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History’s never in a hurry

History’s never in a hurry

FRIDAY, August 19, 2016

Pattaya writer Duncan Stearn serves as curator of chronology with an easy but thorough reference guide to Thai history

IT COULD BE argued that Thailand, with its clockwork coups, suffers more than most countries as a result of failing to learn from its own history. With each new military take-over we hear, as a minor example, a fresh enumeration of how many coups there have been since the one in 1932 that traded absolute for constitutional monarchy. And yet abrupt regime changes, to use the modern euphemism, have been part of Siamese and Thai history from the beginning.
These remarkable swerves in political fortune – at least those since the 16th century – stud the 386 pages of “Thailand Timeline 1500-2015”, a remarkable new catalogue of the Kingdom’s history by Pattaya writer Duncan Stearn. 
The Australian has published a slew of books about Thai ways since settling here in 1999, and while most have been about the various species of fun to be had in the Eastern Seaboard’s “Fun City” (Stearn penned a column called “Nightmarch” for a couple of the newspapers there), his interest in the cultural and political shifts is also apparent. 
In 2002 he wrote “Why Preah Vihear Temple Should Return to Thailand”, and before that there was “Chronology of Southeast Asian History 1400-1996”, a precursor of sorts to the new one. Two years ago he was off “Walking through Bangkok’s European Heritage”.
Clearly a dedicated keeper of lists and clippings, Stearn has assembled “Thailand Timeline” from a broad range of sources, from wrinkled old tomes and the pageant of print journalism to this Internet thing that everyone’s talking about. Thumbing through the book, the reader’s abiding reaction is, “Where on earth did he find the time?”
The question of why he assembled this particular chronology needn’t arise. In the foreword Stearn explains it’s for “the many people who have an interest in the history of Thailand but would like it to be fairly straightforward and presented in a non-academic style”. The back cover adds, “The ‘Timeline’ is to be read as much for pleasure as it is for knowledge and information.” It’s also the most up to date book of its kind, the first to reach beyond the 2006 coup. There’s certainly been a lot of water under the King Taksin Bridge since then.
The book’s first entry, and the only one from 1500, is about King Ramathibodhi II of Ayutthaya commissioning a large statue of the Lord Buddha for a local temple. The timeline ends on the last day of 2015 with the birth of the Asian Economic Community. There are 16 events noted in that month alone. To give an idea of how much denser the entries become with the march of aeons, 1975 is the book’s halfway mark.
Along the way there is every moment you can think of and many you’ve completely forgotten about. Entries on the monarchy, the faith, politics and war (in the streets and on the actual battlefield) meld in a froth of years alongside glimpses of glory in sports and the arts, progress and regress happy to occasionally digress. It’s a daunting array – an extremely useful.
There are two causes for concern. The first is the inclusion of relatively minor news-headline stories, which crop up a lot among the entries of more recent years. 
While recording tourist deaths might somehow build a wider perspective of travel hazards or police ineptitude, and listing student gang fights might evoke a knowing nod of the head, it’s not so clear what drug busts and car accidents add to the big picture. “What may not appear sufficiently important at present may prove to be of great import later, and vice versa,” Stearn argues at the outset, though he seems to have been addressing political developments more than the daily wash of community news. 
The other concern is the exclusion of chapters for each year, or even each decade. That entire half-millennium of history – comprising 180,000 words and 7,000 entries, he’s calculated – rolls out unpunctuated. Granted, the book is meant for dipping in and out of at leisure, but navigating to a specific time period involves a fair bit of flipping back and forth.
If you know what you’re looking for, though, the index at the back is comprehensive. A press release for the book said it lists all the foreign celebrities and other prominent people who’ve visited Thailand, everyone from Joseph Conrad and John Steinbeck to Rocky Marciano and Duke Ellington. I found them all in the index, even the most faded of the stars mentioned, the Swedish actress Britt Ekland. 
One exception is that, while the “Swirly-faced Molester” of 2007 appears in the index, Nation founder Suthichai Yoon is absent (no, I’m not contractually required to check such things). Suthichai pops up at least once in the text, though. 
Stearn, who admits to “a love of greyhound and horse racing”, might seem a man interested in speed, but there’s nothing hurried or hurrying in this accounting for 515 years, which by rough tally translates into 4.5 million hours. If every hour is important, as the philosophers tell us, not a moment is wasted thumbing through this book. 
Thailand Timeline 1500-2015
By Duncan Stearn
Published by DCO Books, 2016
Available from Amazon, Bt830, and Smashwords