Category Archives: Thailand

Yale Press Website Banned in Thailand

Inside Higher Ed reports that the Thai government is banning internal access to Yale University Press‘s website.

Thailand takes lèse-majesté seriously — as Yale University Press is finding out.

The Thai government has blocked access in the country to the Yale University Press Web site because it includes information about a forthcoming, critical biography of Thailand’s king. The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej is described in Yale publicity materials as the story of “how a king widely seen as beneficent and apolitical could in fact be so deeply political, autocratic, and even brutal.” The author is Paul Handley, a journalist who spent much of his life reporting from Asia, including 13 years in Thailand.

The book is due out this summer — in a year in which Thailand will be celebrating the 60th year of the king’s reign. The book acknowledges his popularity with the Thai people, but — according to the press — “portrays an anti-democratic monarch who, together with allies in big business and the murderous, corrupt Thai military, has protected a centuries-old, barely modified feudal dynasty.”

Well, I for one refuse to believe it until I see actual video on CNN of well-armed bodhisattvas brandishing their weapons, of masked mendicant monks carrying C4 in their begging bowls, of Theravadan thugs in Gitmo-orange robes chanting “Death to Elis” “Hasten the Retrograde Reincarnation of Elis as Flies!”

This illustrates in a small way the fatal weakness of area studies in academia: One can never be too critical of the areas one studies. One must always be their advocate and apologist. Well, except perhaps in American studies.


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Mission to Siam: Animal Tricks

On thing I love to watch in Lampang is the elephants of the teak firms working the huge teak logs that are floated down the river. At times the logs get into a jam and only the elephants are able to break up these jams. They seem to know which is the key log holding the jam in place. They work around the pile and concentrate on this one log, protesting loudly all the time. When they get to the log, they put their tusks under it and their trunks over it until it is shoved loose. Then the mahouts, or riders, bring in one or two more elephants, and the log is pulled and pushed until it is free and floated down the river. The rest of the pile is easy for these wonderful animals to handle. They work hard, and at the end of the job the skin on their foreheads is almost raw.

Charlie Munro, one of our British friends, told us about an elephant belonging to the herd he has for his work. This elephant was a female, old and clever, and was used for carrying the cook’s outfit–pots, pans, pails, et cetera. She had no rider; she was a trained animal and would follow the others. One day she apparently tired of her clattering cargo, for she arrived at the camp without a single pot or pan and with a most indifferent look. Another elephant and rider were sent back to see what had happened. All along the trail, at intervals, the man found pots and pails and baskets of provisions. She had taken these off with her trunk and deposited them on the ground. Nothing was destroyed, just junked. I think Mr. Munro said they used this elephant for other duty after that.

Another interesting thing to watch, though not as nice as the elephants, is the buzzards. In this country, buzzards are our health department. They take care of all carrion and things that, if left, would make life unbearable. They are as hideous as their jobs, but to kill them is strictly forbidden.

We also have crows, and they love to annoy the buzzards. When the buzzards have picked some piece of carrion clean and are sitting along a sandbar resting and digesting, with their wings spread out, the crows come in flocks and fly just low enough so that their feet, like landing gear, are dropped down and dragged over the heads of the buzzards. Back and forth they go, making the big garbage disposals hop out of the way. Finally the buzzards are forced to fly away. The crows then gather in a circle, with much cawing and fluttering about. They seem to congratulate each other on the routing of their enemies.

We have a pet gibbon that was given to us by some native friends. Gibbons are very near to being human, and this one, even as a baby, looked so much like a wise old lady that we named her Mae Tao, or Grandmother. I had a little house built for her on top of four ten-foot posts. To keep her close to home, we outfitted her with a harness attached to a chain about fifty feet long. This was enough to stretch to the top of the tallest tree around her house, and the chain links were small enough that they wouldn’t catch in the branches. When we installed her in her house, she stayed there for a number of days, pulling on the chain and getting her bearings, as it seemed. Then one day she went out hand over hand, exploring. From then on, there has been no end to her antics. She loves to tease one of the coolies, Ai Noi, a stolid, quiet man who puts up with a great deal from her. She also likes to harass the dog, Sen. He has learned never to come too close, or she will be on his back in a second, holding onto his long hair, and only Ai Noi can rescue him. She loves bananas, which she peels daintily and stuffs into her mouth, storing the fruit in the pouches on the sides of her jaws for future eating. She drinks water by dipping her paw–or her hand, I should rather call it–into the water and then sucking the wet paw.

