An interview with a Thai archaeologist

Bangkok Post carries an interview with Thai archaeologist and anthropologist Srisakra Vallibhotama. I’m no expert in Thai history and archaeology, so I find it interesting of the article’s mention about how he’s challenging the notion of Thai history starting with the Dvaravati kingdom (instead of Sukhothai), and more interestingly his rejection of the theory that Sukohthai was colonised by the Khmers. Of both issues I am unfamiliar with, although I suspect that politics is involved somewhere. Would any reader like to shed light on the situation?

13 September 2007 (Bangkok Post) – Bangkok Post carries an interview with Thai archaeologist and anthropologist Srisakra Vallibhotama. I’m no expert in Thai history and archaeology, so I find it interesting of the article’s mention about how he’s challenging the notion of Thai history starting with the Dvaravati kingdom (instead of Sukhothai), and more interestingly his rejection of the theory that Sukohthai was colonised by the Khmers. Of both issues I am unfamiliar with, although I suspect that politics and nationalism is involved somewhere. Would any informed reader like to shed light on the situation?

Champion of Cultural Diversity
As defiant as ever, scholar Srisakra Vallibhotama talks about how his life and work are helping change the landscape of Thai history
Sanitsuda Ekachai

Nearly a decade after his retirement, scholar Srisakra Vallibhotama is still a man of action with a spirit of defiance who considers himself a “master of time”.

At 69, Thailand’s leading anthropologist and archaeologist is still as busy as ever travelling, exploring, writing, editing, teaching – and questioning racist nationalism – to empower people across the country by reconnecting them with their cultural roots.


“I haven’t stayed in Bangkok much this month,” said the silver-haired scholar with a chuckle. Obviously, it is not a complaint, although the busy schedule takes him away from one of his passions, and a daily ritual – tennis.

“I am now the master of time,” said Assoc Prof Srisakra, with a mischievous glint in his eye. “You can be one if you don’t waste your time on irrelevant matters and concentrate on what you’ve chosen to do. I now choose to do only what I enjoy, and what I feel is important.”

The international community believes what he has been doing is very important. That is why Srisakra will have to give his daily tennis game a miss, yet again.

Today, the leading anthropologist and archaeologist, whose sharp mind and fierce tongue are much feared by top-down policy makers and academics, will be receiving the prestigious Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in Japan for his works on prehistoric and ancient civilisations in Thailand’s Northeast.

The Northeast, or Isan, has long suffered a poor image as the country’s most backward region, ever ridden by chronic drought and deep poverty.

By refusing the stereotype view created by the Bangkok elite, and not letting himself be restricted by conventional archaeology, Srisakra combines his extensive fieldwork with social anthropology, archaeology, history, folklore, ethnography and aerial photography to study prehistoric settlements and ancient states.

His interdisciplinary approach has shown that the Isan plateau had long been home to prehistoric and ancient cultures, which evolved into one of Southeast Asia’s dry-zone civilisations through large-scale iron-smelting and salt-making industries, as well as a water management system.

For the liberal wing in the academia, Srisakra’s contributions go much beyond his Isan work.

His work on urban planning of ancient cities challenges linear national Thai history that puts Sukhothai as the beginning of the Kingdom, followed by Ayutthaya and Ratanakosin.

He argues that the Dvaravati civilisation of the Mons found in Ayutthaya shows that the area, which evolved into Ayutthaya, is ethnically diverse in origin and is older than Sukhothai.

Not only threatening to turn national history upside down, Srisakra also rejects the theory from Western scholars that Sukhothai was colonised by the Khmer empire. His challenge to this dominant theory, championed by the Thai academia, has threatened national pride since Sukhothai has been glorified for declaring independence from the Khmers.

It is understandable that Western colonial powers see the history of Southeast Asia through the glass of colonisation, he said. But local evidence and folklore, which are looked down upon by mainstream historians, suggest otherwise.

Instead of total control from the power centre, folklore tells of complex relationships between different kingdoms of different ethnicities, which were constantly juggling for balance of power through coalitions and marriages.

“If we look at history this way, we will come to understand that we are all relatives, instead of being enslaved by nationalist hostilities,” he said.

