Book Review: Thailand: A Short History

Thailand:  A Short History, by David K. Wyatt

This is a book that would likely be banned in Thailand.  That is not to say that it is a bad book, although admittedly the book is far more sympathetic to left-wing views than I am and is of the belief that conservative to reactionary ways are passe and that there is a historical inevitability about moves to the left.  I happen to violently disagree with this sort of mentality myself, so that tends to diminish my enthusiasm for the author’s perspective as a whole.  That said, the author has enough of a belief in the importance of telling an honest story that the history is still worthwhile even if it is highly biased towards his own particular leftist political opinions.  While this book is definitely biased, and the author wishes he could adopt more of a social history approach than he ends up doing because of the absence of evidence to do so, it is not worthless simply because of its political opinion and that alone should make this a book worth reading critically and then discounting for the author’s perspective, which is something that is wise to do in general for books, especially when authors have worldview errors and mistaken beliefs about historical inevitability.

This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into eleven chapters.  This book begins with a list of illustrations and tables and a preface to both the second and first edition as well as an editorial note.  After that the author begins the core material of the book with a discussion of the beginnings of Thai history shrouded in legend and linguistic analysis (1) and the relationship between the early Tai peoples and the classical empires of Dvaravati, Angkor, and the Upper Meking (2).  After that there is a discussion of the rise of Lan Na and Sukhothai and the way that the Thai people became considered to be Siamese in the core region of the future Thailand (3) as well as a discussion of Ayutthaya and its neighbors between 1351 and 1569 (4).  This leads to a discussion of the latter history of Ayuttaya until its fall to the Burmese in 1767 (5) and the early Bangkok Empire that followed the successful re-establishment of the Thai state first at Thonbori and then at Bangkok (6).  After this the author discusses the reigns of Mongkut and Chulangkorn and Thailand’s difficult balance in keeping its independence at the price of part of its empire (7) as well as the rise of elite nationalism up to the first of Thailand’s successful coups in 1932 (8).  From here the book becomes increasingly focused on the troubled relationship between civil government, the monarchy, and the military in the period up to 1957 (9), the period until the reaction to the rising leftist mood of the 1970’s (10), and the fresh starts that have taken place up to the early 2000’s (11), after which there are appendices with lists of kings and prime ministers (i, ii, iii, iv), as well as notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

As is frequently the case, this book is at its best when it is talking about ancient history, because the lack of immediate political relevance allows the author to be more honest about the history itself, which demonstrates the process of edge induced cohesion that allowed the Tai peoples to become civilized in the face of interaction with neighboring peoples like the Angkor and Vietnamese empires and eventually develop enough political sophistication to build their own lasting imperial regime that has gone on to the present day.  The author is quick to note some of the problems that have remained important within Thai history, such as the unwillingness that exists on the part of Thailand’s elites to fully consider peripheral people in the South, North, and Northwest as being worthy of political power and influence to the same degree that the central Bangkok elites or military figures or Chinese businessmen are.  It is where the book starts talking about more modern history that the author’s political views and dislike of anticommunism comes to the fore, and that is a significant drag on this book for those readers who may not necessarily appreciate Thailand’s history of coups [1] but who have no fondness whatsoever for socialism and Communism.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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