This post is part of New Mandala‘s series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies. These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field.
The sixth in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Cornell University’s Associate Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana.
Nicholas Farrelly: Ajarn Thak, thank you for taking the time to answer New Mandala’s questions.
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: Thank you for asking.
Nicholas Farrelly: You are obviously well-known to many of our readers because you have been a major figure in the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University for many years. The story of how you first decided to pursue academic Southeast Asian Studies is not, however, all that widely known. What was it that first attracted you to the formal study of the region?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: I have the sneaky feeling that my father helped to plan that. I was sent to a boarding school in Hong Kong leading me to believe that my next move was to attend university in England. I was surprised when my father asked me to visit with the vice president of the University of the Philippines (UP) when he came through Hong Kong. Little did I know that it was some form of interview because after finishing high school my dad showed up and whisked me off to the Philippines and unceremoniously dropped me off at a dormitory on the UP Diliman campus. I never applied for admission nor did I fill out an application form. Something like this would probably never happen nowadays. Studying in the Philippines, meeting students from Malaysia, Burma, Singapore, Indonesia , and Vietnam made me aware that these are people I have to learn to live with. Had I gone directly to England I might have turned out to be the dreaded hybrid that Craig Reynolds calls a “White Orientalist Gentleman!”
Thinking that my father would want me to follow his footsteps, I majored in Foreign Service. I liked languages but also gravitated towards history and political science. The main text used in my freshman year “Governments and Politics of Southeast Asia” class was George Kahin’s famous text by that same title. Thus as a UP freshman in 1962, Kahin, Wilson, Silverstein, Feith, Wurfel, et. al. were already familiar names to me. And so were Cornell University and the Southeast Asia Program. After graduation, one of my professors helped me get a scholarship to attend Occidental College’s Diplomacy and World Affairs Program in Los Angeles. The program I was in was directed by Dr. Edward Mills who helped train the first members of the Philippine Foreign Service. At Occidental, I was an assistant to an undergraduate course on Southeast Asia which also used the Kahin text.
As an undergraduate student I was rather hawkish with regard to the conflict in Vietnam. But arriving in Los Angeles in 1966 and witnessing rising resistance to the American war in Vietnam made me reconsider my own position. The fact that Charnwit Kasetsiri was a classmate at Occidental was also pivotal. He and I tested the validity of our political positions by debating the morality of the war in Vietnam over beers and wine. The assassination of RFK, of Martin Luther King, our visits to Berkeley, Haight Ashbury, and attendance of anti-war demonstrations reversed our earlier hawkish position. It was also at that point that I decided against a diplomatic career. I could not see myself defending the foreign policy of the then Thai government.
Charnwit graduated first and decided to go to Cornell to study history. I visited him during the winter of 1967 (it was bitingly cold) to use the Wason Collection searching for materials for my thesis on the 1966 GESTAPU. During that visit, I met with George Kahin who suggested that I talk to his star student Ben Anderson. I was too embarrassed to discuss my amateurish research with them. By that time, I was convinced that Cornell was for me intellectually, academically, and politically. I was not sure if I was Cornell material but asked both George and Ben to lobby their department on my behalf. I felt that attending Cornell was my inevitable fate, having the name of the university imprinted on my frontal lobe since 1962. Not only did I read the Kahin text, but a previous occupant of my dorm had placed a Cornell sticker on the door of my dresser at the UP. As a Thai, I believed in predestination!
I arrived in Ithaca in 1968 at the height of the anti-war movement on campus, Woodstock, and the Black Student occupation of Willard Straight Hall. Many friends and classmates worked for the anti-war movement or were members of the SDS, the most radical of the student groups. Soon after, many of us at Cornell such as Charnwit, Warin Wonghanchao, Pramote Nakornthab, Bunsanong Bunyothayan, Shalardchai Ramitanon, and I among others began writing articles to be published in Thailand urging resistance to the American aggression in Vietnam. We also published a local journal for Thai students which allowed us to test out our voices and writing styles. But our focus was really about Thai society and the authoritarian Thanom-Praphat military regime. Our resolve was galvanized when Dr. Puey Ungphakon came to visit to talk about resisting the military dictatorship. Chaianan Sumutwanich, Narongchai Akrasarenee, and Virapong Ramangkura also visited campus with Dr. Puey. After graduation, we all returned to teach in Thailand and continued networking and collaborating. Although we taught at different universities, we met at conferences and seminars. We exchanged teaching engagements, and we participated in the same associations such as the Social Science Association of Thailand and the Thai Textbook Project Foundation.
