In a posthumously published article that appeared just weeks after his death in December 2015, Benedict Anderson provided a characteristically irreverent and original interpretation of the enduringly bitter conflict between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces in Thai politics which had escalated over the 2000s and set the stage for the 2014 military coup. Building upon a stock-in-trade chat with a Bangkok taxi driver and then breezing through two hundred-odd years of Thai history with his usual flair, Anderson traced the thread of immigration from Guangdong and Fujian provinces in southern China to Thailand, the establishment and expansion of business and banking empires by these immigrants and their offspring, and, intriguingly, the endurance of competition over power and wealth between different language groups among them – Teochew, Cantonese, Hailamese, Hakka, and Hokkien. In a final parting shot, he playfully concluded: “Don’t fool yourself that the political contest in Thailand is about democracy or anything like that. It’s about whether the Teochews get to keep their top position, or whether it’s the turn of the Hakkas or the Hailamese.
Wasana Wongsurawat’s fascinating new book, The Crown and the Capitalists: The Ethnic Chinese and the Foundation of the Thai Nation (University of Washington Press, 2019), covers much of the same ground as this short and speculative piece, but with close, careful historical analysis, a wealth of Thai- and Chinese-language sources, and a set of significant conclusions that transcend those suggested by Anderson. Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, she traces the emergence and evolution of Siam and then Thailand through the Cold War era, concluding with some suggestive comments with regard to the country’s fortunes and future amidst the much-ballyhooed ‘rise of China’ over the past few decades. The foundations of state power and the drivers of ‘nation-building’ in Thailand, she argues, must be understood in terms of successive state rulers’ reliance on recognition from regional hegemons, on the one hand, and relations with ethnic Chinese capitalists in the country, on the other. While her historical narrative moves across periods of Qing, British, Japanese, and American hegemony in Southeast Asia, the relationship between the Thai state and Chinese capital provides a continuous analytical thread, and a very interesting and illuminating one at that, especially in terms of what it suggests with regard to the driving forces behind the emergence of national consciousness and a modern nation-state in twentieth-century Thailand.
The transformation of the loose state structures and limited sovereign powers of the Bangkok-centred Chakri realm into an effectively absolutized and integrated Siam by the early 1900s, Wongsurawat argues, was made possible by Chulalongkorn’s reliance on Chinese merchants for revenue farming and, more generally, on capital and labour imported from southern China. As Wonsgurawat shows, moreover, the establishment and expansion of a modern Thai-language educational system and a Thai-language press over the first four decades of the twentieth century transpired amidst rising concern among a succession of state rulers in Bangkok with regard to the circulation of reformism, republicanism, nationalism, and revolutionary socialism among the Chinese diaspora. The consolidation of Bangkok-centred market circuitries across Thailand and the creation of a national economy from the 1930s onwards likewise entailed the Thai-ification of capital and capitalists of recent Chinese immigrant origin. These developments and trends unfolded in the shadow of dramatic transformations in the international relations of Southeast Asia, with successive shifts from British hegemony to Japanese invasion and occupation and to Cold War-era American intervention further complicating and constraining relations between Thai state rulers and Chinese capitalists over the years. Thus the making of the modern Thai nation-state and of Thai national consciousness over the late nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries was enabled and impelled by the shifting relations between successive Thai state rulers, on the one hand, and Chinese merchants, on the other. Overall, against established state-centred narratives confined within the boundaries of modern Thailand, Wasana Wongsurawat’s The Crown and the Capitalists provides a notably de-nationalized, trans-nationalized, and inter-nationalized account of modern Thai history, with implications well worthy of consideration and further exploration over the years to come.
John T. Sidel is the Sir Patrick Gillam Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE).