Monday, June 05, 2006

Bertil Lintner's review of A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Bertil Linter's book review of A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations, by Pavin Chachavalpongpun (University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland; 2005. 189 pages)

"Thainess, Pavin argues, is not only 'mouldable' but, in his own terms, 'rather plastic,' and his country has long been ruled by 'leaders with their insatiable greed for private interests.' He even goes as far as stating 'the fact that Thainess is volatile and changeable, depending on the power of the authority at the moment, shows the lack of a clear definition of Thai nationhood and its artificiality.' A damning conclusion, to say the least, which many of his countrymen would find rather offensive."

Just to play devil's advocate here for a moment, doesn't a self-critical statement like this made by a Thai intellectual reflectively about his or her own culture indicate a rather advanced plane of thought among Thai intellectuals?

Has being an American or a Swede always remained the same? Does any identity always remain the same unless you're a diehard conservative who wants to, has to believe this? Is being Thai the same in the Thaksin era as it was in the Sarit era? Is being a Korean the same now as it was in the Park Chung Hee era?

Lintner suggests that, "anyone interested in the evolution of Thai nationhood--and how and why Thai perceptions of 'the Burmese threat' have changed since the 1950s and 1960s--should read this book."

Lintner goes on to suggest that similar notions of Burmese-ness are ideological creations used to manipulate:

"On the other hand, is Burma any less 'plastic' as a nation? Apart from apologists for the present regime like Robert Taylor and Michael Aung-Thwin, who specialize in reinventing history, there is no one who believes there was any strong and well-organized 'Burmese state' before the British colonized the country in the 19th century. Rather, Burma is a colonial creation, and that is its main problem today. It includes territories and peoples who had little or nothing to do with any pre-colonial Burmese kingdom, and have no desire to be inside the boundaries that Britain established in the 19th century."

Robert Taylor has a lot of work with solid historical information in it, even if you don't appreciate his political position, like his paper on the political movement by U Saw during the interwar era.

There were most definitely strong and well-organized Burmese states before the colonial era, but strength and organization was probably associated with mobilization for warfare, perhaps the "warrior-king mentality" you refer to later on, but here I am generalizing about Burma and Burmese again in a way that is really completely unacceptable in places that are open to the world like Thailand and SOuth Korea, why is it acceptable in the Burmese case?

It's interesting that this more extreme statement, stronger and more likely to offend than "notions of Thainess have been plastic over time" we feel a lot freer to make, perhaps, because we traditionally think of the Burmese people as completely disconnected and divorced from their government. Like Burmese couldn't both oppose and identify with a Burmese nation at the same time, but they do. For instance, a civil servant's house that has a covert little photo of that Karen monk from Paan who is associated with Aung San Suu Kyi, nationhood through religion? Anyway, to continue:

"Pre-colonial Burma was ruled by warrior kings who were adept at conquering land from their neighbors, including parts of what today is Thailand, but failed to consolidate their conquests by establishing functioning administrations in their new acquisitions."

During the 19th century, Thai domination of Laos and Cambodia? By this time, Burma was in permanent decline. You can't pretend that Thailand has never had a history of political aggression. This is just well-documented history.

"Consequently, Burmese kingdoms rose and fell with a certain ruler. That warrior-king mentality, not any ancient notion of a 'Burmese state,' is the main legacy of 'old Burma,' and is the reason why the country even today is fractured and in a permanent state of civil war."

The main legacy among everyday people is religion, deep religion that permeates everyday life.

Among the closed military ruling elite circles? Does anyone really know? To what extent does a warrior king mentality exist? Certainly what you see on TV has a strong ritualized form to it. Trips to development projects by generals documented with as much care as the Thai media devotes to trips by royalty. All the stories you used to hear about Ne Win, all read like someone who considered himself a warrior king, but nowadays?

Maybe someday someone will write a memoir about their life among the late 20th century Burmese ruling elite. I know you'd get some unexpected stuff. Like I've known some who'd qualify as elites who believed that the Ne Win era was good and post-1988 bad. They saw a big difference between the two eras, with the prior era being pure in some sense, and you do get that sense when you look at photos of people in their youth in their quaint little socialist outfits going on picnics with their friends, the Burmese way to socialism. Whereas, all I could ever see was the Ne Win era as a logical lead up to the post-1988 fragmentation, chaos, and lack of legitimacy, some people actually wax nostalgic over it.