Our other pets include two parrots, one small one, with a pink breast, and the other a larger bird with green and yellow feathers. Both talk well, in Lao, of course. I have never seen the big one at rest. Either he is trying to reach the small one’s roost, or he is climbing around on his own roost, talking, swinging upside down, or imitating some noise he has heard. He gives such a realistic imitation of a dog fight that one day I called to the coolie to drive away the dogs. These birds rule the back porch leading to the kitchen, and they delight in yelling the cook’s name in a fairly good imitation of my voice. One day, Lott took both birds down and let them walk around on the floor. The big one immediately went after the small one, saying, “Please just let me touch you” in a wheedling voice. But the other bird had no confidence in him and scurried across the floor to me. He climbed up into my lap and then up to my shoulder, saying all the time, “I’ll die, I’ll die.” But when he peeked safely out from under my chin, he yelled, “Nok kao, nuu ka bo’ dai,” or “you can’t catch me, old bird.”

SOURCE: Mission to Siam: The Memoirs of Jessie MacKinnon Hartzell [1884-1968], edited with a biographical essay by Joan Acocella (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 56-58

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Mission to Siam: The Ants Come Marching …

The rains have begun. We watched the thunder storms in the valley this afternoon. It is so strange to see isolated storms dotting the country, with bright sunshine in between. Tonight, after the first rains, we saw a spectacular sight. We were watching the moonlight over the ranges when we noticed dots of light, like fireflies, here and there all over the valley. Eventually the whole valley was filled with moving points of light. We called our servants, and to them this was no mystery. After the first rains, the frogs come out by the millions, and the natives turn out by the hundreds to catch them. They use a spear made of bamboo, sharpened to a needle point, and to guide their way in the dark, they carry lanterns–the lights we saw. Frogs are a great delicacy to these people. They probably ate frog legs before the French even thought of it.

We came down from the heights this morning. Toward the end, we had to hurry, as a thunderstorm was building. We just made it to the house as the first raindrops fell. That wonderful smell of the first rains, of dust being dampened, of dry leaves plumping up with moisture–everything combined makes a wonderful odor in the air. Even the ponies rejoice. They want to run.

But the rainy season is also the season of ants, ants of every size and description. Some bite, some only crawl, but all make for the food storage closet–all except the “army ants.” The army ants are a real army, with officers and also a huge “elephant ant,” who acts as an ambulance for those with sore feet or exhaustion. These pile aboard him, sometimes three or four at a time, and off he goes, alongside the regular line. This army on the march is about six inches across the column and several yards long. It goes through the house as if the house did not exist. The ants seem oblivious to obstacles and never go around anything. Over or under is the order. If the obstacle happens to be a desk, over they go, leaving a black smudge behind them almost as if their feet were covered with tar, and this mark is as difficult to remove as if it were tar. After suffering with the army ants several times, I found that a kettle of hot water can cause them to change their route. The officer ants are amusing to watch. They tear up and down the column, shoving any stragglers back into line and probably reprimanding them too, if one could understand their language. It is a great waste of my time to have these ants march through my house, but they fascinate me.

Then there are the small biting ants that crawl into our beds in the quiet night. It takes time and a lot of activity to get them out. Another kind of ant one could almost class with scorpions. This is the mot daeng, or red ant, named after its fiery color. The natives put it in their curry; they like its sour taste. When it bites, it stands on its head, to make a greater impression, I guess. It is the most belligerent of all ants except the mot tin, or tongue ant, which is about an inch long and shaped like a tongue. The people tell me six of them can kill a man.

These visitors teach us new habits. We have learned to keep our clothes not in drawers but in closets with open shelves. That way, if a snake or scorpion or centipede has decided to make a home in your clothing, you are likely to see him before he gets to you. Also, we always shake out our clothes before we put them on. In walking around the compound, we have learned to watch our step. The other morning we heard the servants talking excitedly, and we went out to see what was going on. Two snakes were trying to swallow each other, tail first, and had formed a complete circle. The coolie solved their problem. He killed them both.

SOURCE: Mission to Siam: The Memoirs of Jessie MacKinnon Hartzell [1884-1968], edited with a biographical essay by Joan Acocella (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 43-45

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Thailand’s First Coup and Last Absolute Monarch

The Nation (“Bangkok’s Independent Newspaper”) recalls the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand:

“On that morning, we heard about the coup at the golf course,” Queen Rambai Barni said, recalling the revolution that ended the Siamese Monarchy on June 24, 1932.

via Asiapages

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Changing Names: Thailand, Laos


The polity now known as Thailand was generally referred to as “Siam” for many centuries. Nationalists renamed it in 1939 in an attempt to be more inclusive of people, particularly in the north, northeast, and south, who had never considered themselves “Siamese” (i.e., indigenous subjects of the state centered on Ayutthaya or Bangkok) but might be persuaded to think of themselves as “Thai.” After World War II “Siam” briefly was restored as the country’s name in 1946, but little more than a year later “Thailand” became permanent.

