Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The ‘Thai body’ and its Periphery

Burmese citizens, huddled together on a rubber inner tube, illegally crossing the Moei River that separates Thailand from Burma. Mai Sot, Thailand/Myawadi, Burma - 2005.

At 8 am and 6 pm the national anthem can be heard across Thailand.

In schools children sing it, television and radio stations dutifully broadcast it, loud speakers mounted upon telephone poles in cities and villages cackle with it, and everyone within the state – even at its very edges and whether citizen or not are expected to stop what they are doing, stand-up, and wait respectfully until the song ends.

Thailand is the unity of Thai blood and body.
The whole country belongs to the Thai people, maintaining thus far for the Thai.
All Thais intend to unite together.
Thais love peace but do not fear to fight.
They will never let anyone threaten their independence.
They will sacrifice every drop of their blood to contribute to the nation.
They will sacrifice every drop of their blood to contribute to the nation.
CHAI YO. [Cheers].

The national anthem, like the border containing the state, is a work of political fiction.

If Thailand was indeed ‘the unity of Thai blood’ with the territorial body of the state then the space created – the political state of Thailand – would be an exclusive space for ethnic Thais.

While circumnavigate the Thai border, the territorial edge of the ‘Thai body’, it is not the lack of actual ethnic Thais that is most striking but the range of ethnic diversity that is most striking.

The periphery of the state is characterized by ethnic diversity that is manifest in contested territory, contested identities, and contested politics.

The circumference of the ‘Thai body’ has very little in common with the narrow nationalist identity espoused by the state.

Yet it is not that the Thai state is particularly at fault.

The ethnic nationalism that causes alienation in peripheral communities is a by-product of the global system of demarcated nation-states.

To understand how embedded the paradigm of the demarcated nation-state is one simply has to think of one global institution – the United Nations. The Thai state is simply exercising spatial governance, with nationalism as a tool of state-craft, in a reflection of the international system of 'nations'.

The real fault is, of course, the irrational concept of a border coupled with the fiction of a nation.

A border demands that a singular polity exercises absolute sovereignty over a specifically finite space.

At the sharp edge of sovereign space another polity becomes the absolute sovereign.
The concept may not seem irrational if the border was only to contain finite geographic space but the border contains heterogeneous humanity that becomes subject to the homogeneous identity projected by a ‘nation-state’.

Majority identity (in this case ‘Thai’) vs. minorities issues are implicit in the creation of a nation-state.

To have a demonstration of Thai nationalism stressing identity singularity we can again return to the border and the national anthem.

Physically crossing over the sharp division from Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, or Lao is to instantly be disciplined into Thai political space.

The flow of ethnic/religious/cultural/political diversity that flows over the border stops at 8am and 6pm to observe the political ritual of the national anthem.
For the average visitor the anthem might be an inconsequential event.

But for the residents of the periphery, those that are not Thai but live within the political ‘Thai body’ they are told twice daily that the land they occupy ‘belongs to the Thai people’ and not them.