Academic pandering to royalists?

9 10 2011

It is a pretty regular thing to observe Thai academics pandering to royals and royalists, and donning yellow shirts (or whatever the color of current political demands, as long as it isn’t red).

What is less regular is the promotion of foreign academics who are essentially pushing the establishment line. Sure, Stephen B. Young was trotted out by The Nation some time ago, but he hardly has the credentials of a regular academic. His assigned role was to babble about royalist interpretations of a “good” Thailand.

PPT was initially taken aback by the Bangkok Post’s decision to highlight the ideas of Gerald W. Fry whom it describes as “an expert on Thai culture and politics.” We were taken aback because we would not have considered this a realistic assessment of one who has had little demonstrable impact on these fields.

Fry has a trickle of publications that might be seen as academic, although their impact has been limited (see, for example, Google Scholar for this to be confirmed). Fry’s joint-authored book, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations  is claimed in the article to be “a bible and reference about Asean nations.” Oddly the “bible” it barely cited. Google Scholar lists one citation for a book published in 2008. One online bookstore lists it as ” Children’s Nonfiction.” The publisher’s page lists it as a school book for “Reading Level: Grades 9 and up.”

Essentially, Fry is located in the same category as Stephen Young, saying things that quicken the beating of the hearts of all royalists.

There has been an attempt in recent years by elite and royalist Thais, like Anand Panyarachun and long-time palace favorite Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn, to suggest that foreigners can’t really understand Thailand and most especially they can’t understand the supposed special relationship between the monarchy and the serfs people.

These royalists simply love to hear this line repeated by foreigners. Hence Fry gets to be in the Bangkok Post. But what does he say and how much truth is there in his assertions?

The article asserts that Fry frets about “parachute writers”,  who spend only “brief periods in Thailand _ weeks, months or less than a year or so _ but still managing to pen tomes on the history of Thailand or mini-encyclopedic academic analyses.” According to the article, Fry is one of “a few critics who question these writers and their views on the Land of Smiles.” The latter term reminds us of 1960s journalism or the Trink of yore.

Fry is said to be “undertaking content analysis research on the coverage of last year’s Bangkok riots by international news agencies, CNN and the BBC. The work will be completed this year.” PPT thinks Fry and/or the reporter repeatedly confuse reporting and academic writing when referring to “parachute writers.” After all, the only mention of a “tome” is in this paragraph:

Some writers visited Thailand for a very short period of time yet managed to pen a book. As a classic example, he cited Louis E Lomax, a respected American journalist and writer who visited Thailand for three weeks in the mid ’60s and managed to pen Thailand: The War That Is, The War That Will Be _ an early work by a Western writer on Thai culture.

Lomax was a remarkable African-American journalist and political activist who died in mysterious circumstances while researching the FBI’s role in murders of African-American political activists. His Thailand book was published in 1967. The claim that it “misrepresented” was also made by scholar Herbert Philips in 1979. Lomax was remarkable for barging into nascent debates then dominated by white, often CIA-supported, academics deeply embedded in funding regimes controlled by and for the U.S. state.

His critics could point to errors in the book but the main complaint was that Lomax was taking a Black Power-driven and anti-American war in Indochina position. Lomax wrote that U.S. policy in Thailand and the country’s military-authoritarianism meant that Thailand was likely to become the “next Vietnam.” His book only has 17 citations at Google Scholar, so would have to be regarded as having had very little academic impact despite its truly novel positioning.

In addition to Lomax, Fry has a PowerPoint (a large download) where he writes of “Misrepresentations, Misunderstandings, and Ignorance” in Margaret Landon’s book, Anna and the King of Siam, which has been long known as a fantasy, even misrepresenting Anna Leonowens writings, and William Stevenson’s The Revolutionary King, which was lambasted on publication. Nothing new there.

