Piriya Krairiksh

Bangkok Post
Thai Studies in a Transnationalised World

Thai Studies began precisely 140 years ago, as some 40 expatriates living in Bangkok met at the Oriental Hotel to ''form themselves into a society for research and investigation in matters appertaining to Siam''. Only one Thai, Phraya Prachakitkorachak (Chaem Bunnag), was present at this germinal meeting, the rest comprised European and American transnationals and one Japanese. Thus, the Siam Society was founded, with HRH Crown Prince Mahavajiravudh as its Patron and HRH Prince Damrong Rajanubhab as its Vice Patron.

The Siam Society's aim was to study ''Siamology.'' Thankfully, the name did not catch on. But the discipline itself survives to this day as ''Thai Studies''.

Then, as now, the purpose of Thai Studies ''was to acquire knowledge for our mutual benefit and to diffuse it for the benefit of others'' and ''to see that only sound knowledge and well authenticated facts be accepted and diffused''.

Among the most notable of the early papers read at the Siam Society was Dr Cornelius Beach Bradley's paper of 1909 on Sukhothai Inscription No.1, in which he says, ''We have here a human document of uncommon richness and power. We have a glimpse of the ideals and the heart of a man. The heart was one that could conceive, and the hand was one that for his own could bring to some worthy realisation that ideals towards which we are all still yearning: a Siam united, free and good.''

A century later, Dr Bradley's ideal of a Thailand united, free and good remains as illusory as ever.

The first half of the 20th century has been called the age of ''Thai studies by Westerners'' or Farang Suksa Thai on account of the extensive research carried out by them. By and large the main trend was explanatory: making Thai culture accessible to foreigners. They were helped in this endeavour by members of the royal family, such as HRH Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, HSH Prince Dhani Nivas and HSH Prince Wan Waithayakon. Their intimate knowledge of courtly traditions made them the foremost expositors of Thai culture.

The era of amateur scholars closed in 1939 with the Second World War, when the name of the country was changed to Thailand, and the Siam Society became the ''Thailand Research Centre''. After the War the name of the country reverted to Siam again, so the Society assumed its original name, which it has retained ever since.

The end of the Second World War saw a change in the direction of Thai Studies. Under the direction of the United States, Thai Studies became part of Southeast Asian Studies in American and English universities, conceived by the Cold War to counter communist victory in China in 1949, the defeat of France at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the Bandung Conference of the Non-Aligned Nations in 1955, all of which threatened American domination of Southeast Asia. Thus, regional security and economic growth became the main lines of defence for containing the spread of communism. Support for research became institutionalised by states and international agencies through universities.

American organisations like the Asia, Ford and Rockefeller foundations poured funds to support research on a variety of subjects from pre-history to village economy. Such luminaries of Thai Studies as William Klausner, Lauriston Sharp, Jane and Lucien Hanks, Herb Phillips, William J Gedney and Charles Keyes began their illustrious careers at this time. From this time onward, Thai Studies entered the realm of applied scientific research. Gone were the amateur scholars, having become irrelevant in a world geared towards professionalism.

Economic and social changes in the 1960s propelled Thailand into the mainstream of the 20th century. Aided by the United States, it achieved a major economic boom during this decade and early 1970s through cultivation of cash crops, which utilised new technology, mechanisation, fertiliser, pesticides as well as better irrigation and new marketing system.

But on the other side of the coin, economic progress brought with it the seeds of discontent that we are witnessing today. Landlessness and large sections of the rural population dependent on wage labour surfaced for the first time. Social justice was sacrificed for short-term economic growth. Unequal distribution of wealth led to the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor as polarisation took root in Thai society. The changes that took place, for better and for worse, at the village level were duly recorded by students of Thai Studies who had adjusted their perspective of Thai culture from the viewpoint of the elite to that of the rural masses.

As a response to the flurry of activities on Thai Studies at Cornell University and elsewhere in the United States and the United Kingdom during the 1960s, a group of lecturers in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Thammasat University, led by M R Kukrit Pramoj and Dr Neon Sanidhvong Na Ayudhya, in 1971 founded the Thai Khadi Research Institute - your host of this 10th International Conference on Thai Studies - with the blessings of the then rector HSH Prince Wan Waithayakon.

