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ISSUE 42 : (Post-)Traumatic Landscape
The Map, the Geo-body, and the Forging of ‘Thainess’: Interview with Professor Thongchai Winichakul
September 8th, 2019Type: Interview
Author: Zikri Rahman (interviewer), Show Ying Xin (copy editor) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Note: Professor Thongchai Winichakul, prominent scholar of Siamese/Thai history, coined the term “geo-body” in his magnum opus Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation published in 1994. Geo-body has since been widely used by many when referring to the changing notion and boundary of modern nations. We spoke to Thongchai in March, 2019, two weeks before the Thai general election — the first election in the post-Bhumibol era. We talked about the turbulent political history of Thailand, the conception of Thai nationhood, the politics of map-making demarcation, and his personal intellectual pursuit from a student activist to a “playful” historian.
Professor Thongchai Winichakul (left); photo: Li Qi

Zikri Rahman: 25 years after the publication of your seminal text, Siam Mapped, we have seen several coups, elections, and the death of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history. With the 2019 election around the corner, how do you observe the dynamics of the competing political forces which have long dominated the discourse of nationhood in Thailand?

Thongchai Winichakul: I didn’t expect anything about the election. Anyway, many people believe that the military will come back. This election will have no surprise and there is no hope. The coming back of the military is almost pre-ordained, so nothing exciting in this election. One particular thing that is interesting though is that this is the first major political event after the king (Bhumibol or Rama IX) died. Why is that important? You have to know the background and think in a certain way; otherwise you don’t see its importance. For people who are aware, the monarchy is involved in politics all the time. It’s a dominating power. Let me simplify it here for people who are not familiar with Thai history, although this brief version might be far from adequate.

Modern Thai political history is a renegotiation of three major social powers or forces: the monarchy, the military and the people. Since 1973, the monarchy emerged as the power that rose to dominance. Before that, it had been trying to build-up to restore its power (note: that was lost since 1932). Let us first go back to history: After the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the monarchy as a political force went down while the military gained power for being the leading force of the commoners, the people. It is important to note that even for the notion of the “people”, we have to define it. The Greeks had their own definition of people; the American constitution says, “We, the people”, but it did not include everybody as they did not abolish slavery until a hundred years later and women suffrage was longer than that. The Thais also have their own notion of “the people”. I talk about the people in the sense that its meaning changes along the way in history.

In 1932, Thai people overthrew the absolute monarchy and created the constitutional monarchy. In 1947, the military got the upper hand over both the monarchy and the people. The military rules lasted for 26 years until 1973, when people’s uprising brought down the junta and the military started to decline. The monarchy took side with the people, grabbing the opportunity to rise. In 1992 (after another uprising against another junta regime) the monarchy became the most powerful political force, in alliance with the people who wanted the election. The military since then retreated. Nobody cared about who the Army Chief is, or about the military reshuffle, because it did not matter much.

Since 1992, officially it was democracy, but I call it ‘royal democracy’, because it was the parliamentary system under the dominance of the monarchists. The monarchists is the broader term for the monarchy plus the active royalists in politics. The monarchists include the monarch but beyond him. They are those people who want the monarch to have more power and can intervene in the political process legitimately (or those who intervene in politics in the name of the monarch) even though they are not elected. From 1992 to the 2000s, royal democracy was the status quo. Then, Thaksin came to power through elections. He is not a bad guy as many people perceive; he is just a politician. Politician, for us, is not reputable, but at least they operate in the system that we can have a say and can work with. A lot of people have benefited from the electoral process and the elected authority. Otherwise, the centralized bureaucracy would not respond to the provincial and the peripheries, while it responds mostly to Bangkok and the upper-middle class. So, people find the electoral democracy serve them better, not because politicians are better persons (than the bureaucrats) but because the democratic system allows people to participate, to have their ways to affect the policy and to affect the decision making. This is the reason why anti-Thaksin protestors and the monarchists try to stigmatize Thaksin. Thaksin was a phenomenon, yet it was the tip of the iceberg.

Somehow the monarchists and the educated people in Bangkok have a different sense of democracy. They think that democracy is about virtue, morality or righteousness. No, it is not. For me, democracy is simply to allow people to protect their interests under the same rule. It is not about selflessness; let people be selfish, but allow them to share equal power. However, the monarchists prefer a system that a handful of the wise people can tell the politicians what to do and can intervene with the government administration whenever they want. For these people, Thaksin became a threat to the royal democracy.


