The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

August 12, 2012

MSSU fall theme inspires look at Thai history

— The fall 2012 semester marks Missouri Southern State University’s 16th annual themed semester, but its first to focus on Southeast Asia — a vibrant region of over 600 million people. Thailand, meaning “land of the free,” is the only Southeast Asian nation to have escaped European colonization. Previously it was known as Siam.

Perhaps Thailand can be understood best when viewed within a regional context, since so much of its history has involved neighbors. The area’s growth resulted from Mon, Khmer and Pyu migrations, including infiltrations from southern China. Ethnic Chinese still make up about 14 percent of the country’s population of 67 million. Malays constitute a Muslim minority in the south, while various tribes inhabit the northern hill country.

The Sukhothai Empire emerged in the 13th century in what is now central Thailand. The ruler Rama Khamheng gave Siam a written language, encouraged the arts and adopted Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism brought in from India and then-Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as the official religion. Today, 95 percent of Thais are Buddhists.

Around the year 1350, Ayudhya (Ayutthaya) became the capital of Ramadhipati’s kingdom, eventually encompassing much of present-day Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. It was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767.

The Chakri Dynasty was founded April 6, 1782, by a military leader who assumed the title Rama I. He established a new capital on the Chao Phraya River and named it Bangkok (in Thai, Krung Thep) meaning “city of angels.” It is now a bustling metropolis of 7 million inhabitants.

Since World War II, when it endured occupation by Japanese troops, Thailand’s regional identity continued. SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was formed in 1954 by Western powers motivated by anti-Communism. Headquartered in Bangkok, it dissolved in 1977 after proving ineffective, most notably in Vietnam.

In 1967, Thailand helped create the more successful Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN now has 10 members (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and promotes economic development, social progress, peace and cooperation in the region.

In 1989, Thailand and the United States became charter members of APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation), partners in what President Barack Obama calls “the fastest growing region in the world.” Both countries seek to expand bilateral trade, which by 2011 reached $35.7 billion. Spurring this growth is an educated workforce reflected in a 93 percent literacy rate.

Even Thailand’s natural disasters tend to be international in scope. The horrific tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, which killed over 5,400 people in Thailand alone, claimed an estimated quarter-million lives in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean’s rim. Last year’s monsoon floods left more than 700 dead and caused extensive damage. Vividly illustrating how Southeast Asia’s weather can affect the global economy, the flooding disrupted Thailand’s export of auto parts, such as microprocessors, causing a production slowdown of Japanese-owned Honda and Toyota vehicles assembled and sold in the United States.

Buddhist monuments abound throughout Southeast Asia and include the huge complex at Borobudur, Indonesia, historic Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the magnificent gold-covered, 326-foot-tall Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar.

Among Bangkok’s architectural treasures are the ornate Wat Phra Keo, which houses a 31-inch emerald Buddha carved from translucent jasper; Wat Po, featuring a 160-foot-long reclining Buddha; and Wat Trimitr with its five-and-a-half-ton Buddha made of solid gold.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The current king, 84-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej, has reigned as Rama IX since 1946, making him the longest-serving head of state in the world. His birthday, Dec. 5, is a major national holiday.

On Aug. 8, 2011, Yinglak Shinawatra became prime minister, the country’s first female head of government. A native of the northern city of Chiang Mai, she holds a master’s degree in management information systems from Kentucky State University. Her older brother, the wealthy telecommunications entrepreneur Thaksin Shinawatra, was prime minister prior to being ousted in a military coup in 2006.

Given its tropical climate, colorful lifestyle and friendly, tolerant people, Thailand is a popular tourist destination. Attractions include the Royal Palace and Barges; floating markets on canals (klongs); demonstrations of Thai boxing and bamboo dancing; a nearly 400-foot-tall chedi (Buddhist stupa) at Nakhom Pathom; varied cuisine; nightclubs; and spectacular beaches along the Andaman Sea.

Two classic Hollywood films dealt with Thailand. “The King and I” (1956) won five Academy Awards in recounting the story of British governess Anna Leonowens who taught the children of King Mogkut (Rama IV) in the 1860s. “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (1957) won seven Oscars including Best Picture in depicting construction of the “Death Railway” to Burma by prisoners of war during World War II. Present-day tourists still travel to see the bridge near Kanchanaburi, 70 miles northwest of Bangkok, but it is not the one in the movie since filming actually took place in Ceylon.

A full list of Thailand semester events, including guest speakers, lectures, presentations, concerts, theatrical events, films, a documentary and readings is available online at www.mssu.edu/thailand/.

Virtually all of these are free and open to the public. You are invited to attend them to help broaden your perspective about this ancient and intriguing nation.

Dr. Allen H. Merriam retired in 2008 as a professor of communication at Missouri Southern State University.

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