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  • Al Johnson

8 must-read books on Thailand

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

As Charles William Eliot noted, books “are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.” The following 8 books will help illuminate Thailand's historical narrative. Siam/Thailand remains a narrow genre for historical subjects in the English language, and the narrow field further complicated by modern political based histories. Presented in no particular order.


The 8 Must Read Books (in no particular order):

1. Thailand's Political History From the 13th Century to Recent Times. B.J. Terwiel.

2. Siam in Mind. David K. Wyatt.

3. Siam Mapped A Geo Body of a Nation. Tongchai Witichakul.

4. Siam and the League of Nations Modernisation, Sovereignty and Multilateral Diplomacy, 1920-1940. Stefan Hell.

5. Siam and World War I An International History. Stefan Hell

6. Siam Becomes Thailand. Judith Stowe.

7. Siam in Transition. Kenneth Perry Landon.

8. The June Revolution of 1932 in Thailand: A Study in Political Behavior. Tawatt Mokarapong.




1. B.J. Terwiel. Thailand's Political History From the 13th century to recent times. Bangkok: River Books, 2005.


This book belongs as a foundation for understanding Thailand's history and should be on everyone's shelf .(Editor)

Overview:


It is always difficult to pick a book that provides an overview of any period much less an entire national one. The tension between details and broad brush strokes demands a balance, further, the author may be accurate on many events but due to the scale, inaccurate on a few that are the ones the researcher is looking into, setting up a potential for error. B.J. Terwiel has managed to balance the broad brush strokes and inciteful detail in his Thailand's Political History From the 13th Century to Recent Times. The marginal notes format reminds me of reading Talmud, and is a far more efficient way in my opinion to interact with the additional information than the traditional footnote or endnote. The reader will be given a firm foundation of the Thai historical narrative from Sukhothai to the beginning of the first Thaksin Prime Ministership.


Highlights:


There are so many in the historical research and details that it is actually hard to pick just a handful. Instead, the form of the additional information should be noted. River Books publishers use sidebar notes rather than foot or endnotes. The result is a much easier flow when compared to the other styles, as the information is adjacent to the passage, rather than at the back, or at the bottom.



River books wonderful Talmud like sidebar notes system.


Flaws:


The major flaw in this otherwise gem is the incorrect usage of the term "fascist" to describe Thailand in the late 1930s and early 1940s (p266-277, see book review on this blog for more details). Aside from that, the accuracy and balance is remarkable.


The author:


Barend Jan (B.J.) Terwiel is a Netherlands born scholar who has been a Buddhist Monk in Thailand, professor of Thai History at the Australian National University, chair of the Thai and Lao Languages and Literature at Hamburg University, Extraordinary Chair for Mainland Southeast Asia at Leiden University, member Akademie der Wissenschaftern in Gotttingen, and author of over a dozen books and hundreds of articles.




2. David K. Wyatt. Siam In Mind. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002.

"Sometimes, the past speaks more presciently about the future than the present." (Wyatt)

Overview:


From the prolific English language presses in Chiang Mai, comes a fascinating look at what few authors outside of psychology studies dare to delve into: A history of thought.


David Wyatt takes a look at ancient (Khmer, Thai) legends and writings to note the genesis of some behavioral and intellectual paradigms within Thailand today. However, it is never done in an overt way. Wyatt simply presents the information and notes whether legendary or archeological and leaves most of the interpretation and connection of the dots up to the researcher. Researchers will find more recent examples such as the chapter the playwright and literary King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and his interpretation and re-interpretation of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan musical "The Mikado", which is an inciteful look into the paradigm of political relations, power, and legitimacy of rulership held by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) that is lost in the dry recitation of historical timelines and official documents.


Highlights:


The subject itself.


