War and Peace in Thailand

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 7, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

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Review of David K. Wyatt's Thailand: A Short History, Silkworm Books, 1999.

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Contemplating the bloody American Civil War, Henry Adams dimly concluded that "man from the beginning had found his chief amusement in bloodshed." Amusement may be the wrong word, as wars have often been fought through necessity or simply through a lack of imagination. But Adams was certainly on to something: history, for better or worse, is very much the history of warfare.

That this rule applies equally well to supposedly peace-loving Southeast Asia may shock the uninitiated. Among the many virtues of David K. Wyatt's Thailand: A Short History is that it debunks this image of Southeast Asia as a placid Shangri-La rent asunder by grasping Western powers. Before the Europeans' ominous arrival, Southeast Asians attacked each other with astonishing regularity and alacrity. War was as much a part of life as the threshing of rice, and the warriors were elated to use Portuguese guns and mercenaries to quash their impudent neighbors.

Also surprising is one of the reasons why wars were fought: not to decimate an enemy populace, but rather to drag the populace back to the homeland. Underpopulation rather than overpopulation was a big problem back then - it may indeed have caused Rome's fall - as famine, disease, and war gnawed away at the workforces and armies essential to a prosperous state. In 1828, the Thais "destroyed all buildings in the environs of Vientiane [capital of modern-day Laos] and removed all the population from the area for resettlement" in various Thai provinces [insertions and emphasis mine]. "Even forty years later, when a party of French explorers reached Vientiane, they found nothing but forest and decaying ruins." When the Burmese led their epic invasion of Ayudhya in 1767 - still a sore point with the Thais - they "led tens of thousands of captives away to Burma."

Boldly, and I think successfully, Wyatt covers Thai history from its ancient origins down to the 1980's, and the linchpin of the work seems to be Thailand's predilection for despotism, despite the country's removal of absolute monarchy in 1932. As a Thai ambassador to the U.S. explained, "If we look at our national history, we can see very well that this country works better and prospers under an authority, not a tyrannical authority, but a unifying authority around which all elements of the nation can rally." This justified the rule of strongman Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, remembered equally well for the prosperity Thailand enjoyed under his reign as for the unabashed brutality he employed to secure it. As a Thai recently told me, the kingdom prospered because Sarit killed everybody that did something wrong. In modern Thailand, the authority of the king has been supplanted by the authority of the ubiquitous brown-clad army, while the elected government operates under the constant threat of a military coup, the last having occurred less than a decade ago.

Every now and again, the "authority" ceases to be unifying and instead becomes tyrannical. This spurs student-led protests to erupt with the same force by which they are eventually crushed. Perhaps the most vivid example occurred on October 6, 1976, when students of Bangkok's Thammasat University were "lynched, burned alive, and beaten" by government forces in belated reaction to the students' successful removal of the Thanom-Praphas regime on October 14, 1973. The revolution and retaliation remain very much in the public consciousness: a movie "14 Chula" was recently made in remembrance (Chula referring to Chulalongkorn University, where demonstrations also took place.)

Yet despite Thailand's internal dissension and external invasions, it has emerged as one of the dominant powers in Southeast Asia. Certainly when placed alongside its most immediate neighbors - Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and to a lesser degree Malaysia - its wealth and stability and international reputation are almost beyond belief.

The causes of Thailand's success are no doubt too many to enumerate, but a few to be found in Wyatt's history bear mentioning. Foremost among them is that Thailand was never colonized, and thus was allowed to develop on its own terms, borrowing from the stunning achievements of Western science and technology as necessary. This was spearheaded by the nation's astoundingly erudite and progressive monarchs. King Chulalongkorn, for example, was eons ahead of his time when he said, "I am convinced that there exists no incompatibility" between the adoption of Western science and the "maintenance of our individuality as an independent Asian nation." Thailand also managed to escape Communism and socialism, which, however well intentioned, have virtually frozen all of its neighbors, save Malaysia. And its anti-Communism has assured the political and economic largesse of the United States. Long before this, however, "it was the [migrant] Chinese...who literally built the modern sector of the economy of Siam."

Thus Thailand has prospered in part because of its deft manipulation of forces larger than itself and its stubborn, even arrogant refusal to submit entirely to any one of them. As a Thai recently told me, being Thai means doing whatever you want. Anarchy protected against external threats by a benevolent despot remains a kind of ideal. Consider the famous inscription describing the paternalistic Sukhothai kingdom in its heyday: "Whoever wants to trade in elephants, does so; whoever wants to trade in horses, does so; whoever wants to trade in silver and gold, does so." A healthy wariness of foreign influences is found in the alleged dying words of King Rama III: "Anything that [Westerners] propose should be held up to close scrutiny before accepting it: Do not blindly trust them."

What would Southeast Asia be like today had the West never intruded? Would it be richer because it had not been plundered? Poorer because it missed out on Western technology and aid money? The mind boggles. Perhaps the Burmese would be on the march, Cambodia in retreat, a king as Thai head of state, ordering the pillage of Vientiane for old time's sake, meanwhile ministering to a smallpox epidemic, and having conspirators beaten to death - as Wyatt says they once were - with sandalwood clubs. Oh, to be a king for a day.

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