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Why is Thainess invariably defined by royalist narratives?

We are Thai; how could we survive without our “nation, religion and king”? Those who don’t like our institutions should live somewhere else

“Nation, religion, and king” -  a slogan that seems almost spiritual and sacred to Thai nationalists. Why? I don’t think I am alone in believing that, even as we debate political topics, we feel that certain things - like our national religion and our royal institution - cannot be forgotten. Why exactly is difficult to explain.  

Examining cultural narratives and collective memories may help us to understand better. In particular, it is a good idea to look at how historical representation has been used to form a collective romance of the Thai past.

A kingdom in peace and harmony

In the Thai history that I was taught in school, royal narratives have always been central. I learned that royalist ideology has informed national values since the birth of “Thainess”, that Thai identity is associated with peacefulness and paternalism under the embrace of the monarch. How exactly? To answer that, we need to explain how the origins of the Thai nation are now represented.  According to official history, the Thai nation emerged in the Sukhothai era.   A stone inscription attributed to Ramkhamhaeng, a 13th century Thai ruler, is treated in Thai textbooks as the first known version of a “proper” and “nationalistic” history, providing evidence of an “appropriate” Thai governing system - The following passage comes from this Ramkhamhaeng Inscription No.1:

 “He [the king] has hung a bell in the opening of the gate over there: if any commoner in the land has a grievance which sickens his belly and gripes his heart, and which he wants to make known to his ruler and lord, it is easy; he goes and strikes the bell which the King has hung there; King Ramkhamhaeng, the ruler of the kingdom, hears the call…examines the case, and decides it justly for him.”

Translation provided by Assoc. Prof. Dhiravat na Pombejra, Ph.D.

I am not sure what purpose the inscription served in the past.  Its origins have also been contested.   At present, though, this kind of narrative - the image it creates - is a good example of how kings of the past are now depicted as national protectors.

Who should we thank for our independence?

In Thai nationalist thinking, it is a given that “Siam has never been colonised” and that “our nation survived because of the merit of kings.” These arguments seem self-evident to people studying Thai history because of the different narratives of neighbouring countries.  “Never being colonised” in this context means escaping direct western control, although Siam did have to give up some of its territorial claims. But, again, the main point of these discourses is to reaffirm an image that royal power brings peace and harmony. Others played a part in this victory as well but the focus of oral and written narrative is always on kings.

Whenever national history is invoked, the transmitted cultural memory is that kingship is a sacred requisite for the proper functioning of the social order. Royal-national history affirms that the nation was preserved by just the merit of kings.   

The royal institution is the heart of our nation.  It is like a mighty Po tree which has all along provided us will cooling shade, with peace, and with happiness.  We must remain loyal to the institution until death. We must defend it.

How did this messy monarchist history come into being? The answer is, I am not sure either. Maybe too many people believe textbook history and too few explore and criticise records. To my mind, we share responsibility for part of the mess. The education system fails to enhance critical thinking among students, of course, but education is still a larger part of society and culture. And maybe Thai culture and society have been formulated in such a way as to make Thainess and royalism seem inseparable. We have been inculcated to defer to our heroic, virtuous leaders from the beginning.

A good example from history is the origin of “Thainess” - a cultural narrative that has been heavily propagated, creating a memory and belief that circulates endlessly. Metaphorically, it is “cultural dope” which addicts us to the belief that kings make our land peaceful and happy, that kings made us who we are today. We are the passive subjects of an education system which implants in our heads the importance of kings as social artifacts of Thai culture and the nation.

We love the Nation, Religion, and Monarchy. We must protect our national institutions.

A king as a social artifact is one thing. Bigger problems would not arise if the collective memory was not also shaped by romantic distortions affirmed through literature, art, and architecture that kings are invariably merciful.

From the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription to modern drama and literature - nirat (narrative poems), the Legend of King Naresuan, the Siam Renaissance (Thawiphop), or Four Reigns (Si Phaendin) and other texts from Thai popular culture and the Thai education system - our memories of Thainess and virtuous kings are constructed. I think it is better to critically dissect these texts to better understand that history is not just about kings but everyone, that we are all protagonists in this long story.

The construction process is also shaped by objects, places, and spaces such as Phra Siam Devadhiraj, murals in Phra Buddha Rattana Sathan, Dusit and others palaces. These sites become a part of our everyday culture.  We seldom recognise that this cultural capital from the past is an affirmation of cultural hierarchy, or as we say in cultural studies, “high culture”.

If we have high culture, we also have low culture, right? In truth, everyone has a claim to culture, which should not be divided into aesthetically high or untouchably low. All levels of culture should be represented. But instead, royalist representation has become our collective memory.  We imagine our ruling class to be guardian angels, our kings have become deities who own the land.

“This country belongs to the people, not the king like you have been deceived.”

The role of kingship, for me, is not that important. A nation can stand without royalty but not without ordinary people. I think we need to reconsider many of our cultural ideologies, to move on from the royal narratives that many have long believed, especially the conflation of royalty with goodness. Historically, kings have not necessarily always been good and virtuous. For those that are, there is no reason to promote their royal images.

Humans are … human; we cannot be absolutely good or bad. Everyone can do wrong and kings can do wrong. Kings that heroically ride elephants to fight our enemies no longer fit with the needs of modern governance. Kings are no longer obligated to perform this duty anymore.  And there is no need to promote the idea kings are gods that protect us. We have a government and we have ourselves.

Unfortunately, it seems that the current government prefers royal images of old, a cultural legacy that is still being used to promote a conservative nationalism.  As long as royalism is central to every argument, there will be no new solution for Thailand. The narrative and memories are so strong and we have no one to blame but ourselves.  

At the end of the day, small elements in culture that many people might neglect create a cultural foundation, leading to looped arguments like that surrounding the “institution” -  that kings are guardian angels, social and spiritual anchors, and righteous people who own us and our homeland. The power of cultural memory and narrative is strong, as can be seen from official Thai history.  Many cultural artifacts including literary and architectural forms have been deployed to enhance the image. For generations, we have been inculcated with memories of kings as saviours and we still trust in the narrative.

Maybe it is too late for us to change the minds of the older generation, to persuade them that nation, religion, and monarchy are not the only things in their lives. Maybe it is too deeply imprinted in their thoughts. Still, I think it is time that we talk about the government version of history, time that we sort things out publicly, time to stop reproducing the cultural narratives of the past.  Thainess is not just about the monarchy.  In order to have a meaningful discussion, we need to start from the idea that these two things are extricable. 

I call upon my readers, Thais or foreign nationals alike, to rethink the prevailing discourse.  It may be a beautiful narrative, but every discourse has an unseen and oftentimes less attractive purpose. 

References

Barker, Chris, and Jane Emma A. 2016. Cultural studies : theory and practice.

Barker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit. 2014. A History of Thailand. 3rd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice, and Lewais A. Coser. 1992. On collective memory.The Heritage of sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

David K. Wyatt. 1984. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

ธงชัย วินิจจะกูล. 2016. โฉมหน้าราชาชาตินิยม. นนทบุรี: สำนักพิมพ์ฟ้าเดียวกัน.

Bandhukavi Palakawongsa na Ayudhya or “Keng” is currently in the International Programme at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. He is interested in understanding human complexities, social controversies and paradoxes, using the tools of applied and new-emerging branches of humanities like cultural studies, sociocultural studies, and memory studies.

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