Studies in Thai History, by David K. Wyatt
Studies in Thai History is a relatively short (less than 300 pages) and intriguing collection of eighteen articles written between 1963 and 1988. They are arranged in roughly chronological order and cover the period from early Thai history (including the ancient Chronicle traditions in Thai historiography and the oaths of allegiance of the Sukhothai Kingdom) through the Persian mission and family politics of the Ayudhya and early Bangkok periods, all the way up to the educational reforms of the late 1800’s and the reign of King Chulalongkorn V the Great.
The book is clearly of the most interest to those who are English-speaking Westerners with an interest in the history of Thailand, as well as more Western-educated Thai people who wish to see what sympathetic and competent Western historians think about their own history. Wyatt is very pro-Thai in his sympathies, showing a particular concern for social mobility, intellectual history (including the importance of Buddhist education and the implications of Rama I’s “subtle revolution” of increased rationalism and decreased distance between the throne and the ordinary people), and the political history of rival noble families and rival parties claiming dominance over such areas as Laos, the northern part of Thailand (the Kingdom of Nan, for example), and the Malay peninsula during key parts of Thai history.
Where the book particularly shines is in its attention to such issues as law, education, religion, and genealogy. To the extent that the reader shares such interests, the book reads as a fascinating account of aspects of history which many historians neglect to cover. To the extent that the reader lacks such interests, however, the reading of translations of old inscriptions for the understanding of their religious worldview is unlikely to be illuminating. Fortunately, this reader shares many of the interests, political, textual, and educational, of the author, and so the book was a very enjoyable one to read.
The book also has a relevance to the current political and geopolitical status of Thailand that is not stated in the book (which was published in the early 1990’s) but which gives it a continued validity. Wyatt’s historical research shows clearly how the independence of the North and Northeast from the “core” of Thai monarchy has led to the growth of support for those who wish to overturn the existing (and corrupt) social and political order. Sadly, those who wish to replace the existing order do not appear to be any less corrupt. Additionally, one sees that Bangkok’s monarchy has always been negotiated between military and social elites and was never a pure despotism and remains a negotiated monarchy where successions present considerable crisis–and so it remains. The more thing change, the more they remain the same, and reminders of conflicts with Cambodia, Laos, and Burma are reminders of the geopolitical realities Thailand must deal with based on its location. Despite the fact that the book does not dwell on contemporary events, the book provides insights that are useful in understanding them without offending in any way the dignity of Thailand’s successful and resourceful royal family, or of neglecting to pay sufficient attention to the practical nature of the Thai people themselves.