Just by chance I came across this picture of the Thai historian, Charnvit Kasetsiri, on facebook today. The text at the top says (and I translate it loosely here in order to give a sense of the wordplay), “Scholars should leave behind their national race and join the human race.”
Professor Charnvit got his PhD at Cornell in the early 1970s, during the “Golden Age” of Southeast Asian studies. There were a small number of scholars from Southeast Asia who studied at Cornell at that time. Professor Charnvit was one, and Reynaldo Ileto from the Philippines was another.
Professor Ileto wrote a nice essay that is available online about that time (On the Historiography of Southeast Asia and the Philippines: The “Golden Age” of Southeast Asian Studies – Experiences and Reflections) in which he recounts how when he arrived at Cornell he was basically given direct orders that “You will NOT write a nationalist history!”
He didn’t, and neither did Ajarn (Thai for “professor”) Charnvit. In fact, Ajarn Charnvit has spent decades challenging nationalism in Thailand.
A few years ago Ajarn Charnvit tried to get the name of the country changed back to “Siam” as he felt that the name “Thailand” instilled a strong sense of “Thai” nationalism that came at the expense of other ethnic groups living in the country.
He has also worked tirelessly to try to calm nationalist passions that have heated up regarding the dispute over the Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodia-Thailand border, as he doesn’t see (I’m assuming this is what he thinks) that such politicized emotions can actually lead to any positive outcome.
Finally, I think that he also had a hand in the creation of the Museum of Siam, an interactive museum where the concept of “Thainess” is thoroughly deconstructed. In some ways one can see it as an “anti-Thai nationalism museum.”
Some of these efforts on the apart of Ajarn Charnvit are clearly motivated by a moral sense that it is necessary to reduce the influence of nationalism in order to make society more equitable and just, but the point on the picture above that scholars should change their focus from the nation to humanity likely also comes from a practical recognition that such a focus leads to better scholarship.
Another practical point that this picture demonstrates Ajarn Charnvit clearly recognizes is that in order to put aside one’s nation and join humanity in producing good scholarship, it always helps to drink plenty of beer. I totally agree! Cheers Ajarn!!