Thai institutions: Archives

Archives/จดหมายเหตุ

[Author's note: In late 2009, when I agreed to write a post on “Archives” for the New Mandala series on Thai institutions, I planned to write about far more ‘historical’ files. The events of the last two months have changed everything.]

On 24 May 2010, มติชน newspaper ran an article about the archiving of the contention and violence since 12 March. Mrs. Sureerat Wongsangiem, director of the National Archives, which is under the Department of Fine Arts, explained that they were preparing to collect information about events in Bangkok and other provinces. The file created would be separated from the usual yearly file, as the violence has had profound impacts on politics, economy, and society, and in particular on the lives of the people in Thailand. Four categories of information will be preserved: information collected by state actors who went into the field, media information, information from involved entities, and information from the people. In particular, information collected by the official committees established by the deputy prime minister’s office will be privileged. Mrs. Sureerat said: “The National Archives will hold official documents from every ministry, unit and department that was involved, as the primary foundation in the preservation and record of information about the events. But there will also be the compilation of related information from different sources, including the protesters, without criticism …. Creating an archive this time will be the first time a specific archive has been made on the occasion of a violent political conflict” [“สำนักหอจดหมายเหตุฯจะยึดถือเอกสารราชการจากทางกระทรวง ทบวง กรม ที่เกี่ยวข้อง เป็นหลักในการจัดเก็บและบันทึกข้อมูลเหตุการณ์ แต่ก็มีการประมวลข้อมูลรอบด้านจากแหล่งต่างๆ อาทิ จากฝั่งผู้ชุมนุมเอาไว้ด้วย โดยจะไม่วิจารณ์ใดๆ …. การจัดทำจดหมายเหตุฯครั้งนี้ ถือเป็นจดหมายเหตุลักษณะเฉพาะกิจในโอกาสความขัดแย้งรุนแรงทางการเมืองเป็นครั้งแรก”].

This policy, and how it is implemented, should be of concern to those concerned with Thai history, and its future(s). This is a moment of possibility, of possible inclusion of a multiplicity of voices within the officially-preserved records of the past two months. This is also a moment of danger: what accounts will be included, and accounts will be silenced? Who will decide? What kind of process will be used? Will the record of the decisions of inclusion, and exclusion, be made public? Writing about the historiography of Haiti in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) , Michel Rolph-Trouillot argues that silence can enter history at four moments: “the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narrative); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)” (p. 26). These are not new questions within the Thai context, but the extensive state control of various forms of information inflects them with a new urgency.

On 2 September 1997, the Official Information Act (OIA) was promulgated in Thailand (Links to Thai and English PDFs of the OIA can be found here). The OIA is Thailand’s freedom of information instrument, and was created as part of the broader wave of reforms surrounding the 1997 “People’s Constitution.” The OIA outlines the circumstances under which citizens may access state documents, and circumstances in which they may not. Of primary concern, the OIA outlines information not subject to disclosure as well as embargoes on the release of information to the National Archives.  Information not automatically subject to release includes “official information which may jeopardize the Royal Institution” and any information which “the disclosure thereof will jeopardize the national security, international relations, or national economic or financial security.” The OIA does not specify how these kinds of information will be identified, which presents an additional layer of non-disclosure.  In particular, questioning the former designation might cause one to run afoul of section 112 of the Criminal Code dealing with alleged crimes of lesè majesté.  With regards to depositing documents in the National Archives, “official information which may jeopardize the Royal Institution” can be held for seventy-five years, and information which “the disclosure thereof will jeopardize the national security, international relations, or national economic or financial security” can be held for twenty years. In the case of the latter, this can be extended in five-year increments if the “State agency is of the opinion that such official information should not yet be disclosed.”

Nearly any scholar or activist who has used the National Archives of Thailand [or any state archives] will likely have a story of restrictions on the use or photocopying of documents or documents that exist in a catalog or index but cannot be found on the shelves. This is part of the experience of the archive. But scholars or activists who have conducted research on topics deemed sensitive in the will have likely encountered a difficulty of a different order: a lacuna, or lacunae, in official collections of documents.  After the 6 October 1976 massacre and coup, thousands of citizens were detained under Order 22, an arbitrary detention instrument proclaimed by the National Administration Reform Council, as so-called “dangers to society” (ภัยต่อสังคม). Although the text of the instrument mandated that the detention and release of every detainee be marked with an official order by either the Metropolitan Police in Bangkok or the provincial government outside Bangkok, which should leave a sizeable paper trail of the detentions, there is not a box of orders available in the National Archives. The phrase “danger to society” does not appear in any of the indices. Perhaps, as occurred with secret police documents in Guatemala years after the violence ended, the records will appear in an unexpected place in the future, making new histories possible.

There are many ways around the official unavailability of documents in the National Archives in Bangkok: sometimes documents are held privately, or a copy remains the original office in which it was produced. When archival documents are unavailable, it is sometimes possible to piece together state actions from often detailed reporting in newspapers both highly supportive and deeply critical of the state. In the overlaps, the spaces between, and the contradictions in the newspaper reports, a story sometimes emerges.

In her recent book, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), Ann Laura Stoler writes “The pulse of the archive and the forms of governance that it belies are in the … process of their making, in the fine crafts of cribbling and culling …” (pp. 19-20). There is nothing accidental about what finds its way into the files at the National Archives on Thanon Samsen in Bangkok. The documents, the indices, and the process by which they are composed is both a product of, and productive of, the state. At this moment, after two months when hundreds of websites have been shut down or blocked in Thailand, students have been interrogated, and a prominent historian has been detained, it is clear that information is a primary field of contention. What one thinks, and what thoughts circulate, are of interest to the Thai state.  Within the context of a censorious and repressive state, activist and alternative processes of archiving are not only the recording of another perspective on events: they are a necessary form of dissidence.