Friday, January 27, 2006

Southern Insurgency

has been a low-level separatist insurgency in the deep South since the region was included on maps of Thailand in 1909.

But in 2004, during the governing tenure of the controversial Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, there was a clear escalation of violence.

The predominantly Malay-Muslim South has historically demonstrated a fierce determination for autonomy while various Thai governments in Bangkok have sought to exercise sovereignty there.

The recent surge of violence began after a series of clumsy, verging upon incompetent, decisions by Thaksin's government turned political discontent into a separatist rebellion.

Responding to reporters in February 2005, when questioned how he would deal with separatist violence, Prime Minister Thaksin claimed; “I will never allow anyone to separate even one square inch from this country, even if this land will have to be soaked with blood.”

As the death toll continues to rise it seems that Thaksin has kept is word.

To learn about the state of Thailand's Deep South, please follow the ' Southern Insurgency' labels.

Friday, January 6, 2006

From Mandala to Westphalia

Royal Thai Rangers on border patrol along the Thai/Burma border near Mai Sot.

To understand how the introduction of borders was a dramatic alteration to mainland Southeast Asia (SEA) it is necessary to illustrate what the implications of borders are.

When the colonial powers arrived in SEA it was a region characterized by borderless kingdoms that were territorially ambivalent.

When the Europeans were finally chased out, the region had been demarcated into states. What follows is a brief account of how mainland SEA made the transition from mandala to Westphalia.

In a previous post - A Paradox of Histories - there was a brief explanation of how pre-modern SEA was politically organized along the mandala paradigm When the colonial powers of England and France began carving their possessions out of Asia they introduced a dramatically different idea of governance – the Westphalian nation-state.

Although the origin of the nation-state does not have an exact date it is often associated with the Peace of Westphalia.

Fatigued by war on their continent, European leaders gathered in 1648 in what is now the German town of Westphalia to bring peace through a new form of territorial governance.

The nation-state, a work of considerable political fiction in which a homogenous population would live peacefully within a sovereign state, was subscribed to.

Although history clearly demonstrates that the nation-state is more often the cause of war than war’s resolution, the political paradigm has thrived and is now the norm for an entire globe demarcated into nation-states.

As the European powers sailed into Asia they began transforming kingdoms into colonies based upon the nation-state model – albeit with each nation subservient to European control.

Borders based upon European conquest, rather than following local political/ethnic/religious reality, began to be drawn.

There was some congruence with local politics, as Europeans often co-opted local rulers in their quest for colonies, yet resemblance to traditional political structure was often negated by the colonial powers tendency to maximize their territory beyond traditional boundaries.

The rise of various SEA nationalisms before World War II, the dramatic region-wide Japanese military take-over during the war, and the determined efforts of powerful independence movements eventually dislodged the Europeans from SEA.

Yet the young states that independence leaders had fought to control had essentially been drawn into existence by European cartographers.

It is not that there wasnt powerful kingdoms and sultanates across SEA but what the independence leaders wrestled from the Europeans were dramatically different political entities than had once existed.

Thailand is often cited as the historical exception in SEA because it was never officially under colonial rule yet the story is essentially the same.

The cartographers that had drawn the borders of British Malaya, Burma, and French Indochine had, by default, also drawn Thailand into existence.

The country’s kings, succeeded by various constitutional governments, did the work of self-colonization modeled exactly (often directly administered by European nationals) upon the western nation-state paradigm. T

he Kingdom has taken a different historical path yet arrived at the same destination as the rest of Southeast Asia – a distinctly territorial polity striving to be a nation-state.

The old mandala political structure was erased by the colonial powers and then the new polities were focused by the region’s nationalist leaders into modern states.

The local political structures that had once been ambivalent about territory and distinctly multi-ethnic had been reinvented into unconditionally territorial nation-states.

The last transformation, and a transformation that is still in progress, is the attempt to create ethnic homogeneity out of a region characterized by heterogeneity.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

The Apocryphal 'Nation-State'

“states attempt, physically and discursively, to marginalize or destroy various aspects of centrifugal otherness: ethnic solidarities, reasserted nationalisms, indigenous movements, and draft resistances, all dissonant elements proclaiming the tenuous hold of states over territories and identities”

Thailand is not a nation-state yet it pretends to be.

In a complex process of ethnic competition and state formation a myth has been nurtured that Thailand is built around a nation of ‘Thais’.

Such an idea is utter non-sense.

By adopting the Westphalian model of a nation-state, Thailand has conformed to the logic of the international system at the expense of ethnic diversity within its borders.

To become a nation-state the dominant state sanctioned identity, the Thais, have had to internally colonize their territory by subjugating minority identities to create and perpetuate not only the political state but the very definition of Thai identity.

The process of Thailand’s self-colonization has striking similarities to the theoretical foundations of Europe’s colonial adventures.

As Siamese (Thai) identity was transforming under pressure from the arrival of Europeans it was placed in comparison to the state’s own subaltern identities.

Siamese comparisons followed the intellectual fault identified by Palestinian academic Edward Said in his seminal work; Orientalism.

The failings of Thai orientalism stem from classifying and applying stereotyped roles for minorities as ‘primitive’ and ‘traditional’ – mirroring the same sense of superiority that Europeans used to rationalize their colonial presence.

Like the colonial powers were doing across SEA, the Siamese began an orientalist study of the ethnic minorities that the state's modern borders contained.

The Siamese classified them, detailed their customs, their dress, their beliefs, and opened museums to display the ‘others’ within their borders.

By interpreting the state’s minorities as ‘primitive’ and ‘traditional’ the state cast itself in a rationally paternalistic roll whose dominance over minorities was implicit.

The unique utility of orientalism is the way that the classification of ‘others’ does more to identify the ‘self’ (in this case the Siamese) than that of the ‘other’ (the minorities).

If the ethnic minorities were ‘primitive’ and ‘traditional’ then the Siamese would be ‘advanced’ and ‘modern’.

As a tool of nationalist state-craft it is essential to have an ‘other’ as there is simply no nation if it can not be compared to an apposing minority or alternate nation.

The minorities within Thailand’s borders serve a necessary function of being the ‘other’ to Thailand’s ‘self’.

By studying and classifying the state’s minorities as oppositional ‘others’ the Thai state has been able to define who the ‘Thai’ are and what the ‘Thai state’ represents.

Non-state identities being ‘others’ within the Thai state act as a threat to the state’s identity while paradoxically giving the state legitimacy by allowing the state to express its own existence.

The ‘otherness’ of minorities is closely associated to alternate nations and, particularly if viewed through the global Westphalian system of nation-states, their presence within the state represents a violation of state order that must be either assimilated into the defined nation-state identity or be controlled by the state’s legitimate right to use force.

By disciplining the ‘others’ within their territory, the nation-state exercises its existence and its identity brought to life.

As the modern Thai state has adopted the Westphalian model it has conformed to the logic of the international system at the expense of the country’s minorities.

Thailand has colonized itself into the international system and has/is attempted/ing to internally colonize the non-state identities within its borders.

Essentially, the very definition of Thai identity has been articulated because it is in contrast to the minorities and the state's presence is brought to life by exercising authority over the country’s minorities.