Thailand rejoiced last week as the ancient town of Si Thep in Phetchabun province secured the esteemed Unesco World Heritage Site status. Si Thep, however, is more than just an archaeological treasure. It is a window into Thailand's multicultural society before the emergence of kingdoms and nation states. Si Thep is reshaping Thailand's history, and it should be incorporated into the country's history textbooks.
Doing so is not only fitting to honour Si Thep's rich civilisation, but also crucial for countering race-based nationalism that has long marginalised other ethnicities in the country.
Si Thep, which dates back to the late prehistoric Dvaravati period 1,500–1,700 years ago, flourished for seven centuries as a trade, culture, and religious centre connecting the Central Plains and the northeastern region. The excavation of human remains and burials also revealed that Si Thep is the site of an even older human settlement of prehistoric farming villages dating back 2,500 years.
Covering 4.7 square kilometres, the walled and moated town of Si Thep has an intricate system of waterways and reservoirs to support farming and its populace. Sitting strategically on trade routes and rich in mineral resources, Si Thep boasts over 100 temples and monuments. The colossal Khao Khlang Nok, in particular, is the largest Dvaravati stupa in the country.
Both the Mahayana and Theravada sects of Buddhism were practised in Si Thep. Religious tolerance was evident in the coexistence of Buddhism and Hinduism, which included a variety of gods worship, including Vishnu, Ganesha, and Surya. Si Thep still has many unexplored archaeological sites to reveal about Thailand's ancient Dvaravati civilisation.
After trade routes changed, Si Thep started to decline, which resulted in its abandonment in the 13th century and the rise of Sukhothai as a new trade and cultural hub.
According to prominent archaeologist and anthropologist Srisakra Vallibhotama, the ancient town of Si Thep challenges conventional Thai history at its core.
Textbooks typically depict Thai history starting with Sukhothai as the country's first kingdom founded by people of the Thai race who migrated from China into upper Siam.
After Sukhothai are the kingdoms of Ayutthaya, Thonburi, and Rattanakosin that exerted central powers over the rest of the territory.
This historical narrative has nurtured the notion that Thai society is racially homogeneous and affirmed Thai ownership of the land. It was first formalised as official history during King Rama IV's reign to assert Thai territory and sovereignty in response to Western colonialism.
The Phibunsongkhram government later strengthened this historical account during World War II in an effort to forge a sense of national identity and ignite nationalism. The problems it created are manifold.
Firstly, it has pressured diverse regional cultures to conform to the Central Plain's norms, eroding regional culture and identity. It has also marginalised other ethnicities as outsiders and national security threats merely because of their differences. This legacy of racist nationalism permeates textbooks, fuelling racial prejudice and discrimination in society and public policy.
The prolonged state violence against Muslims in the deep South, as well as the forced evictions of hill tribespeople, can be traced back to this deeply ingrained belief created by ultra-Thai nationalism. Despite having lived in these areas for centuries, these native communities are still regarded as invaders of Thai territory.
The Si Thep civilisation debunks the myth of the first kingdom and the subsequent ultra-Thai nationalism. Not only does Si Thep predate Sukhothai, but its society was also multicultural, with diverse faiths and ethnicities coexisting harmoniously.
Si Thep's relations with other polities within a loose, decentralised conglomerate also demonstrated that many cities existed in ancient times before Sukhothai. According to archaeologist Srisakra, the Thai first kingdom with a centralised administrative system and power did not emerge until the early Ayutthaya period under King Boromtrailokkanat.
The Education Ministry must incorporate Si Thep into history textbooks to provide students with a more accurate portrayal of Thailand's past and foster an understanding of the country's multicultural roots and the contributions of other ethnic groups to Thai society. An open mindset encourages respect for other ethnic groups as equal fellow citizens and paves the way for conflict resolution.
The ultranationalism that has perpetuated the belief that ethnic Thais are the sole owners of this country has caused substantial harm. Let's make Si Thep's popularity put an end to this indoctrination through the education system.