However, the early 1970s was not a period conducive to the Thai Khadi Research Institute's aims of creating and disseminating the body of knowledge about Thai society and culture, especially the courtly traditional culture. For history was being made right outside its windows in the bloody soccer fields of Thammasat University, as military government gave way to constitutional rule in 1973 and political polarisation between the ''left'' and ''right'' led to a military coup in 1976. Theoretically, the former claimed that the backwardness of the Thai economy and society were caused by the Thai feudal system. But in practice the venue of Thai Studies has shifted from the ivory towers of academia to the paddy fields and the harsh realities of rural life. From then on village economy, its culture and society as well as local history and indigenous wisdom came to the forefront of Thai Studies.

As students of Thai Studies took on the role of solvers of social problems, some were not content to just being onlookers or chroniclers of events, but themselves became active participants to the causes in which they passionately believed. So the hairline between scholars and social activists became harder to define.

The early 1970s also saw the increase of Japanese influence on Thailand's economy as it replaced the United States as her principal aid donor and had the largest foreign capital investment, primarily in trucks, cars and spare parts, textiles, chemical products and glassware. It channelled Thailand into becoming an exporting nation. The growth of manufacturing and service industries not only brought with them migrant workers from the rural areas to the slums of Bangkok, but created a new type of political species - the businessmen politicians.

Thai Studies in the 1980s became an inter-disciplinary study. Whether the subject under study was economy or history, it must be studied in relationship with political science, economic, history, anthropology and sociology as, for examples, the works of Chatthip Nartsupha and Nidhi Eoseewongse.

The 1980s also witnessed the rise of tourism and related industries. Such hitherto useless subjects as art history suddenly became useful as a required study for tourist guides. Local and regional studies were promoted for the benefit of tourism. The Thai Identity Board was founded by the Office of the Prime Minister so that Thais would be proud of their ''Thai-ness'' and would not succumb to the onslaught of undesirable Western values. The study of Tai minorities in neighbouring countries and farther afield as India, China and Vietnam was encouraged.

Thai Studies received a boost with the 1st International Conference on Thai Studies (ICTS) in New Delhi, India in 1981 organised by Professor Sachchidanand Sahai in conjunction with Magadh University, Bodh Gaya, Chulalongkorn University and the Thai Khadi Research Institute, Thammasat University.

As befitting the birthplace of Buddhism, Thai Buddhism held the pride of place. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh talked on ''The Buddha and the Status of Women,'' long before she decided to be ordained a bhikkhuni.

Although neither the conflict and violence in the three southern provinces, nor Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party, was the official theme of the 9th ICTS at Northern Illinois University in 2005, both upstaged other topics offered for discussion - thereby confirming that interest in Thai Studies reflected the prevalent topics of its time. But as scholars were not astrologers, they could not then predict that a military coup would topple the Thaksin government in 2006, only to be resurrected by another name and voted back by popular demand in 2007. This shows that Thai Studies will never cease to surprise, because Thai politics defies rational analysis.

The 10th ICTS is the second one to have a central theme, namely: �“Thai Studies in a Transnationalised World”� ''Transnational,'' according to the Oxford Dictionary, means ''extending beyond national boundaries''. So, strictly speaking, the theme of this meeting refers to Thai Studies in the world beyond the boundaries of Thailand.

However, few scholars here would be satisfied with such a narrow and pedantic definition, but would prefer a more flexible and meaningful interpretation that would include different levels of meaning of the word ''transnationalised''.

On one level, transnationalised certainly means the movement of goods and people across the borders, legally or otherwise. The Tai speakers living in different regions of South and Southeast Asia are truly transnationalised people, as are the marginal minorities playing hide and seek with state authorities on both sides of the borders.

On another level, some would like to see it as a synonym for globalisation, but transnationalisation does not have the same connotation as globalisation. For whereas the former covers concepts and ideas, the latter deals with concrete materials as, for example, global warming.

