Tuesday, October 21, 2008

rereading the past

BOOK REVIEW: Rereading the recent past Illuminating anthology of essays, which questions aspects of the 'official' history of modern Thai politics, is certain to provoke By Prajak Kongkirati,

Bangkok Post OUTLOOK - Saturday 19 March 2005 THAMMASAT UNIVERSITY AND THE SPACE OF POLITICS IN THAILAND 1932-2004, Edited by Charnvit Kasetsiri OSK71 Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project. 290 baht :

This book, with its lengthy title, has the potential to upset a number of people. A warning which applies to either end of political spectrum within the context of contemporary Thai history. Sympathisers of the People's Party, which brought an end to the absolute monarchy in 1932, and those loyal to the memory of King Rama VII, during whose reign the transition occurred, may find the contents of this volume equally unpalatable. It will likely annoy supporters of OSK Pridi Banomyong as well as those of Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsongkhram, his long-time adversary; stir up former activists from the 1970s as well as members of the dictatorial Sarit and Thanom governments again which these left-leaning students fought.

The proponents of a plan to relocate all undergraduates at Thammasat University from their downtown campus, once host to several mass uprisings, may dislike this book in much the same way as those who are campaigning against the very idea. For this anthology does not aim to give a ready-made set of answers to any individual or group. Its broad, hodgepodge nature _ the essays are all by different contributors _ makes it unfit for use as propaganda. Instead, the authors have raised plenty of questions _ ones that may unsettle what was already deemed to be "resolved". Here, the past is not yet over.

Issues that may have seemed clear-cut are now recast as complex and haunting; not quite so black-and-white as some would have us believe. Simply put, Thammasat University and the Space of Politics is like a manual on how to (re)read the history of Thai politics _ with Thammasat University serving as the crucial backdrop and, from time to time, as one of the main characters.

Typically, Thai academics take June 24, 1932 as the beginning of contemporary Thai politics. On that historic day, the People's Party staged a "revolution" that transformed the structure of authority, the rules of the game, and the holder of sovereign power. For the last seven decades, however, the history of Thai politics is full of twists and turns. It is no exaggeration to say that even the best fiction writer may not have been able to come up with a plot of comparable complexity. There were otherwise implausible "scenes" and characters of different social status, nationality, religion, sex and generation whose paths remarkably crossed one another's and who partook (sometimes inadvertently) in the writing of the "script" as the history of modern Thailand unfolded. But not every act and cast member will be remembered. Indeed, the forgotten far outnumber the remembered. And even among those whose roles linger in the public memory, debates have raged about what exactly took place _ and how.

The so-called "revolution" of 1932 is a case in point. The series of events posited by the People's Party camp is greatly at odds with the royalists' take on things. Another headache: even within these two spheres numerous versions abound (especially on the People's Party side). To listen to, or read, any account of this period, one therefore has to first ask the pertinent question: "who" is the narrator (and what is his or her political stance, ideology and interest)? For, retelling the past is ultimately a political act. The (re)interpretation is never free from prejudice and ulterior motives. But different fates befell the various sets of memories. Some have been reproduced more often than others _ to the point where they have ended up dominating the entire public arena. This is particularly true of those versions of the past which best serve the interests of those in power. Such accounts have enjoyed the privilege of being elevated to the status of "official" history _ the version taught in school textbooks, enshrined in monuments, and commemorated on national holidays. On the other hand, these apparent "victories" may not endure forever, either.

There have already been attempts to appropriate, negotiate and compete over which version of events will be lodged in the collective public memory. And this "war of memories" is far from over. Some would even argue that each individual carries his or her own calendar, distinct from all others (the birthday of Mr A's father, for instance, may not mean a thing to Mr B). Accordingly, so-called dates of national significance may have different meanings for different people. Some may regard these red-letter days as just another opportunity to get time off work or school. Or they may be viewed in a way totally opposite to that intended by the State. Take, for example, Constitution Day.

In his essay, Thamrongsak Phetlert-anand points out that December 10 is designated on certain calendars as Wan Phra Ratchathan Rattathammanoon, the day when King Rama VII granted the Kingdom's very first charter, as opposed to simply Wan Rattathammanoon (Constitution Day). The choice of labels reflects significant differences in implication and should not be simply glossed over, the writer says. In comparison, Thongchai Winichakul OSK89 argues that one can rewrite the history of democracy in Thailand by changing the central narrative structure. Conventional historiography has focused, in a unilinear fashion, on the problematic shift from military dictatorship to civil democracy _ and, in the process, has painted the 1932 coup/"revolution" as heralding dictatorial oligarchy and, thus, the People's Party as the villains of the piece.

On the other hand, Thongchai contends that we could recast the whole event as a conflict over the boundaries of the power of the monarchy. This alternative scenario gives the People's Party a more sympathetic image. Thongchai OSK89 also proposed an interesting thesis: the modern Thai state as a liberal, democratic regime with the king as a dhamma-raja (righteous monarch) who stays aloof from politics within a capitalist, parliamentary system. One of the innovations of this anthology is an appendix detailing an experimental chronology. What would the development of Thai politics look like if one were to use Thammasat University as a key protagonist? Often taken for granted, location has exerted a greater influence on events than most of us realise. Humans may initiate special symbols, rituals or legends and associate them with a particular spot. But these constructed meanings may, over time, dictate human behaviour _ and destiny. Some places are deemed sacred; a few are to be protected at all costs. Just look at how we love our place of birth, respect our religious sites, and are ever ready to die for our nation. But even that is problematic. Not every group shares the same views and, worse, their perceptions may be at odds with one another. Thus the dispute in recent years over the future status of Thammasat University is an interesting test case in the "space of politics".

"Thammasat" has different meanings on different maps; it all depends on which group one identifies most closely with: the University Council, the alumni, the Rattanakosin Conservation Committee, and so on. Thus Thirayuth Boonmi OSK83's article is an attempt to contextualise the Thammasat relocation issue. He traces the relocation programme back to a master plan drafted by the Rattanakosin Conservation Committee which wants to move several communities and faculties out of the centre of old Bangkok. Aesthetics and the conservation of certain historic spots have been cited repeatedly to justify the eviction.

Thirayuth, on the other hand, points out that politics, bias and class interests have played a substantial role in shaping this policy. If not executed in a sensitive manner, the relocation programme could unleash a lot of misery on existing inner-city residents, he says, as well as distort several chapters in Thai social history. Are we to repeat the mistakes of the past, again and again? For too long, Thai history and historiography have been no more than a sleeping pill to sedate the masses and serve the interests of the powers-that-be.

Thammasat University and the Space of Politics is thus a commendable book, acting, as it does, like a stimulant to boost a more critical, questioning approach to the documentation of our past. Hopefully, it will have the desired effect.

Prajak Kongkirati teaches political science at Thammasat University. The book he has reviewed here is written in Thai. Source: http://www.bangkokpost.com/en/Outlook/19Mar2005_out55.php

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