Nicholas Farrelly: During your early career you worked closely with Cornell Professors George Kahin, Lauriston Sharp and Benedict Anderson. What impact did they have on your development as an academic?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: After I arrived in Ithaca I went to see George Kahin to ask if he would be chair of my graduate committee. Naively, I had proposed that I wanted to work on the Indonesian military as a follow up to my MA thesis on the GESTAPU. George said that I should ask Ben Anderson who was just starting out as a faculty member in the Government Department. Ben and Charnwit were already good friends and Charnwit confirmed that Ben would be the right person to supervise my work. Looking back now, I am surprised that Ben did not fall out of his chair with laughter when he heard what I wanted to do. By then, he had co-authored the infamous Cornell White Paper that dismissed the Indonesian military’s claim that the GESTAPU was a Communist plot. To make things worst, because I was married and had a son and living in cramped quarters, I was given an office at 102 West Avenue (Modern Indonesia Project), one where Ben and Ruth McVey kept note cards (before we had computers) on every thing military and about every important officer in the Indonesian army. Two of the large walls were lined with book shelves sagging under the weight of thousands and thousands of note cards. I remember Ben telling me to work hard on my Indonesian language and that perhaps after three years, he and I can have a conversation in Indonesian about all those cards in the office!
I had come to Cornell to study International Relations but quickly shifted to comparative politics with minor fields in IR and Southeast Asian studies. I was also committed to return to teach at Thammasat University having accepted a Rockefeller Foundation grant that Pramote Nakornthab helped arrange. Area Studies was still acceptable as a subfield of political science at that time. Unfortunately, I arrived at the height of the behavioural movement in political science where graduate students were urged to mine large databases for behavioural patterns. I was somewhat dismayed. But thanks to Ben Anderson I survived. Compared to other members of the department, his work is not tied to any particular political science theory or method. His courses were fun because we read texts from many disciplines especially anthropology and sociology. The role of culture and of local conditions was never far from our discussions in Ben’s seminars. I particularly loved Ben’s famous course on the military.
From Ben Anderson, I learned to think iconoclastically and not to be afraid to strike out in unfamiliar directions. Ben was, and is, always curious about everything and would ask the questions that would catch us off guard. I also learned from him that if you trusted your students, you should allow them ample breathing space and let them pursue hunches. The mentor’s job is to be supportive and to keep asking sharp penetrating questions to keep students on track with their research and writing.
George Kahin taught me how to be kind but firm. He does not tolerate sloppy thinking or sloppy work. More importantly, he taught me that it is possible to be a scholar and a citizen, and that one can maintain the integrity of both. Through example, George taught me to be brave and stand up for my convictions but only after careful study and thinking. He taught me to always speak truth to power. George’s quiet and measured leadership during the Vietnam War years taught me about courage and conviction. It is from his example that I and many of my Cornell friends were able to stand up to oppressive authority after we returned to teach in Thailand.
The second thing I learned from George is how to act towards younger scholars. After passing my comprehensive examinations, I was told to call both Professor Kahin and Professor Sharp by their first names. As a Thai, this was the toughest thing to do, and it took great effort to mouth the words “George” or “Laurie” when addressing those two very senior scholars. On the other hand, “Ben” was always “Ben,” not because of disrespect but because of a far less age gap. From George, I also learned to appreciate the importance of field work. He always emphasized that ‘theory’ is useless unless it is applicable and tested under real conditions. Even today, SEAP students are treated as junior colleagues only after they have become field tested.
Lauristan Sharp perhaps had the last say in how my academic career would eventually unfold. As I have said earlier, I went to Cornell to study the Indonesian military. I even studied three years of Bahasa Indonesia under John Wolff. But just before writing my dissertation proposal, Professor Sharp summoned me to his office. At that meeting, he lamented the fact that few students write about Thai politics and asked if I would consider switching countries. It did not take long for me to realize that he was right. Why work on Suharto and the Indonesian military when Thailand is also under the yoke of military dictatorship? Most studies of Thai politics up to that point focused on the bureaucracy and local administration, encouraged by Fred Riggs’ influential study of Thailand as a bureaucratic polity. My own department was infatuated with voting behaviour, political parties, and decision making. I was determined to do something different, and that is, to find a way to study the Thai military and political authoritarianism.
By 1971, elections were allowed in Thailand and civilian politicians in parliament were beginning to speak out. The time seemed ripe to conduct a social scientific research based on survey questionnaires that will gauge the degree of professionalism within the Thai army. The obvious hypothesis was that the degree of military intervention in politics is a function of the military’s corporate identity. Unfortunately, a few weeks after my arrival in Bangkok, Thanom staged another coup and closed parliament. My attempt to interview military officers and to ask them to fill out questionnaires fizzled at the gates of the Ministry of Defence. I was not allowed inside the Ministry but was met by a kindly army major general at the guard house. He said that even though I was a member of a military family, I should understand that he could not permit me to have access to military officers.