The theme of ethnic diversity runs throughout all Srisakra’s works, from prehistoric settlements, early states, to his recent efforts to help villagers recapture their local history to “know who they are”.

“Ethnic diversity is our reality. It’s everywhere for us to see if we open our hearts and free our minds from centralism,” he said, gushing out his thoughts like a continuous, rapid stream.

“If we study our past objectively, we’ll understand that ethnic identity is not a static matter. It may remain in people’s innermost feelings, but they will also develop other levels of identities to bind themselves as one, be it language, faith, places of worship, marriage ties, or shared feelings that they belong to same community, region, or even a nation.

“If we understand the reality of ethnic diversity and respect the differences, we can solve the problem in the deep South. If we still insist on ethnic hegemony and centralism, the problem will not be solved.”

Srisakra’s passion for history was cultivated at an early age by his family. His grandmother had him read aloud her favourite literature, royal chronicles and folklore, to her daily. His father, the late Manit Vallibhotama, an archaeologist, took him to every nook and cranny in Thailand seeking out ancient ruins.

“When you see the real things, what you read in books suddenly becomes clearer and self-explanatory. You immediately understand the influence of geography on the settlements, their cultures and how they connected with others.

“And when you pay attention to what you see, the concrete evidence, new questions arise. This was extremely sanuk to me. I got hooked with it ever since.”

His initial plan to pursue archaeology was thwarted, however, because his mother objected. At the time, the newly-established Archaeology Faculty under the Department of Fine Arts only offered a certificate course. Srisakra, however, found his stint at the prestigious Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, a big let down.

Having already seen “real things” around the country and fired with questions, he found classroom rote learning and the faculty’s deep belief in history as the sacrosanct truth disagreeable.

Despite his love for history, he shifted to English and French. “For I knew I would never have passed the exams had I continued.”

When not burying himself in the faculty’s library, he travelled with his father who was “sent out” to survey archaeological ruins because his questions on “established truths” did not go down well with his conservative organisation.

It was during these travels that he fell in love with Isan. “It is the most diverse region in the country, both in its topography and people.”

Contrary to the myth of Isan as a dirt-poor region, what he saw was a region endowed with rich forests, clear rivers, vast plains where villagers of different ethnic groups with rich traditions lived in harmony and close to nature.

“I also saw the ruins which testified the region’s past glories. I wanted to know what had happened. I want to unlock the big mystery that is Isan.”

Sensing that social anthropology and its focus on prehistoric settlements may hold the key, he started his quests while teaching English and history at the Department of Archaeology, Silpakorn University, by doing his own field surveys.

Unknowingly, his thirst for self-learning during this period triggered important changes in local archaeology.

While conventional archaeology focuses on excavations and art history, his pioneer use of aerial photography to identify ancient sites has highlighted the need to understand overall topography, social environments and local communities to study prehistoric cultures.

“You cannot just focus on objects,” he stressed.

As a teacher, his support for inquisitive minds has grown into a movement that shakes national history to the core.

Knowing what it was like for students to have their burning questions shunned and derided, Srisakra helped his students set up the Culture and Archaeology Study Club and took them on field trips “to see things with their own eyes”.

It is the only way to learn, he said, and the only way to free oneself from nationalist theories, which are taught as hard and fast truths in textbook history, for instance theories that Thailand is the homogenous land of the Thais, that the Thais migrated from the Altai Mountain in China, and that Sukhothai was the first Thai Kingdom.

Direct encounters with archaeological evidence, together with the locals’ oral history and folklore, helped confirmed Srisakra’s belief that prehistoric settlements and the emergence of early states resulted from a series of indigenous developments, not foreign domination. That ancient cities and civilisation long predated Sukhothai. And that homogeneity is a myth.

Though initially attacked, these non-traditional views have become louder and louder through Sujit Wongthes’ Art and Culture Magazine and a series of publications under Khanchai Boonpan’s Matichon Group, thus forcing the educational authorities to review the theory on the origins of Thais. Sujit and Khanchai are Srisakra’s students in the Culture and Archaeology Study Club.

His subsequent academic training in social anthropology from the University of Western Australia confirmed he was on the right career path. But Srisakra found his unconventional approach, which challenges national history – and his sharp tongue – have not endeared him to his own organisation.

