That statement, or some variation of it, gets repeated over and over. Several months ago I was in Thailand and saw some advertisement that was encouraging students from other countries to study in Thailand, and one of the “selling points” that it listed was that “Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized. . .” And how exactly does that make studying there attractive/better?

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I was reminded of that statement the other day when I came across an article in The Straits Times (22 November 1924, pg. 3) about the government of Siam’s hiring of a new “financial advisor” in 1924. This is what it said:

“The appointment of Sir Edward Cook as Financial Adviser to the Government of Siam is in accordance with the established policy of that Government to look to Great Britain for some of its most important advisory officers, says the Pioneer [a newspaper in British-controlled India].

“Americans, French and Danish officers are also to be found in the Siamese Service. Thus Danish instructors train the provincial gendarmerie and there is an American Adviser in Foreign Affairs. In addition, a British Judicial Adviser and a French Legislative Adviser, with legal advisers of different nationalities, are developing the administration of justice in the Siamese Courts. British Forest officers are largely employed in the forests and English is the language of commerce, while the Siamese State Bank which was formerly managed by a German, is now managed by an Englishman.”

Sir Edward Cook

Ok, so Siam/Thailand may not have experienced “direct” colonial rule, but with foreigners managing the state bank. . . is it really accurate to say that “Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized”?

Add to this the fact that all of those foreigners and the subjects of their colonial empires enjoyed extraterritoriality (i.e., they were not tried in Siamese courts for crimes committed in Siam), and it becomes even harder to say that “Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized.”

Yes, Siam/Thailand was never “directly” colonized, but it also wasn’t exactly “sovereign” either. It was something else. And that something else is fascinating to study and think about.

Does this somehow make it an attractive place to study? Former colonies like Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines all use aspects of the colonial legacy (namely the English language) to attract foreign students. They do it in a subtle way that emphasizes a perceived “advantage” that has been gained from colonization without talking about the actual fact of colonization.

In promoting international education in Thailand by saying that “Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized,” where are people saying that Thailand has gotten its “advantage” from? That’s not clear, just as Thailand’s “non-colonized” past is not very clear either.