Renowned historian Thongchai Winichakul gave a stinging critique of the Thai study of history at the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Studies Institute at Thammasat University-Rangsit on July 18, 2013.
Thongchai blamed the insular Thai-style teaching of history for Thais’ ignorance and unjustified superiority complex in national history and spotty knowledge about their immediate neighbours. He contended that the extreme Thai-centrism in the study of history—the narcissistic attitude about the nature and source of the Thai identity—has been a major factor in the failure of Thai education. He calls for a more self-reflective, critical and integrated way of learning history and building knowledge, that places Thailand as a part of Southeast Asia—not a singular diamond of the region that sparkles only in the Thai mind.
Thai-centrism at the core of ignorance and exceptionalism
At the beginning of his keynote speech Thongchai Winichakul, professor of Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), USA, warned the audience at Thammasat University, his alma mater, that his words were not going to be music to all ears. He characterized his speech as the beginning of a long process of unlearning.
Professor Thongchai set out the history of Thai Studies within the larger context of Southeast Asian Studies from the colonial era. He noted that knowledge about Thailand and Southeast Asia as taught and learned in Thailand has thus far been characterized by extreme “Thai centrism,” which has resulted in Thais having a narrow and limited knowledge about ourselves and others.
“We don’t know the world, we don’t know our neighbours, we don’t know our region because we are so Thai-centric. We believe in [our] superiority, our being exceptional, our never having been colonized.”
He extrapolated that the Thai people have been taught to perceive Thailand in an idealized image, as the country rooted in a rural agrarian society that “loves peace, tranquillity and harmony.” Although time has changed and there have been challenges to this established national ideal, it remains the standard knowledge and perception. The idealized Thai society remains one that is orderly in which people know their place in the hierarchy. The Thai nation is likened to a large family made up of a people who are alike. In this worldview those who diverge from the norms are seen as strange [or outcasts]. The West is seen ambivalently as a model of progress on the one hand and a threat to Thai morality on the other.
Certainly Thais have been aware that Thailand exists as part of Southeast Asia, said Professor Thongchai, but there has been almost no awareness or curiosity about the cultures and beliefs of their neighbours, whether they might be similar or different. In the Thai mind, Thailand is like the lone diamond in the region. Thais tend to perceive Thailand as unique, despite numerous studies showing that Thailand has long been an integrated part of Southeast Asia. India and China have been the main sources of cultural influence for all countries in the region, including Thailand. A number of things that Thais believe are uniquely Thai—even simple things such as certain food and fruits—have origins in other countries in the region. But few Thais seem aware.
The belief that Thailand has never been colonized is also incorrect, because Siam was in fact a semi-colony throughout the colonial era with the cooperation of the Siamese rulers who benefited from cooperating with the colonial powers at the time. Although Siam was not an official colony, it never escaped being part of the colonial economic networks from the beginning. Siam voluntarily or involuntarily entered into the colonial economy without the colonial powers having to make it an official colony. The behaviour of Siam in the post-colonial era was not unlike that of the former colonies in the region.
During the Cold War, as a response to modernization and threats from communism, Thai Studies adopted an ideology which Professor Thongchai coined raja-chatniyom, “royal nationalism,” which emphasizes nation building under the supremacy of the monarchy. The main result of this approach in this period of Thai Studies inside Thailand is Thai-centrism.
Thailand is not the ‘diamond’ of Southeast Asia but part of it
Academics of the later generation emphasize many anthropological commonalities (cultural beliefs, traditions, etc.) that Thailand shares with other Southeast Asian nations. The commonalities are much more widespread than many Thais think, Professor Thongchai noted.
There is a difference between Thai Studies outside of Thailand (often as part of Southeast Asia Studies) and Thai Studies inside Thailand (which has little regional context). He explained, “When the West studies Southeast Asia, they study us as a region, but doesn’t mean that Thailand disappears. Thailand becomes part of the region … not [its] singular diamond.”
He urged Thai students to take themselves out of Thailand and learn about and from the neighbouring countries in a comparative and objective way. It doesn’t mean having less pride [in Thailand to learn about others], he said.