The rest is, of course, history. I switched to study Sarit and abandoned social science survey and sampling methodology to study political culture, history, and democratic ideology.
Nicholas Farrelly: I guess that much has changed in the study of Southeast Asia, and at Cornell, since you finished your doctorate in 1974. Have all the changes been for the better?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: I tend to be an optimist and view change as inevitable and that something good will come out of new developments. As we all know, area studies and Southeast Asian Studies in particular suffered during the late 1970’s and the 1980’s. The American public and the US government wanted to forget about the debacle in Vietnam and foreign policy interests shifted to China and to Eastern Europe. But to its credit, the federal government did not abandon the many Centers for Southeast Asian Studies that sprang up at other leading universities besides the original two at Yale and Cornell. Title VI funds were still made available to help sustain these National Resource Centers. The lean years also forced the various NRCs to consider collaboration especially in the area of language studies. Southeast Asia was the first world area to establish a joint summer language program (Southeast Asia Summer Institute) that pooled teachers, students and resources. Consortia for advance language studies were also formed during this time. A by-product of these collaborative efforts was the ability to bring graduate students from all over America to one place where they mingled and established a strong network and a sense of esprit de corps. Southeast Asian Studies as a field is smaller than the other Asian fields, but compared to them, we are the most cohesive and the most collegial group.
But following the heyday of the 1960’s and early 1970’s the market for area specialists dried up. Graduate students were encouraged to focus on their disciplinary studies that emphasized more theory over area studies and its penchant for content, language, and culture. Although the tension between the two is still present, I see this as a positive development. Our graduates today are better trained disciplinarily even though their general knowledge of Southeast Asia may not be as deep or broad as graduates of the 1960’s and 1970’s. When I was a student, I tolerated political science and could not wait to get on with studying Indonesian and Thai politics, and to learn everything I can about Southeast Asia. In fact, after finishing my comprehensive exams, few in the Government Department knew I existed. Nowadays, this is not possible. Students have to pay attention to both discipline and area, although they have less time nowadays to devote to studying about Southeast Asia beyond what they need for their dissertations.
Because of the nature of theories and approaches within the current disciplines, dissertation topics have become more narrow and specialized. Gone are the days where dissertations on Southeast Asia tackled the “big picture.” It would be impossible today to write dissertations such as David Wilson’s Politics in Thailand, Herbert Philip’s Thai Peasant Personality, James Ingram’s Economic Change in Thailand since 1850, Keith Taylor’s The Birth of Vietnam,or my own audacious Formative Years of Modern Thai Politics. Although some of my colleagues are critical of this development, I am nonetheless, more sanguine. Young scholars now produce studies with more rigorous data and information that are grounded in theory. It seems to me that the field is ripe for someone to digest this rich and varied information to produce a text that presents a view of the ‘big picture.’
At Cornell, and I am sure elsewhere, students interested in Southeast Asia are no longer just from “traditional” disciplines such as linguistics, art history, anthropology, music, politics, economics. They now come from city planning, labor relations, law, business, nutrition, and natural resources, just to name a few. And for those from professional and applied disciplines, it is not possible to indulge in the time consuming study of language and culture which defines traditional area studies. Moreover, some of the traditional disciplines that used to accommodate area studies students are no longer as welcoming. Economics, sociology, and even political science now emphasize theories that are applicable to all societies eschewing the need to know or to factor in local constraints or conditions.
These new developments have also forced a change in the make up of SEAP’s core faculty and the loosening of the requirements for admission to the program. For example, several of our core faculty belong to two area programs (Southeast and South Asia, East and Southeast Asia); some are not fluent in a Southeast Asian language. Graduate students are also no longer required to take two country specific seminars. I am not chagrined but I welcome and embrace many of these new developments. Core faculty who belong to other area programs and professional disciplines reflect the breaking down of traditional boundaries. These developments are refreshing and they bode well for possible comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives that many of us have been advocating. The students who have graduated recently from our program also reflect this diversity. Most have committee members from several disciplines, and many are in fact fluent in several Asian and Southeast Asian languages.
