Thai politics and Thai perspectives

One of the benefits of attending international conferences is meeting interesting scholars from different countries and traditions. I had that pleasure while participating in the Asian Conference on Philosophy of the Social Sciences at Nankai University in June, where I met Chaiyan Rajchagool. Chaiyan is a Thai academic in the social sciences. He earned his undergraduate degree in Thailand and received a PhD in sociology from the University of Manchester (UK). He has served as a senior academic administrator in Thailand and is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Phayao in northern Thailand. He is an experienced observer and analyst of Thai society, and he is one of dozens of Thai academics summoned by the military following the military coup in 2014 (link). I had numerous conversations with Chaiyan in Tianjin, which I enjoyed very much. He was generous to share with me his 1994 book, The rise and fall of the Thai absolute monarchy: Foundations of the modern Thai state from feudalism to peripheral capitalism, and the book is interesting in many different ways. Fundamentally it provides a detailed account of the political and economic transition that Siam / Thailand underwent in the nineteenth century, and it makes innovative use of the best parts of the political sociology of the 1970s and 1980s to account for these processes.

The book places the expansion of European colonialism in Southeast Asia at the center of the story of the emergence of the modern Thai state from mid nineteenth-century to the end of the absolute monarchy in the 1930s. Chaiyan seeks to understand the emergence of the modern Siamese and Thai state as a transition from “feudal” state formation to “peripheral capitalist” state formation. He puts this development from the 1850s to the end of the nineteenth century succinctly in the preface:

In the mid-nineteenth century Siam was a conglomerate of petty states and principalities and did not exist as a single political entity…. Economically Siam was transformed into what may be termed, in accordance with our theoretical framework, peripheral capitalism. Accompanying this development was the transformation of old classes and the rise of new classes…. At the political level a struggle took place within the ruling class in Bangkok, and new institutional structures of power began to emerge. As a result the previously fragmented systems of power and administration were brought under unified centralized command in the form of the absolute monarchy. (xiii-xiv)

This is a subtle, substantive, and rigorous account of the politics and economy of modern Siam / Thailand from the high point of western imperialism and colonialism in Asia to the twentieth century. The narrative is never dogmatic, and it offers an original and compelling account of the processes and causes leading to the formation of the Thai state and the absolutist monarchy. Chaiyan demonstrates a deep knowledge of the economic and political realities that existed on the ground in this region in the nineteenth century, and equally he shows expert knowledge about the institutions and strategies of the colonial powers in the region (Britain, France, Germany). I would compare the book to the theoretical insights about state formation of Michael Mann, Charles Tilly, and Fernand Braudel.

Chaiyan’s account of the development of the Thai state emphasizes the role of economic and political interests, both domestic and international. Fundamentally he argues that British interests in teak (and later tin) prompted a British strategy that would today be called “neo-colonial”: using its influence in the mid-nineteenth-century to create a regime and state that was favorable to its interests, without directly annexing these territories into its colonial empire. But there were internal determinants of political change as well, deriving from the conflicts between powerful families and townships over the control of taxes.

The year 1873-4 marks the beginning of a period in which the royalty attempted to take political control at the expense of the Bunnag nobility and its royal/noble allies. I have already noted that the Finance Office, founded in 1873, was to unify the collection f tax money from the various tax farmers under different ministries into a single office. To attain this goal, political enforcement and systematic administration were required. The Privy Council and the Council of State, established in June and August 1874, were the first high level state organizations. … With the creation of a professional military force of 15,000 troops and 3,000 marines … the decline of the nobility’s power was irreversible, whereas the rise of the monarchy had never before had so promising a prospect. (85, 86)

Part of the development of the monarchy involved a transition from the personal politics of the feudal politics of the earlier period to a more bureaucratic-administrative system of governance:

Of interest in this regard was the fact that the state was moving away from the direct exercise of personal authority by members of the ruling class. this raises questions about the manner of articulation between the crown and the state. If direct personal control of the state characterizes a feudal state, the ruling class control of the state in a peripheral capitalist society takes the form of a more impersonal rule of law and administrative practice through which are mediated the influences of the politico-economic system and class interests. (88)

