Relics, Oaths and Politics in Thirteenth-Century Siam

By Wyatt, David K. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Relics, Oaths and Politics in Thirteenth-Century Siam


Wyatt, David K., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Recent efforts have re-dated the Wat Bang Sanuk inscription to 1219, long before the Ram Khamhaeng inscription of 1292. Attempts to assess the implications force a re-thinking of Thai rebellion against Angkor by linking rebellion to religious thought, including especially the discovery and public show of relics of the Buddha.

Among the many difficulties that plague the earlier (and later) history of Thailand, two are especially vexing: the problem of defining the geographical units of history, and the problem of understanding the motivations that impelled important actions.

The problem of defining units arises from reading back into previous history the units that have been the scenes of modern history. Thus, for example, we might anachronistically refer to 'fourteenth-century Thailand' when we really mean fourteenth-century Ayudhya and its immediate neighbours. The problem is further compounded when such 'national' units are identified and defined in ethnic terms, so that, for example, the people of fourteenth-century Ayudhya are referred to as 'Thai' and their enemies and rivals become 'Khmer' or 'Lao' or 'Burmese'. One of the several reasons why this is so pernicious an error is that such ethnic identities were not defined in earlier centuries in the same way as they have come to be defined in more recent times. Even when such labels were placed on groups of people by contemporary sources, we must not assume that those labels necessarily meant the same thing in former times as they do today; nor can we assume that, when people are said to have acted in such-and-such a way 'b ecause' they were 'Thai', they necessarily meant by 'Thai-ness' what we might mean today.

If we must therefore be extremely careful in attributing 'national' and 'ethnic' identities to groups of people in the past, what can we do to meet our need to refer to social and political collectivities?

To begin with, in order to avoid imputing to the past the national and ethnic categories of the present, we must be careful to avoid going any further in such identifications than the sources themselves allow. This means, for example, that although a ruler of Sukhothai might use the Thai language, and behave in ways that we now consider to be characteristic of 'Thai', we might in most contexts be better off referring to him as the ruler of 'Sukhothai' rather than as 'Thai'; that is, we might better employ relatively objective geographical terms rather than to use loaded or politicallycharged national and ethnic labels. This is still a somewhat radical idea, which goes against the grain of all that has been written in recent decades of 'Thai' history (including much that I have written myself). Before applying it to the whole of the long centuries of the history of the central Indochina Peninsula, it would be preferable to try it first over a small area during a short period of time.

The second problem, that of imputing motivation to people in the past, has always been a difficult issue for historians. It is especially difficult for the historian of ancient times, where evidence for what important figures might have thought often is lacking. It is difficult to make this point in the abstract, so let us directly confront one of the central problems of the thirteenth century. In general, or at least in outline, we think we know 'what happened'. The once-powerful empire centred on Angkor was within a brief period challenged and displaced by numerous groups of people, usually referred to as Thai, who inhabited the western portions of the Angkorean empire. One after another, in quick succession they rose in 'rebellion'. They are often said to have been expressing a separate identity as Thai and as Theravada Buddhists, and are said to have been rebelling against an Angkor that was Khmer and Hindu. Some even refer to a movement of rebellion among the Thai.

Even in the abstract, there are considerable problems with the usual interpretations of the history of the thirteenth century. …

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