Ayuttaya was a multicultural trading city

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In South-East Asia the process of nation building occurred in the mid nineteenth century. It involved centralisation of the polity, the drawing up of national boundaries and enforced unity, often based on a single national language. The catalyst for this process was Western imperialism and this nation building took place, both in the European colonies, such as Malaya, Indonesia and Indo-China, and also in Thailand. Before this process was completed there was no such thing as “Thailand”. The country was created to defend the interests of the rulers of Bangkok in the face of competition from the West. Bangkok became the centre of a new local imperialist nation in its own right.

Naturally, an important part of this nation building process was the creation of “national myths”. In Thailand, the nationalist discourse claims that all Thais are ethnically pure and indivisible. Myths are also associated with nationalist “monuments”. An important nationalist monument in Thailand is the ruined city of Ayuttaya. This was a favourite location for the ultra-nationalist dictator Field Marshal Plaek Pibun-Songkhram. Not only did he order the construction of the fascist-style provincial headquarters of Ayuttaya, with an architectural style similar to the Democracy Monument and the Central Post Office in Bangkok, but he very crudely “restored” three prominent pagodas in a key temple. Army recruits and school children are brought here to marvel at the “greatness of Thailand”. The Ayuttaya provincial headquarters built by Pibun is now a museum. But on the outside of the building are grotesque statues of former military heroes.

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The military juntas in Burma and Thailand have taken the building of statues to military heroes to new heights.

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A study of history and a visit to Ayuttaya soon dispels the nationalist myths. Ayuttaya was an important trading city with sea links to other areas of South-East Asia, but also to Europe, the Middle-East, China and Japan.

There are archaeological sites of Japanese and Portuguese settlements. Portuguese mercenaries fought for the king against the “Burmese”. The Portuguese were also partly responsible for introducing a number of important South American food plants to the area, such as chillies, papaya, sweet corn and tomatoes. Before that, “Som-Tum” either did not exist, or it was made with unripe local fruits like mangoes. The only “fire” in the local cuisine would have come from peppercorns.

In the Ayuttaya museum, we see that trading contact with England came to a temporary halt around 1640; the year when England’s bourgeois revolution took place. The rising capitalist established a short-lived republic under Cromwell after beheading King Charles I.

However, the most interesting fact about Ayuttaya was that the official language on the trading docks was Chinese and Malay. People obviously spoke many languages, just like in other old cities around the world. The local population was clearly very ethnically and culturally diverse.

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Sheikh Ahmad

A visitor to Ayuttaya would be well advised to spare a few moments to visit the local teachers’ training college, near the old provincial headquarters. Inside the campus of this college is a Muslim tomb. It is the tomb of the chief port official of Ayuttaya who dealt with trade from Europe, India and the Middle-East. He is the primary ancestor of the powerful and aristocratic Bunnag family. Sheikh Ahmad was a Persian merchant, a native of Qom in Safavid Iran, south of Tehran, who settled in Ayuttaya around 1600. He was also appointed to oversee the affairs of all Shiites in Siam.

So much for the purity of the “Thai” heritage!

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