The idea that Siam/Thailand was never colonized is one that is still expressed a lot in popular discourse but is no longer taken seriously by many academics. The evidence that has been provided to counter this idea has been aimed at showing that Siam/Thailand was both partly colonized and a colonial/imperial power itself.
To demonstrate Siam’s “semicolonial” status, scholars have pointed to things like the unequal economic treaties and extraterritorial rights for certain foreigners and their colonial subjects that all took away from Siam’s autonomy.
And to demonstrate that Siam was a colonial/imperial power, people have noted how the incorporation of places like the kingdom of Lanna was very much in line with what European colonial powers were doing at the same time. In other words, by incorporating Lanna into their domain, the Siamese were creating a colonial empire.
Today I was looking through P. Lim Pui Huen’s Through the Eyes of the King: The Travels of King Chulalongkorn to Malaya when I came across a picture on page 136 of King Chulalongkorn that I found fascinating.
Taken during a trip to Europe in 1907, it shows Chulalongkorn with some members of his entourage. They are all facing the camera and are all in Western dress. Meanwhile, Chulalongkorn has in his hand a camera of his own, and the lens of that camera is facing the person who is taking the picture of Chulalongkorn and his entourage.
I’m not a postcolonial theorist, but I suspect that such a person could find a lot to say about this picture and the “gaze” that it captures.
However, as some historians of modern Siam/Thailand have pointed out, postcolonial theory doesn’t really fit the Siamese/Thai context. Given that Siam/Thailand was both partially colonized and partially colonized others, it doesn’t really fit the colonizer-colonized binary that has been the subject of a great deal of postcolonial theory.
I agree with that, and to me that makes this picture all the more fascinating. What does it capture? I guess it captures the gaze of the semi-colonial-imperial subject, the “semicoloniamperial.”
What exactly does that mean? I’m not sure, but this picture of it is really fascinating!!