A Little Bit of Thai History: The making of Thai

by gonzotrooper

And it is that time of the month again: The one where I repay my debt of gratitude to the Thai people (well a section of it. Sort of. Well actually just one of them. But I love you all, honestly!) Well actually it is wayyy overdue, because of work related pressures, a seminar, and because I suck at deadlines apparently. Sorry!

Where I left off last time was when the Siamese empire was slowly forming into what would later become Thailand. Siam had just lost the region that would later be Laos to the French, but on the upside avoided becoming another colony in the Great Game. And after pressure from the Western powers Siam finally marked up its borders, if only to have France and Britain snip around the edges. Now the monarch of Siam wanted to be like the Western powers: He wanted a strong, modern national state. However, there was a slight problem: Nations are built around citizens. Siam was a traditional empire built upon subjects. After the Siamese model, subjects were more like clients of the rulers than organic members of a state.

The first step was to make a citizenry. As Siam was still a feudal kingdom, many people were not directly subjects of the king but of local noblemen as well as outright slaves in some cases. So forced labor was abolished and slavery phased out (no-one born after 1897 could be sold, even by themselves, into slavery) gradually. Corvée, the institution of conscripted labor was a bit more complex to abolish as the army was dependant of carriers to transport the baggage train of the newly formed regular army units. However, this was solved with general conscription. In fact this hit the proverbial two birds with one stone, as the modernized system of conscription worked much better to raise an actual army than the increasingly optimistic levy system. However this meant that all men now were the kings men. As all citizens were to pay the same taxes and be available for military service, a new race was created. Well… Created? It would really depend on what you put in the word “race”.

The Siamese royal court was horrified by the French claims to “protect” peoples under Siamese rule. As the French colonized Indochina and Laos, claims that Indochinese people far within the borders of Siam itself had protege status. And to be completely honest, the Siamese kingdom had been guilty of rating its subjects after ethnicity with the Siamese at the top of the ladder (what a surprise, huh?). What the Siamese saw was that France and Britain had their identities as nation states rather than kingdoms, and  more importantly, that they only saw Siam as a patchwork of different subject races ripe for unraveling and scooping up into whomever came first to the mill with a proper gunboat. So Siam needed a stronger cohesive identity, and to disarm the arguments for partitioning Siam into different client states (in fact French entrepeneurs already were planning industrial enclaves within Siam with “protege” labor from the Lao minority).

So, second step was to make a race. Long story short, Siam decided to drop the snobbery and set its scholars to find some common  historical ground for its inhabitants (the Chinese not included. You really could not claim China as descendants of any other cultures in Asia with a straight face, and since they did not rock the boat too much they were left out of the project), mainly the Lao, Shan Malay and Burmese. As the elite of Siam outwardly claimed that the Siamese, Lao and Shan were one and the same people simply speaking different dialects. Inwardly the elite subtly differentiated between Siamese, Lao and Shan (spoiler: The Siamese were on top here as well) and scholars and surveyors  divided the population into three broad bands: The hill people were put at the bottom as “strange, naked hairy savages”. In the middle were the lowland peoples, mainly peasants. Although they were considered crucial for the economy and more docile than the hillmen, the opinion of the scholars was that they did not have much potential for refined thought, but were mired in superstition. On top were the Siamese noblemen and royal members. What they had in common however were that they all spoke Thai. In other words, they were all Thai people.

Rather than to expel “unfit” peoples from the forming nation, Thailand initiated public schooling, to train the children across Thailand to read, write, and speak Thai. Often we talk about schools as places where young people are learning essential skills as  literacy, maths and stuff you can develop into a useful trade. But schools are also factories that produce citizens. Remember that everybody learn the same history lessons, geography classes and Own Language classes. That will shape a common mindset, a common perspective on things.

Siam  also started using its religion as a tool for nation building. This was not really a drastic measure, as almost all of Thailand was Buddhist in one way or another. The operative word being “One  way or another” So as well as a standardized education, a standardized Buddhism was developed, complete with a new hierarchy connecting the different monasteries and orders under the king, and of course with textbooks. Not just textbooks for religious students and monks, but for common citizens as well. The literate could now learn how to act properly, present themselves and speak properly, and generally be good Thai citizens.

In the Thai language version of treaties and official documents after 1902, the country was called not Siam, but either Prathet Thai or Ratcha-Anajak Thai, the country of Thai. All people within the kingdom were called Sanchet Thai, or “of Thai nationality”. This country was still called Siam in English, but that was to change with time. This modernized country was to get a modernized monarchy as well. But I will write more about the “new” monarchy of  Thailand next time.