BEDSIDE TABLE: TROUBLE IN BANGKOK

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Simon Long, The Economist's Asia editor, suggests some books about Thailandthe few, that is, that aren't either guidebooks or novels written by lascivious expatriate men ...

From THE ECONOMIST online

Simon Long is Asia editor for The Economist, a London-based position he's held since 2006. He joined the paper in 1995 as South-East Asia correspondent, based in Bangkok. In 1999 he became the Finance and Economics editor, and in 2001 a writer for Global Agenda, The Economist's daily online news section (now called News Analysis). In 2002 he moved to India as South Asia Bureau Chief. For ten years prior to this, he worked for the BBC in London and as a Beijing and Hong Kong correspondent. He is the author of a number of Economist special reports, most recently one on Indonesia, published in September.

Thailand is in the midst of a protracted and fatally violent power-struggle, with no clear end in sight. This conflict has revealed deep rifts between the metropolitan elite in Bangkok and the poorer, rural majority, especially in the country's north-east. Can you recommend any books that consider these long-standing tensions?

No. Browse the shelves in an Asian airport bookshop and you will find no shortage of books on Thailand. The vast majority, however, fall into two categories: tourist guidebooks and thin novels written by lascivious expatriate men, whose covers feature good-looking Thai women. None of these is of much help in understanding the current crisis. The gap in the market for a good English-language introduction to Thai politics, society and the economy has been best-filled by the husband-and-wife team of Chris Baker, a British historian, and Pasuk Phongpaichit, a Thai economist. My favourite of their books is probably “Thailand’s Boom” (Silkworm Books), published in 1996. (Given the book's unfortunate timing—just before the economic crash of 1997—a new version of the book appeared a couple of years later, called “Thailand’s Boom and Bust”.) Though obviously overtaken by events, it is still an insightful introduction to the country and a good description of the economic and social transformation at the root of the present divisions. Also helpful is their biography of the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is supported by many of the protesters in Bangkok, called “Thaksin” (University of Washington, 2009).

At 82, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world’s longest-reigning monarch and a revered national father-figure. The king is not in the best of health, and one factor behind the present unrest is the sense of unease most Thais feel at the prospect of the succession, which will see the accession of his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who does not enjoy the same respect commanded by his father, to say the least. Are there any books that chronicle King Bhumibol's impact on Thailand?

No. Thailand has extremely severe lèse-majesté laws (against which The Economist has editorialised and about which it has held an online debate). This means that any discussion of the role of the monarchy in Thailand is strictly curtailed. Oddly, much of the foreign press has complied with this refusal; to discuss one of the central issues in Thai politics (The Economist is an exception, as evidenced here and here). So most writing on King Bhumibhol is hagiographic. The exception, and a scholarly and thorough, if one-sided, piece of work is Paul Handley’s “The King Never Smiles” (Yale, 2006), which is banned in Thailand, and the only serious source on the role of the monarchy (reviewed by The Economist here).

What book would you suggest as a general history of Thailand?

Baker and Phongpaichit have leapt into the gap again with “A History of Thailand” (Cambridge University paperback, 2009), which, like their other books, has the great virtue of being extremely readable. It has supplanted the earlier staple, “Thailand: A short history”, by David Wyatt (Yale, 2003), which was heavier going but also good value. Of books with a narrower scope, I would strongly recommend, if you can find it, the brilliant “Siam becomes Thailand: a story of intrigue” (Hurst, 1991), by the late Judy Stowe, a former colleague of mine at the BBC World Service, about the machinations that followed the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

What's next on your reading list?

Having visited Thailand every year since 1982, and lived there for four years in the 1990s, I find recent events terribly depressing. I am reading about other things: “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel’s marvellous Booker-prize winning novel about Tudor Britain (reviewed by The Economist here), and the forthcoming “Curfewed Night” by Basharat Peer, a personal history of Kashmir, which I will be reviewing for The Economist.

(Bedside table is a weekly feature in The Economist's online culture section.)

Picture credit: SpecialKRB (via Flickr)