Tamara Loos. Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. pp. x + 212.

Rare is the appearance of a newly published English-language monograph in Thai history, rarer still one that sets such a high standard of intellectual rigor and revisionist finesse. Tamara Loos’s Subject Siam puts forward the thesis that family law, regarded as ‘authentically native’ by imperial ideology, was the site where a distinctive, non-Eurocentric modernity was forged. Reforms in the legal code and judicial system beginning in the late nineteenth century created new categories of family, wife and honourable male citizen, which for many decades remained fluid and changing. The Siamese and foreign legal personnel who instigated the changes worked within a system of transnational justice and pursued careers in Europe, Siam, and the colonized world. Loos thereby places Siamese history in a framework of comparative colonialism in defiance of the exceptionalism often claimed for it because the country was never colonised.

The multiple meanings of ‘subject’ in the book’s title are intentional. They refer to Siam the active, sovereign agent as well as to Siam subjected to European norms of civility, this second Siam legally subordinated and made economically dependent by the extraterritorial treaties imposed by the West in the late 1850s. While the kingdom remained formally sovereign, the subjection of Siam by the Western imperial powers placed it ‘uncomfortably’, in Loos’s phrase, ‘between a sovereign state and a colonized country’. This split identity as coloniser and colonised shaped elite politics from the middle of the nineteenth century through the 1930s. Law was the domain in which elite reformers negotiated Siam’s autonomy by ‘proving’ the kingdom’s ability to operate a legal system that the Western powers would sanction and that would be comparable to the colonial legal systems in neighbouring countries. Nationalist historiography in both Thai and English has found it difficult to acknowledge that the late nineteenth-century centralising Thai state was an imperial power in the region, and Loos’s nuanced formulations about the split identity, which plays like a leitmotif in her argument, will render archaic the Marxist ‘semi-colonial’ paradigm that some scholars have sought to revive in recent years.

Two threads weave their way through the book. One is the Siamese court’s treatment of the southern Malay territories on both sides of the Siam-Malay border, particularly what are now the four provinces of Patani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun in Thailand. In response to British attempts to clarify its territorial boundary with Siam in the south, the Bangkok court began to engage in what Loos calls ‘competitive colonialism,’ whose object was to demonstrate equal status with the British as much as to secure tributary states that the court regarded as its own territories. In order to preempt British criticism of Siamese treatment of Muslim subjects, the government in Bangkok created Islamic family courts, albeit regulated in terms of procedure and personnel, as the new centralising administrative and judicial system was extended into the region. Loos raises several interesting questions about the history of this process and the motives of its architects, suggesting that the decision to incorporate some territories on the Malay Peninsula but not others had to do with objectives apart from anxiety about Siamese independence or survival. When she conducted her research in the mid-1990s she was denied access to the archival records on the south, one of the reasons these questions are left hanging in her discussion.

The other thread of the story is marriage law and the status of wives in the polygynous framework that in the past had served political and cultural ends. Supporters of Eurocentric modernity, which increasingly captivated the imaginations of the aristocratic elite as well as the new meritocracy produced by the reforms, began to challenge polygynous marriage. One of the outcomes of this struggle was the legislation of monogamy as the standard marital union with provision for the registration of all children born to a man and any number of women who conceived by him even if outside formal marriage. Loos terms this outcome an instance of ‘alternative modernity’ associated with Buddhism, even though the religion does not designate polygyny as a specifically Buddhist practice. The polemical sixth king of the Bangkok dynasty, Vajiravudh (r. 1910-1925), was a key figure in this story through his moral essays that had a broad public readership and through the laws enacted in his reign on citizenship and family surnames. The chapter on this topic, ‘Crises of Wifedom,’ effectively rewrites Vajiravudh as a central figure in the creation of a new ideology of national belonging, while dispensing with the clichés about him as the founder of Thai nationalism.

Why these two threads? They may have developed as focal points out of Loos’s field research into the creation of new legal subjects. In any case, they are not arbitrary. Historians have found these two issues intractable to deal with and almost impossible to incorporate into the larger narrative of nation-building. For the first one, the gendering of nationalism, the masculinity of Thai political culture, which was intensified by the legal reforms in the period Loos covers, and the complexities of the marriage law, especially as it affected women, have been consigned to the field of gender studies and have often been ignored in mainstream historiography. Similarly for the second, until the recent violence in southern Thailand that began in response to 9/11 and the national government’s clumsy execution of its policies in the Muslim south in the early 2000s, the Malay-Muslim world has been a specialist area where only political scientists, anthropologists and linguists have toiled. Now historians of the national story will have to pay attention. At times, the Malay-Muslim south seems to be a theme subordinated to gender, family, and the law, but in the concluding chapter, ‘Subjects of History,’ Loos draws the two threads together and demonstrates their analytic connections. Debates in the legislature about the marital law after the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, in response to Western pressure and civilising norms that favoured monogamy as the only legal marital union, inevitably pitted the dominant Buddhist culture of most of the country against the Muslim south where polygyny was allowed.

Based on wide reading and extensive archival research, the book is not overweight with empirical baggage. Indeed, the lucid and stylishly written analysis puts the reader in the hands of the essayist rather than the scholastic. By placing the story of gendered Siamese subjecthood centre stage in the context of transnational justice and delving into the legal status of Siamese subjects up and down the social hierarchy, this book takes a big step closer to the serious social history that Thai studies desperately needs.

Reviewed by Craig J. Reynolds, 27 May 2009

Published originally in Asian Studies Review, 31, 3 (Sept. 2007), 381-383.