He could not care less, he said, believing that new concrete evidence waits to be discovered everyday outside the university’s doors. “And new evidence will help us ask new questions,” he added.

He also believes there are better ways to share knowledge with the public.

For 15 years, he spent his weekends travelling around the country helping the late Lek Viriyaphan, business tycoon and philanthropist, set up the Ancient City, a cultural park that showcases Thailand’s heritages from various parts of the country.

He also started editing the Muang Boran magazine, another of Lek’s ventures, which promotes art and culture, while conducting his own research on prehistoric settlements.

Apart from his own father, he considers Lek his role model. “I respect him for his zest to learn and his immense inner strength and commitment to make things happen without being distracted.”

Poet Prince Chandrachirayu Rajani was another role model. “They [Lek and Chandrachirayu] were both learned men, having deep knowledge in many fields. Yet they chose to concentrate only on what was most meaningful to them.

“They constantly cautioned me not to lose my temper or waste my time quarrelling with others over ideas, but to put all my energy into doing what I feel important without splattering my energy all over the place.

“They said it is the way to be the master of one’s time.”

Listening to them paid off. His work has won him praises internationally – for steering Thai history from nationalism and royal chronicles while encouraging Thais to see national history in a new light.

Many honorary doctorate degrees have come his way, including one from his own university, which once refused to grant him a professorship on the grounds that his writings, without footnotes, were not academic work.

His mentors’ advice on the need to master one’s time hit home hard when he was stricken with colon cancer and a heart problem. “I used to be arrogant, believing I was invincible. The prospect of death cut me down to size,” he admitted.

With support from his wife and two daughters, he started practicing Vipassana meditation. “Being one with the present moment calms my mind, frees me from irrelevant matters and helps me to concentrate on what is important to me.”

For the past decade, his mission has been to help people across the country recapture their past and take pride in cultural roots.

“The rapid, top-down development has not only destroyed local communities, it has also destroyed the villagers’ self-esteem by making them feel bad about themselves and their roots.

“Actually, the villagers are very wise and knowledgeable in managing their natural resources and social relations. But their knowledge has no power because it is not recognised. That is why their voices are not heard.

“If we want to empower the villagers, we must return power to their knowledge by recognising it.”

He has chosen to do what he knows best, helping the locals record their histories and recollect their ethnographic past. The exercise has not only returned self-confidence to the communities, it also has helped society recognise theirs as valid knowledge.

While some set up community museums to teach the youth who they are, others use their written local histories to assert their existence to counter state moves to push them to the fringe.

“With cultural confidence, people will speak up, fight for their rights and protect what is meaningful to them. Without this, democracy means nothing but fighting with the ruling elite.”

Like the communities he works with, Thailand as a whole needs to reconnect with its cultural roots and learn from its rich past, with ethnic diversity to heal the Southern strife and to allow the people to have a say in determining their way of life.

“If we do not know our roots, our past, we will have no future. It is as simple as that.”


Related Books:
Ancient Sukhothai: Thailand’s Cultural Heritage by D. F. Rooney
Ayutthaya and Sukhothai: World Heritage – Reflections Of The Past (2 Volume Boxed Set)
Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia
Ancient Capitals of Thailand by E. Moore, P. Stott and S. Suriyavudh
Prehistoric Thailand: From Early Settlement to Sukhothai by C. Higham and R. Thosarat
A History of Thailand by C. Baker and P. Phongpaichit
A Chronology of Religious Architecture at Sukhothai: Late Thirteenth to Early Fifteenth Century (Monograph and Occasional Paper Series) by B. Gosling

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

One thought on “An interview with a Thai archaeologist”

  1. I see most Thai people from the simple people to professor, they are tried to decoying where is Thai from, They tried to deviated from the real things that Thai are real people from Nanchao, ans started rebelled against the khmere in the 13-14 centuries. All these have been recorded and found by expertist of antropologists around the world. The Thai people like to cheat so much to the world , the land they lives to day is belong to the khmere in the past.

    We are Khmere we are so sad to see that Thai now even not recognised but still cheating and expand the land. see at preash vihear….etc

    Professor Sam Heng

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