Siam In Mind delves into 1300 years of moments that influenced the intellectual development of Thailand. The reader is left enriched by a broader understanding of many of the formative points of thought that make up the kingdom today. The subjects are chosen to represent a good cross section of both upper class and commoner tales and events, from King to Khmer hostages. Chapter 15 "The Bibliophilic Monk", is a very useful primer for non Thai's who are interested in the methods of acquiring, storing, transmitting, and evaluating information via the institutions of the Wat (Buddhist Monasteries/Temples) in Thailand historically.


The text is easy to read and at only 119 effective pages, it can be read in one sitting if one is so inclined.


Flaws:


The book is not a peer reviewed academic tome, but it was not intended (to my knowledge) to be as such. The information is so fascinating, yet presented as an overview, that it leaves the researcher hungry for more.


I have reluctantly listed this in the "flaws" section to clearly mark it for those looking for a more academic tome, although I do not consider it a flaw. The writing style is easy to read, but the chapters are extremely short. Chapter 19 The Mikado, for example leaves the reader wanting so much more details on King Rama VI interpretation of the play, as well as any information on his opinions to others on the original. There is a lot more information that can be placed in each chapter and the book serves more as a general overview, however, the subject matter and breadth make it a "must read" book.


The Author:


David K. Wyatt is an American historian who taught at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies in 1968, the University of Michigan, and Cornell University from 1969 to 2002 where he was Chair of the Department of History, president of the Association for Asian Studies, Doctoral Advisor to the famed Benjamin Batson, and the John Stambaugh Professor of History at Cornell University.




3. Thongchai Winichakul. Siam mapped: a geo-body of a nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

"A map survives by conventions." (Winichakul)

Overview:


This has become a cornerstone in most university courses as well as researchers of the last 10 years. It follows the deconstruction of the national narrative by highlighting the intellectual, social, economic, and political factors that shaped Thailand into the nation state today. It details the initial encounters with the West, and later Western colonialism and the paradigm shift that colonial ideas imposed upon Thailand. The formation of ideations about geography, technical improvements in maps that in turn fed different ideations about geography, and the gradual adoption of Thailand of the Western concepts not only in the technical, but political fields as well are all part of the books narrative. By the end of the book, the reader will have been informed on Winichakul's thesis regarding how the Thai nation today sees itself as a nation, and the political impact it carries.



Highlights:


In depth look at the evolution geography and geographical ideation that is useful not only for Thailand, but understanding the formation of self and place in other societies.


Siam Mapped a History of the Geo-Body of a Nation has provided a fascinating level of detail regarding early maps in Thailand, and how those maps evolved as the concepts of space and the relationship of self to that space evolved. It demonstrates the cyclical feedback that advances in technology and ideation bring to each other. Linguists will appreciate Tongchai's delving into the formation of the words the Thai language developed to define these new concepts imposed by interaction with the West and the internal changes that they wrought. The evolution of terms commonly used today is also covered periodically throughout the book, and lead to a better understanding of how the Thais saw relationships during those times.


"The attempt to grasp modern geography was done only by assimilating it through existing concepts - and above all through the existing terminology - just as a new language is always learned through translation into one's mother tongue."(Winichakul)

The inclusion of early maps such as the Tamnan and Lanna Pilgrimage Map are useful visual aids to accompany the text, and although in black and white, still detail enough to be useful.


Perhaps the most useful passages are those dealing with the different concepts between the Thais (and most Southeast Asian kingdoms and peoples) regarding geographical boundaries, sovereignty, and citizenship. Tongchai inadvertently helps to contextualize how as late as WWII, the Thais were merely responding to the West using it's own definitions and rules. The Franco Thai War in 1941 is a perfect example of a reversal of the Western techniques by the Thais against the West. However, Tongchai misses the chance to point this out and bring a kind of ironic endpoint to the passages.


Flaws:


Political bias.


In a more subtle way, the book attempts to attack nationalism, as it fails to apply the same concepts to the neighboring groupings (why did England and France conceptualize their group and sphere of influence as they did), and in so doing, opens itself up for criticism that perhaps the intent was more than simply a historical account of the process of conceptualizing the Western concept of "nation" among groups of people that had hitherto according to Winichakul, not done so.


