Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sumet Jumsai Makes Sense (RE: Preah Vihear)


Bangkok Post

A little lesson in history The ongoing fury over the listing of the Phra Viharn temple as a World Heritage Site results from domestic politics as much as nationalism. Neither has anything to do with history and, in this case, architecture, which none of the vociferous parties involved has shown any appreciation for.

I can't help but fret over our shortcomings in history and culture as listed below.

1. My father, who spent years in the archives in France back in the 1960s, has the French map, or a microfilm of it, showing the "kink" from the watershed line to exclude Prasat Khao Phra Vihara from Siam. The said map was appendiced to the border agreement between France and Siam. This is something which nobody in Siam knew about when M R Seni Pramoj took the case to the World Court, and my father told me that it was obvious that Siam had to lose the case because of this map.

2. After the Court's deliberation, Field Marshal Sarit refused to cede the temple to Cambodia. A higher authority called him in to say that the country is bound by the said verdict and there the matter rested.

(Of course the approach to the temple is possible only from the Thai side of the border.)

3. Thais have never been good at keeping historical records, and we have to go to the archives in Paris, London, The Hague, Cornell, etc, in order to do our PhD's in Thai history!

4. Without the sense of real history, Thais are vehemently nationalistic, which is dangerous. For example, school textbooks still teach Thais that we came from the Altai Mountains and founded the Nanchao Kingdom, which Chinese scholars dismiss as pure nonsense.

5. Few Thais realise that the Khmer Empire used to cover much of present-day Thailand and Laos, as evidenced by Prasat Muang Sing to the west on the Burmese border, and the Khmer ruins in Sukhothai in central Siam, and Laos. The Thais, having wrested from the Khmers their outpost town of Sukhothai in the 13th century, took over the Khmer language - the Thai script being a simplified form of Khmer - and in the early Ayutthaya period adopted, with variations or aesthetic licence, Khmer architecture, classical dance and other facets of Khmer civilisation which were then unwittingly exported back to Kampuchea by the French in the 19th century. (Witness the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh which is a mediocre copy of our Grand Palace).

6. Kampuchea to Siam (or to history-less Thailand), is like ancient Greece and Rome to the rest of Europe, or 3rd century BC China and the T'ang Dynasty to Japan. That much do we owe to the Khmers!

7. In the end, a great monument like Prasat Khao Phra Vihara doesn't belong to any particular country. It belongs to the world. Only this or that country has the obligation to look after it on behalf of mankind.

8. History is the future. When people refuse to understand this, with a tinge of humour, they have to start from the beginning again and again.


I'm surprised the Bangkok Post published this. They have been on the right-wing nationalist bandwagon lately. I agree with the sentiments of this letter. Unfortunately, I doubt anybody will listen to Ajarn Sumet's wisdom and facts. It would be too rational for Thai politics.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Based on my limited knowledge, the letter appears to omit a couple of facts, the Thais asked the French to do the survey, as the Thais had no one who could do it and Thais accompanied the French all along the survey route. The French gave copies of the map to every Thai authority who was involved. That was in 1907 and 8 I believe.

The issue today seems less to do with history than politics. The Cambodian elections are over so things should take a more relaxed position.