Another encouraging development these past thirty years is the formation of new centers outside of the United States, in Europe, Australia, Japan, and more recently in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and in Thailand. Many of these new centers were founded by our graduates, and many are still staffed by SEAP alumni. Therefore, as a field of study, Southeast Asian Studies has become more relevant with the founding of centers within the region itself. Southeast Asian scholars no longer focus their studies only on their own countries but have begun to do cross boundary and collaborative research. I am also pleased to see that our younger scholars are now collaborating more closely with colleagues in the region. In addition, scholarly works, both in vernacular languages and in English, are being produced at a dizzying pace in the region.
Nicholas Farrelly: Over the course of your career you have seen generations of scholars and students come and go. Many New Mandala readers will be interested to hear your views on the best of them. In your opinion, what characteristics generally make for a great “Southeast Asia academic”?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: This is a loaded question. I am not sure if I feel comfortable answering this because I am more familiar with those who work on Thailand. There is also the danger of leaving some names out and they might misconstrue my omission. Some of the qualities that are requisite for the new generation of Southeast Asian academic scholars are already mentioned in my previous answer. Aside from natural curiosity, open-mindedness, personal conviction, integrity, I think that scholars now have to be well-grounded in disciplines as well as in area knowledge to be able to engage in conversations with scholars of both persuasions. It is no longer acceptable to be either one or the other. I think that it is best to look at recent scholars or recent graduates whom I happen to know best.
I think that we have two extremely promising historians at Cornell: Tamara Loos and Eric Tagliacozzo. Both know several languages and are studying new languages. They have published important books that appeal to scholars from many disciplines. They are working on new projects that breakdown geographic borders and disciplines. And importantly, they inspire students just as Oliver Wolters and David Wyatt have before them. I could say the same about our two anthropologists Andrew Willford and Marina Welker. They both have similar abilities and appeal as Tamara and Eric. There are also several others of their generation among our faculty who have recently been tenured or are about to be. And as I contemplate stepping down from being director of SEAP, I feel reassured that Southeast Asia Studies at Cornell will remain strong, dynamic, and vibrant. What my young colleagues will produce and the students they will mentor will surely exceed those who have gone before them.
In my own narrow world of Thai studies and limited knowledge, I will be keeping a close eye on recent graduates such as Alexandra Denes (anthropology), Worrasit Tantinipankul (historic preservation), Tomas Larson (politics), Tyrell Haberkorn (anthropology), and Richard Ruth (history). Current graduate students who impress me are among others, Piyawat Pittayaporn (linguisitics), Wannasarn Noonsuk (archaeology), Samson Lim (history), and Prajak Kongkirati (politics).
I would also keep an eye on the large cluster of bright young scholars who have gravitated to the ISEAS and to NUS : Mike Montesano, Jan Mrazek, Chie Ikeya, Tim Bernard, Bruce Lockhart, Rachel Safman, Maurizio Peleggi, Yew Foong Hui, et. al.
Nicholas Farrelly: As the Director of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program you are currently central to one of the world’s best known centres for the study of the region. Back in 2000 you reflected on the Program’s standing and wrote, “In the not-too-distant past, Cornell was the leader in promoting a language-teaching model in which linguistics professors supervised the teaching of languages. Classroom teaching was shared among professors, lecturers, and native speakers. The pioneers of Southeast Asian language teaching at Cornell—Professors R. B. Jones, John Echols, John Wolff, Frank Huffman, and Gerard Diffloth—wrote the texts, conducted linguistics research, trained graduate students, and taught in the classroom. Of the pioneers, only John Wolff is still teaching and supervising Indonesian, Tagalog, Cebuano, and Javanese.” Clearly, language training is a key part of the development of any serious student of Southeast Asia. For an area-focused program like the one at Cornell what are some of the problems of educating new waves of linguistically adept students? Are the big problems just financial? Or are there other reasons why language teaching still struggles with institutional and other pressures?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: There are several limitations that are common to Southeast Asia Centers in America and some that are unique to each center. A common limitation is low enrollments. At the beginning, studying Southeast Asian languages was limited to graduate students, missionaries, and some military and Foreign Service officers. There were few places that taught Southeast Asian languages and students were forced to make the long trek to, for example, centrally isolated Ithaca. Today, most NRCs teach their own languages in order to capture federal funding, to attract top quality graduate students, and to bring in more tuition dollars. Attempts have also been made to attract undergraduate students, especially ‘heritage’ students. Some centers are banking on large enrollments from heritage students, especially on the West coast, to help sustain their language programs.
Unfortunately, unlike graduate students who need good language skills for field work, undergraduates take mostly introductory level courses to satisfy their need to touch base with the languages spoken by their parents. Few undergraduates continue to take language courses beyond the intermediate level.