Like Terwiel, Tongchai falls into the "fascist trap" and misses the obvious opportunity to show how the Thais reversed the very techniques France used to reduce Thai territory a few years before the 1930s/1940s. The irony where Thailand uses the self same techniques against France as a kind of endpoint for concepts of sovereignty, citizenship, race, etc is missed by the book which veers askew and lables the period incorrectly as a fascist copy of two European states not in contact with Thailand (Italy/Germany), over the obvious response to France using French concepts.


The entire premise that the Thais had a lack of geographical boundary Tongchai puts forward is also challenged by Thai scholars such as Gehan Wijeyewardene, who has argued convincingly that the Thais had a much firmer grasp of boundary and territory via the ideation of muang.* Wijeyewardene points out Tongchai may have misinterpreted in the historical definition and literature, thereby misinterpreting the starting point of the conceptualization and nature of the "geo body". So the extent to which Siam Mapped is accurate on how much or little the Thais understood the concept of a boundary via usage of muang, phum, fai fai, phi pan nam, etc. is still somewhat in debate.


*For more on the debate, see Chapter 6 in National Identity and It's Defenders Thailand Today edited by Craig J. Reynolds.


The Author:


Thai historian, Tongchai Winichakul was a student activist and jailed for his participation in the student riots that led to the government crackdown in 1973. A graduate of Tammasarat and Syndey University, Tongchai has been assistant and later full professor at the University of Wisconsin where he was director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, director of graduate studies of the Department of History, President of the Association of Asian Studies. He was also a principle research fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.



4. Stefan Hell. Siam and The League of Nations Modernisation, Sovereignty and Multilateral Diplomacy, 1920-1940. Bangkok: River Books, 2010.


Overview:


Excellent Resource on a little known subject.


"The League of Nations - Sannibat chat in Thai, ...was arguably the most daring and ambitious project in international relations of the twentieth century...Small states like Siam had much to gain and nothing to lose from collective security, had a greater influence on global affairs in concert with others under the League's umbrella than they could ever have alone, and could even gain a degree of international prestige." (Hell)

Another excellent resource from the pen of Stefen Hell, this time focusing on Thailand's disproportionate contributions to the League of Nations, and the evolution of the political savvy that developed form that participation, right until the very end and transition to the United Nations. Most historical narratives regarding the League tend to contextualize it as a failed organization, measured only by it's failure to prevent World War II (or more specifically, the rise of Germany, and the unilateralism of Italy and Japan). Yet, the success of the League is rarely shown. The story of Thailand's entry and participation in the League is a means of glimpsing some of the successes of the League through the examples of Thailand. The view the Thais have of the League, recounted in the book, are excellent references to get a view of the international political process outside of a few Western Nations (usually the US and UK) regarding the political realities of the time. Using major events such as the League sponsored public health campaigns, opium control, and human trafficking programs, we can see the dynamics of the Leagues as well as Thai politics during the 1920s and 1930s. The issue of collective security, and Thailand's decision for "Abstention" on the Manchurian issue, speak to the perceptions of a pseudo colonial power dealing with competitive colonial powerhouses. The information Stefen Hell presents on this helps to clear up the two polar opposite versions of that incident.


Highlights:


The information on the public health and anti malarial campaigns contains background information on early multinational cooperation in the health sector. Thailand's leadership in the initiatives in Southeast Asia in concert with the colonial powers neighboring her, demonstrate the diplomatic shift that the League fostered as a non European/American nation was allowed participation on a relatively equal basis. The other campaigns of Opium and Human Trafficking demonstrate the positive side as well as the difficulties in addressing international problems in a collaborative environment across different cultures. The data Hell provides on the Thai government licensing of Opium manufacturing and distribution as well as the licensed Chinese brothels helps to demonstrate how the West perceived a problem, that the Thais had already dealth with by regulation. The data and statistics Siam and the League of Nations presents is valuable to all researchers, and demonstrates another excellent source for materials in the League archives.



