influenced by the West, Prince Damrong published several works in scholarly journals to circulate his idea on Thai history, especially in the Journal of the Siam Society.

Following Anderson's explanation of the effect of print capitalism on the emergence of nationalism, Kasetsiri also shows how several Thai intellectuals used the media to spread their idea of the Thai/Siam nation in the same chapter. On the one hand, the rise of public intellectuals sometimes challenged the monarchy's authority. Still, on the other hand, they also shaped the feeling of a nation by popularly problematizing the relationship between the king, the people, and international relations. This situation ignited several movements that led to the 1932 coup and made the nation into a constitutional monarchy.  

Instead of directly describing the shift from absolute to constitutional monarchy in Thailand, the subsequent chapter in this book primarily problematizes the name change from Siam to Thailand. From Kasetsiri’s perspective, the nation's new appellation could only emerge because of prolonged conflict between old and new elites in that country since the 1932 coup. During the first tenure of Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s government, changes occurred. After consolidating power by destroying the old adversarial political factions, Prime Minister Phibun quickly changed his focus to the more constructive task of gaining widespread support for his government among the masses. He officially used Thai as the name of the nation, state, and race in 1939. In addition, Phibun also introduced the new term sang-chat for nation-building. Despite several rejections to use the name of Thailand, including the movement in which Kasetsiri was also involved, this new name endured until today.

After discussing the contribution of new elites, generals, and intellectuals in the first two chapters, Kasetsiri draws on the role of the king and his family (and relatives) in Thailand's nation-building for the rest of this book. If there are names of intellectuals, they must be royalist public intellectuals, who often played a significant role in depicting the monarch as the legitimate ruler of the nation. Chapter 3 begins by illustrating the situation in 1996, when King Bhumibol or Rama IX reigned for fifty years. The king became the world's longest-reigning monarch in that present era. The former prime minister and intellectual, Anand Panyarachun, glorified the king not only as a traditionally righteous ruler but also as a modern monarch. Even Anand compared the function of the Thai king of the British monarch that possessed rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn.

Prior to Anand, there was a more prominent royalist public intellectual, M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. As Anand, Kukrit also ever experienced held a prime minister office for a brief period from 1975 to 1976. With his background as a member of the royal Chakri family, Kukrit is famously known as an influential figure, especially in the arts and culture sphere. Kasetsiri explains that Kukrit’s most successful work is Si Phaendin which first appeared as a newspaper serial and then published into a novel in 1953. This work is basically a historical romance of the Chakri dynasty during the many revolutionary changes from the reign of King Chulalongkorn/Rama V to the death of King Ananda Mahidol/Rama VIII. Kasestiri argues that this novel made Kukrit a significant promoter of the new monarchy. Indeed, Kukrit also became an essential link between higher education and King Bhumibol, especially in his role at Thammasat and Chulalongkorn University. With his musical talent, the King composed a new anthem for those universities.

Although the relationship between the monarchy and the intellectuals, particularly within higher education, did not always work well, King Bhumibol strengthened the monarchy's cohesiveness and graduated in several ways. Kasetsiri, in Chapter 4, eloquently observes the monarch's role in the graduation ceremonies from the early years of his reign to 1997. He officiated over 490 graduation ceremonies and personally awarded diplomas to 470.000 graduates. To this day, obtaining a degree certificate from the monarch or his representatives is a highly regarded ritual and a lifelong personal achievement. In addition to graduation ceremonies, a strong royal connection with Thailand's urban educated classes was reflected in scholarship grants and other intellectual endeavor rewards. Students from the extended royal family, as well as the metropolitan upper and middle classes, were able to pursue their studies overseas thanks to the funds. Many influential figures in Thailand are privileged by these schemes. Therefore, this particular relationship between the king and the intellectuals, I believe, deserves to be investigated in further studies.

The remaining chapters of this book show how influential King Bhumibol and his royal family were to the intellectuals, including Kasetsiri himself. He continues to discuss their role in Thailand's nation-building process until the present day. Overall, this work is highly recommended not only for Thai studies scholars but also for students and researchers on Southeast Asian Studies as well. My main concern about this book is that there is no dedicated chapter to introduce the content of this book. However, it is compensated by a prologue from Craig J. Reynolds.