Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 14, 2014

Thailand background

Filed under: Thailand — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

Benedict Anderson, “Withdrawal Symptoms”, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, July-September 1977

In the 1950s and 1960s most Western social scientists took the view that Siam was a “bureaucratic polity”-a political system completely dominated by a largely self­ perpetuating “modernizing” bureaucracy. 11 Below this bureaucracy there was only a pariah Chinese commercial class and an undifferentiated peasantry, both with low political consciousness and virtually excluded from political participation. The relations between bureaucracy and peasantry were understood to be generally harmonious and unexploitative,12 involving only the classical exchanges of taxes, labor and deference for security, glory and religious identity. Thanks largely to the shrewdness and foresight of the great nineteenth-century Chakkri dynasts, Siam, alone among the states of Southeast Asia, did not succumb to European or American imperialism and thereby escaped the evils of rackrenting, absentee landlordism, chronic peasant indebted­ness, and rural proletarianization so typical of the colonized zones. The Siamese economy, by no means highly developed until the 1960s, was essentially in the hands of immigrant Chinese, who, by their alien and marginal status, could never play a dynamic, independent political role. 13 This picture of a peaceful, sturdy and independent Siam was in important ways quite false. Western capital, Western “advisers,” and Western cultural missionaries exercised decisive influence on Siamese history after the 1950s.14 On the other hand, when compared to the changes brought about by the American and Japanese penetration in the Vietnam War era, the years before the 1960s appear relatively “golden.” As late as 1960, Bangkok could still be described as the “Venice of the East,” a somnolent old-style royal harbor-city dominated by canals, temples, and palaces. Fifteen years later, many of the canals had been filled in to form roads and many of the temples had fallen into decay. The whole center of gravity of the capital had moved eastwards, away from the royal compounds and Chinese ghettoes by the Chao Phraya river to a new cosmopolitan zone dominated visually and politically by vast office buildings, banks, hotels, and shopping plazas. The city had expanded with cancerous speed, devouring the surrounding countryside and turning rice-paddies into speculative housing developments, instant suburbs and huge new slums.15

This transformation, which on a smaller scale also occurred in certain provincial capitals, was generated by forces exogenous to Siamese society. It may be helpful to describe these forces in terms of three inter-related factors. The first and most important was undoubtedly America’s unceremonious post-1945 extrusion of the European colonial powers from their prewar economic, political, and military hegemony in Southeast Asia.16 The second was Washington’s decision to make Siam the pivot of its regionwide expansionism. Bangkok became the headquarters not only for SEATO, but also for a vast array of overt and clandestine American operations in neighboring Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam.17 A third factor-important in a rather different way-was the technological revolution that made mass tourism a major industry in the Far East after World War II. (Hitherto tourism in this zone had been an upperclass luxury.) For this industry Bangkok was a natural nexus: it was not only geographically central to the region, but it was thoroughly safe under the protection of American arms and native dictatorships, and, above all, it offered an irresistible combination of modern luxury (international hotels, comfortable air-conditioned transportation, up-to-date movies, etc.) and exotic antiquities. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia the colonial powers had typically constructed culturally mediocre, commercially oriented capital cities in coastal areas far removed from the old indigenous royal capitals. (Tourists had thus to make time-consuming pilgrimages from Djakarta to Surakarta, Rangoon to Mandalay-Ava, Saigon to Hue, and Phnom Penh to Angkor.)

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