Flaws:


Chapter 6 Collective Security tends to lean towards the post war Western Bias in the use of loaded terms, and the lack of background material on the legal issues surrounding the various Chinese governments. Further, he characterizes the post 1932 government as one that did not "bring about profound change with regard to the project of modernizing Siam" (p198). Nothing could be farther from the truth, and ignores that for many of the 1932 revolutionaries the goal of modernization was the only reason for the rebellion. The programs instilled throughout the post revolutionary period were very much focused on modernizing Thailand, yet Stefen Hell seems to ignore it and attempts to focus more on the earlier Royal projects leaving the 1930s as kind of a "lost decade". His continuation to mischaracterize the post 1932 government continues on page 214 when he insinuates a large connection between Italy and Thai militaries, that was in reality far overshadowed by the British, French, and Japanese connections. Indeed, the author mentions Luang Phibun's son as having gone to Italy to study in 1935, but fails to put it in perspective by noting it was for a brief period prior to traeling to the UK for full study. The book also fails to note that Thailand pointed to the example of Italy's aggression in Ethiopia always in the light of Thailand was the "Ethiopia" and could still be swallowed by the larger European colonial powers (at the time UK and France).



The Author:


(From the book flap) "Stefan Hell a PhD degree in History from Leiden University and an MA degree from Tubingen University. His research interests focus on the history of international organization and international aspects of Asian history. He has published a book on the Sino-Japanese conflict of 1931-1933, articles and book chapters, and has co-edited several books."



5. Stefan Hell. Siam and World War I an International History. Bangkok: River Books, 2017.


Overview:


Excellent Resource


Truly a must have for researchers on Siam or World War I. (Editor)

The First World War always seems to get overlooked for the increasingly mythologized Second World War. This has created many "hidden gems" of information that researchers can glean and create new lessons learned from. Stefen Hell has provided an amazing source of information on a subject, that honestly, didn't seem to provide that much source material initially. Stefen Hell has two books on this list, and rightfully so. This book has set the bar extremely high, flawlessly incorporating everything from the decision making influences to enter the war, to the Siamese doughboy's experiences, to even the details on the memorials, medals, monographs, and other items that the Siamese created to remember the war. His ability to pull from remote sources, and flesh out the details is worthy of a prize. Siam and World War I an International History sheds light upon Siam's entry into the First World War, it's interactions with colonialism and how personal relationships and viewpoints, rather than ideology, drove politics.


The book maintains a perfect balance of easy to read narrative style, yet presenting solid source documents relatively free of bias. The student of modernization of Siam and Southeast Asia will also appreciate this book as it details the inner struggles in joining the war, modernizing the army, and then the difficult job of sending it on expedition and maintaining it's operational status in a foreign nation. The difficult decisions amidst the irony of Siam now joining forces with the occupying colonizers of Southeast Asia (Britain and France) are presented which help to illuminate the contradictory decision by Siam to join forces with the formerly aggressive states, and helps to set the foundation for similar patterns in the future vis a vis World War II.


Highlights:


A remarkable view into the inner workings of the Siamese leadership, and a unique first time narrative of the Siamese soldiers sent far from home.


Understanding national interests, and the different factions that drive those national interests is always worthwhile historical inquiry. Siam and World War I delves accurately into answering the question of why Siam would follow the inexplicable policy of joining the side of her erstwhile invaders and colonial occupiers of Southeast Asia. The political divides among the ruling class (Some Pro German, Pro British, Pro Neutral) having more of an impact than any ideology or national interest at times. Yet the influence of economic gain is not lost in Hell's research. The details on the economic benefit and the final program of the captured German Ships as a motivation for entering the war is demonstrated quite well, and helps to show why some who were neutral, later came to support entry into the war. The photographs are plentiful, and there is almost no aspect of the prewar or wartime history of Siam and World War I that Hell does not delve into.


