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Meeting HRH Princess Sirindhorn at the Heart of the Military Complex

On November 16, HRH Princess Sirindhorn visited the 2015 CRMA Exhibition at the spiritual heart of the Thai military - Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. For those who have never been to the academy, it was founded in 1887 in Nakhon Nayok in the Fifth Reign and is a living testimony to HRH King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V), with various busts and statues of him dotted around the base. King Rama V is perhaps best known for his personal mission to modernise Siam in the face of threats from imperial Britain (at a time when the Pax Brittanica was the dominant world order) and especially colonial France, with its 'mission civilisatrice' and aspirations to aggrandise its holdings in Cochinchina.

King Rama V is closely tied to the Thai military not just due to the founding of Chulachomklao and later the Ministry of War, with the assistance of Prince Damrong, in the penultimate decade of his reign, but also because both suffered a cataclysmic defeat at the hands of the French navy in the form of the Paknam incident in 1893. The incident marks the beginning of a social pathology within the Thai system of national humiliation and shame, as noted by the renowned Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul in his classic work Siam Mapped: The History of a Geobody - as well as an occasionally recurring feeling of distrust towards the West and another of a basic need to promote nationalism.

The Paknam Incident is almost a textbook case of 'gunboat diplomacy'. A small French naval force under Rear Admiral Edgar Humann entered the mouth of the Chao Praya River in July of 1893 and requested permission to sail up the river. Permission was refused by the Siamese, as was their right as a free and independent country; moreover, relations with the French were severely strained at the time due to a previous engagement in Khammuan in disputed Lao territory in June, which had resulted in one dead Frenchman as well as 17 Vietnamese levies, and the Siamese had resolved to do their utmost to repel further attacks. The French fleet of only three ships, one of which was a steamer tugboat, nonetheless attempted to sail up the river in an illegal act which was also against French government orders (on pragmatic grounds). After the Siamese fired three warning shots to no avail, they fired a fourth shot, then the French forced a breach, opening up with all guns on the Siamese fleet of five gunboats and the land-based defences, including the new Chulachomklao Fort. Despite losing the steamer to a beaching on a sandbank, the French were eventually victorious, after negotiating naval mines, in breaking the blockade - and then in sailing up the river and directly targeting the Royal Palace in Bangkok, forcing a peace treaty in October.

This act - a psychologically devastating demonstration of Western gunnery and chutzpah which caused and won the short-lived Franco-Siamese War despite the Siamese fielding five of their best ships - marked the end of Siam's control over Laos and the western provinces of Cambodia, the former being folded into Indochina and the latter being demilitarised, later in 1893. Thailand's appeal to the British to intervene was ignored, and in 1896 a Franco-British pact - to which the Thais were not invited - began a series of treaties, ending in 1907, confirming France's new acquisitions.

Neither King Rama V nor the Siamese military took all this particularly well, especially the loss of Laos, which the Siamese felt had been won fair and square at considerable cost and which was seen as being well within their sphere of influence, not that of France. King Rama V effectively entered a retreat for a year, charging Prince Damrong with accelerating the process of modernisation and of Siamification. The King, Prince Damrong, and their generals knew exactly what they were faced with - the possible subjugation of Siam by France through the techniques of creeping 'extraterritoriality' (an excuse for the application of a colonial power's law on Siamese soil as applied to any races France could claim dominion over) backed by further acts of gunboat diplomacy, if not the outright invasion of the country - which would only require a sustained blockade or bombardment of Bangkok. If this happened, it would be the failure of the King's policy of modernising the country in order to demonstrate that the Siamese were a 'civilised race' - and therefore not one suitable to be colonised. It was at the time in no way clear that in the end, both the British and French would acknowledge Siam's modernisation and  prefer Siam to serve as a buffer between them as the British had offered no help during the Franco-Siamese War.

Siamification mainly emphasised the position that there were no Lao people in Siam, not even in the Khorat Plateau in the Northeast, home to approximately one million Lao at the time, the remnants of the principalities of Vientiane and Champassak, destroyed by Siamese forces earlier in the nineteenth century. Siamification was exemplified by Prince Damrong editing the royal chronicles to remove references to the Lao and can also be seen in the 1904 census, where the Lao are not mentioned. Furthermore, the administration of the Khorat Plateau was modernised, based on a system of centralised governors, eventually being renamed Isan, and there was a concerted push for the introduction of a national education scheme based on Bangkokian Buddhist vales and the Central Thai language.

So, on this first occasion of my meeting Thai royalty, manning a poster presentation on the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme at an exhibition in the library of the military academy, there was a sense of awe. This was not just caused by the presence of the Princess herself - though there was a natural kind of confidence to HRH as she toured the exhibition stands, surrounded by an impressive entourage thick with Thai generals, ladies in waiting, Royal Protection Squad officers, and the Royal Press Corps. Despite her frequent laughter, there was also a kind of steely glint in her eyes as she looked at you, and you felt a little relieved when she looked down to write in her notebook.

The sense of awe I felt, however, was more due to the fact that I was meeting a descendant of King Chulalongkorn at the heart of the Thai military complex at an army base dedicated to his memory - and that I was there representing, together with my dean and two senior lecturers, a project promoting a language and culture which King Chulalongkorn and Prince Damrong had, especially during the first decade of the twentieth century, begun to minimise - not by banning but simply by removing funding for those temple schools which taught Lao. Further, this beginning of the erasure of Lao identity was not based on emotions of hatred or distrust, but due to the combined fear of French predations, leading to the inception of Siamese nationalism, and the belief that the various dialects of Lao in use in the Khorat Plateau were not sufficiently standardised or developed to function as a language of education. In contrast, Siamese was just beginning to reach a point of where it could be deployed in a national education initiative due to cumulative standardisation efforts during the Fourth and Fifth Reigns and the arrival of the printing press.

