Thai expert publishes book of essays

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Syl Kacapyr
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A new collection of essays, “Exploration and Irony in Studies of Siam Over 40 Years” (Southeast Asia Program Publications), by Cornell Professor Benedict Anderson reflects Anderson’s extensive work in the field of Southeast Asian studies.

Anderson’s essays have “established the tone and framework for understanding the American Era (late 1950s to the early 1970s) in Thailand,” writes Tamara Loos, M.A. ’94, Ph.D. ’99, Cornell associate professor of history, in her introduction to the book.

That Anderson, the Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government and Asian Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, feels deeply about his research subjects is revealed in his writing and efforts on behalf of the people of Southeast Asia, including testimony on Capitol Hill during the Vietnam era that he says got him into “trouble” with the Pentagon and CIA. In retirement, he continues to teach, edit, mentor and give talks, dividing his time between Southeast Asia and Ithaca, New York.

Anderson’s decision to study Thailand has painful roots: Originally a dedicated Indonesianist, in 1966 he co-authored an analysis of General Suharto’s bloody coup in Indonesia that was published as a book in 1971. The general responded by banning Anderson from Indonesia; it took 27 years and Suharto’s death before Anderson was allowed to return.

“But I got to be very fond of Thailand,” says Anderson. He says he chose the country partly because it provided a nice contrast with Indonesia: Buddhist vs. Muslim, democratic vs. authoritarian – although the latter contrast was unfortunately short-lived, because Thailand’s experiment in democracy ended after three years with a military take-over.

The incisiveness of Anderson’s critiques of Thai society and its most powerful institutions may arise partly from his ability to be both an insider and an outsider to the country. Says Anderson, “I have a feeling because I was born in China and am an Irish citizen, I didn’t have this steady one-world perspective [that most Americans have],” allowing him to ask unexpected questions.

The first essay in the collection, “Studies of the Thai State: The State of Thai Studies," is a critical review that Anderson first delivered at a 1977 Asian studies conference. As Loos writes, “One can only imagine the tension in that room full of established Thai scholars as one young upstart courageously sketched in pointed detail the conservative political implications of their work. The resulting article’s breadth of vision and mastery of the scholarship [has since] set the tone for much of the critical scholarship written about Thailand.”

Subsequent essays in the book look at shifting power between Thailand’s left and right, the role of the monarchy and the military. The most recent essays reflect Anderson’s shift from political to cultural and literary commentary, and consider such issues as sexuality, gender, artistic production, monuments and marginality. As Loos notes, the angry, hard-hitting and ironic tone of Anderson’s earlier work has given way to mischievous playfulness, though all his writing remains provocative.

His previous book, published in 2012: “The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand,” is not widely available, explains Anderson, because the Thai Ministry of Culture felt it was “very undesirable.”

Of his many other works, Anderson’s most widely read and cited book is “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism,” which broke new ground in the field of nationalism and has been translated into 35 languages.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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