TL:DR #14 Is Thai History a Good Teacher?

Disconnecting from the Past Might Disconnect Understanding of the Now and Future

In our modern tech-oriented world, we are rained upon with torrential deluges of wellbeing and inspirational quotes. We are frequently encouraged to ‘rise above our past’ and ‘look to the future’ with an air of positivity that perhaps overlooks the value of analysing the negative. Life isn’t that simple.

Whilst there is a lot of merit in ensuring that there is a plan for the future and that we do not ignore the present by being constantly distracted by the past and potential futures, there is also no shortage of evidence on a global and individual scale that understanding history can provide a sharper set of tools to deal with present and future challenges.[1]

What are the Barriers to Understanding Thailand?

For the uninitiated, Thailand’s legal, political, social and cultural spectrum will naturally be confusing. One key aspect of the impenetrability of cross-cultural understanding for non-Thais conducting business or choosing to reside in Thailand is the language barrier[2], particularly in relation to reading sources of information with a Thai language origin [3]. This can be overcome in part by learning to read, write, speak and understand Thai but is not always an option for those that are constrained by demands on their time that do not allow the study of a new language to a degree good enough to absorb complex Thai language-based information. Thai cultural runs deeper and is far more complex than a simple translation as evidenced by the multi-faceted meanings of the concept of “face” [4], Fortunately, Thailand’s modernisation has included a shift towards producing information in Thai and English, which can be seen in the digitalisation process that many state agencies are implementing. Simply visit a Thai state agency website and witness the option to switch between Thai and English and in some cases other languages, and a feeling that English has become more accepted as a universal tool within Thailand will likely manifest itself.

Rich Historical Analysis of Thailand Through Multiple Lenses

All humans have their own journey of development, learning, individual and collective experiences. However, there can be commonality in the sources of certain critically valuable information and through awareness and critical analysis of history, misunderstandings can be avoided, and more optimum investment and relationship building outcomes may be achieved. For those that wish for integration or an understanding of why integration is challenging in Thailand, delving into Thai history beyond the often superficial summaries on Wikipedia entries; searching for information reported upon by direct observers and not reporters reporting on reporters through a stream of digital editing and reprints, may provide great insight.

For a fairly diverse forage into historical literature, the following represents an interesting sample:

  • The Bangkok Post Chronicle of Thailand, Headline News Since 1946

This book provides simply through clever curation of articles from each year and a contextualisation by reference to global events in the same year, an amazing insight into the topics of the day and controversies affecting Thailand, Thai people and all those connected to it. Thailand’s position in relation to World War II, the frequent Coup D’état’s and the influence of Western culture with regards to fashion, education, sport and the development of business is all evident by simply reading the articles on a chronological and comparative basis.

  • A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit [5]

The authors divide the book in a stimulating context to chart Thailand’s situation prior to Bangkok becoming the capital city. They set out the transition from the 1760s to the 1860s creating more freedoms and social mobility for Chinese migrants and a greater influence from the West. They further explore the relationship between peasants, merchants and officials, the eras of Nationalisms, the advent of direct American influence and the spectrum of ideologies from the 1940s to the 1970s. They conclude with the impact of globalisation and the style of politics from the 1970s onwards. The book contains many references to the rise of family power in Thailand, and provides those that are already vaguely or more familiar with the opportunity to synthesise, and those that are not with the ability to advance knowledge on many aspects of Thailand and Thai society.

  • An Illustrated History of Thailand by John Hoskin [6]

Aside from the excellent selection of critically important historical eras and events, the added value of this book is evident from its title. The illustrations are exceptionally helpful in linking architecture, famous monarchs and landmarks together so that the reader can revisit and see the development and influences from other Asian regions.

  • The Constitutional System of Thailand: A Contextual Analysis by Andrew Harding and Peter Layland [7]

The constitutional evolution in Thailand is reflected by not only the large number of constitutional reforms and replacement constitutions, but by the socio-political and economic circumstances which shaped Thailand and the experience of its population and those that have ever dealt with it. Investing time in understanding ‘how Thailand got where it is’ and the challenges and side-roads of that journey, is of great value. After reading this excellent scholarly works, perhaps more than once given its detail, misleading conversations and unfounded premises for debate on the structure of Thailand’s constitution will disappear or dissipate so that an understanding that Thailand’s systems – public and private, will be revealed as a myriad of influences.

  • Thai Legal History: From Traditional To Modern Law – Edited by Andrew Harding and Munin Pongsapan [8]

At the time of writing, this is the most recent but also unique addition to Thailand’s historical literature with an excellent reference to all of the thai legal history literature which went before it. A selection of scholars provide in Part I – articles on royal authority; legal and political contexts of Kingship; and the influence of buddhism, a history of Thai Lèse-Majesté law. In Part II, a series of articles relate to foreign influence and reform, providing information on British Judges in Siam, the misconceptions relating to the drafting of the Thai Civil and Commercial Code of 1925, Thai ‘trust law’ and gender equality law. The final Part III provides four different analysis of constitutional conflict issues.

In addition to these summaries, other very interesting English language books on Thailand’s history include: Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramof [9]; and Lords of Life: A History of the Kings of Thailand by HRH Prince Chula of Chakrabongse [10]

Seeing Beyond The Now

Focussing on the now has great value in achieving a short-term objective. Further, the use of the mind to shut out polluting information which can prevent a rationalised independent analysis of an issue in the present, through stereotyping, biases, toxic Nationalism, is a tool worth developing. However, strategizing, understanding why a certain approach is being applied in a certain situation, seeing beyond the superficial beauty and ugliness in different measures of a country, may be greatly aided by an immersion into history. The history of Thailand is fascinating, insightful and, in my opinion, an amazing teacher.

[1] Luigi Lacche The Memory of the Constitution and the Value of Constitutional History (Giornale di Storia Constituzionale 36, 2018) pp.9-26

[2] iTony Nwabueze A Public Opinion on the Effect of Language Barrier on Racial Assimilation, An Independent Study Submitted in a Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Peace Studies and Diplomacy (Siam University, 9 December 2017 see: )

[3] Surangkana Chuanpongpanich The Challenges of Thailand in Promoting the Students’ English Skills to be an Effective ASEAN Citizen (Santapol College Academic Journal, Vol.7 No.2 July-December 2021, see: )

[4] Larry S. Persons The Way Thais Lead: Face As Social Capital (Silkworm Books 2016)

[5] Chris Baker & Pasuk Phongpaichit A History of Thailand (Cambridge University Press 2005)

[6] John Hoskin An Illustrated History of Thailand (John Beaufoy Publishing 2015)

[7] Andrew Harding & Peter Leyland The Constitutional System of Thailand: A Contextual Analysis (Hart Publishing 2011

[8] Andrew Harding and Munin Pongsapan Thai Legal History: From Traditional to Modern Law (Cambridge 2021)

[9] Kukrit Pramoj Four Reigns (Silkworm Books, 1998)

[10] HRH Prince Chula Chakrabongse A History of the Kings of Thailand (River Books, 2020)

Write a comment