[Marxism] Thailand background

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 14 14:05:29 MST 2014

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.)

full: http://criticalasianstudies.org/assets/files/bcas/v09n03.pdf

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