American universities, especially those supported by state funds, operate like large business enterprises. Cost-benefit analysis, and state legislature scrutiny oftentimes affect or even determine academic policy. Only the best endowed private universities could sustain a language program with low enrollment numbers. Southeast Asian languages are called ‘less commonly taught languages’ or LCTLs and they are seen as an unnecessary draw on university resources. Most of these LCTLs are therefore supported partly by Title VI funds.
Another development in the academy that affected language programs, is the changing culture of language teaching among the faculty. When I came to Cornell in the late 1960’s, the model for language teaching was as follows: a linguistics professor is in charge of the course and taught grammar; a native speaker led most of the daily drills. Native speakers were not allowed to speak in English. I was the native speaker for Thai working for R.B. Jones while at the same time studying Bahasa Indonesia under John Wolff and his team of native speakers. This arrangement allowed the linguist to continue to do research and more importantly to have time to write language texts and dictionaries. But with the shift in academic culture, area, social, and applied linguistics are no longer valued in linguistics departments bent on improving their academic ranking. Because of this, retiring area, social and applied linguistics professors are replaced with linguists who have no interest in teaching or supervising language teaching. This happened at Cornell during the 1990’s. Language teaching was eventually shifted to language lecturers many of whom are trained applied linguists and also native speakers. Language teaching thus became devalued in linguistics departments.
Three things happened. First, without a professorial faculty to lobby for a language program, it became susceptible to budget cuts. Secondly, language lecturers have to work much harder as both teachers of grammar, and as native speaker. Many teach all of the four levels of class. The production of new texts also suffers. And lastly, an embarrassing two tiered faculty structure is created that further diminished language teaching. Language lecturers at Cornell were forcibly separated from their natural home in the Department of Linguistics and deposited into literature departments. This raises a whole new set of issues such as: When is a language course a literature course? And when and why a language lecturer should be allowed to teach a literature course?
Let me now described what our Southeast Asia Program did to make sure that language teaching will continue at Cornell. First we put in measures to attract more undergraduate students. This is a difficult task because there are few heritage Southeast Asian students at Cornell. To attract and to encourage undergraduates to stay in language courses we offered two summer travel and stipend awards annually to those who have taken at least two years of one of our languages. Federal Title VI funding for graduate students also help enrollments and these funds. We have also been lucky that university administrators, deans, and chairs continue to acknowledge the importance of SEAP’s status as an NRC (continuous since 1958). In this regard, we made it a point to insist to the Dean of Arts and Sciences that it is necessary to teach the six major languages of Southeast Asia—Burmese, Khmer, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, and Vietnamese–even if enrollments are low. Another factor which can be unique for Cornell is that almost all language faculty salaries are supported by SEAP endowment and NRC funds. And finally to ameliorate the two tiered faculty structure, language faculty are now included as members of our core faculty with full voting rights. They also receive the same amount of our annual research grant. This grant ensures that all core faculty members, including the curator of the Echols collection, have funds to allow them to visit the region, to attend conferences, and to purchase books and equipment.
And even though we teach six languages up to the fourth year level, we continue to support language consortia such as SEASSI and the various in-country advance language study programs.
Nicholas Farrelly: Many of our readers may be unaware that back in an earlier part of your life you worked for the Thai Government as a spokesperson. You have reflected that you later “realiz[ed] that politics was not [your] calling.” What are your memories of government work during that period? What were some of the challenges that you faced?
Although I teach politics, I have no desire to be in politics. I am a subscriber to Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” My foray into the political realm was a result of friendships made when Dr. Puey visited Cornell that I had mentioned earlier. But even before that visit took place, Thai students in the US held a conference at the University of Chicago to talk about Thai politics. Dr. Puey was also the featured speaker. I met many Thai students at that meeting and formed a camaraderie that lasted for years after we returned to work in Thailand.
When the Young Turks deposed General Kriangsak and installed General Prem as the new Prime Minister in 1980, many of the friends whom I met at the Chicago meeting, together with several senior faculty members who I respected, became advisors to Prem. They saw him as a professional soldier who is politically savvy; one who can heal the wounds inflicted by the October 6, 1976 massacre of students at Thammasat. I was happy not to see my name published in the newspaper among the list of advisors. But I was unable to escape when I received a phone call from some friends telling me that they had kept one job for me, and that was the job of Government Spokesman. I was not prepared for that because I did not know General Prem, or any of the Young Turks. I immediately called Ajarn Saneh and Ajarn Somsak Xuto whom I respected to ask if I should take the job. Ajarn Saneh told me that he had already agreed to be an advisor. Ajarn Somsak revealed that he had accepted a ministerial appointment and that as spokesman I would be working for him. In the end, I agreed on the condition that I would serve only as Deputy Spokesman and that Ajarn Somsak should be the titular Government Spokesman. The two friends responsible for roping me into this line of work are Chaianan Samutwanich and Thinaphan Nakhata. The latter was a classmate of the Young Turks. After I had agreed, I went with the two to meet General Sant Chitipatima and many of the Young Turks. Unfortunately, the meeting was more like a party because most of the people there were somewhat inebriated by the time we arrived.
