Academic questions Thai identity, culture in Cold War context

In an analysis of the development of Thai identity and culture, an academic argues that much of what was promoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) as Thai identity and culture in the 1950s was invented for US consumers.  

“It's the American consumers who showed the urban middle class Thais what to value about Thai culture,” said Matthew Phillips, a Southeast Asian Studies academic from Aberystwyth University in the UK, at the launch of his book at Thammasat University, Tha Prachan Campus, on Tuesday, 3 November 2015.

In the book of his PhD study titled ‘Thailand in the Cold War’, Phillips drew an elaborate analysis of how the urban Thai middle class in the post WWII period between 1945-1963 developed an ‘ideology of consumerism’ integrated in the “free world” with the US at its centre, which then became a focal point of Thailand-US political alignment during Cold War era.

He stated that unlike other Southeast Asian countries whose post-war leaders attempted to maintain neutrality at the beginning of the Cold War, Thailand became friends with the US early on. The absence of anti-colonial attitudes against westerners coupled to the fact that American consumers became more aware of their country’s influence on the global stage marked the American presence in Bangkok in the 1950s.

Matthew Phillips and Prajak Kongkirati during the discussion at the launch of ‘Thailand in the Cold War’ at Thammasat University, Tha Prachan Campus, on 3 November 2015.  

“After the Second World War, the USA became a foreign patron more intrusive than anything Siam experienced in the colonial era,” Phillips quoted from ‘A History of Thailand’ by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker.          

Using the example of a 1951 Vogue magazine displaying images of Thai silks, jewelry, and a western model wearing a Thai ‘Chada’, decorative headwear for traditional Khon performances, he said that American consumers then sought to display their global awareness through Thai products.

He explained further that the magazine was published in the same year that ‘The King and I’ debuted, a Broadway play based on the 1944 novel ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ by Margaret Landon. He added that many Americans at that time got to know Thailand for the first time through the play which has recently been revived.

Jim Thompson, a famous Thai silk brand, is another excellent example that Phillips uses in the book to illustrate how Thai handicrafts then set foot on the world stage during the Cold War period through the mysterious figure of the same name.   

He concluded that as Americans were demanding Thai products and more of them travelled to the country to experience glimpses of Thai culture and identity, the government under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, a military dictator from 1958-1963 who cemented the Thai-US alliance during in the 1950s, established the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in 1960 to promote tourism, but more importantly to inform the Thai people how to be ‘Thai’ in the eyes of the foreigners.

“So in particular through the setting up of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, he [Field Marshal Sarit] managed to embed this idea that what’s valuable about Thai culture is what the Americans want,” said Phillips.

Picking one of Thailand’s most iconic landmarks, ‘the Floating Market’, as an example, he explained that TAT magazines in the early years of its establishment would explain to Thai people that they should behave as if they are ambassadors of Thailand to welcome Americans on their floating market visits.

The cover of the book shows a rare portrait of the Thai Royal Couple’s visit to the US in 1960, when the Queen wore what is perceived in the present as ‘traditional Thai costume.’

As this continued throughout the early Cold War period, it gave rise to the development of certain ‘cultural identities’ as something which are intrinsic to the sense of being Thai, Phillips summarised.   

The academic added that, on the other hand, Americans travelling to Thailand in those days were similarly ordered to behave as if they were ambassadors of the US, to look and behave presentably in front of the local Thais. This, including the trend in the 1950s to buy Thai products, such as Jim Thomson’s silk from north-eastern silk weavers, was a ‘geopolitical’ move to draw Thailand into a ‘sentimental embrace’ with the US during the Cold War.  

At the book launch, Prajak Kongkirati, a well-known political scientist from Thammasat University, who was invited to be a discussant, said “the Thai identity which the Thai elite like to use as a weapon against others is not a natural product.”

The Thai academic said that Thai identity is more of a complex hybrid product which began to be formulated most intensively during the course of the Cold War as a commodity for consumption.

“It is interesting how the previously pro-US Thai elite who adopted this Thai identity and culture now turn their backs against the US under the current political circumstances,” Prajak added.  

He humorously added that if buying Jim Thomson’s silk does not at present seem authentically Thai enough, people can instead pick up as souvenirs products from the Royal Projects, which are promoted as handicrafts from the hill tribes in Thailand.