Five Minutes with Ross King February 3, 2017 09:00

Memories, while often thought to be intimate personal recollections, can be
interpreted through a collective lens, where memories and experiences of individuals are weaved together to form collective memories that influence the larger community. In his latest book, Heritage and Identity in Contemporary Thailand: Memory, Place and Power, Ross King situates the notions of social memory, place and power to make sense of the production of Thai heritage and the identity of the Thai people.  

In this edition of Five Minutes with, we speak with Prof King to discuss how memories and sites of memories (be it grand locations or everyday settings) contribute to and shape a country’s heritage, and whether the recent passing of the revered King Bhumibol will further polarise Thai society.


What made you decide to delve into the world of contemporary Thailand again, given that your previous book, Reading Bangkok, was also focused on the country?


Heritage and Identity in Contemporary Thailand, quite simply, emerged from my teaching in Thailand. Thai research students, in my experience, tend to be assiduous in the pursuit of good data but there is generally an inhibiting difficulty in bringing sharp, critical thinking to bear of the real issues to which those data might relate. Over the years I have supervised some 32 Thai PhD students; some have produced excellent work but it has not been internationally publishable because of the lack of self-reflection and the failure of critical thinking. My aim in Heritage and Identity was therefore to show how theoretically informed, critical thought might be mobilized to throw light on the phenomena of Thai heritage and identity.

Bangkok, Thailand
(Image credit: Milei.vencel/ Wikimedia Commons)

What was the process of writing Heritage and Identity in Contemporary Thailand like?

It is based on 12 PhD theses and on subsequent work of those scholars. On the basis of my reading of that work I would write a chapteran essaythat could address the book’s theme of the intersections of memory, place and power. There would then be various interchanges of ideas and drafts between myself and the 12 co-authors until I could get the manuscript to a coherent text. It was a difficult book to write because it was neither one thing nor the otherneither a consistent, single-authored book written to a tight intellectual agenda, nor an edited collection from separate, different authors. Despite the difficulties, I strongly believe that it is a powerful way to bring Southeast Asian scholars to publication, also to bring critical reflection to the work of such scholars.

In this book, there is a large focus on spaces and landscapes in Thailand, such as temples and palaces, as sites of memories. What about these places drew you to explore further into their historical background?

Heritage is always linked to memoryit is what we remember and which thereby defines who we are. And yes, I am certainly interested in the grand sites of memory such as temples and palaces; far more, however, my interest is in the ordinary ‘environments of memory’the home, the street, the village and the memories that attach to them, for these are the real wellsprings of identity, also of creativity. Further, they are the real heritage of a people.

The book is structured in such a way that its first half dwells on the present memories that attach to ancient places: temples, palaces, remnants of past agesto the things that might define some officially sanctioned idea of ‘the Nation’; in the second half, it moves on to memories that resonate through everyday lifea canal (khlong), a small street (soi), village, local customs, the home, family.

Fishing Village in Narathiwat
(Image credit: preetamrai/ Wikimedia Commons)

With regards to the recent passing of the revered King Bhumibol, how would the notions of memories and identities of the Thai people relate to the social cohesion of the country? Do you think his passing would deepen the polarization of the Thai community?

Thailand’s is not a unitary culture. Rather, it is an assemblage of diverse ethnicities and cultures. There is generally some sense of harmony, except in relations between central Thailand (mostly Bangkok) and the Northeast (Isan). There is a profoundly cultural base to the divisionthe people of Isan are, mostly, not Thai but Lao; there are language differences. The rift has stretched over centuries with its origins in ancient conflicts but, even more, in exploitation and brutality leveled by Bangkok against Isan, notably since the 1930s. Hence the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts of the present era. King Bhumibol, though controversial especially in his relationships with Thailand’s military coups, had since the 1950s expressed concerns for the depressed conditions of the Isan region. It is notable that, with King Bhumibol’s failing health in recent decades, his previous conciliatory role also failed. Simply, the new King will not be able to replicate his father’s role as the great conciliator. Polarisation will proceed apace.

Portrait painting of King Bhumibol Adulyadej
(Image credit: Government of Thailand/ Wikimedia Commons)

You mentioned in your book that Thai heritage is sustained by the “preservation of deprivation”, maintaining the entrenched inequalities amongst the Thai people. What are your thoughts on how the Thais can bridge this deep divide in their society? Is there any possibility at all?

At one level, it is heritage tourism that is thus sustained. At a deeper level, the book invokes dependency theory to demonstrate how dependencyexploitationworks at a diversity of scales throughout the society. Most seriously it underlies that rift between a Bangkok elite (royalist, middle-class, military) and a repressed Isan. So, what can be done about this? The starting point has to be an understanding of and respect for different memories and experiences—Bangkok must come to understand the tragic history and present condition of Isan, also to understand Bangkok’s continuing role in that tragedy.

Will your next research project be revisiting Thailand or has a new subject matter piqued your interest?

I have a book on Seoul to be published later this year from Hawai‘i University Press. More to the present point, I have completed a book (not yet in press) titled The Tragedy of Isan. Its argument is that the tragedy is one of mis-interpretation: the long history of the rift and its causes has been suppressed, it is not to be remembered. (Even the National Museum in Bangkok virtually ignores Isan, despite its being one-third of the country.) Instead, the rift will be explained by the elites simply as Northeasterner inferiority“water buffaloes”, they will be labeledwhile Isan perspectives will perceive the elites as forever anti-democratic. It is yet again a problem of suppressed memory, and the interpretative task—therefore the task of The Tragedy of Isanis to strip away suppressed memory. To expose tragic history. In a more positive sense, The Tragedy of Isan is not only to interpret the tragedy and its roots, but also to celebrate the real glory of the culture of Isan and to assert that, in the richness of that heritage, are the tools of reconciliation.