History, Chulalongkorn University
The Crown and the Capitalists: Thai Studies from a Transnational Perspective
Thailand was never colonized by the West. Yet, the kingdom definitely experiences its fair share of colonial trauma. As an independent state that granted extraterritoriality to colonial subjects and one with the largest ethnic Chinese community in Southeast Asia, Siam survived and prospered through the colonial era by taking advantage of the extensive and influential trade network of ethnic Chinese colonial subjects across the South China Sea. While all its neighbors in Southeast Asia were parts of global colonial empires, Siam remained economically competitive through the alliance between the kingdom’s political elite and ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs who enjoyed extraterritorial rights and used Siam as the headquarter of their transnational trade empire across the colonized universe of the South China Sea.
Through the many decades since the end of the Second World War, ethnic Chinese tycoons and the Thai political elite merged to become one and the same by the turn of the 21st century. As globalization appears to be intensified by the effects of the internet and social media, together with the destabilizing effects of the passing of the late King Bhumibol Rama IX, a new wave of young Thais demanding for more political rights, social equality and democracy are taking the domestic political scene by storm. At the same time ASEAN members are being forced to choose between superpower alliances amidst the Sino-American Trade War and South China Sea territorial disputes. Thailand, once again, becomes the key player in this superpower contest over Southeast Asia. Many parallels could be drawn and much could still be learned from the many similarities of Thailand and Southeast Asia of the colonial period. The future of Thai Studies lies in the transnational perspective, which is key to understanding both the colonial and post-Cold War periods through the same wavelength.
Wasana Wongsurawat is an Associate Professor at the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. She was trained as an historian of modern China, specializing in the history of the ethnic Chinese in Thailand and Sino-Thai relations. Wasana served as director of the Thai Studies Center and the Ph.D. program in Thai Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University between 2014 and 2017. The Crown and the Capitalists: The Ethnic Chinese and the Founding of the Thai Nation was published by University of Washington Press in 2019.
De-centering Thai Studies: A View from the Northwest Borderlands
In recent years, there has been an admirable effort by many scholars to create a more inclusive Thai studies, one that looks beyond Bangkok and the central plains to include the peoples and geography of other regions of the country, and even beyond -- including new research on Thailand’s transnational networks and studies of the global Thai diaspora. Despite this excellent work, one area that remains understudied is that of the northwest borderlands of Mae Hong Son province and parts of Chiang Mai province that are populated by Shan-speaking communities. Does this area and its inhabitants even belong in Thai studies, given that most Shan speakers live on the other side of the border in Myanmar? How does it stretch our understanding of Thailand to include them, and what do we stand to gain from the exercise?
In this talk, I will describe some of the research that has already been done in this part of the country that has -- or could -- make a significant contribution to Thai studies, despite what some might see as an awkward relationship between the two. This includes, most notably, research on Shan ethnic identity and on Shan religion and ritual practice, but also more recent work on migration and its social and economic consequences. I will also point to additional problems and issues where more research is needed and where perhaps a new generation of scholars might be persuaded to focus their attention. My aim throughout these examples is to show how including the northwest borderlands more prominently in Thai studies will productively complicate and ultimately enrich our understanding of Thailand, as well as help us better understand its regional context.
Nancy Eberhardt is the Szold Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She has conducted long-term fieldwork in Shan communities near the Thai-Myanmar border and has written on a range of issues, including Buddhism and life course development, ethnic identity, cross-border migration, and the gendered impact of changes in rural livelihood strategies. At Knox, Eberhardt served as Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology for many years, and continues to teach courses on cultural anthropology, religion, and Southeast Asia. She is the author of Imagining the Course of Life: Self-Transformation in a Shan Buddhist Community, published by University of Hawaii Press in 2006, and re-issued in 2007 by Silkworm Press for distribution in Southeast Asia.