River Books also maintains their excellent sidebar note system, which enhances the flow of reading/research. (*If only American published books would convert to this system!)


Flaws:


Very few. Page 148-153 have captions in Thai which were not translated into English. The narrative of the advance team into the Western Front coming under fire was somewhat confusing and could have been sourced further.


The Author:


(From the book flap) "Stefan Hell a PhD degree in History from Leiden University and an MA degree from Tubingen University. His research interests focus on the history of international organization and international aspects of Asian history. He has published a book on the Sino-Japanese conflict of 1931-1933, articles and book chapters, and has co-edited several books."



6. Judith Stowe. Siam Becomes Thailand A Story of Intrigue. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.


Overview: One of the better books on contextualizing the early democracy period in Thailand.


"The element in Siamese society which caused most concern to the monarchy was the relative handful of people who went abroad to study." (Stowe)

Highlights:


Siam Becomes Thailand is one of the rare books in English that presents the 1932 revolution and the following years within a relatively Thai-centric context. Too many books fall into the trap of contextualizing the revolution only in terms of a single anomaly followed by World War II, and omit the decade of transformation and modernization that Thailand underwent in the interim. Stowe has managed to bring the narrative back to a Thai centric one and does so in a rather unbias manner.

Siam Becomes Thailand is also an excellent primer to note the political cliques that formed in Thailand after the revolution among the revolutionaries, and the role that the continued presence of a royal political element still played into the early government. The period in the book covers just before the revolution through the war, and into the immediate post war relations with the US and UK.


Stowe's background as a British Foreign Service officer lends itself well to the interpretations of the book, as insights into realpolitik and the true nature of international relations and internal politics are highlighted.


Flaws:


In what seems a recurring theme among Western books, the author tries too hard to emphasize the Seri Thai and recategorize the Phibun administration in order to fit it within a Western (Mostly US) centric version of World War II/Greater East Asian War. In doing so the author looses the opportunity to continue to delve into the Thai political scene at the time and the internal forces at play among them, reducing it to a Phibn-Axis, Pridi-Allies narrative that removes the complexity and locality of the time.


The Author:


Judith A. Stowe was a British Foreign Office member, whose long service in Southeast Asia and Thailand was capped by a managing director of the BBC in Thailand and Vietnam. Her political insights into historical developments presents a refreshing realism to historical analysis in her books.



7. Kenneth Landon. Siam in Transition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939.


Overview: Sometimes the older books are more useful, this one is like a time capsule and almost a source document in itself.


"The purpose of the present study is to describe modern trends in Siam in order to show what is happening to the Siamese way of life, and so to indicate how Siamese are adjusting themselves to a technological world." (Landon)

Kenneth Landon transferred his many years in Thailand and connections gleaned to attempt to compile as complete a picture as he could on how the Thai's were adjusting to modernity, and the changes that were occurring at every level, be they intentional or inadvertent. Subjects cover political trends since 1932, the trend towards decentralization, decline of the nobility and rise of the military in it's absence, and international relations. On the domestic front, Landon leaves few stones unturned with Economics, Ethnic demographics and gender trends, educational policies, medical, crime, technology integration, and even the social pressures modernization and democratization have placed on religion. The appendixes contain source documents of many government documents from 1932-1935 including the King's abdication, rules on political prisoners, and the Proroguing of the People's Assembly. The text is well written and detailed enough for every researcher to be able to find almost anything of the period in it's rawest form. This is extremely useful for helping locating detailed information on many items during the period. Siam in Transition should be on everyone's bookshelf that is interested in Asian modernization as well as Thai history.


Highlights:


The book is a veritable time capsule and could almost be treated as a source document in some respects. The appendix carries many source documents useful for the study of the immediate post democratic revolutionary period, and the source documentation that Landon cites is a great finding aid for many pieces of data that are difficult to find the sources of today. His views from 1939 are free from the post war politicization of the Pridi and Sarit variety, leaving the reader with a raw view of the modernization period, although admittedly one from an American authors viewpoint.