Chaiyan makes superb use of some of the conceptual tools of materialist social science and non-doctrinaire Marxism, framing his account in terms of the changes that were underway in Southeast Asian with respect to the economic structure of everyday life (property, labor, class) as well as the imperatives of British imperialism. The references include some of the very best sources in social and historical theory and non-doctrinaire Marxism that were available in the 1980s: for example, Ben Anderson, Perry Anderson, Norberto Bobbio, Fernand Braudel, Gene Genovese, Michael Mann, Ralph Miliband, Nicos Poulantzas, James Scott, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, and Immanuel Wallerstein, to name a few out of the hundreds of authors cited in the bibliography. Chaiyan offers a relevant quotation from Fernand Braudel that I hadn’t seen before but that is more profound than any of Marx’s own pronouncements about “base and superstructure”:

Any highly developed society can be broken down into several “ensembles”: the economy, politics, culture, and the social hierarchy. The economy can only be understood in terms of the other “ensembles”, for it both spreads itself about and opens its own doors to its neighbours. There is action and interaction. That rather special and partial form of the economy that is capitalism can only e fully explained in light of these contiguous “ensembles” and their encroachments; only then will it reveal its true face. 

This, the modern state, which did not create capitalism but only inherited it, sometimes acts in its favor and at other times acts against it; it sometimes allows capitalism to expand and at other times destroys its mainspring. Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state…. 

So the state was either favorable or hostile to the financial world according to its own equilibrium and its own ability to stand firm.


Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism

, 64-65)

It is interesting to me that Chaiyan’s treatment of the formation of a unified Thai state is attentive to the spatial and geophysical realities that were crucial to the expansion of central state power in the late nineteenth century.

A geophysical map, not a political one, would serve us better, for such a map reveals the mainly geophysical barriers that imposed constraints on the extension of Bangkok power. The natural waterways, mountains, forests and so on all helped determine how effectively Bangkok could claim and exert its power over townships. (2)

In actual fact, owing to geographical barriers and the consequent difficulty of communication, Bangkok exercised direct rule only over an area within a radius of two days travelling (by boat, cart, horse, or on foot). (3) 

Here is a map that shows the geophysical features of the region that eventually became unified Thailand, demonstrating stark delineation between lowlands and highlands:

This is a topic that received much prominence in the more recent writings of James Scott on the politics of southeast Asia, and his concept of “Zomia” as a way of singling out the particular challenges of exercising central state power in the highlands of southeast Asia (link, link). Here is a map created by Martin Lewis (link) intended to indicate the scope of the highland population (Zomia). The map is discussed in an earlier post.

And here is a map of the distribution of ethnic and language groups in Thailand (link), another important element in Chaiyan’s account of the consolidation of the Thai monarchy:

It is an interesting commentary on the privilege, priorities, and limitations of the global academic world that Chaiyan’s very interesting book has almost no visibility in western scholarship. In its own way it is the equal of some of Charles Tilly’s writings about the origins of the French state; and yet Tilly is on all reading lists on comparative politics and Chaiyan is not. The book is not cited in one of the main English language sources on the history of Thailand, A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, published by Cambridge University Press, even though that book covers exactly the same period in chapter 3. Online academic citation databases permitted me to find only one academic article that provided substantive discussion or use of the book (“Autonomy and subordination in Thai history: the case for semicolonial analysis”, Inter‐Asia Cultural Studies, 2007 8:3, 329-348; link). The author of this article, Peter Jackson, is an emeritus professor of Thai history and culture at the Australian National University. The book itself is on the shelves at the University of Michigan library, and I would expect it is available in many research libraries in the United States as well.

So the very interesting theoretical and historical treatment that Chaiyan provides of state formation in Thailand seems not to have received much notice in western academic circles. Why is this? It is hard to avoid the inference that academic prestige and impact follow nations, languages, universities, and publishing houses. A history of a small developing nation, authored by a Thai intellectual at a small university, published by a somewhat obscure Thai publishing company, is not destined to make a large splash in elite European and North American academic worlds. But this is to the great disadvantage to precisely those worlds of thought and knowledge: if we are unlikely to be exposed to the writings of insightful scholars like Chaiyan Rajchagool, we are unlikely as well to understand the large historical changes our world has undergone over the past two centuries.

Amazon comes in for a lot of criticism these days; but one thing it has contributed in a very positive way is the easy availability of books like this one for readers who would otherwise never be exposed to it. How many other intellectuals with the insights of a Tilly or a Braudel are there in India, Côte d’Ivoire, Thailand, Bolivia, or Barbados whom we will never interact with in a serious way because of the status barriers that exist in the academic world?

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(It is fascinating to me that one of the influences on Chaiyan at the University of Manchester was Teodor Shanin. Shanin is a scholar whom I came to admire greatly at roughly the same time when I was engaged in research in peasant studies in connection with Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

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