Thai junta coins new history book to legitimise its rule

Following the controversial 12 nationalistic Thai values introduced in the aftermath of the 2014 coup d’état and the construction of a theme park with grandiose monuments of ancient kings, the Thai junta has now published its latest version of Thai history, which many historians view as an attempt to legitimize military rule via a narrow nationalistic history.

“On 22 May 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, staged a coup d’état and formed a government to govern the country. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha became the Prime Minister and implemented policies for national and political reform for the achievement of ‘true’ democracy to get rid of corruption, using ‘moral principles’ to lead the country to become a ‘true democracy’,” reads page 195 of the brand new Thai history book recently launched at the 20th National Book Fair in Bangkok in late October 2015.

After its launch, 20 copies of the book with the autograph of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader, were quickly sold out at the Book Fair in several hours. The book was written by historians of the Fine Arts Department who spent only about two months to complete it after the Ministry of Culture assigned the task to the Department. According to Vira Rojpojchanarat, the Minister of Culture, currently 10,000 copies of the new national history book have been printed and 100 copies will be distributed to schools and public offices in 77 provinces throughout the country. The book was written in response to the instruction of Gen Prayut to promote patriotism and nationalism among Thai citizens and students.

In the prologue of the book, Gen Prayut writes on page 3 that studying history is crucial to help us understand the sacrifices of ancestors who maintained the integrity of the nation and “to be grateful to the kindness of the great kings who defended the populace from all difficulties and hardships.” The junta leader added that through the book he hopes that people would understand the “origin of the Thai nation” and be proud of “the Thai national sovereignty.” For many historians, however, the NCPO’s history offers little more than biased and conflicted historical accounts, which were chosen to benefit the junta’s political agenda.

The new Thai history published by instruction of the Thai junta leader. The book cover depicts a painting of King Naresuan, a famous warrior king of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, whose victory against a Burmese prince on what is believed to be 18 January 1592 is currently recognized as Royal Thai Armed Forces Day.  

History to legitimize military rule             

 

The end of the new NCPO history states that Gen Prayut, the junta leader, staged a coup d’état and became PM to carry out national and political reforms for the achievement of ‘true’ democracy, thus deliberately putting the current military government in a favourable light.   

Chanan Yodhong, a historian who has researched history lessons taught in Thai military schools and the legitimization of the recent coup d’état, said “it’s not really a history book meant for history lessons, but more like political propaganda for Prayut’s government.”

Like the construction of Ratchapakdi Park, a theme park with monuments to seven kings enshrined by the military government , or the campaign to give out free movie tickets to a movie about King Naresuan in June 2014, Chanan said that the NCPO history is the latest attempt by the junta to legitimize its regime.

Asked if the book will serve the junta leader’s purpose to foster reconciliation as mentioned in its preamble, Chanan said “the book discusses at great length the monarchy, which is an institution that the military holds on to, but does not show any attempt to accept differences in people’s opinions, which is a crucial step towards the reconciliation process. The book is mostly just about heroism.”

On modern Thai history, the book discuss the ‘populist policies’ introduced by controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, together with allegations against him of corruption and human rights violations. However, it mentions that the government under Abhisit Vejjajiva from the Democrat Party, which came to power in 2008 shortly after the 2006 coup, stressed transparency in governance despite many similar allegations against his party, especially human rights violations during the violent military crackdown on political violence in April-May 2010.

At the launch of the book at the Book Fair on 26 October 2015, Sunait Chutintaranond, Director of the Southeast Asian Studies Programme of Chulalongkorn University, commented that the way in which the book discusses modern history, especially from when Thaksin’s government came to power in the early 2000s onwards, is biased and problematic. He added that these biased historical accounts in fact contradict the reconciliation agenda of the ruling military government.

Thai/Siam-centric narrative     

 

Pipad Krajaejun, a historian and lecturer of Thammasat University, criticised the junta’s new history book for the major flaw of an outdated historical narrative that still stresses the polities of the central Chao Phraya River Basin as the centre of the Thai cultural and historical heritage. In this narrative, the Kingdoms of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi and early Bangkok are lined up chronologically and taken as centres of Thailand’s social and political life in the past, while other polities, such as the Lanna Kingdom of the present day northern Thailand, Lanchang of the northeast and Laos, or the Patani Kingdom of the Deep South, are neglected.

In a book of 208 pages, only 20 (pages 54-74) are dedicated to discussing the kingdoms and polities which developed around the same time as those taken up by the mainstream Thai historical narrative.

Pipad wrote on Facebook that this historical narrative is based on the concept of ‘assimilation’ developed in the context of Cold War politics in the region when the authorities tried to foster a shared ‘Thai identity’ based on the identity of central Thai people with the assumption that this would prevent conflict. He added that when added to the lack of understanding of the concepts of race, ethnicity, and citizenship in Thai society, this becomes problematic.

“This book does not really have space for people who speak other languages [besides Thai]. This can obviously be seen from its emphasis on the ‘origins of Thai people’ (page 38). Therefore, it offers an ethno-nationalistic history based on ‘Thai ethnicity’,” wrote the Thammasat University historian.

According to Matthew Copeland, chairman of the Social Science Faculty of Mahidol University International College, who teaches Thai history and historiography, this is not the first time in Thai history that the state has taken an active role in publishing historical texts as a way of solving problems. “Official history is something that you get pretty much around the planet and in this case it is quite clear that the [Thai] government is concerned about the Thai ‘identity’ and is trying to use history as a way to shore up what they perceive to be some of the problems with Thai identity in the present,” he told Prachatai.

Sunait commented that the book failed to answer the question of whether Lanna and Isan, northern and northeastern Thailand, are considered as parts of the ‘Thai’ historical and cultural heritage or not.

‘Great man’ narrative focusing on kings

 

Chanan, who authored Nai Nai, a book about male consorts in King Rama VI’s court, said that the junta’s history book contains little more than myths about national heroes centred on stories about great warrior kings. “The content of the new NCPO Thai history seems more like a collection of ‘fables’ which heavily emphasise the stories of national heroes, most of whom were warrior kings of the past favoured by the military.”

In the book, about 50 per cent of its content, from page 90 to 169, focuses on the role of the ancient monarchs of the Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi, and Bangkok eras, where the Chakri Dynasty, the current royal house, takes centre stage.

The cover of the book depicts a painting of King Naresuan, a famous warrior king of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, whose victory against a Burmese prince on what is believed to be 18 January 1592 is currently recognized as Royal Thai Armed Forces Day.      

In a review of the book published on Matichon Online, Sunait pointed out that the book takes on the narrative of the royal chronicles which is rather an “outdated” and “boring” way of telling history while underplaying many important social and political changes in Ayutthaya and the early modern period. “The book mentions only briefly the turns of history without any emphasis, in a way that readers would not be able to remember.”

Chanan added that the NCPO history offers a “tame” historical account where disruptions to the smooth royalist narrative, such as the Palace Revolt under the Reign of Rama VI in 1912 or the popular student uprising in 1973, are mentioned only fleetingly if at all.