Thursday, July 3, 2008

Thongchai Winichakul on the Preah Vihear issue

Thongchai Winichakul, historian professor at the University of Wisconsin and most well-known for his book "Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo Body of a Nation", wrote a comment on the Preah Vihear issue in English language newpaper The Nation. Since I blogged about that issue some month ago, it has apparently become the main political topic in Thailand, especially now the UNESCO World heritage committee started its annual session with that temple on their agenda. While the foreign ministry tries to keep tensions down by a joint statement on the nomination with the Cambodia government, especially the Democratic Party as well as the PAD protesters on the streets try to use the nationalistic feeling for their fight with the government. And all this despite the fact that the issue was already finally settled at the International Court of Justice in 1962, which confirmed the boundary as marked by the French in 1907. Below are the in my opinion main statements in Prof. Thongchai's comments, though I recommend to read it completely:
Using the temple to fan nationalism can lead to much bigger tragedy. The nature of modern boundaries between Thailand and its neighbours is like a time bomb. [...] With little exception, claims to exclusive "ownership" rights of borderlands longer than the past 100 to 130 years are probably false and historically impossible to support. [...] We should respect the settlement provided by the court since Thailand has no better justifiable claim than Cambodia. Despite that, the talks about "losing territory" have been common among thoughtless nationalists in the region. [...] Thais have been taught their territories were lost as well. Every country lost territories. The idea of loss is a powerful tool used to whip up nationalism, especially in domestic politics. The dark side of nationalism is dangerous as ever. It has now become a weapon in today's Thai politics.
To get a deeper understanding into the complexity of the boundaries, Prof. Thongchai aove mentioned book is a great resource. It is important to know that before the spread of European colonialism to the area there was nothing like a demarcation line as we know the boundaries today. Instead the semi-independent city states (Mueang) at the boundary area often swore allegiance to both more powerful kings, making the countries in fact a blurred with each other in their boundary areas. This has become known under the term "Mandala" since O.W. Wolters coined the term in 1982.


Anonymous said...

I'm somehow too stupid to find this article by Thongchai Winichakul. Could you give me a hint please?


Andy said...

I accidentally linked to the wrong URL, I have now fixed the posting. The correct link is

Anonymous said...

After living and working as a reporter in Thailand for the past 18 years, I have come to see these border disputes more as a function of gaining politial advantage rather worrying about the loss of a few hundred meters of high rocky land.

Thailand has been inured with respect for its land by the subsequent monarchical leaders since the inception of the Chakri Dynasty nearly two hundred years ago. It was a primary way of fomenting feelings of inclusion among what was then a population comprised of a variety of different types of ethnic groups.

Today, with the growing industrial base, increased prosperity and more money at stake, political parties use these minor border disputes to whip up opposition to whichever other parties that they dont agree with. Examples of this practice are too numerous to list but here are a few: with Laos over Mekong River bank changes in position, with Burma over the course of the Irrawaddy River and its tendency to shift the direction of its flow to include some tiny islands that belong to THailand, and, most importantly, with five southern provinces whose primarily muslim population is being manipulated by a few insurgent parties who wish to secede from the State of Thailand.

By in large, Mr. Thongchai is correct that claims to borders over 100 years old are very difficult if not impossible to prove. Therefore, these disputes remain as incendiary firewood to be stoked by any party such as the PAD, to prove that the current Samak administration is giving away the country to foreigners.

Mostly what this proves is the continuing lack of maturity of the Thai political system which still tends to rely on the threat of force (coups) to ride itself of what some may consider the 'wrong' or 'incompetent' government administration.

Clearly, Thailand is not without reasonable and intelligent people who could solve these problems through negotiation, but cliques of military, civilian power brokers who have lost their grip on power wont allow reasonable men to reach reasonable solutions.

It breaks ones heart to witness this type of immature scenarios being played out over and over. It was once thought that the king should step in to settle these problems, but he has receded more and more to his titular head of state position and tends to let the politicians battle over these insignificant problems until they are bearing to heavily on the business of the government to serve the people as he sees it.

Tony Gillotte