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3 Competitive Colonialisms: Siam and the Malay Muslim South Tamara Loos1 Imperialist Colony From the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth, European imperial powers imposed legal and economic restrictions on Siam, as Thailand was called until 1939. These restrictions limited Siam’s sovereignty in ways that made it comparable to a European colony. Siam, from this angle, appears colonized. However, this comparison uncritically locates Siam as a victim of the West without questioning the aggrandizing activities engaged in by Siam’s rulers or challenging the conformist historiography that it produces. Below I compare Siam to imperial Britain to reveal their arresting similarities. Siam most closely approximates patterns of British imperialism in its decision to create Islamic family courts, law and judges in what became Siam’s southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala.2 Siam’s colonial-style plural legal system parallels that of European imperial governments that had also established plural legal systems in colonial India, Africa and Southeast Asia by the nineteenth century. From this angle, Siam resembles an imperial nation that instituted within its territory forms of European colonial modernity. For these reasons, Siam sits at the nexus of colonialism and imperialism, where its sovereignty was qualified by imperial nations at the same time that its leaders enacted colonial measures domestically, sometimes in conscious competition with encroaching imperial powers. Connecting the halves of Siam’s split identity is law, and family law in particular. Family law is a pivotal arena in which Thailand sought to prove itself to be a modern country. For Bangkok, this historiography is the crux of how Siam appears colonized from the perspective of its asymmetrical relationship with European imperial powers and imperialistic in regard to its relationship with the Malay states in the south. Describing Siam’s noncolonial yet not entirely sovereign status poses its own set of terminological problems. Using the term semi- to modify colonial, imperial, or modern, risks interpreting Siam’s historical situation as a failure to move completely to a Eurocentric model of modernity. It positions Siam in between the very binaries—tradition/modernity, colony/empire—that critical scholarship seeks to dismantle. For these reasons, I do not 76 Tamara Loos refer to Siam as “semi” but instead attempt to expose the complex and multiple power hierarchies at work in their relevant contexts. More importantly, most scholarship that qualifies Siam’s sovereign status still tends to focus on the degree to which the kingdom approximates a colonized condition without emphasizing the equally important imperial aspects of Siam’s position. The reason that Siam cannot be thought of as imperial or colonized in any straightforward sense is because Siam’s political formation is measured against an unarticulated archetype of the colonized state and the imperial state, both of which eventually develop into a Western modular modern nation-state. By “modular” I refer to this model or ideal type, which never existed in Europe let alone elsewhere but still wielded power as an ideal. Western modular modernity refers to rule by secular and rational institutions of the state, law, bureaucracy and capitalist enterprise. Typically accompanying Western imperial rule was the creation of an entire field of knowledge about the colonized. Orientalism, according to Said (1978), is a discourse with a will to understand as well as a will to control the Orient through writing about it. In other words, modernity entails not just a set of governing institutions but also a more instrumental approach to knowledge. I would add to these characteristics of a modern state an ethos: social relationships are based ideally on an Enlightenment concept of inherent individual equality that made both slavery and polygyny backward practices. Yet, in Siam during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and arguably even today) we do not see a move towards this form of modernity. We see the strengthening of absolutism, the explicit conflation of Buddhism and state power, an astounding lack of systematic knowledge produced about areas it desired to control, and the continued practice and endorsement of polygyny, officially until 1935 and unofficially thereafter. Siam’s trajectory into modern statehood does not follow precisely the pattern set by Western Europe, yet few would deny that Thailand is today regarded as a modern nation-state. It is relatively easy to establish, as Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have with regard to political modernity in South Asia, that Siam’s is an alternative modernity (Chakrabarty 2007 [2000]). Although labelling non-Western forms of modernity “alternative” can sometimes reify the Western European...


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