Textualizing The "Chinese Of Thailand": Politics, Knowledge, And The Chinese In Thailand During The Cold War


Sittithep Eaksittipong

PhD defended at: 

National University of Singapore


Aiming to shed some new light on the studies of overseas Chinese, this dissertation explores the production of knowledge on the Chinese in Thailand during the Cold War as a transnational identification project. Unlike conventional scholarship that makes the overseas Chinese an essentialised subject to be studied from various perspectives, this dissertation shifts the line of argument to a new level by looking at the scholarship as an identification project defining the Chinese identity. It reveals the underexplored role of scholars as manipulators and creators of Chinese identities and the connection between scholarship and Cold War politics. Over time, this identification led to the reorientation of the Chinese image from being "the Other" into a significant part "of" the Thai nation i.e. "the Chinese of Thailand".

Emerging as "an intellectual field" by the initiation of American social scientists at the onset of the Cold War, the study of the Chinese in Thailand as a part of Thai studies was closely related to the United States' anti-communist strategy. Conditioned by Cold War politics, the production of knowledge was dominated by Skinner's assimilation paradigm portraying the Chinese as "the Other" that needed to be assimilated into Thai society. It played a pivotal role in solidifying the academic identification of the Chinese in relation to the Thai identity in Thailand and served as a guideline for Bangkok and Washington in formulating policies towards the Chinese.

In tandem with the production of knowledge, American academic involvement with Thailand led to the establishment of a modern Thai academia. With significant academic support from the United States, the Thai began to conduct systematic research on the Chinese. The research first carried out by the Thai (including those of Chinese lineage) was heavily influenced by the assimilation paradigm. It thus reinforced the paradigm and made the identification of the Chinese as "the Other" to the Thai academically palpable.

However, with the rise of Thai intellectual nationalism in the 1970s, American academic involvement with Thailand came to be seen as an act of neo-colonialism. Thai scholars began to challenge the authority of American scholarship on Thailand, including scholarship on the Chinese. Sets of knowledge redefining the Thai nation as a country formed out of the admixture of various ethnicities started to be produced by Thai scholars. This led to the identification of the Chinese as the Chinese of Thailand, rather than the "Other" who needed to be assimilated.

In so doing, the Thai scholars found their reinforcement in knowledge produced by Chinese scholars from the People's Republic of China. Underlined by nationalist sentiment to protect China's historical sovereignty from the encroachment of Thai national history and to tighten Sino-Thai ties in the face of the Soviet-Vietnamese threat, Chinese scholars launched an academic campaign reorienting Thai national history and emphasising the status of the Chinese in Thailand as a significant part of the Thai nation. The Chinese production of knowledge, when converged with the Thai's, reinforced the identification of the Chinese as "the Chinese of Thailand".