Understanding Thailand

Understanding Thailand

The serious study of Thailand remains a marginal concern in Australia, writes NICHOLAS FARRELLY.

On 22 May 2014, Thai society was shunted by yet another military coup. The country’s political order is now being reshaped by an ambitious cohort of army leaders seeking to finally stamp out the influence of deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies in the Red shirt movement.

The generals also claim to defend the monarchy against perceived threats to its survival. With King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne since 1946, once again in hospital, it is inevitable that speculation about future conflict is rife. It is a troubling situation and one that has the potential to end very badly.

How well prepared are Australians to understand Thailand at this time? In this country, the serious study of Thailand has remained a marginal concern. Even though Thailand is Australia’s eighth largest trading partner, and was a destination for almost one million Australian travellers in 2013, academic interest remains shallow. Most of Australia’s other major trading partners, places like China, Korea, the United States and Japan, have generated a number of major academic programs, with ample and consistent resourcing, to support the development of Australian knowledge. Thailand, for various reasons, has never received such priority.

This hasn’t usually mattered a great deal. Thailand and Australia still enjoy warm relations, based on long-term affection and the hard-headed calculation of mutual economic and political advantage. These ties haven’t been tested by significant disagreements in living memory. Even since the coup, Australia has maintained a relatively gentle tone in official statements. For now, there is no indication that Thailand’s current episode of military rule will unravel any aspect of the bilateral relationship. Under these conditions, we are complacent.

Major report

In 2011, the Lowy Institute produced a major report, commissioned by the Australian government, on the state of Thailand-related teaching, research and outreach activities in Australia. Since then it is fair to say that nothing has changed. The suggestions of that report have faded from view and little of substance has emerged to replace them.

Much-vaunted investments by the Thai government in Thai Studies in Australia have yet to materialise and in the higher education sector it is only at the Australian National University that a small group of specialist scholars maintain what amounts to the country’s last Thai Studies program. The Thai language major at the ANU still receives a respectable annual enrolment. But it is now an aberration in an academic political economy that has not found ways of supporting ‘small language’ teaching without aggressive cross-subsidy.

It doesn’t look likely that major new investments in Australia’s Thailand expertise will emerge in the near term, although I expect the ANU and the Thai government remain committed, in their own ways, to keeping certain efforts alive. In this context, we must ask: are there new ideas for developing Thai Studies around Australia? Can the academic community come up with better ways of building long-term knowledge about this important country?

To share your thoughts, you may want to contribute to a recent New Mandala discussion that seeks new ideas about the future of Thai Studies in Australia.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under CC License Share-Alike

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