My main job as Government Spokesman(I had two other colleagues: Pratheep Sonthisuwan, and Dr. Saisuree Chutikul) was to attend weekly cabinet meetings, read the thick files that came with the meeting agenda, take notes of the deliberations, conduct a press conference right after the cabinet meeting, write press releases, and supervise two public relations groups. Why two? The spokesman is a political appointee who is supposed to manage the Office of the Spokesman in the Prime Minister’s Office. To this day, I have no idea how many bureaucrats worked in the office I was supposed to manage. Because that office was so ineffective, another ad hoc group was established to perform the public relations duty for the government. The ad hoc group (nuay prachasamphan chaphokit) was staff by professionals from the Mass Communications Authority of Thailand and from its Television division. The only responsibility the officials in the spokesman’s office had was to type my handwritten (I never learnt to type Thai) reports from the cabinet meetings to hand out to the reporters. The real PR work was carried out by the ad hoc group.
Let me describe what PR work for the government entailed. Following a cabinet discussion about how the low water level in the Chaophraya is hindering rice transportation from the north to Bangkok, I dispatched a team to make a story of transportation problems on the river for the evening news. This news item alerted the public of a possible price increase of consumables such as rice and vegetables. I was, in fact, making news for political reasons, to parry any possible blame for price increases on the government.
At least four incidents stand out in my mind why I do not think that I am cut out for politics. The first was my first contact with the coup leaders who helped install General Prem as prime minister. The army officers at the celebration were euphoric and intoxicated with power. I heard some of them say that it was their turn to have power. I felt uneasy and threatened by military power and the prospect of violence. The second incident occurred during one of the first cabinet meetings I attended. The discussion was about a sanction levied against Thai frozen seafood that was below standard. From the discussions, I soon realized that many of the cabinet members in the Prem coalition government were owners of food manufacturing and refrigeration companies. Comments by the ministers reflected self-interest and not national interest. Thirdly, whenever a bill had to do with military expenditures, Prem and the military officers in the cabinet will arrive in full military uniform to intimidate the civilian/businessmen members of the cabinet. Military projects and those labelled royal projects generally sailed through without major discussion. The last straw was receiving letters from my students who were forced to join the Communist Party or NGOs in the countryside after the October 6 massacre. Many of them pleaded for help to improve the lives of villagers they were working with. Some asked me to intervene in cases of police corruption or abuse by the military. I sympathized with their plight and their concerns but had no real way to help them. It was clear to me that what the majority of the Thai people needed were basic services, human rights and social justice. But what took place at the cabinet level was totally different. The politicians were in the cabinet to amass a fortune before they are replaced by other rivals.
I lasted only six months as spokesman. To the surprise of my family and friends, I resigned and made plans to return to the academy, but it was not to be in Thailand. I found it impossible to live the life of a true academic in Thailand. Politics will seek you out if you are any good; and if you are not any good you will seek politics. Faculty salaries are such that all had to moonlight other jobs. I took the easy way out, accepted an SSRC grant, and returned to the United States to search for a job.
Nicholas Farrelly: Turning more directly to Thailand, much of your early research focussed on dictatorships and, in particular, on Sarit Thanarat’s regime (1957-1963). Do you see any lessons from the Sarit period that are relevant for the analysis of Thailand since the 2006 coup? Is the “symbiotic relationship” relationship between the political elite and the palace just as strong today?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: The research and writing I did may have helped explain the resurgence of the monarchy as a political institution that was able to build a coalition between itself, the military, senior bureaucrats and some business enterprises. Through what we now refer to as the royalist conservative coalition, the king has been able to amass prestige and influence over these past fifty years with no comparable competitor. Needless to say, the questions raised by Paul Handley and by most Thai specialists (when speaking among themselves in somewhat hushed tones) is the future influence of the monarchy after the current reign. Will the monarchy as an institution wield equal political influence? What will become of the symbiotic relationship between the monarchy and the military? My hunch is that because participatory politics is here to stay even though it might suffer periodical setbacks (such as the recent coup), the royalist coalition will need to engage and participate in democratic politics that will allow voices of the common people to bubble to the top. It takes more than the military and seasoned bureaucrats to solve complicated social, economic, political, and religious issues. Using a sociological jargon popular during my graduate school days, Thai society has become so highly differentiated that a more open political system and new types of politicians are needed to manage it.
