Skip to main content

Thailand in a Larger Universe: The Lingering Consequences of Crypto-Colonialism

  • Michael Herzfeld (a1)

The present parochialism of Thai studies, although partial, suggests parallels with the situation of Modern Greek studies in the early 1970s. The cultural and political conditions attendant on both in the respective time periods—especially the prudery, emphasis on bourgeois notions of respectability, and restrictions on the scope and content of scholarship—suggest that a comparative framework, already emergent, would benefit both Thailand and Thai studies today. Thailand and Greece both represent conditions of “crypto-colonialism,” in which the combination of adulation and resentment of powerful Western nations produces a distinctive set of attitudes. Important cultural and political consequences flow from this shared condition, as is also contrastively demonstrated by the two countries’ very different recent histories. For example, censorship, once deeply intrusive but now virtually nonexistent in Greece, was instantiated by absent voices and official surveillance at the Thai studies conference at which this article was originally presented. A defensive posture, such censorship exposes an underlying sense of political weakness and cultural embarrassment.

Hide All

1 This article is based on a keynote address that I delivered on July 16, 2017, at the Thirteenth International Thai Studies Conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I am grateful to Jeffrey Wasserstrom and to three anonymous readers for their speedy responses and helpful advice as I faced the task of turning an oral presentation, delivered under tense circumstances, into what I hope is at least a readable text.

2 I write this in early September 2017. At the time of writing, we have no means of knowing how the situation will develop. See, e.g., “Social Scientist Summoned by Police following CMU Academic Event,” The Nation (Bangkok), August 15, 2017, (accessed August 16, 2017); Pravit Rojanaphruck, “Five in Chiang Mai Hear Charges over ‘Not a Barracks’ Banner,” Khao Sod English, August 21, 2017, (accessed August 21, 2017); “Chiang Mai Organiser Reports to Police, Denies Charges,” Bangkok Post, August 21, 2017, (accessed September 16, 2017). The specific legal device invoked as the basis of the charge is Section 12 of Order No. 3/2015 of the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order and is an instrument created by the present regime.

3 John Draper and Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, “Charges against Academics Harm Nation,” Bangkok Post, August 29, 2017, (accessed September 3, 2017).

4 These individuals are academics Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Somsak Jeamteerasakul and journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall. See “Thailand Bans Online Contact with Three Critics of Regime,” The Guardian, April 13, 2017, (accessed September 4, 2017).

5 The Byzantinist Speros Vryonis was a rare exception, and it is perhaps not coincidental that he often spoke out, as I do here, about the necessity of placing regional studies in a comparative context.

6 On the extreme nationalism generated by the “Macedonian crisis,” see Karakasidou, Anastasia, “Politicizing Culture: Negating Ethnic Identity in Greek Macedonia,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 11, no. 1 (1993): 128 .

7 Agence France-Presse, “Twerking Star Leaves Junta Chief Hot and Bothered,” The Nation (Bangkok), June 14, 2017, (accessed July 11, 2017).

8 See Sopranzetti, Claudio, “Burning Red Desires: Isan Migrants and the Politics of Desire in Contemporary Thailand,” South East Asia Research 20, no. 3 (2012): 361–79; Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

9 Winichakul, Thongchai, “Asian Studies across Academies,” Journal of Asian Studies 73, no. 4 (2014): 879–97, 882.

10 Insisting on a particular and exclusive way of doing scholarship reproduces what Benjamin Zawacki, in documenting Thailand's political tilt away from the United States and toward China, shows to be a source of great resentment among Thai politicians: the condescending (and sometimes downright insulting) instructions meted out to them by their American allies, sometimes along with an equally infuriating refusal to take a principled stand. Zawacki, Benjamin, Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China (London: Zed Books, 2017), 232–34. “Lecturing” one's politico-military allies and one's academic colleagues alike can breed profound annoyance. In this respect, academia and geopolitics mirror each other.

11 On the legal and social difficulties of LGBT people in Thailand today, see Julia Boccagno, “A Dream Deferred: A Look at Transgender Discrimination in Thailand,” Huffington Post, December 4, 2015, (accessed September 3, 2017).

