Advancing Global IR from a Thai Perspective: Opportunities for Pre-theorization and Conceptualization.

Date01 August 2022
AuthorThalang, Chanintira Na

International Relations (IR) as a discipline in Thailand emerged in the late 1940s to meet the burgeoning demands of the country's expanding bureaucracy. However, due to the lack of teaching personnel, the "scholars" who taught in IR departments were also the key drivers of foreign policy. As a consequence, academic and policy-making circles were inextricably interlinked, while the boundaries between practical and academic knowledge were indistinguishable, rendering the study of IR in Thailand akin to the study of diplomacy which focused on training diplomats for the ministry of foreign affairs. Nevertheless, several factors helped IR to develop more independently of the bureaucracy. One important factor was the increase in international aid and scholarships, especially from the United States during the Cold War. (1) This in turn paved the way for US thinking--especially realist perspectives--to take hold. In addition, faculty administrators saw the importance of transforming IR into a more academically orientated discipline. This was evident in the changes to the IR curricula at the country's two oldest universities, Thammasat and Chulalongkorn, which incorporated multidisciplinary approaches and academic training into the study of IR. (2)

Seven decades on, this article seeks to explore the current trends in IR as a discipline in Thailand based on a nationwide survey and some personal reflections. More specifically, the article examines the status of IR in three areas, including teaching, research and theory application, with the purpose of understanding the opportunities and challenges with respect to advancing local knowledge as well as proposing alternative concepts and theories related to debates on Global IR. The survey results reveal several challenges. In terms of teaching, there is still a heavy reliance on Western concepts, theories and literature authored by Western scholars, thus limiting the opportunities for students to learn about a range of alternative writings in IR based on experiences outside the West. The primary obstacle to research is university policies that place an emphasis on teaching over research. Furthermore, because the majority of publications by Thai scholars are in Thai, new ideas that have the potential to stir debate are restricted to the Thai-speaking community. In terms of theory, Thai IR scholars continue to predominantly use existing mainstream theories, despite showing a greater tendency to employ a wider range of theories than originally anticipated.

The aforementioned obstacles notwithstanding, the prospects for advancing debates on Global IR are buoyed by Thailand's position in the centre of mainland Southeast Asia. As indicated in the survey results, a large proportion of academics in Thailand have an interest in Southeast and Northeast Asia. However, because Thailand shares borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, universities close to the country's frontiers have established research centres and extensive networks that focus on issues concerning these countries. There are indeed countless opportunities for learning from the local experiences of smaller states through inductive reasoning and critically questioning the relevance of mainstream IR theories to local contexts outside the West. Equally important is how Thai IR scholars make the most of the abundance of policy-oriented research by seeking elements that may lead to pre-theorization, or what Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan define as "elements of thinking that do not necessarily add up to theory in their own right, but provide possible starting points for doing so". (3) However, it is also important to note that any conceptual or theoretical proposals inferred from local experiences and policies must also provide implications beyond national and regional boundaries.

Data Collection

As outlined in the introduction to this special issue, the population of the survey includes university-based academics and researchers. As of late 2020, the data collection team counted 96 university-based IR scholars belonging to 11 different institutions across the country, most of whom were Thai. (4) Although the Thai IR academic community may be relatively small in comparison to those in many Western countries, it can be considered a medium-sized one in Southeast Asia in terms of IR scholars per capita. Thailand has a population of 70 million and there are 1.37 IR scholars per one million Thais. This makes the Thai IR academic community larger than that of Vietnam, where there are 0.98 scholars per one million Vietnamese. In contrast, with a population of six million and an IR community of 105 scholars, Singapore has 17.5 IR scholars per one million residents. The relatively large size of Singapore's academic community is chiefly attributable to its active role in regional affairs and well-funded institutions while the extensive use of English makes the city-state a regional hub for academic activities in many disciplines.

IR in Thailand is generally defined as the study of other countries, regardless of the issue or focus. (5) As such, some academics with an interest in domestic politics of a foreign country are considered IR scholars. Out of the entire population of 96 scholars, a total of 49 scholars participated in the survey, which equates to a response rate of 51.04 per cent. The online survey request was sent out via email, followed by one or two reminders. The data collection team encouraged survey participation through both informal and formal requests. Informally, the team asked friends and acquaintances in different institutions to further encourage their colleagues to take part in the survey. Formally, the team sent out an official letter directly to the dean of several institutions with relatively low response rates. While the majority of responses were from Bangkok, the survey results also reflected a good proportion of responses from IR scholars in the provinces. Almost half of the respondents were entry-level lecturers (46.9 per cent). The remaining participants included assistant professors (26.5 per cent), associate professors (18.4 per cent) and full professors (8.2 per cent). Out of all the respondents, 49 per cent were male and 46.9 per cent were female, while the remainder preferred not to identify their gender.

Although no researchers took part in this survey, this exclusion was not intentional. Unlike many academic communities in Southeast Asia, there are no IR-focused think-tanks or university-based IR research centres in Thailand. To be clear, while the ASEAN Institute of Strategic and International Studies-Thailand (ISIS-Thailand) is based at Chulalongkorn University, the survey excluded ISIS-Thailand's fellows, the majority of whom come from a range of industries, including the media. However, the survey was sent to academics teaching at the Department of International Relations, Chulalongkorn University, who are also linked to the institute as members of the executive board. (6) In addition, there are a handful of university-based centres that focus on a particular geographical area but these institutions were excluded because they produced publications on a variety of issues including but not exclusively on international affairs. (7) In large part, the lack of IR-related research centres and think-tanks is due to limited funding in general. More importantly, IR-related matters are of little interest to the general public because the contemporary regional and international orders arguably pose few challenges to Thailand. Aside from the Thai-Cambodian territorial dispute, which remains dormant for now, Thailand is not faced with any impending threats or embroiled in any regional conflicts. As a consequence, there are no security concerns that would stimulate the public's interest in international affairs or ignite nationalistic sentiments against an external threat. This is a stark contrast to the older generation of Thais who experienced insecurity during the Cold War, which inspired IR concepts such as "bamboo bending in the wind". On the other hand, the younger generation of Thais, having experienced extreme political polarization since the mid-2000s, tend to be more interested in domestic politics. At the same time, political instability has also diverted the attention of Thai elites, who have been primarily concerned with political survival and are less proactive in regional affairs.

The majority of the survey's questions were close-ended, but some provided an "Other" option for respondents to give alternative answers. These questions were aimed at examining the state of the discipline in teaching, research and theory application, which serves as a way to gauge the level of academic interest in debates surrounding Global IR and the possibilities of engaging with them. Examining the content of teaching provides insights into the level of importance placed on theory and concepts while exploring the state of research is important as publications hold the potential to stimulate debates and introduce new ideas. Finally, investigating how theories are applied highlights the level of interest in engaging with existing IR theories, whether this involves refining theories or putting forth completely new concepts and theories. The results of the survey are discussed in the following sections.

Teaching Trends

The survey results show that the content of teaching programmes in Thailand and reading materials given to IR students maintain a good balance between imparting disciplinary knowledge and the empirics of international events. However, non-Western thinkers are still underrepresented in the assigned reading lists for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. In other words, teaching IR in Thailand is still heavily influenced by Western concepts, theories and reading materials based on experiences in the West, which are typically authored by Western scholars.

Overall, IR...

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