There are certain periods when historical discourses and their politics – who controls them, the mode by which they are disseminated, how competing histories are suppressed – become central to intellectual or public debate. In Thailand it has been some time since history provoked that kind of interest. Nationalist historiography appears to have achieved a position of hegemony that would be remarkable were it not for the fact that it apparently arouses little opposition. How secure, then, is this political and scholarly enterprise, a hundred years after it was founded?
In this article I look at a number of problems for contemporary Thai nationalist historiography. The first is the problem of the subject of these narratives, the Thai nation. How has the historiography of the Thai nation fared, particularly since the critique of the concept of “nation” provoked in the 1980s by such works as Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition? Second, what is the role of the monarchy in these narratives? How does the monarchy’s current political and cultural influence limit the possibilities of Thai historiography? A third problem is the representation of ethnic and regional minorities, which has challenged the previously unproblematic understanding of a unified, culturally homogeneous nation.
A new issue, appearing since the regionalization of the 1990s, is the effect of Thai nationalist historiography – as represented in TV dramas and movies, as well as in school textbooks – on relations with Thailand’s neighbours, which have in certain cases led to diplomatic tensions. The next problem concerns mainly the professional historians of the academy: the influence since the 1990s of “postmodern” theory and its undermining of history’s truth claims. If Thai history is simply one story among countless others with no superior claim to authority over the past, does it deserve its privileged status? A final predicament is professional history’s current state of near irrelevance to the way history is popularly perceived. How is the decline of the discipline of history in its institutional home, the universities and educational institutions, affecting its 100-year-old offspring, the story of the Thai nation?
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