Siam Mapped (cover)

ZR: If we can trace it back to the time you wrote Siam Mapped, was it a response or a glimpse to the ongoing development of the politics of democracy?

TW: No, it was written in the 1980s. It was not a response to the situation around that time. It is a long but different story. To put it in short, the book is a response to October 6th, 1976, massacre. It responds to the dangerous history. In my view, the cruel royalist history created the 1976 incident. Instead of responding to the immediate politics at that time, the book was an effort for an alternative history.


ZR: This is how you position this particular book to respond to that particular moment of history?

TW: Yes. This book is a fightback against the history that created the Oct 6th massacre. However, the entire book does not mention Oct 6th, or maybe only in the acknowledgement. I like it that way of writing history. Let the readers find out by themselves. You can read this book in many ways by design. I mean, when I wrote the book, I thought about many layers or cascades of meanings. You can read it as a history of geography; you can also read beyond that surface story of geography, but as a history of Thainess. Or, you can read it as an allegory or a story of something else. Whatever ways people read it, it is up to them.

I cannot control how they read it. I designed to be read in many different ways. It can be a straightforward story, a metaphorical story, or an allegorical one. But how do people read it, it is up to them.


ZR:  In a way, it is a literary piece as well.

TW: Yes. Many history books are written like that. This book can be read as a history of lines, or of demarcation. I did mention in the book that demarcation and boundary is a way we define things, a way we understand the meanings of everything. Everything needs a definition/demarcation. So the history of maps can be the history of demarcation or definition of anything. Another thing in the book is that, as I wrote, humans become the slave of technology. History always emphasizes humans as the center but they are actually not. Hopefully, people can think about what we are subjected to rather than what we can command. To what extent, are we under the rule of mapping? You see, this book is about many things that we’ve created but have become a slave to it. I don’t mind how you’d like to read it. There are many ways. This is history, not fiction, but at the same time it is allegorical, as it implies other stories.


ZR: Coming back to the central question of ‘Thainess/un-Thainess’, how do you see those who are ‘outside’ it? What constitutes the Thainess also tells the un-Thainess. What goes on/beyond?

TW: The line also shifts. The demarcation of Thainess changes. Not long ago, communism was the enemy of Thainess. Now, the government doesn’t care about it anymore because it’s no longer a threat. The law against the communists had already been lifted. You can talk about Marxism or Maoism. It becomes an academic issue. In the 1960s, 70s, it was not. It was dangerous. The line has shifted. Before, there was a hard line (against communism), now it becomes a soft line. People can be interested in socialism and Marxism; nobody cares.

On the other hand, there are some other lines of dangers. New lines are drawn. Let’s say, “I am pro-Patani!” Then, I would be in trouble. This line, in fact, hasn’t changed in a long time comparing to that one of communism. Yet, it’s not the most obvious line. What I mean is that since the 1940s you would be in trouble if you dared to say you are pro-Patani. But, is pro-Patani a major issue in Thai politics? Not as much as communism once was. However, Patani has been a recurring issue. It is not pervasive, not an imminent threat like what communism was during the 1970s.


October 6th (1976), massacre; source: unknown

ZR: Speculatively, is the question of Thainess and un-Thainess a continuous process of demarcation, coming out with a new line?

TW: Absolutely, it is about how the state and people draw a line of demarcation of Thainess. Another line is the loyalty the monarchy. People think that this line has always been there like it currently is. But it is not true; it is fairly recent. Before that, since absolute monarchy to about the 1950s, people could criticize the monarchy. The current generation who grew up in the 1970s or later think that Thailand have always been like this for hundreds of years. They don’t know history. History becomes so ideological that people didn’t realize the monarch can actually be criticized.


ZR: Another way to understand the line is to read it against it, against the line that was being drawn right now.

TW: Yes, to understand is to push the ‘line’ or try to redraw the ‘boundary’ (the definition of things). We used the geographical jargon all the time to understand other things beyond geography. We use geographical language and metaphors. That is why I say this book is about geography. At the same time, what if we read it metaphorically? Then the word ‘line’ and ‘boundary’ become metaphorical. If we read the whole story as an allegory, then there is always another story.


ZR: Is it possible for us to understand your effort to write the book as an ambitious intellectual project – even as a subversive action? I asked this because, I assumed, from your previous active participation in the student movement, your reading and analysis of the problems may be influenced by your positionality.