Nicholas Farrelly: Drawing on your historical perspective of political life in Thailand, how do you see the current enthusiasm for “sufficiency economy”?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: Sufficiency economy is a populist concept that is promoted by social conservatives. My sense is that the acceptance of sufficiency economy by the government and politicians is a way to demonstrate loyalty to a popular and revered king; it is to differentiate from the neo-liberal policies of Thaksin; and it is a return to Buddhist principles (be happy with one’s lot and don’t be jealous of others). Sufficiency economy also presents an idealized concept of Thailand as an agriculturally-based society. Sufficiency economic concepts are quite concrete for agrarian life and a peasant self-sufficiency economy, but it is quite contradictory to the rampant consumerism of urbanites and the high flying lifestyle of the rich and famous. Moderate consumption and living within one’s means are good advice, but they rarely result in equitable income redistribution. Sufficiency economy is to make sure that there is harmony in Thai society when the gap between the rich and poor are widening at an alarming rate. It is also a reaction to the economic shock suffered by wage labourers in 1997 that were forced in large numbers to return to live off the land. I am sure that I will be criticised for this, but in my mind, sufficiency economy is more ideology than economic theory.
Nicholas Farrelly: Some readers will know that earlier this year you displayed a different side of your scholarly persona in a Southeast East Asia Research article titled “Khru Liam’s Nang Neramid: Siamese fantasy, Rider Haggard’s She and the divine Egyptian nymph.” You “explored the Siamese adoption and adaptation of Western literary sources to produce a Thai novel in close imitation of the Western form.” Can you tell us more about your interest in Thai literature?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: I have always been interested in novels. The first time I visited Cornell, albeit to do research for my MA thesis, I spent a lot of time in the stacks of the Wason Collection, reading Thai novels. Cornell has a sizeable collection of novels and judging from their borrowing record, novels seem under-utilized and under-studied.
When I returned to Cornell in 1981, I was hired as one of the advising and admissions deans in the College of Arts and Sciences. Eventually, I became associate dean in charge of admissions and advising. During this period, I held a concurrent appointment in Asian Studies that allowed me to continue to teach “Introduction to Southeast Asia,” and to serve on graduate student committees. In 1998, reacting to a leadership vacuum in SEAP, the dean transferred me out of the dean’s office and to full time membership in Asian Studies. I was also elected director of SEAP by my colleagues. What is a political scientist to do in a department that taught literature, religious studies, critical theory, and languages? To make my membership in the department palatable to colleagues, while continuing to teach “Introduction to Southeast Asia” I also offered a graduate reading seminar on Thai political literature, focusing on Kulap Saipradit’s novels. Subsequent seminars on the Thai novel were organized around New Historicism, Translation, and Postcolonial theories.
In particular, my current research interest is to look at the earliest novels published in Thailand between 1900 and 1928. There are no serious studies of the literature of this exciting period. I think that contemporary Thai literary scholars dismiss novels of this period as derivative or merely translations of Western novels, and therefore, unauthentic Thai. I would argue that translation involves composition, agency, and appropriation of knowledge and form. Thus far, I have written several articles in English and in Thai to suggest that we should reexamine the novels of this period, not just in Thailand, but also throughout Southeast Asia. Translation and imitation are valued traditions in Thailand and one should not allow our present day judgment to be clouded by the constraints of nationalism or of postcolonialism.
Nicholas Farrelly: In a 2007 Journal of Asian Studies review of Bruce Missingham’s The Assembly of the Poor in Thailand: From Local Struggles to National Protest Movement you concluded that “Any grassroots democratization must start at these levels for them to be effective in the long run. Engaging the government directly through protest may result in short-term solutions and concessions, but for change to be lasting it must still be made within established political institutions. For the grassroots organizations to be effective politically, they will have to be able either to “elect” their own leaders to these councils or to exert pressure on local politicians including the members of Parliament who represent their provinces. The real issue is not democratizing civil society, which is clearly illuminated in Missingham’s study, but democratizing the state. And as we know, this is a slow process.” Do you see any cause for optimism in the current state of Thai politics? Is there any possibility that the “slow process” you have identified could be accelerated? What would such acceleration entail?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: The blessing of aging is that I have a different perspective of time. Accepting one’s mortality at this stage in my life does not necessarily mean that I should be more impatient for change. Thai politics may seem to move backwards at points (the recent coup is a good example), but taken as a whole, it is progressing towards participatory politics and away from authoritarianism. I remember talking to Jim Ockey when he was writing his dissertation on the provincial godfathers. I predicted that it would not take that long before the children of the godfathers to become “respectable” national politicians, and that provincial ‘hua khanaen’ will transform into local politicians. Decentralization of local politics in Thailand have given rise to a new local political elite—the powerful kamnan and phuyaiban politicians. I am aware that several kamnan have gone back to university (a degree is required to stand for national elections), and have been elected to provincial councils. They have also become more self-assured and more influential in their districts because they sit in the provincial council. Given time and opportunity, some of these true local politicians will find their way into parliament.
