A book issued by the military junta in 2015, “History of the Thai Nation”, has stirred fresh criticism on the social media with its claim that the current non-elected government finally established “true democracy” in Thailand.
Influential scientist Jessada Denduangboripant, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University, posted a section of the text on Facebook earlier this month, drawing comments like “The winners write the history” and “No matter how evil you are, you can be a hero.”
On Page 295, the book states:
“General Prayut Chan-o-cha as Prime Minister implemented policies of national and political reform for achievement of ‘true’ democracy in the country, eliminating corruption and using ‘moral principles’ to lead the country to become a ‘true democracy’.”
Many respected historians had raised objections to the claim when the book first appeared in October 2015, some describing it as “state ideology” rather than “historical science”.
But, until this month, few people outside academia have glimpsed the book, whose print run was relatively small, or heard the criticism. Now, Facebook has inflamed passions anew amid widespread belief that the military is preparing to cement its role in politics at the next elections.
Assistant Professor Dr Pitch Pongsawat of Chulalongkorn’s Political Science Faculty said it was normal for national leaders to seek out different ways of communicating with the public.
“Although many historians critiqued the book as ‘state propaganda’, it has its value as historical evidence, recording that the junta leader, Prayut, used the Culture Ministry to issue propaganda,” Pitch told The Nation. “By entering this into the historical record, they shame themselves in public.”
The junta – the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) – courted controversy soon after the May 2014 coup in which it seized power by declaring 12 “Thai values” that citizens should emulate, which were clearly nationalistic in character.
Then, one year later, the NCPO assigned the Culture Ministry’s Fine Arts Department to produce a book with the aim of fostering reconciliation between the two political camps whose warring had led to the coup.
Fine Arts Department historians wrote the book in a rush – within two months – under instructions from Prayut to promote patriotism and nationalism. The general himself contributed the prologue.
“Studying history is crucial to help us understand the sacrifices of our ancestors who maintained the integrity of the nation,” it says, “and to be grateful for the kindness of the great kings who defended the populace from all difficulties and hardships.”
Culture Minister Vira Rojpojchanarat has said the ministry spent Bt1 million printing 10,000 copies of the book. Most went to schools and civic offices in all 77 provinces. Twenty copies autographed by Prayut were quickly sold at the launch.
The 208-page book – which can be read online at www.FineArts.go.th – contains three main sections, according to a review by veteran historian Charnvit Kasetsiri of Thammasat University. They cover the origins of the Thai nation and its evolution under absolute monarchy.
“The most controversial part appears in the last 15 pages,” Charnvit wrote in Art and Culture magazine in January 2017. “They cover Thailand in the modern period – since the revolution of 1932, which changed the system of government to a constitutional monarchy – to the present time under junta rule. It’s crucial that the authors judge and take sides, because in today’s Thai politics, the dust has yet to settle.”
Prayut also wrote in his prologue that he hoped readers would understand the “origin of the Thai nation” and be proud of “Thai national sovereignty”.
But historians found the NCPO version of history biased and conflicted, with events chosen specifically to benefit the junta’s political agenda.
At the 2015 launch, veteran historian Sunait Chutintaranond, director of the Southeast Asian studies programme at Chulalongkorn, concurred there was bias in the book’s account of recent history, especially beginning with Thaksin Shinawatra’s rise to power. He wondered how a prejudicial view of Thaksin jibed with the book’s intention to aid in reconciliation.
The Culture Ministry is planning to publish an English-language edition to distribute to Thai embassies around the globe.
“Bureaucrats writing history doesn’t work,” Sunait said. “It leads to further conflict. Writing history takes time and requires an exchange of ideas among both history academics and independent experts. No one can monopolise the writing of history anymore.”