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The future is in the past

orian Charnvit Kasetsiri has won the Fukuoka Prize, not least for his fearless comments. Photo by The Nation

Publication Date : 26-06-2012


Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thailand's latest winner of the Fukuoka Prize, believes Thais need to appreciate history more as a way to understand the culture and outlook of our neighbours.

The Thammasat lecturer's belief that a good grounding in history can only help solve problems propels his recent social commentary on this country's political woes.

"If you look at the mainstream media, do you think Thailand is still the Land of Smiles? In cyberspace things are going utterly crazy and messy," says Dr Charnvit. He believes people in Bangkok have a different way of thinking than those in the countryside, and which accommodating the difference won't be easy, it's crucial to the country's progress toward democracy.

Such outspokenness, and his academic contributions to Thai and Southeast Asian history, are the qualities that impressed the Fukuoka Prize committee. It mentioned in particular Charnvit's findings on the history of Ayutthaya "and also his research into modern Thai history [which] have made a significant public impact through his teaching, and have won international acclaim.

"Mr Charnvit's readiness to speak out and express his opinions about the problems in modern Thai society has also earned him notable influence as a social commentator."

Charnvit says the award's timing is helpful in his current work. He's off to Surabaya next month to address a conference of 500 historians from around the world about the dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple. He's also among those who want Article 112 of the Criminal Code amended - the "lese majeste law". Later this year he'll spend six months at Cornell University in the US writing another history book.

"The prize is prestigious and brings some money as well," Charnvit says. "And I guess, because of my role in Thai history and politics and the relations among the Asean member countries, they invited me to the conference in Indonesia to talk about the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. I'll be proposing its resolution by designating the disputed area as an Asean cross-boundary ecological and cultural heritage zone."

The Preah Vihear row embodies the problems caused when history is ignored, Charnvit says. Thailand and Cambodia have had to work from maps and treaties inherited from the French colonialists.

Unfortunately, he says, nationalistic, right-wing, "elite" Thais refuse to accept that King Chulalongkorn signed off on the French boundary map.

"If we accepted the map, there would be one less problem among Asean countries. I want to point out how China and Vietnam, seen as enemies for a millennium, have managed to agree on their shared border based on a map first approved by the Chinese and the French in the 19th century. That's how they solved the problem."

Instead, Charnvit sees the country awash in thorny issues stemming from official Thai history, much of which he regards as historiography. It too often paints our neighbours as traditional enemies, inferior cultures, or both. Such a mentality guides our dealings with Myanmar to this day, he says.

Thai history books remain adamant that Burma has always been the primary enemy. "It's time we got away from that kind of belief. We should look at Burma in the present and the future."

Among its other admirable qualities, Charnvit says, Myanmar has produced some of the world's best leaders, "which I don't think we can even compete with". He cites U Thant, the Burmese former secretary general of the United Nations in the 1960s, "and now it has Aung San Suu Kyi, who's a Nobel laureate.

"I don't think any country in Southeast Asia can match Burma. Look around. We need to rethink our relations with Burma. We need to get out of the kind of imagination that our heroes and heroines were fighting the Burmese 400 years ago. We have to come to the present and look to the future."

Charnvit says he was impressed with two independent films made by upcoming Thai directors that portray slices of modern Myanmarese life. "Four Stations" recounts a young migrant labourer's struggles in Thailand, while "Blissfully Yours" is a love story involving migrant workers.

"These films present something more positive about our neighbours, something beyond the official Thai history," Charnvit says.

While alarmed over current Thai politics, he's just as concerned - and wary - about the transition underway in Myanmar. He was allowed back into the country in April after having been banned for 13 years for criticising the ruling junta. On this trip he found encouraging signs. "As in our country, the road to democracy is long, but I would say the Burmese people can be more optimistic."

Myanmar's leaders strike Charnvit as overly superstitious, but so do Thailand's, and at any rate the overall picture there is not as grim. "It's rather amazing if you look at two figures. President Thein Sein has shed his military uniform in favour of a civilian suit. He and Suu Kyi are rather unusual for leaders in Southeast Asia. These are positive signs. Usually the leaders in this region are more or less authoritarian or oligarchic, not democratic."

Myanmar's progressive lurch forward, Charnvit says, is gradually overturning the belief here that Thailand is the most advanced country in Southeast Asia. "To be polite, I would say Thailand is now lagging behind. To be impolite, I'd say we're rather backward."

The future of all of Southeast Asia, he believes, lies in the hands of women. They're more capable than men in times of trouble. Fortunately the region is blessed with many leading women, such as Suu Kyi, Corazon Aquino and Megawati Sukarnoputri.

"I guess Yingluck Shinawatra will complete her term," Charnvit says. "The next election is in 2015, the same year the Asean Economic Community comes into being. There'll be a general election in Burma that year too, after Thailand's. It will interesting to see what happens."


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