A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations

Article excerpt

A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations. By Pavin Chachavalpongpun. New York: University Press of America, 2005. Softcover: 188pp.

This is a rather interesting book in that it examines the impact of distorted nationalism on an important bilateral relationship in Southeast Asia. Whereas there is an element of abstract imagination that accompanies all attempts to define nationalism and embellish it as an artifact worthy of inspiration and preservation, this study is unique in its argument that Thai nationalism has an important component that is defined in contradistinction to its proximate and important neighbour, Myanmar. In fact, the author argues that there are two important aspects to the construction of the virtuous self and the stereotypical other. Myanmar falls within the latter category as do countries broadly associated with the West. Both these negative images are then distilled into two important indigenous concepts called khwampenthai, meaning Thainess or being Thai, and tam kon farang, that literally translates into tailing the rear end of Westerners. The central argument of the author is that both these concepts have been variously manipulated by Thai elite to justify self-serving policies towards Myanmar. Self-serving in this instance is to be understood as the personal interests of the power elite rather than the national interest. In fact, the author is steadfast in his argument that Thai nationalism has traditionally involved a cobbling together of elite interests vaguely justified in terms of khwampenthai.

Following a brief introduction, the book is divided into 6 chapters. The first two of these chapters place the discussion of nationalism within a theoretical and then Thai historical context. The next three chapters apply the twin concepts of khwampenthai and tam kon farang to three case studies--Thai policy towards ethnic insurgencies along the Thai-Myanmar border, the narcotics trade and the admission of Myanmar into ASEAN in 1997. The conclusion then reiterates the importance of the negative other in elite justification of policies delivered as being in the national interest and its reflection in turn of a certain hollowness to Thai nationalism. 7 According to the author, the term khwampenthai lends itself to extraordinary manipulation while conferring political legitimacy. And when this identifiable aspect of nationalism is not useful, the converse tam kon farang is utilized to indicate behaviour that is un-Thai. In other words, when necessary, virtuous behaviour is defined via negatio. Alongside these amorphous concepts are a number of lesser contextual cultural terms/norms to provide added justification to foreign policy output. These include nam chai/khwammi ham chai [goodwill/generosity], chaibun [meritorious heart], songkhro/ songsan ([assistance to unfortunate/compassion], khaorop [respect], krengchai [obeisance and proper behaviour] and khwmnpakdi [loyalty]. Many of these cultural norms are drawn from clientelistic and hierarchical interactions rather than more abstract and core universal norms like khwamyutitham [justice], khwamsuesat [honesty] and khwamsamoephak [equality]. The core norms that are often in stark contrast to the cultural norms are intentionally suppressed in order to portray a situation as complimentary to elite power interests (p. 18). Additionally, the author argues that the Thai power elite have tremendous latitude in defining khwampenthai and the cultural norm of choice. The propagation and socialization of khwampenthai through schools, the media and other instruments of state propaganda has made the concept powerful and sacred (p. 23). The rule of Phibun, Sarit and Thanom in the post-War era identified Myanmar, communism and drugs as issues extrinsic to khwampenthai.

In the case of Myanmar, Thai elite use of the terms khwampenthai and tam kon farang to justify abrupt changes in policy output is clearly attributed to dishonest and corrupt motives. …