The term itself is a neologism, combining the traditional ethnic identity “Thai” with “land” (prathet in Thai). As the word “Thai” also means “free,” some people translate the country’s name as “Land of the Free,” but it is unlikely that that was the original meaning. Many other peoples speaking closely related languages live nearby in Myanmar, China, Laos, and Vietnam; for purposes of convenience, linguists and other scholars sometimes label all of them, along with the Thai, as “Tai” (without the “h”).

There is wide variation among systems of transliteration of Thai into the Western alphabet, but in general place-names in this book follow those adopted by the Board on Geographic Names, as used on most published maps.


The word “Laos” was first used by European missionaries and cartographers in the seventeenth century to pluralize the word “Lao,” the name of the country’s predominant ethnolinguistic group. In the Lao language, which is closely related to Thai, there is no orthographic distinction between plural and singular nouns. In Lao, Laos is known as pathet lao or muang lao, both meaning “Lao country” or “Lao-land,” along the lines of prathet thai (Thailand).

The French used the term “Laos” as the name for their protectorate in the colonial period. After independence in 1954, the country became known as the Kingdom of Laos. In 1975, when the communists came to power and the monarchy was abolished, it was renamed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

SOURCE: The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History, edited by Norman G. Owen (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2005)

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Thai Dentists Perform Elephantine Root Canals

Australia’s Herald Sun (12 June 2004) reports on advances in treating elephantine root canals.

VETERINARIANS and dentists in northern Thailand have adapted human root canal techniques to treat elephants suffering from potentially fatal tusk infections, it was reported today.

Doctors at Chiang Mai University developed the technique to mend the infected stumps of tusks sawn off and sold for their ivory by unscrupulous elephant handlers, according to [Thailand’s] The Nation newspaper.

Tusk infections could threaten local pachyderm populations, elephant welfare organisations said.

Handlers often fill the severed tusks with soil and bark, which can cause tetanus and lead to death, the newspaper reported, citing research by dentists and veterinarians from several Thai elephant protection organisations.

Veterinarians throughout northern Thailand will be trained to care for elephants using the new technique, which employs the same material used to fill human cavities.

Then they cover the stump with a gold crown?

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Thailand: Dangers of Jihadi Reprisal

The South Asia Analysis Group has just posted an analysis of the recent clash between Muslim youth and Thai police in the Pattani area of southern Thailand.

3. The tactics adopted by the poorly-armed Muslim youth bring to mind more that of the LTTE in the early years of its struggle against the Sri Lankan Armed Forces or of the Maoists of Nepal or of the tribal insurgents of India’s North-East than that of the jihadi terrorists active in the South-East Asian and South Asian region. The LTTE, the Maoists and the Indian tribal insurgents used to adopt such tactics to replenish their stocks of arms and ammunition.

4. What these young Muslims have exhibited in common with their co-religionists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere is their fierce motivation and not the modus operandi adopted by them. They do not appear to be bandits or narcotics smugglers as projected by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand and his officials. They are politically and religiously motivated fighters, with no evidence so far of any external influence–either from the Jemaah Islamiyah of the South-East Asian region or the jihadi organisations of Pakistan and/or Bangladesh–on their mind.

5. Attacking in large numbers with machetes is not the known modus operandi of any of the identified jihadi organisations of the International Islamic Front (IIF). They do slit the throat of their victims with a knife just as they slit the throat of a sacrificial goat with one, but they do not indulge in massive attacks on posts of the security forces and the police carrying only machetes.

At the same time, Nirmal Ghosh in the Straits Times reports:

PATTANI – A top security adviser to the [Thai] government said yesterday that an underground shadowy movement that has been building its ranks for almost a decade was behind the recent spate of violence in the country’s restive south.

And the Weekend Australian reports:

SUSPECTED Islamic militants killed by security forces at a south Thailand mosque may have been trained abroad by the al-Qaeda linked South-east Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a news report said today.

Pattani is just across the piracy-plagued Straits of Malacca from Aceh.

Hat tip: Winds of Change

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