The Dragon’s Pearl: Thailand, Collective Memory and Relations with China

If the post-Cold war era has a dominant characteristic, it may be that sources of threat are much less clear and military conflict less common. In these conditions of uncertainty, Southeast Asian states are adopting a security stance often described as “hedging”; aligning neither with China nor the United States. In the absence of clear threat, the role of collective memory looms large as a shaping influence, and can provide useful insights into the cautious but less fearful views that many Southeast Asians hold with regards to China. Importantly, collective memory does not equate with history; it is imperfect and partial, shaped by power, both domestic and international. Thailand’s collective memory of China has in recent times tended to focus on positive aspects of Thai-China relations, whilst difficult Cold War relations, and harsh treatment of Sino Thais in the twentieth century, has tended to be papered over.

Memory and international relations

Memory is an underrated variable in international relations. Not only is it linked to identity, how we perceive ourselves and the “Other”, it is also strongly linked to emotion, which as Neta Crawford argues, shapes international relationships:

A pre-existing feeling that a relationship is warm, or one that is characterized by empathetic understanding with the other, may help actors frame ambiguous behaviour as neutral, positive, or motivated by circumstances rather than hostile intentions. Conversely, fear and antipathy may promote negative evaluations and make a neutral or positive reception of ambiguous behaviours and events less likely.

Thailand’s Collective Memory of China: the Sweet

Thailand’s collective memory of China has many facets, comprising different sites of memory. Sirin Phatanothai’s extraordinary story The Dragon’s Pearl humanizes Thai feelings towards China. At the height of the Cold War, Sirin’s father Sang Phatanothai, with the approval of Thailand’s then Prime Minister Phibun Songkram, sent the 8-year-old to live in China, as a gesture of trust and friendship. But Sirin is eventually caught up in the division and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Confronted by a faction hostile to her sponsor Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, she is accused of being a capitalist and forced to denounce her brother and father. As danger increases, Sirin flees to the Chinese countryside where she experiences great hardship. Years later, having finally escaped to Britain, she returns to China as an interpreter for a Thai government minister, as Thailand takes its first steps towards establishing diplomatic relations with Communist China. In a poignant final scene, Zhou Enlai apologizes to Sirin for what she had experienced while living under his duty of care.

Sirin’s story continues to be a subject of interest in Thailand, with her book first published in Thai in 2008 and now reprinted three times and made into a TV series. When China and Thailand celebrated their 40 years of diplomatic relations in 2015, Sirin was interviewed about her experience and commented: “Remember, we were friends with China when China had no friends. And now you see the relationship today”. Sirin’s story has entered Thailand’s collective memory and shaped its perception of China’s identity.

This story exists alongside other positive collective memories of China, such as the legend of King Taksin. In 2018 Thailand opened a new luxury shopping centre, Icon Siam. Stationed alongside was a floating museum in the form of a 50 metre Chinese junk. The choice was symbolic since junks were the means of Siam’s tribute and trade with imperial China. The museum was devoted to Thailand’s legendary King Taksin. After the Burmese razed Ayutthaya in 1767, a traumatic event of enduring significance in Thailand’s strategic imagination, it was the charismatic Taksin who rallied opposition to the Burmese. To obtain taxes, strategic materials and weapons, Taksin sought assistance from the Teochiu Chinese trading community and the Manchu court. Historians credit Taksin and other Chinese residents in the Ayutthaya period as having played a key part in the transition of Siam from a defeated and devastated kingdom into a vibrant and vigorous state. Today, shrines to Taksin can be found across Thailand in at least six provinces. They memorialize the king who “saved Thailand’s independence after Ayutthaya was invaded”.

Deeper and more threatening memories: covered up

These sweet collective memories complexify and, to an extent, cover up what has been at times a troubled and antagonistic relationship. In my forthcoming book The US-Thai Alliance and Asian International Relations: History, Memory And Current Developments (Routledge, with John Blaxland) we look at both light and dark memories in Thailand’s relations with Great Powers. Take for example, Thailand’s relations with China during the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s, China provided moral and material support to Thailand’s communist insurgency. Thai fears of incursions from its far northern neighbor were real, and its view in 1966 was that Thailand was “no exception to Peking’s grand design for conquest and expanding influence”. Thai soldiers posted to the Korean War (1950-1954) may well have killed their Chinese counterparts, (something which disturbed Phibun Songkram and his adviser Sang Phathanothai, and which led to their decision to send Sirin and her brother Wanwai as forms of human tribute, to become assets when China returned to a position of power, as they expected it would).

The view of China as an existential threat meant that the eventual opening of relations to China in 1975 was highly controversial and a difficult transition, one that Thai scholar Jittipat Poonkham describes as a “discursive rupture” in his forthcoming ANU Press book, A Genealogy Of Bamboo Diplomacy: The Politics of Thai Détente with Russia and China. But this memory has today faded, and many Thai military officers have forgotten that China was once their foe.

Other negative Thai views of China, such as those of Thai King Vajiravudh (1910-1925), are also largely forgotten. Vajiravudh once called Thailand’s sizeable Chinese diaspora community the “Jews of the Orient”, writing that:

The Chinese did not come with the intention to settle down in [any foreign] land and refuse to become true citizens of other countries. They always feel like speakers of a foreign language. Although some try to assimilate, the secret society leaders do not allow them to do so…..Since this is the case, the Chinese must be considered as those who siphon the wealth of their host nation. They are like vampires that suck human blood.

Vajiravudh was writing at a time when Thailand’s economy was dominated by Chinese merchants. As Wasana Wongsurawat explains in her recent book The Crown and the Capitalists: The Ethnic Chinese and the Founding of the Thai State, this group was of less concern to Vajiravudh than those Chinese labourers and students who were impressed by the 1911 overthrow of the Chinese emperor, and who might have entertained parallel seditious notions for Thailand.

Conclusion: more confidence from a longer history?

Today, China’s increasing presence in Thailand and its near neighborhood are provoking profoundly ambivalent feelings. For some, the long and complex relationship Thais have had with China over the centuries gives confidence that they can struggle through the current period with their more assertive and overbearing neighbor. One former diplomat told the author and John Blaxland, “remember the movie The Ugly American? At that time 1952, 53, 54 they were the ugly Americans, they were loud, brash, pushy. The Chinese are going through the same period. They have been told by their leaders, by Xi Jinping, that we are great now, we’re number 1.”

In 2019, I asked a prominent Thai academic why he believed Thailand was more sanguine about China’s rise than Australia. After mentioning Thailand’s domestic politics and Chinese investment in Thailand he added a third factor. Thailand is at ease with a big China, he said, because “we are used to it”. He was undoubtedly, though perhaps unconsciously, alluding to the wellspring of collective memory that underpins Southeast Asian feelings toward China.