Fry’s “unreserved admiration” is for Charles Keyes, Craig Reynolds and Chris Baker. He doesn’t say why he chooses these three over scores of others. Citing Said’s Orientalism, his “scepticism regarding certain [other] Western writers in Thailand” seems to be based on their failure to understand “Thai culture.” Without providing a single example, Fry is reported to observe a “tendency to make false assumptions which underlie Western attitudes toward less developed countries, a long tradition of romanticised images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture and an essentially supremacist attitude.”

PPT tends to think it sees more of the tradition of Orientalism in Fry’s work – with his reliance on essentialized ideas of “Thai Buddhism” and “royalism” than in most recent scholarship on Thailand. Take these examples from the Post report and tell us this doesn’t resonate with 19th Century Orientalism:

In all, the 69-year-old professor is still mesmerised by Thailand as he has always been.

In many ways, despite drastic political, socio-economic change, the country remains as mysterious as ever.

Everything in Thailand is more complicated than it seems,” he said, observing that there are always layer after layer underneath a seemingly simple event.

“Thailand is such a complex society,” he said. “I think foreigners need to be more careful [when writing about the country]. Their hearts are in the right place, yet they might not understand the country or the culture.”

Fry claims the unnamed writers who misunderstand Thailand particularly distort “gender, monarchy and women.” Unfortunately, in the PowerPoint, his examples are not of Western scholars but of journalists, films, dictionaries and “incidents” associated with advertising. It is as if Fry hasn’t read recent scholarship and is unable to distinguish scholarship and reportage.

He then proceeds in the PowerPoint to list a series of “Factual Mistakes” in the Historical Dictionary of Thailand. Somehow the next edition of the Dictionary is in Fry’s hands. As well as having produced a kind of compendium of how he plans to “correct” and royalize the new edition (with almost all the “missing” entries having to do with royals and their supporters), Fry’s PowerPoint lists “mistakes.” These include getting the number of national holidays wrong, recording “Thai Rak Thai having 248 seats in the 1996 Parliament; and 375 seats in the 2001 Parliament,” and stating that “Thaksin’s trial on concealing assets occurred the year before he was first elected Prime Minister; actually it occurred about seven months after he was in office.”

PPT doesn’t think that holidays matter too much as several recent governments have declared several more, but perhaps Fry is flummoxed by the fact that royal holidays are missed. Does it matter? On seats in parliament, Fry himself gets it wrong. The 2005 edition of the Dictionary says Thai Rak Thai won 248 seats in 2001 and “approximately 375 seats” in 2005 (the Dictionary was published in 2005, so it is clear the authors are writing about the time of the election). Most sources agree that TRT did win 248 seats in 2001 and 375 in 2005. The Thaksin assets case sentence in the Dictionary is mangled simply because it is being brief.

Fry is said to have “often found factual errors and misunderstandings in articles and books penned by foreign writers and journalists about the recent political crisis.” He is cited: “They create distortion…. A writer wrote that CentralWorld [where red-shirt protesters gathered last year] is three times larger than the Mall of America. In fact, the Mall of America in Minnesota is 10 times larger than CentralWorld.”

PPT doesn’t follow malls all that avidly, but a quick scan of a couple of web pages (here and here) devoted to the topic show that CentralWorld isn’t bigger than the Mall of America, but that Fry’s “10 times larger” is equally wrong and CentralWorld is about double the size of the Mall of America in terms of retail space. We guess readers are getting the picture: the man claiming errors is making them himself.

Fry’s claim to fame is his royalism. He claims his “next project is about education development in Thailand, focusing on outstanding educators.” Of course, this includes “HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.” Sirindhorn gets the odd credit for public comments on education and she is often seen sporting military attire giving lectures to military cadets, but that hardly makes her an “outstanding educator.”  Fry is simply a royal posterior polisher.

To make our point, Fry babbles on about the alleged “lack of understanding” as applying to the “unique relation between Thais and the monarchy.” Fry states: “I don’t think foreigners truly understand how much admiration Thais have for His Majesty the King…”. Anand has made exactly the same point and Fry is apparently parroting it.

PPT doesn’t think Fry understands much about contemporary Thailand that isn’t royalist nonsense. That’s exactly why the royalists like him.



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9 10 2011
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