Back on 20 August 2006, I posted a short note that flagged what I then saw as some of the potentially important events that were looming over the horizon for scholarly interpretations of Southeast Asia. The dramatic events of September 19, but a month later, were certainly beyond my vision of the political stalemate. Back then, almost nobody openly speculated on the possibility of another Thai coup.
In part, I wrote:
Over the next few months we will be continuing our analysis of mainland Southeast Asia’s current wave of political turbulence. Alongside the more familiar Thai showdown and looming October election, there are coming events in Burma, Cambodia and Laos that we will be following closely. There has even been recent chatter about resuming Burma’s controversial military-sponsored Constitutional Convention. This is just one more nudge to remind us that, for all its chaos and unpredictability, the situation in Thailand is still usually far tamer and more transparent than politics elsewhere in the neighbourhood.
This is worth repeating. It is my final sentence that probably requires the most revision. The situation in Thailand is now anything but “tame” or “transparent”.
In much of the 100,000s of words that have been written and spoken about Thai politics over the past month, there is clear disagreement between many well-meaning observers. At a time of crisis, this is healthy, I am sure. These divisions will, for the foreseeable future, probably mean that the academic study of Thailand occupies a divided landscape. New Mandala has, of course, contributed, in its own very small way, to this situation. In the weeks after the coup such division was unavoidable. And differences of opinion and interpretation still run the full gamut of possibilities.
New Mandala readers with an interest in Burma may be all too familar with the divisions that mark the academic study of that country. Academic alliances and shared positions – often founded in political alignments and claims – are common to almost all scholarly discussions of Burma. As far as I’m aware, this has been the prevailing situation for some decades. Perhaps countries with polarised political situations cannot help but propagate division in the academic communities that study them. Complicated and controversial politics foster different points of view. This is the nature of academic debate in the critical social sciences and humanities.
It is likely that new (or revitalised) factions will become a more conspicuous part of the Thai Studies academic scene. Some of these factions are, I reckon, beginning to form right here on New Mandala. Differences of opinion, strategy and focus are now being fully tested in a furnace of incomplete information and polarised positions. This process of testing is healthy. I think there probably needs to be more of it!
Southeast Asian Studies scholars – the anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, geographers, political scientists, economists and historians who form this collective – are now faced with the task of revising their assumptions and understandings to fit a changed environment in Thailand. The personal criticisms that can gain currency in this type of factionalised scene will not help with that crucial task. Real discussion – particularly among people who may feel that they disagree vehemently – requires a level of open-mindedness and tolerance of diversity.
These introductory comments are certainly not the last word on this crucial topic. Some – like a few regular contributors to New Mandala – may feel that academics who aren’t Thai have little to contribute and should just mind their own business. This is one position. It is certainly not the only legitimate view.
Your views on the place of Thai Studies in the current scene are, I should emphasise, most welcome. Hopefully New Mandala can host a debate that sheds some light on today’s conditions and provides some initial perspectives from those interested in the future direction of research about Thailand and its neighbours.