Last week I attended part of the Thai studies conference in Melbourne, hosted by the Asia Institute (University of Melbourne) and the College of Business (RMIT University). I was only able to attend the conference opening on Wednesday night and all day Thursday. I had to return to Canberra early Friday morning, so I can’t report on any of the papers presented that day.

The conference was opened by Thailand’s ambassador Kriangsak Kittichaisaree. He explained why the Thai government had decided to support Thai studies in Melbourne: it wasn’t as cold as Canberra; Melbourne University was the best university in Australia; Melbourne had a large Thai community with the most successful Thai festival in Australia; and the many other institutions in Melbourne provided a good basis for productive linkages. He noted that the Thai government welcomes all kinds of criticism, so long as it is not analysis of “News of the World” standard. He presented a cheque for $100,000 to the Asia Institute to support field research by young scholars, in order to encourage experts who had direct experience of Thailand.

The ambassador was followed by a keynote address presented by the famous Mechai Viravaidya on “Creation of the New Thai Citizen.” Mechai provided a very informative and entertaining overview of the Mechai Bamboo School located in Buriram Province. The school is a “life-long learning centre for the entire community” where education is linked to socio-economic development. Some of what Mechai presented was rather conventional in Thai local-development terms – plenty of references to growing your own food and tree-planting – but the overall vision was a radical challenge to the hierarchy-bound Thai education system. Mechai’s model of schooling is one in which students play an active role in educational management. The Bamboo School appears to encourage active learning, critical thinking and entrepreneurialism. If the model can be extended into the broader government school system (one of Mechai’s current priorities) it has the potential to address issues of educational weakness that are seriously compromising Thailand’s development.

Thursday opened with a typically excellent presentation by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. They provided a big picture overview of social and economic transformations that underpin contemporary Thai politics. Most interesting was their list of “recommendations” for the future development of the Thai political system. Here are some of them, based on my notes. (Sorry that I missed the others – equipment failure!)

  • Unity is dead; long live coexistence.
  • Parliamentary democracy is the best mechanism for managing competing interests. Let it work.
  • The military must leave politics alone for the sake of itself and the nation.
  • A monarchy cannot be above politics but its political role must be defined.
  • The justice system needs a thorough overhaul.
  • Government must spend more to address inequality.
  • Economic policy must be more proactive, especially on technology.

Medhi Kronkaew, who was going to talk about “constitutional independant organisations as the fourth branch of government in Thailand” didn’t attend, so we went straight to Marc Askew who examined state rituals of governance in southern Thailand. These rituals, like most rituals, are far removed from reality and serve as a mirror in which the government contemplates an artificial image of its own desires.

After lunch (the catering throughout the event was excellent) there were four more papers. Katsamaporn Rakson presented some interesting perspectives on Thailand’s changing role within ASEAN. Her data suggested that Thailand has taken played a more self-confident role over the past decade. Sirima Na Songkhla examined the historical changes in urban geography that have occurred around Rajaprasong. One of the conference’s more interesting moments occurred when a someone actually present at the red-shirt protests spoke about the motivations for various acts of arson in May 2010. Brigitte Teni examined the campaigns by the Thai Network of People Living with HIV for access to medicine. Then I presented a short paper on the role of “narrative sedition” in Thailand’s democratic consolidation. (This was an expanded version of a New Mandala post. I will post the paper later this week.)

The day concluded with the Melbourne launch of Khun Chang, Khun Phaen by Pasuk and Chris Baker. Khun Chang, Khun Phaen is a truly wonderful story, and the translation is a breathtaking piece of scholarship, compiled with forensic skill. It is a must-read for any scholar of Thailand, regardless of their area of interest.

All -in-all, my experience of the conference was that it provided a good forum for the discussion of Thai studies in Australia. There is plenty of room for debate and discussion about the motivations of the Thai Embassy in its new-found enthusiasm for Thai studies, but it is clear that the Australian academic context is sufficiently open and vibrant that attempts to steer discussion in any particular direction will fail. Some in the audience were certainly uncomfortably about some of the topics discussed, but my strong impression was the majority of participants welcomed the opportunity to talk freely about issues, make new contacts and learn about new points of view.

Unity is dead; Long live coexistence.

Thanks to the hard-working organisers for a very enjoyable event.