Globalisation is a worldwide phenomenon that touches every aspect of human life from cradle to cremation. Science and technology, economic developments, information technology and media, tourism, consumerism, mobile phones and supermarkets as well as the US$100 per gallon petrol, are globalised phenomena. How Thailand handles the influence of globalisation that ranges from materialism to militarism and terrorism, is a subject of major concern for students of Thai Studies.

A ''Transnationalised World'', on the other hand, is a world where concepts and ideas transcend national boundaries, where the ideal reigns supreme. It is best seen in the influence exerted by religions, whether Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, all of which teach humankind to be loving, charitable, compassionate and good. It can be found in great art movements, such as Classicism that equates goodness with beauty, Impressionism that attempts to catch the fleeting moment and shows us the beauty of dapple sunlight over rippling water, Modernism that celebrates the triumph of function over form and Conceptual Art that puts ideas before contents.

Yet a Transnationalised World can refer also to a world where the distortion of truth, ideological domination and censorship by the state are the norm and not the exception. Thailand is not the only country with political corruption and democracy for sale to the highest bidder. But it has its own uniqueness, such as gender inequity that is upheld by Theravada Buddhism, and religion itself is encouraging the sale of amulets. It is overly concerned with its ''Identity'' or ''Thai-ness'' and bent on preserving traditional values, which can be read as hierarchical society and paternalistic government.

Thus, Thai Studies can be seen as a study of the particular in a world that upholds more liberating universal values. My own research on Thai Buddha images illustrates this point. For nothing exhibits the quality of Thai-ness better than images of the standing Buddha with both hands offering protection and dressed in the regalia of Thai kings. So much so that they represent the images of the Sayamnikaya sect, or Tantric Theravada, which modern Western scholars of Thai Buddhism refer to as the National Religion. Such images were made by the first three kings of the Chakri dynasty for their own benefit, or who transferred the merit gained by making the images to their immediate family. These images, as you see them in the Convocation Hall of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, are covered in gold plate and are richly decorated with enamelling and precious stones. The practice of making these images stopped when King Mongkut decided to have life-like images of his predecessors made instead of crowned Buddhas.

However, he died before the project could begin. So his son and heir, King Chulalongkorn, had the project completed in 1873, as it had been his father's wish. From then on, no more images of the Buddha dressed in royal attire were made.

Until the present reign when the government, led by prime minister Chuan Leekpai, presented His Majesty with such an image on the auspicious occasion of his 5th cycle birthday in 1999; that image is now kept in the Hor Phra Monthian Tham in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

This particular image is the only example of an image of the crowned Buddha ever made by the people, as represented by their government, and given to the King. For His Majesty has earned the love of his people.

Through self-sacrifice and hard work, he has achieved that most sought-after of all royal virtues to which most kings have aspired, but few have succeeded, to be called by his people a ''Righteous King'' or Dhammikarat.

So Thai Studies - which is the study of a particular, that in this case is an image of the Buddha - demonstrates that in relationship to the universal, His Majesty has lived up to the ideal of a righteous ruler, the Buddhist equivalent of Plato's philosopher king.

Today, Thai Studies is more necessary than ever before. Because Thailand is confronted by forces beyond her control. Today, some 400 concerned scholars of Thai Studies, half of whom are Thai, the rest from 20 different countries, are here gathered to offer the fruits of their research to help alleviate the suffering caused by the impact of globalisation on the Thai state and society.

We use Thai Studies to evaluate the state's performance as it faces the challenges of a Transnationalised World; to see how far have such universal ideals as the Rights and Freedom of the Individual and Equal Opportunity for All are being served; without which we shall be still yearning a century from now, as did Dr Bradley 99 years ago, for a Thailand united, free and good.

NB:� With kind permission of �Bangkok Post this article is taken from Bangkok Post, January 11, 2008, p. 9.

Keywords : Thai Studies, a Transnationalised World, �Piriya Krairiksh
Jan 16, 08   

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