12 Bowie, Katherine A., Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

13 Van Dyck, Karen, Kassandra and the Censors: Greek Poetry since 1967 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997), 19 .

14 Ibid., 38.

15 Herzfeld, Michael, “The Absent Presence: Discourses of Crypto-Colonialism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 4 (2002): 899–926.

16 Winichakul, Thongchai, “Prawatisat thai baep rachachatniyom: Jak yuk ananikhom amphrang su rachachatniyom mai roe lathi sadet pho khong kradumphi thai nai pajjuban” [Royalist-style Thai history: From the era of crypto-colonialism to neo-royalism or the paternal cult among the Thai commercial class in the present], Silapawatthanatham 23, no. 1 (2001): 5665 ; Moradok sombun anasitthirat nai pajjuban” [The legacy of the absolute monarchy in the present], Fa Diaw-kan 9, no. 2 (2011): 4557 .

17 Given the role of archaeology in the state-driven construction of modern Greek identity, it is significant that one of the first Greek scholars to use the term “crypto-colonialism” was the archaeologist Dimitris Plantzos. Plantzos, Dimitris, “The Kouros of Keratea: Constructing Subaltern Pasts in Contemporary Greece,” Journal of Social Archaeology 12, no. 2 (2012): 220–44.

18 Apostolos Delakos displayed alternative understandings of Greekness in artwork in which he explicitly cited Herzfeld (2002, op. cit. note 15) at the Antonopoulou Gallery at Aristofanous 20, Psyri, Athens. The Thai artist Arin Rungjang exhibited artwork connecting Greece and Thailand as part of Documenta 14 at the Fine Arts School (256 Pireos Street, Athens). I am indebted to Konstantinos Kalantzis for alerting me to these artists and their work, and to Apostolos Delakos for a very helpful discussion.

19 I Avyi [Athens leftist newspaper], May 20, 2010. See also Kallivretakis, Leonidas, “‘Apopse tha yini Tailandhi’: I erminia enos ‘eksotikou’ sinthimatos tis ekseyersis tou Politekhniou” [Tonight (this place) will become Thailand: The interpretation of an “exotic” slogan of the Polytechnic uprising], Takhidhromos 246 (2004): 4651 .

20 Herzfeld, Michael, Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

21 Matichon, March 18, 2017, 13. The journalist asked me specifically whether I thought there was a speeding up of eviction under the current political conditions, the precise descriptive term for which was edited out of the printed version.

22 See, e.g., Ploenpote Atthakor, “It's a Big Mistake to Trash Bangkok History,” Bangkok Post, July 6, 2017, (accessed September 6, 2017).

23 Herzfeld, Michael, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics and the Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016).

24 Wimmer, Andreas and Schiller, Nina Glick, “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences,” Global Networks 2, no. 4 (2002): 301–34. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti made a very similar point in his own opening remarks to the conference.

25 Tambiah, Stanley J., World Conqueror, World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); The Galactic Polity: The Structure of Traditional Kingdoms in Southeast Asia,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 293 (1977): 6997 .

26 Jonsson, Hjorleifur, Slow Anthropology: Negotiating Difference with the Iu Mien (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2014); pace Scott, James C., The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010).

27 Barth, Fredrik, “Introduction,” in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, ed. Barth, Fredrik (Bergen: Universiteitsforlaget, 1969), 938, 15.

28 See Bates, Thomas R., “Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony,” Journal of the History of Ideas 36, no. 2 (1975): 351–66.

29 Barmé, Scot, Luang Wichit Wathakan and the Creation of a Thai Identity (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993); Wongsurawat, Wasana, “Beyond Jews of the Orient: A New Interpretation of the Problematic Relationship between the Thai State and Its Ethnic Chinese Community,” positions: asia critique 24, no. 2 (2016): 555–81.

30 See Linke, Uli, “Blood as Metaphor in Proto-Indo-European,” Journal of Indo-European Studies 13, no. 3–4 (1985): 333–76; Schneider, David M., American Kinship: A Cultural Account (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968).

31 Anderson, Benedict, “Riddles of Yellow and Red,” New Left Review 97 (2016): 720 , (accessed September 6, 2017); Wasana, op. cit. note 29; Zawacki, op. cit. note 10; Charnvit Kasetsiri, “Preliminary Observations on Historiography in Thailand,” n.d., (accessed September 6, 2017).