The sense of history I felt was magnified by the fact that the centrepiece of the exhibition stand I was manning was a multilingual Thai-English-Isan dictionary using the Tai Noi orthography - a script developed during the Sukhothai period which was one of the last scripts used in the temple schools in the Northeast as the push began in earnest to convert them to teaching Siamese during that first decade of the twentieth century. The dictionary - the first in the world of its kind - was specifically developed to standardise Isan - also known as Thai Lao - for teaching to students in municipal schools in Khon Kaen, and it was surrounded by flash cards and tracing books for teaching primary school children, the dictionary itself being a massive 16,000-word magnum opus based on an earlier Office of the National Culture Commission work and designed for reference purposes and sourcing picture dictionaries and junior dictionaries.

So in addition to that sense of awe at the sheer history I was experiencing in that visit by HRH to the stand (and she visits every stand), there was also this sense of completion or finalisation - and the revisiting of an issue over a century old. This was a finalisation in more ways than one - the four-year mission of the ICMRP project to create teaching materials to support the teaching of Isan will finish this coming February, when the EU funds run out (the EU co-sponsors the coalition of four Khon Kaen municipalities and the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University, where I am based). Despite the successes, and the very obvious sense of enjoyment and ownership of the education system which teachers and children display in Isan language classes, it will be difficult for the municipalities to continue the programme to develop textbooks and workbooks and for the concept to spread. Without financial and institutional support from Bangkok embodied in a strong version of the draft National Language Policy - a version which supports the regional languages as well as those of smaller ethnolinguistic groups such as the mountain peoples - we are facing a dire situation, one where even Khon Kaen University, the regional university for the Northeast, does not teach Isan to its students at the Faculty of Education.

The exhibition was thus also an opportunity to reflect on the pathologies which are at this moment affecting Thailand - increasing militarism and ultra-nationalism, to the extent that Buddhist ultra-nationalists are lobbying the military government to make Buddhism the national religion. Yet, the causality behind these pathologies is known. In terms of game theory, Thailand during the colonial period was engaged in 'product differentiation' (similar to how low-cost airlines seek to differentiate themselves from full-cost carriers) - the drive to demonstrate Siam was not like other, colonised, Southeast Asian countries - a drive born out of the need to demonstrate that Siamese people were not 'inferior races' needing to be 'civilised'. Nonetheless, the paradox of the product differentiation strategy is that in the end, you copy those you are attempting to 'draw customers' from. Thus, Siam became an internal coloniser, in exactly the same way Britain had been formed centuries earlier when the English colonised the Welsh and Irish.

However, the rules of the game have changed in over a century, something Thailand began realising over two decades ago. Nowadays, international human rights, backed by the UN - itself a relative novelty on the global scene - speak of 'self-determination', with both the EU and ASEAN - also new, this time regional groupings, designed to promote commonalities over conflict - embracing 'unity in diversity' models. And, generally speaking, most Thais know from television nowadays that there are Thai Lao people, much as there are Thai Malay and Thai Karen and other 'Thai' ethnic groups in Thailand. Nevertheless, Thai administration is still centred on governing provinces and still on ministries running the country from Bangkok, and the Thai military still tightly controls language education policy.

HRH Princess Sirindhorn, I noted, took especial interest in an exhibition stand on our floor showcasing mapping technology. Maps and especially boundaries have only been a Thai concern for a century and a half, but they are a particular concern of Prime Minister General Prayut, who in his visit to Chiang Mai earlier this year made the statement, in public, that he knew who the local people liked (a reference to Thaksin), but that they should stay in Thailand (possibly a reference to a banner hung up in the North during the height of the 2014 troubles which threatened secession). In a more recent visit to Ubon Ratchathani, where he met a Red Shirt leader, he also questioned whether the leader was Thai, answering his own rhetorical question by stating that the leader was as long as he was prepared to work with the military. Yet, the vast majority of people in Northern and Northeast Thailand do not want to leave Thailand. They have no problem with the monarchy, nor with textbook 'Thainess'. They simply want less central control, more self-determination, respect for their own language and culture in the education system following progressive moves in this direction under other names such as promoting 'local wisdom' and 'local identity' - and they want police and military reform, as they fear these two institutions, particularly the power of corrupted police and military officers.

At our stand, Princess Sirindhorn asked two questions. The first I could not catch, but the second question was about me, though luckily directed to my dean, who answered it. HRH asked, "What does he do?" And while wearing a stupid grin as my dean stated that I was a project officer, I thought of what I am and what I do. I am the father of three Thai children, which is why you are reading this 'Special Circumstances' column and why I work on a project to support Thai Lao. Because my wife is Thai Lao, my children are half Thai Lao.

And, while I will always be an 'alien' in Thailand (as General Prayut has no inclination to Thaify foreigners, even long-term migrants), I do possess a sense of history, an understanding of the role of a father in Thai society inspired by the actions of Thailand's kings, and a reasonable sense of proportionality. These are three qualities that we must trust the Thai military government also possesses as it perhaps realises the need to rein in ultra-nationalism, to develop a sense of Thainess which acknowledges the benefits of a 'unity in diversity' model, and to understand that Thailand needs to be de-militarised, not re-militarised. The alternative is a country at war with no one other than its own history.

Vive La France