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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 140-146-E
Division Number: VI
Professional Group: Audiovisual and Multimedia
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 146
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

The making of oral history in Thailand

Rujaya Abhakorn
Department of History
Chiang Mai University


In Thailand, memory about the past has been recorded in written manuscripts through an oral tradition that was usually limited to political dynastic events, history of Buddhism and Buddhist relics, and local history, which again was usually confined to the history of the ruling family or local Buddhism, although we could also sometimes find legends and myths. These were periodically recopied by several people for their own reasons with little addition. Keeping a record of one's own thoughts and activities in the form of a diary has hardly ever been practiced. In fact, political leaders and their family members and close associates usually kept silent about their experiences and let them die with them.

The idea of recording people's versions of their lives or certain episodes in their lives is therefore of a very recent origin in Thailand. The reason for this is not the lack of modern technology. It is the unwillingness to reveal the facts and be responsible for the consequences that keeps the practice of recording the present in order to fill the past somewhat a novelty.

Interest in history as serious academic subject as well as an intellectual tool in the understanding of social change and political development was at its height in the early 1970's and seemed to stimulate the making of oral history. The Historical Society of Thailand was founded by a group of university history teachers and students in 1978. Before that, the study and use of history was dominated by the state in order to promote national consciousness. After the so-called "Students Revolution" of 1973 in which the military regime was overthrown by popular demonstrations, there were demands for "the people's history" to replace history of the state and the ruling class. The installation of an elected government also revived an interest in the history of democracy in Thailand that began in 1932 by a group of government officials who forced the royal government to introduce a constitution and parliamentary democracy.

This paper is based on a rough survey, with the kind assistance of Nakharin Mektrairat and Warunee Osatharom of Thammasat University, of "oral history projects" conducted since 1976 as well as publications that used oral interviews. The result shows that a state agency, the National Archives, and academic historians have played the most active roles in the making of oral history in the modern era. There appear to be three types of oral history, all of which are political in nature, but reflecting three different concerns: the history of the state, the history of the democratic movement and the history of the people.

The National Archives and Oral History

The National Archives in Thailand was officially established to collect official documents generated in the course of their routine duties by all the bureaucratic agencies in the country. As part of his responsibilities, the National Archives collected tapes of important royal ceremonies, parliamentary debates, and political campaign speeches, all of which took place in Bangkok. It was only after the two important political events of October 14, 1973 and the political violence of October 5, 1976, that the Archival Section of the NA initiated a project named "Talking About Old Times" in 1976 in which it interviewed six persons of different statuses and importance. The most famous was M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, a royalist and former prime minister best known for his multi-talents as writer, classical dancer, historian, and political skills, who was at the height of his career. Another royalist interviewed was Princess Poonpismai Diskul, a daughter of Prince Damrong Rajanuphap, who was a close adviser and brother of King Chulalongkorn. The Princess reminisced about life at court, her father and his political downfall after the coup of 1932, and her personal interests, particularly in Buddhism. Three other well-known writers also talked about their lives and interests. Khun Wichit Matra, another man-of-letters and composer, gave an account of life in Bangkok at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sathit Semanin, a journalist and writer talked about political changes as seen from the media's angle. Another old-time journalist, Phayom Rotchanawiphat, also talked about his life in the early twentieth century. The last person recorded under this project was a man of a completely different nature, a man remembered today as the leader of a violent group of right-wing political activists who were involved in the clashes of October 6, 1976 at Thammasat University. Colonel Sudsai Hasadin was the leader of the Red Guar anti-communist para-military group consisting mainly of young students from vocational schools who set out to physically oppose university students suspected of being communist sympathizers.

"Talking About Old Times" was not a particularly well conceived project. There was no clear objective or theme and, with the exception of Colonel Sudsai, all of those interviewed were writers who had already put on paper their thoughts and experiences. The project, by recording their voices, made them more "real" for future listeners and historians, without adding much more to what was already known from written sources.

In 1977, this project was reorganized to reflect the academic "oral history" approach. Questionnaires were prepared and preliminary researches made. Unfortunately, as it turned out, only three persons were interviewed, two of whom, Khun Phra Sucharit Suda, and Khun Phra Adisai Sawamiphak, were courtiers in the reign of King Rama VI (1910-19 ). The third person, Mr. Rabin Bunnag, was a professional photographer of social life. His collection of photographs later became part of National Archives Photograph Section.

Since then, the NA has frozen its oral history project, apparently for the lack of personnel and funding. Given the nature of its governing agency, the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Education, who liked to be self-sufficient without seeking cooperation from the universities, it is not surprising that the project was not sustainable.

A mention should be made of an oral history project by the Bank of Thailand. This was started in 1981 as part of archival work, with the aim of studying the history of finance and commercial banking in the country. Unfortunately, there was no time to conduct further investigation into this project for this paper.

Academic Oral History

Researches using oral history as a technique in gathering data in addition to the information already available in official publications and newspapers personal interviews have been conducted in Thai universities by three main groups: political economists, political scientists and historians. All of them are best described as contemporary political history. Five works will be cited here.

