Bangkok under Communism

What would Bangkok be like now if Thailand had undergone a successful Communist revolution? Of course, the answer to the question depends to a considerable extent on how the revolution took place, the nature of the ideology of the victorious revolutionaries (i.e. more Marxist-Leninist or Maoist), how much opposition there had been and so forth. These issues would have had a direct effect on the treatment of those who opposed the revolution: for example, if there had been a long and desperate struggle, such as in Vietnam and Cambodia, then the opposition could expect some harsh treatment – at best, thousands (maybe millions) would have fled overseas to establish resistance, government in exile and so forth from other countries (many would have suffered predation in the same way that Thai pirates attacked, raped and robbed so many Vietnamese boat refugees). At worst, large-scale re-education and labour camps would have been established and, no doubt, many would have died in their confines.

As for the city itself, it seems likely that many existing monuments and buildings would have been re-dedicated to other purposes; while new monuments to Communist leaders and victories would be found. Development of the city would have been lower overall, presumably, although public housing projects and public transportation systems might be better or at least more extensive than they are now.

What would have happened to the ethnic Chinese people in the city? Ethnic Chinese suffered under the Cambodian and Vietnamese revolutions, which initially received support from the Soviet Union. If the same pattern were repeated in Bangkok, many thousands of Sino-Thais would have found themselves persecuted and probably driven out of the country, with their capital (since Chinese are regularly accused of becoming rich at the expense of others around Asia). Russian and Russian-trained engineers would have increased the industrial estate systems, although foreign investment and ownership would presumably have been outlawed and factories would be present at the peripheries of the city as they were then. Collectivisation of agriculture would presumably have failed but not before the creation of large, central markets where goods would have been made available. Some wats may have survived but in reduced conditions.

Bangkok after Colonization

Thailand or Siam as it then was known was never formally colonized, unlike its neighbours Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. If it had been, what would the impact have been on Bangkok?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look at the changes made to other capital cities, such as Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Rangoon (Yangon). These cities were all subject to colonizing forces, the first three under French influence and the last under the British. These all became colonial capital cities (Saigon was a regional capital city rather than a national capital city, because Vietnam under the French was for long divided into three parts). What are the characteristics of a colonial capital city? First, it should be located on the coast because it was sea transport that represented the principal means by which goods accumulated in the colony could be relocated for consumption in the imperial centre. So, the capital of Burma under the British was moved from Mandalay in the north to Rangoon on the southern coast.

Second, the city centres were divided into zones depending on residence requirements. Superior land would be reserved for the colonizers and those privileged clerks and servants of the ruling class. The native people would be restricted to particular zones away from the great monuments and symbols of power. Further, according to the French pattern of urban development, the areas in which the poor lived must be properly regulated and easily accessible to the police and other state authorities: so, as in Phnom Penh and Vientiane, a grid system is created and comparatively wide streets or boulevards created to join individual blocks. This made it much more difficult for political dissidents or criminals to hide from the state and its representatives. Riots and demonstrations can be contained or suppressed as required.

Finally, new classes of intermediaries would be created: the clerks, police, civil servants and others through which the imperial power can control a much larger population of local people resentful of foreign control. The British used Indian troops and Sikh and Nepalese Gurkha police; the French used Chinese or semi-Francophone Vietnamese. These people were given special privileges and acted as a buffer between the local people and the Europeans: if there was violent resistance, it was mostly aimed against these intermediaries.

So, in the case of Bangkok, there would have been no need to move the location, since it is located next to a port. However, the main commercial and government centres would have been moved nearer the port; possibly the royal institutions would have been relocated to a peripheral area where they would have appeared less important. The higgledy-piggledy sois and sub-sois that now characterise Bangkok would all have been eradicated and a grid system superimposed upon the ‘native’ Thai areas. Between these two parts of the city would have been an intermediate zone dominated by the Indian, Vietnamese or Chinese (probably Indian) people imported to administer the colony and which would now be running the country rather than the Thai aristocracy. These people would have been the recipients of violent protest, almost certainly, in the post-colonial period. Depending on how the independence process was handled, which is an imponderable question, a successful Communist revolution would have been more or less likely.

Chin Peng

The Malaysian freedom fighter and leader of the Communist Party of Malaya Chin Peng would like to return to his home in the country for his declining years. He has spent several decades outside the country but, according to the terms of the 1989 agreement signed in Hat Yai, in southern Thailand, he ought to be allowed home – ethnic Malay members of the movement, after all, have been permitted to re-enter Malaysian life. Chin Peng, of course, is ethnically Chinese. He became prominent as a young man during WWII when he helped lead the resistance against Japanese occupation of the area (before Malaysia had been created in its modern nation state form) and then continued the struggle against the colonizing British after the Japanese had been evicted. Operating across the border in Thailand (where a number of the Communist Party of Thailand members were also based – in rather more comfort than on the Malay side), he fought against the British and their supporters in the colonial state for many years. When a settlement was finally reached, Chin Peng declined to return home claiming that the terms would have been too humiliating for him and instead he spent time in China. I am not aware that he has ever recanted from his political views even as support for the ideology has drained away once it started to become clear what life in Communist ruled societies was actually like. Here in Thailand there are still hoary old Cold Warriors who pipe up from time to time that there remains some wide-ranging Communist plot to overthrow the institutions of the Kingdom – one of the more nonsensical charges made by people who should know better (and in some cases do know better and are deliberately peddling harmful lies cough Suthep cough Kasit cough) is that former PM Thaksin Shinawatra is a Communist himself or at least in league with the Communists to start a revolution.

The Chinese in Thailand III

What impacts have the continued influx of Chinese migrants in Thailand had on the intellectual or ideological nature of Thai society? Some aspects are immediately obvious: in the decades after the Second World War, for example, the ethnic Chinese were routinely associated by the powers-that-be with the so-called Communist Threat. Certainly Chinese were among those who sympathized with the Communist Party of Thailand and helped to introduce some much-needed radical ideas into Thai politics. However, Communism is an international concept and, even given the Maoist tinge to much thought in Southeast Asia, it would be wrong to imagine that ethnic Chinese wanted freedom and equality any more than people of any other ethnicity would do.

Another area of impact has been on religion: within Thai Buddhist wats, there are many eclectic influences from Sri Lanka and India as well as China. The goddess Guan Yin, who has had such influence on the middle classes of Bangkok, is a Chinese goddess. Temples also frequently show the Four Guardians at the entrance, as well as the Three Kings of Heaven and all kinds of other iconographic elements are present too. Some temples are devoted more specifically to Chinese forms of Buddhism but even those that are not show the influence. Every shop or business that one enters seems to have one of those small cat statues with a waving arm, supposedly to beckon customers into the shop. That too is Chinese.

Perhaps less obvious has been the influence of Chinese thought on management and business ownership. The Chinese Family Business is quite clear to spot, for those interested in such things – they tend to be no bigger than one person can manage autocratically, to be opportunistic in diversifying when required and to spin off new ventures when a place is needed for a son or daughter or sibling who wishes to manage a business personally. The Chinese influence is also evident in the Confucianism that infuses corporate culture and labour relations. Confucianism in this sense leads to a form of paternalism which says that employers will take care of all of the workforce’s needs and, hence, there is no need for trades unions or, indeed, any form of workplace democracy. This has meshed effectively with the East Asian Economic Model that has been in operation here and which I have written about before.