His contemporary insights into issues and personalities forgotten or overlooked in post war (Pridi and Sarit school) histories should be noted by investigators wishing to delve into topics that potentially could lead to worthwhile unpublished avenues.


Flaws:


As Landon is essentially cataloging the facts and figures of his current time there are few obvious errors. The only minor quibble would be his chapters on religious trends are colored through his missionary background, however, he did a remarkable job in removing most Christian bias from his writing.


The sources cited are a bit scarce, and leave the researcher wanting more.


The Author:


Kenneth P. Landon was an American missionary, State Department official, professor, and author. Graduate of Princeton Theological Semminary, he quickly became an expert on Southeast Asian and Thailand cultures, which was rare in the 1920s and 1930s. When World War II / Greater East Asian War began Kenneth Landon became a State Department official from 1943-1955 and was the leading expert on Thailand for the Eisenhower administration. He later became director of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies at American University from 1965 to 1974. He married Margaret Landon, who went on to write "The King and I" which caused extreme controversy for it's offensive treatment of the culture of the Royal family during the Rama dynasty.


**Of note the author wrote newspaper propaganda articles about Thailand during the war, which later were used by some authors to incorrectly justify labeling Thailand a "fascist state". Nowhere in his 1939 book did Landon hint at a move towards fascism which was a wartime propaganda construct carried on by some groups post war and revived in the 2000s.


8. Tawatt Mokarapong. The June Revolution of 1932 in Thailand: A Study in Political Behavior. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1972.


Overview:


Technically a PhD dissertation that was published on demand, this is another excellent document to utilize for an understanding of the 1932 Revolution. The book is compiled from information the author was able to glean from personal access to many of the persons involved in the 1932 Revolution and subsequent Khana Ratsudorn (People's Party) government. This access gives insights into the personal motivations of many of the key figures that are forgotten in later historical books. Mokarapong looks at the personal relations and cliques that existed and were formed during the events to shine a light on many decisions the leadership took during that critical period, and add a level of contextualization necessary for a complete understanding of the Revolution and it's aftermath.


The dissertation covers the pre Revolutionary forces that influenced the "Promoters" to rebel, and moves into the first and second constitution drafting, counter revolution, and decline of the National Assembly and Royal power during the decade that followed. The Appendix lists the members of the Revolution, the Manifesto of the Khana Ratsudorn, and the Royal Abdication Announcement.


Highlights:


The insights and personal accounts from the leaders of the Revolution and Khana Ratsudorn personnel are invaluable. The dissertation contains information not found in subsequent books, and is therefore extremely useful for researchers. Mokarapong has done an admirable work of explaining the social stratification and influences that would be unfamiliar to the Western reader, but are critical to understanding the social and political dynamic in Thailand at the time.


Flaws:


At times Mokrapong seems to dwell and return too much to the conditions prior to the Revolution. While this contextualization is certainly needed, the excessive passages seem to detract from the overall flow of the work. The layout is unchanged from a Doctoral dissertation of 1962, i.e. typewritten pages with no breaks between paragraphs and minimal layout. For those used to polished formats, this can be a bit unsettling initially.


The Author:


No information at this time.


Note from Editor: As always, be mindful of the political influence on the historiography of Thailand, which is a little more nuanced and internal than those of the US, UK, Japan, South Korea, Poland, etc. However, for researchers of history, Thailand presents a relatively untouched trove of historical data. The recommended 8 books were chosen due to their value in providing specific information and source documentation leads for the researcher. The jury is still out on an accurate book covering the World War II/Greater East Asian War period due to the extreme politicization of the period in the English language texts, specifically exaggeration of the role, motivations, and scope of the Seri Thai. For these the US National Archives in College Park Maryland (OSS Files) are still the best sources.

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