The work by Charnwit Kasetsiri and others (1992) is essentially a history of Thammasat University, emphasising the point that the university's history was entertwined with the political events and the political life of Thailand. The reasons for this were its connection with its founder, Pridi Phanomyong and the commitments of its students with the democratic ideals. As the researchers for this work were teachers and students of Thai political history, their investigation was extensive, using official and personal records, newspapers and secondary sources more than personal interviews of former teachers, students and administrators.The number of those interviewed (38) was not extensive and could not include two very important people, Pridi Phanomyong the University founder who passed away in Paris a few weeks before an arranged meeting could take place, and the late Duean Bunnag who was in charge of the University's administration during Pridi's political exile in the 1950's. As the researchers' main theme was how the university's moral and political ideals survived in the midst of political authoritarianism, the voices of the "radical" elements of Thammasat University were heard and given more space than their opponents in the entire work.Nevertheless, this history shows how a university history should be presented as part of the social and political life of the country, and not just an autonomous educational institution. It also belongs to a growing field of the history of Thai democratic movemenr, which at the moment is documentary based with either journalistic or populistic approach.

Kanok Wongtrangan's work onPolitics in the House of Representatives (1987) concentrated on the working mechanics of the Thai House of Representatives, which also included the politics of elections. Inspite of the aim at studying the actors, that is the members of the House of Representatives, only 13 MPs were interviewd, albeit some were important members, such as M.R. Seni Pramoj, a former Prime Minister, Banharn Silpaacha, who later became one, and Sawat Khamprakop, a veteran MP. Kanok tended to show the usefulness of his interviewees whose opinions on electioneering, the roles of the poltical parties, the legislative process and the conduct of parlimentarians support his own theoretical framework. There were no stunning revelations on political secrets or backroom dramas that one would like to see in political history since this work was conducted as a political scientist's research.

Yot's work (1990) on the other hand, focused on the individual politicians or powerful figures whom he interviewed one by one. They were M.R. Seni Pramoj; Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, a "dictator" whose government fell in 1973; Thanin Kraiwichien, a legal expert and judge who headed a right-wing government after the chaos of 1976 only to be ousted in a military coup 377 days later; and Boonchu Rojanasathian, a banker who turned politician and became popularly known as an "Economic Czar" for his expertise in economic affairs. Inspite of the small number of those interviewed, Yot managed to dig into their personal thoughts and obtained new data on some of the political intrigues that are essential parts of Thai political history. He let his informants "present themselves" as they were,and in the last three chapters in his book he analyzed their opinions on his chosen topics of the concept of power, leadership and the Thai power structure. His research met the expectations that oral history should provide us with useful new data gained though interviews as well as an indication of how they relate to wider issues of interest.

The economic condition of the people seems to be the focus of the Political Economy Group of "left-wing" economists at Chulalongkorn University. Their leader, Professor Chatthip Natsupha, was behind what is probably the largest oral history project undertaken so far in Thailand. The result is a surprisingly small pocket book (1984) on the village history of the whole country divided into four regions, the north, northeast, central and south. A total of 178 villagers were interviewed. The information gained help him to build up his thesis that from the 15th century to 1855, the date of the Bowring Treaties that forced open Thai economy to free-trade, the Thai village was economically self-sufficient. After 1855, the central plain economy became a market economy, while other regions still maintained their self-sufficiency nature. This thesis infact was based on documentry study prior to this research and the oral history investigation prompted Chatthip to show the differences between the regions.The oral information is well integrated into the thesis. It would be useful for other researchers if some of the transcripts are available in full so that alternative interpretations could be made.

The work of Phasuk Phongphaichit, a member of this group, could also be marginally classified as oral history. Underground Economy and Public Policy in Thailand touched on the dark aspect of contemporary politics and economy: the illicit economic activities that linked politicians with business. The nature of the topic made it unwise to reveal the names of the informants. The research result therefore contains no name of the persons interviewed, but made headlines because of the intriguing nature of the topic.

A recent contribution on the making of oral history is a thesis by Chaiwat Suphadiloklak of Thammasat University who worked on the economic history of the northern Thai province of Lampang in the early 20th century. Altogether fifty-four people were interviewed giving a good picture of the urban economy of this city. Although it produces no new thesis, it answers some of the questions related to the issue of the "formation of the capitalist class" that interest the Political Economy school.


Oral history in Thailand is used in conjunction with the general techniques of historical research rather than to be conducted autonomously. From the academic historian's point of view, this is a how it should be done. The problem is that the researcher's interests are at present highly selected and new topics only slowly emerge. Meanwhile, people with useful memory pass away, taking with them historical evidence. Libraries and archives could perform a useful task here, provided that they also do their history homework and are in tune with the information need of their communities.

Reference List

Charnwit Kasetsiri. 1992. Samnak nan Thammasat lae karnmuang karnmuang pho so 2477-2511 (That School Thammasat and Political Scinces1934-1968). Bangkok: Dokya Press.

Chaiwat Supphadiloklak. 1999. Pho kha kap kan phatthnakan setthakit: Lampang pho so 2459-2512 (Merchants and Economic Development: Lampang 1916-1972). MA Thesis Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University.

Chatthip Natsupha. 1984. Setthakit muban Thai nai adeet (Thai Village Economy in the Past.). Bangkok: Sangsan Press.

Kanok Wongtrangan. 1987. Kan muang nai sapha phuthaen ratsadorn (Politics in the House of Representatives).Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press.

Phasuk Phongphaichit et al. 1996. Karn prachum raingan phon karn wichai ruang Setthakit nok kotmai lae nayobai satharana nai prathet Thai (Seminar Report on Illicit Economy and Public Policy in Thailand). Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Political Economy Center.

Yot Santasombat. 1990. Amnat, bukkhalikkaphap lae phunam karnmuang Thai (Power, Personality and Thai Political Leaders) Bangkok: Thammasat University Press.


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