Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, third ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Kindle Edition.
Years ago, I read David Wyatt's "Thailand: A Short History" but it was a bit too dry and not too short. I nearly gave up as he went on and on reconstructing the pre-history of Thailand. But Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit's “A History of Thailand” has been a completely different experience. The authors have written a briskly moving narrative that gives you the big picture, highlighting the important people and events in the development of the country without getting bogged down in the details. The first chapter (Before Bangkok) takes you through early history to the founding of Bangkok in 1782. In not too many pages, the authors give a helpful picture of the 15-18th century, the empires of Southeast Asia, the old Thai feudal system, and the steps leading up the founding of the Chakri dynasty. And it is the Chakri dynasty and the last 200 years of Thai history that form the bulk of this book.
As the book unfolds however, tracing the political, cultural, and economic development of the country from Rama 1 (1782) to the pre-coup political climate of March 2014, it becomes obviously that writing a history of “Thailand” is problematic. As it were, there was no “Thailand” per se, until the colonial powers forced the kingdom of Siam to define it borders in response to French and British colonial acquisitions in Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Siam spread across what is now Central Thailand into Western Cambodia, while the Lao kingdoms and Shan States functioned rather independent of Siam to the north, albeit many of them in a tributary relationship to Siam. The region that constitutes modern day Southern Thailand was also only loosely connected to Bangkok. But as the colonial powers claimed some of these territories and agreed that others belonged to Siam, the government of Siam felt that it was necessary create a sense of unity and nationhood among these different territories and peoples in order to consolidate power and ward off interference from foreign aggression. These reasons, along with the belief that the majority of “Thai” people are passive peasants, led to justifications for a strong state with Bangkok as the center. The strong state was first embodied in the absolute monarchy, but after the revolution of 1932, the strong state re-emerged on-and-off in the form of military dictatorships up through the 1970s and beyond.