TW: When I wrote it, I didn’t realize that. I just wrote what I wanted. I knew that I wanted it to be read in different ways, but I didn’t know how far it can go. I just enjoyed writing it. So many times I have been asked for whom I wrote it for. I don’t know how to answer the question because I didn’t think about the audience. I thought about what I wanted to write and enjoyed it. For historians, the ‘surface story’ should be enjoyable. But what goes beyond it is up in the air.

Let’s put it this way: past activism formed my politics including writing an alternative history. The only broad aim that I had in mind at the time was to write an alternative history that doesn’t glorify the monarchy. Even making a jab in this book that the monarchy has become a slave to the technology is part of what I wanted to do. People always missed that point because they read the surface story and see it as the history of geography. I even received an email invitation from an association which collects ancient maps, to which I never responded because I am actually not interested in collecting maps, ha ha! That is why I talked about ‘Thainess’ in the introduction, where I hinted that it was all metaphorical. This is a book about defining ‘Thainess’ through many dimensions – culturally, politically and socially – depending on how you demarcate. What is in, what is out? The process of demarcating Thainess is very similar to geography.


ZR: Of course, you mentioned a lot about boundary, border, demarcation and lines…

TW: You know what? I played with those words. In a way, they were teases. In the mid-1980s, the post-modernists and feminists used geographical jargons a lot –words like ‘transgressive’, ‘domain’, ‘boundary’ etc., even until now. But how many of them actually study geography? Almost none. So the way I tease them is to ask: how about applying those concepts back to physical geography? I used the concepts that they applied to identity, but instead of looking at the politics of identity, I did it on geographical identity. Return to physical geography. So it could be read so simply and straightforwardly as a geography book.


October 6th (1976), massacre; source: unknown

ZR: It’s interesting to note how you subvert the maps not merely as an object but as a corpus of knowledge. As all the maps here came from courts and royal sources, how do you subvert the process by reconfiguring and rethinking the ways of reading them? It relates to how you mention that your project was to write an alternative history, and it came back to the questions of the margins — those who have no voice.

TW: At that time, another popular trend is doing ‘history from below’, the subaltern history; but I kind of teasing it too. When I wrote the book as a dissertation, what I have in mind as an angry young man, or a troublemaker, was that whatever people do, I tried to go against it or to make a parody against it. I read those works in history from below but I have never been interested in doing history from below. I wanted to do something else. People thought that the only way to do it is to subvert from below. For me, I tried to think, how about if we subvert by reading against elite history? I am aware that this is a story about the elites, that’s why I want to make the elites seem funny, foolish and slaves of other things. So if people asked me whether I opposed the strand of history from below? No, I didn’t oppose it. I just thought about doing something different.

I read those works, such as the classic Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels and those from the subaltern group; those were the most influential works in the 1980s. People expect that (as a former activist) I should be writing about the history of peasants and workers. By that time, the writing of my dissertation was an intellectual pursuit for me, meaning that I didn’t care about the political implications. Not only did I not care, but my entire leftist world had also collapsed, already crumbled. By the time I went to study in Sydney in 1982, communism in Thailand had almost collapsed and many people disillusioned. I was not nostalgic. I understood what went wrong. I tried to learn from the post-Marxist critical theory. Post-Marxists still claim themselves radical but at the same time, they move further from Marx, Lenin, Mao or Stalin. I was influenced by Post-Marxist ideas. I read critical theory, Frankfurt school, those kinds of radical theory, and didn’t stick with just Marx. For history, I was also influenced by the Annales School. The Annales were not radical in outlook but they are radical in the history profession. The biggest influence they had on me is that they are playful — they played with history.


ZR: I was so intrigued when you say “making war means making map” (p14). I can’t help but try to understand it from the contemporary context of Thailand — from the junta’s militarization that happens in different parts of Thailand. How do you see that idea could correlate with the contemporary situation?

TW: It is a conventional knowledge that war and map go together. It is not surprising at all. In this particular context, people always think of boundary-making not as part of war-making. People thought they are separate issues but I just want to merge them together. For “making war means making map”, I think among the political geographers and the military thinkers, they know this very well. But for historians and the narrative of history, usually, people think that war is more important and that map-making is a mere technical matter. What I tried to answer in this book is that: No, it is not.