32 See Pipyrou, Stavroula, The Grecanici of Southern Italy: Governance, Violence, and Minority Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Leite, Naomi, Unorthodox Kin: Portuguese Marranos and the Global Search for Belonging (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

33 Herzfeld, Michael, “The Blight of Beautification: Bangkok and the Pursuit of Class-Based Urban Purity,” Journal of Urban Design 22, no. 3 (2017): 291–307. The so-called beautification of Bangkok displays what Eli Elinoff has recently called the “weaponizing” of urban space; this formulation is akin to my own usage of “spatial cleansing,” a term that deliberately evokes the parallel of “ethnic cleansing.” Eli Elinoff, “Despotic Urbanism in Thailand,” New Mandala, May 4, 2017, (accessed September 6, 2017); Herzfeld, Michael, “Spatial Cleansing: Monumental Vacuity and the Idea of the West,” Journal of Material Culture 11, no. 1–2 (2006): 127–49.

34 See Sopranzetti (2012, 2017), op. cit. note 8.

35 Herzfeld, Michael, The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

36 See Harrison, Rachel V. and Jackson, Peter A., eds., The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009).

37 The practice of requiring that all Thais stand to attention every evening during the broadcast of the national anthem supports the same metonymic relationship. Such arrangements are common wherever a system of hereditary monarchy holds sway and in some countries, such as Turkey, where it does not. Thai governmental officials, even during periods of democratic governance, are usually required to wear quasi-military uniforms for all official functions.

38 Herzfeld (2016), op. cit. note 20, 93.

39 Askew, Marc, Performing Political Identity: The Democrat Party in Southern Thailand (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2008); Kitiarsa, Pattana, “Kickboxer,” in Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity, eds. Joshua Barker, Erik Harms, and Johan Lindquist (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014), 119–20. One of the older community leaders at Pom Mahakan, now deceased, was a kickboxing teacher, and his presence was used as part of the community's claim to represent traditional (“historical”) Thai culture.

40 See Bakalaki, Alexandra, “Gender-Related Discourses and Representations of Cultural Specificity in Nineteenth-Century and Twentieth-Century Greece,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 12, no. 1 (1994): 75106 ; Loos, Tamara, Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006).

41 E.g., Duangwises, Narupon and Jackson, Peter A., eds., Phet Lak Chet-si: Phahuwattanatham Thang-phet nai Sangkhom Thai – Cultural Pluralism and Sex/Gender Diversity in Thailand (Bangkok: Princess Maha Chatri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, 2013); Pravattiyagul, Jutathorn, “Abusive Relationships: Thai Transgender Women and European Men,” Criminología y Justicia 3, no. 7 (2014): 5157 . Kathoey are usually biologically born as male, but dress and act as females.

42 Faubion, James D., Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constructivism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995). For more recent expansions on this topic, see Panayis Dendrinos, “Contemporary Greek Male Homosexualities: Greek Gay Men's Experiences of the Family, the Military and the LGBT Movement,” PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2008; Riedel, Brian S., “Forlorn, Ancient District: Gázi as Gayborhood?Journal of Mediterranean Studies 18 (2010): 241–64.

43 See Van Steen, Gonda A. H., Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 181 .

44 Rural Greeks, on the other hand, would see discretion as typifying their own somewhat gender-segregated world. Few rural Greeks would act as did the Thai informant who told me that, as his wife knew more of a certain matter than he did, I should visit her alone at their home to discuss it.

45 Anecdotally, it was reported to me that some Thai members of the audience did experience some difficulty in understanding the Greek materials. While such difficulty is understandable, it also points to the value and perhaps also the urgency of inserting comparative materials of this kind in Thai studies curricula. See now Haberkorn, Tyrell, “Engendering Sedition: Ethel Rosenberg, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, and the Courage of Refusal,” positions 24, no. 3 (2016): 621–51.

46 The current Greek crisis and the 1997 financial crisis in Thailand, while not identical in cause or trajectory, also point to a possible common effect of the crypto-colonial condition.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9118
  • EISSN: 1752-0401
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Related content

Powered by UNSILO