“We can be proud of our home because it’s our home, [because] we love and care about it. There is no need to say that we are superior … to delude ourselves that we are special, exceptional, unlike any other in the world.”
He gave an example: anyone who has ever been to Pagan in Myanmar will realize how insignificant Ayutthaya was by comparison. When in Pagan, one could imagine how prosperous it once was. One would not be surprised, when seeing Mandalay or Angwa (Innwa), how Burma could sack Ayutthaya twice. There is no need to boast that we were never colonized like Burma because the conditions for each country were different at the time. There is no need to hold on to the idea of Thai greatness. Go to Yogyakarta (Indonesia) or Angkor Wat (Cambodia), he urged, to be awed and to realize what Thailand has isn’t so amazing. Thai society has not taught us to appreciate our neighbours’ achievements and greatness, he said.
Thai-centrism is outmoded, as is the old hierarchy
Thai society has not taught us to be worldly, to have a wide and well-rounded knowledge, Professor Thongchai continued. It may be argued that Thai-centrism, which was the key product of Thai Studies during the past half century, has served its purpose in modernization and in fighting communism during the Cold War, but that era is long gone. Yet Thai society is still reproducing that old kind of knowledge although such conditions and threats no longer exist.
He argued that Thai-centrism that “closes the ears and eyes of society” was outmoded even 30-40 years ago. The world has changed and Thai society has changed. But as we Thais are beginning to want to learn about ourselves and the country, the educational and pedagogical foundation bears little relevance to the new reality. In his view, the knowledge that aims to justify the old tradition and social order is no longer applicable. The concepts like rujak thi-tam thi-soong (lit. “knowing the low and high places”, i.e., being mindful of one’s station in society), samakki (harmony), and ruu naathi (knowing one’s duty) are examples of our out-moded pedagogy.
“In Thai society we have been taught to know our duty. Discipline is strongly emphasized, hence the phenomenon about [school rules controlling] the hair and uniform [of students], although the rationale for this is no longer there. The only rationale that remains is perhaps to produce a populace that submits to power. But Thai society has not needed that kind of social conditioning for a long time.
“This doesn’t mean that I want ‘social division’ or ‘aggression’, or that I don’t ‘know my place’. These three ideas have been used to bind people to the status quo, which has long been outdated. Why can’t we relate to one another in other ways? We can respect one another, we can respect the elders too without ‘the low or high places’ in the old hierarchy. Can we understand harmony in a different way without suppression or coercion, or pressure against debate? Can we promote civilized and peaceful debate? Can we have that kind of harmony, instead of asking for unity under the leadership of the elders as we have always done?”
A new “inside-out” approach to learning
In the context of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), Professor Thongchai stressed that the study of Thai and Southeast Asian history in Thailand is out of sync with the real world. He said, “We can continue to raise the ASEAN flag for many lifetimes and still get nowhere, because [the old knowledge and attitudes] have no relevance.”
He posited that Thai-centric history education might have been a major cause of the failure of Thai education in general.
“I think it’s a factor. Let’s say I see it as a challenging question. I don’t confirm that that’s the case for it may need to be debated further. [But] I think it could be the cause [of the failure of Thai education]. Thai education has been confined in the anachronistic form for a long time. It’s so boring because what students learn in class is not relevant to what they face outside the classroom and in society.”
As the world has changed, Thai-style history education—“Thai-centrism”—in which nationalism is a part, needs to be replaced by a new mode of learning. Thailand must be seen as an integrated part, not the singular diamond, of the region and Thai Studies must be based on the real conditions of society and political economy.
Professor Thongchai suggested the so-called “inside-out” learning approach other countries in Southeast Asia such as Singapore are experimenting with. Perhaps in one generation, he ventured to predict, this new style of learning [which aims for “authentic self-knowledge, diverse local and global interdependence, adaptive critical thinking, and adaptive media literacy,” source] may produce a new kind of knowledge that is not stunted by a Thai-centric worldview. While the new body of knowledge may have a Thai character, it may also have the quality and value to make a meaningful contribution to global knowledge.