Nationalism blinds us to new truths
If the late historian EH Carr woke up from his grave today and realised the perception some Thais have of history, he would be deeply frustrated.
In his highly acclaimed book, What Is History? -- a holy text for history students -- first published in 1961, the celebrated historian explained history as "a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present."
But in Thailand, such "dialogue", especially the parts concerning historical heroes or heroines, or even villains, hardly exists. Anyone who dares to question particular historical episodes may face trouble. This explains why two retired senior military men took comments by social critic Sulak Sivaraksa on the elephant battle between King Naresuan and a Burman crown prince so seriously they accused him of breaching Section 112 of the Criminal Code, or committing lese majeste.
Ploenpote Atthakor is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.
Most Thais attach emotional importance to this episode which has been translated numerous times into movies and remakes, plays and literature. The people of two neighbouring provinces Kanchanaburi and Suphanburi have vied to convince the public the 1593 battle took place in their hometown.
The military designated the day the battle took place, as mentioned in historical records, as Armed Forces day. When it was found out the first designated date was wrong, due to miscalculations in translating the old calendar into the modern-day one, the Defence Ministry had to change its calendar. This means evidence regarding the battle, like so many historical events, is not fixed.
Not to mention that Myanmar historians have another version of this battle. In fact, historians are well aware of "relative truths" and open to new evidence which, if strong enough, can even challenge or deconstruct the old truths and the process must be dynamic. But in Thailand, historians or scholars may not have the freedom to alter truths, even to pose questions about them, even though new evidence may suggest otherwise. This is because our history is strongly tied with nationalism since the nation-building era dating back to the time of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsoggram.
Mr Sulak is not the first victim of such nationalism or ultranationalism. Several years ago, a university student was almost lynched by angry crowds in Korat when she questioned in her thesis if Thao Suranaree or Khunying Mo, wife of a local ruler who, according to the records, quelled the Laotian army in the early Rattanakosin period, was a real or fictitious figure. The student was forced to apologise to the Korat people and keep the study to herself. What a pity.
In Mr Sulak's case, the two retired generals must have acted out of the same sentiment. But lese majeste? Mr Sulak, who is 85, is known as a staunch royalist. Not to mention that the charge is not factually valid. Every student knows King Naresuan belonged to the Sukhotai dynasty of Ayutthaya. No matter how King Naresuan was revered by the Thai public, there are no ways to connect the Ayutthaya king with today's Rattanakosin.
The charge against Mr Sulak tells us that it's time we clean history of nationalism, or the distrust and hatred which some members of the Thai public feel against the neighbours will linger on. When we are blinded by nationalism, the chances are we will not learn or accept other truths, or ask new questions. That will make the learning of history useless.
As we know, a number of historical events remain unclear from the time before the Sukhothai period. And if we are to find out or dig into the matter, we have to be open to new evidence, deal with it with maturity, and move on from old historical traps. One unclear episode involved King Naresuan and a Khmer ruler named Phya Lawaek. Thais immersed in old history believe the Khmer ruler was executed for his betrayal, while Cambodians have their own version of this history. Whenever conflicts emerged between the two countries, several Thais would go back to this part of history and make thing worse.
We still need to learn from history, as it can help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We have to encourage people to ask, to question history since it is not unusual that some historians have hidden motives when presenting their theories.
According to a survey in 2016 by UK-based Ipsos MORI, published by The Independent, Thailand ranks seventh in the world's most ignorant countries, followed by Singapore which is 8th. The agency studied more than 40 countries including China, and the US. This was a rare occasion where Thailand beat its tiny Asean friend. But should we be proud of it?
Former editorial page Editor
Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.