Local politicians are far more accessible to their rural supporters and should be more sympathetic to the needs of rural life. I am hopeful that over time, the politicization of villagers will force local politicians to become accountable to their political base. Thaksin realized the power of the electorate and exploited it. I am hoping for the day that the electorate will recognize its own political power and elect its own leaders to make national politics truly a bottom up institution and not the current top down structure. The inevitable loss of prestige of current political institutions will also weaken the top down structure of the Thai political system. As you can see, I am an eternal optimist.
Nicholas Farrelly: Finally, I would like to ask you to reflect on the more general context of Southeast Asian Studies. In this field, what do you see as three pressing issues that are deserving of more scholarly attention?
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: I would rather frame the question differently. “Pressing issues” seem to suggest that these are life and death questions. If I knew anything about agriculture, I would answer “the eradication of hunger.” How about exciting opportunities and new developments? I think that the current training of young scholars will allow them to make important theoretical contributions based on their empirical knowledge of Southeast Asia. These young scholars have better control of disciplinary approaches, of multiple languages, and of area knowledge and should soon produce real comparative studies that most of us have been hoping for. I am optimistic and anticipate breakthrough studies in comparative politics, history, and in anthropology. And not only are these comparative studies intra region, but they will cross regional boundaries to form new units of analysis.
I am also excited about new initiatives in archaeology that link Southeast Asia to the wider world during prehistoric times. The Luce challenge grant will help energize or revitalize archaeology programs in the United States. I am sorry to say that even though there is excitement among the faculty at Cornell, we have not been able to convince the deans that a new line should be created for a Southeast Asian archaeologist.
And lastly, I see the need for us not to forget the humanities. The study of art, music, and literature is needed if Southeast Asian Studies is to have a soul. There are only a few places that teach Southeast Asian literature. We have already established strong language programs which should provide a good foundation for the study of literature.
Nicholas Farrelly: And, just before we finish, I should note that you are a bit unusual among Southeast Asia scholars in that you are also “currently an instructor in Porsche Club of America high performance driving events.” Can you tell us a bit more about this? I’m sure many of our readers will be keen to learn more about your passion for cars.
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: You must have gotten this bit of information from my department website. I put this in just to remind students that faculty members also have a life beyond the academy. We don’t live our lives buried in books or do nothing but read students’ papers and dense texts. You’d be surprised how many students come to see me not just to talk about despotic paternalism or Thai novels, but to ask about car racing, autocrossing, high performance driving, Porsches, or my other passions which are collecting and playing vintage guitars, and flyfishing. Some students and I formed a SEAP band recently called “In Search of Southeast Asia” that performed Thai, Shan, and Burmese songs at our annual banquet last year.
But to be serious, my passion for racing fast cars comes from my father. During the late 1930’s he raced an MG in Bangkok and at Don Muang, encouraged by the successes of Prince Bira. Prince Bira is the well-known Siamese racing driver who won the coveted Gold Star awarded to the best driver in the British Race Drivers Club. He surprised the European racing scene by winning three consecutive Road Racing Gold Stars in 1936, 1937 and 1938. In 1937, Prince Bira brought one of his racing ERA’s back to Bangkok. He raced up and down Rajdamnoen Boulevard to demonstrate his racing prowess. My own race car is painted Bira blue and is named Hanuman, a name given by Bira to one of his most unruly race cars. Of course, I am no Bira, just an admirer. But my interest in Prince Bira goes beyond attempts to emulate him. I have also been working on a paper that looks at how his success contributed to Thai nationalism and how it affected the Thai public’s perception of the West. Prince Bira and Prince Chulachakkraphong who managed and financed their racing team are also true “White Orientalist Gentlemen.” I have already given a talk on this subject entitled “Through Racing Goggles: Modernity, the West, and Siamese Alterities.”
Nicholas Farrelly: Ajarn Thak, thank you for your involvement in the New Mandala interview series.
Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana: It’s my pleasure.