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Re-thinking Latin American history through the lens of scholarship on Southeast Asia

January 20, 2017

This week we are featuring an article by our affiliated PhD student in the History department, Jorge Bayona. 

Back when I taught Peruvian history at a university in Lima, I had a chance to take a gander at the final examination a colleague of mine was giving. Her main question was a fill-in-the-blanks exercise in which students were to state the amount of square kilometers Peru had lost to each of its five neighbors. This kind of rhetoric of territorial loss had always intrigued me—every single South American nation partakes in it— and even inspired the topic of my Master’s seminar paper, in which I compared this trope in Peru and the Philippines. By reading more scholarship on Southeast Asia, this time on Thailand, I have found more concepts that historians of Latin America would do well to take into consideration when reproducing the discourse of “lost territories” in their own countries.

Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped is a keystone of Thai historical studies. In this book, he argues that Thai historians and officials in the 19th and 20th centuries ‘retrofitted’ the history of the “geo-body” of their country to conform to European standards of mapping: their historical maps were to feature uniform sovereignty and precise borders. In so doing, they were forsaking a far more ambiguous reality of diffuse borders and ambivalent sovereignty. Many of the territories that Thais would later lament as “lost” to British and French imperialisms were actually smaller statelets and kingdoms that enjoyed a large degree of sovereignty, and whose only attachment to the Royal court in Bangkok was a yearly tribute and promises of mutual defense. In its attempt to “preserve Thailand’s territorial integrity,” Bangkok eliminated their autonomy and proceeded to centralize power in itself. In this sense, this consolidation of the Thai “geo-body”, even though it “lost” large swathes of territory, was actually an expansion of territory directly ruled from Bangkok, rather than a reduction.

I find this to be a key idea to consider when studying South American claims of territorial loss. Unlike Southeast Asia, where Europeans and Thai elites had different ideas about what sovereignty was supposed to look like, in South America the élites all shared the same “modern” notions. The ones who were overlooked were the native, indigenous inhabitants of the disputed (and eventually “lost”) territories. Most of these territories were either in the Amazon basin or in Patagonia, and their inhabitants did not share the same notions of borders and sovereignty as did the ruling élites in Lima, Bogotá, or Buenos Aires. Much like the inhabitants of the Lao areas of “northeast Thailand” had foreign notions imposed on them—by both the French and Thai—, so did the natives of these regions in South America by Europeanized, Spanish-speaking élites in the capital cities.

In The Lost Territories, Shane Strate traces how Thai historians and politicians reimagined their history in order to spread a narrative of territorial loss, with a special emphasis on French imperialism. He shows how at the time of the signing of earlier treaties that were disavowed by later generations, the Thai elite did not feel particularly abused, but rather simply engaged in diplomacy and sought benefits for themselves. It was only the treaty of 1893 that humiliated Thailand, but the monarchy kept discussion of “lost territory” to a minimum. By the 1930s, however, Thai intellectuals in a context of military dictatorship argued that the Lao and Khmer peoples living in the lost territories under French occupation were in reality Thai. This feeling of dispossession climaxed in 1941, when Thailand and (Vichy) France went to war, resulting in a new border treaty whereby the Bangkok “regained” some of its “lost territories.” Allying with Japan during World War 2, Thailand also pursued the “recovery” of other “lost territories” in Burma and Malaya. Strate argues that in practice, this was a case of Thai imperialism and expansionism being exercised over formerly autonomous regions that had once sent tribute to Bangkok, not a “recovery” of territories once ruled from said capital. This is especially clear in the south, where Thailand annexed Muslim sultanates that could hardly be considered to conform to the essentialist notions of what “Thainess” consisted of.

The chronological parallels are particularly interesting when looking at two Andean republics in South America: Bolivia and Peru. In 1883 and 1884, both lost provinces to Chile in the context of the War of the Pacific. Unlike other “lost territories,” in South America, these had been inhabited by people who recognized themselves as nationals of those countries and had been administered by officials appointed by their respective capitals. The military defeat inflicted a severe historical trauma in both countries, for whom these “lost territories” would continue to loom large. Fascinatingly, the timeline of their next major military conflict lines up with the Thai experience. Chile’s military strength precluding a rematch, Bolivia got embroiled in a war with Paraguay over disputed territory in the Chaco in 1932-1935, and Peru invaded Ecuador in 1941. Rhetorically, much like Thailand, both were fighting for lands that they claimed had always belonged to them. And yet, looking at this through the lens of the Thai experience, we could argue that they were actually pursuing an expansionist agenda over indigenous territories they had not ruled before, but obscured it behind this rhetoric of “lost territory.” And much like Thailand, even though Peru won the war, it still felt that it had only “recovered a portion” of its “lost territories.”

Finally, both Thongchai Winichakul and Shane Strate emphasize the importance of retrospective maps through which nationalists represented Thailand’s geographic past using contemporary notions of sovereignty and borders. These maps only exist as artefacts after the fact, they did not exist at the historical times in which these losses were supposedly taking place. Intriguingly, we can see the same phenomenon playing out in South America. Here are two examples, side by side:

jorge photo 1 jorge photo 2

It appears that neither of these maps existed in the period that they claim to represent. They are both creations of later geographers who are trying to make a graphic representation of the discourse of “lost territory.” Being able to make these comparisons is why it is so important to read widely in any discipline. Many times, we may gain insight on a particular issue from a scholar who works on a completely different region of the world. Scholars of Latin America may benefit from reading Siam Mapped and The Lost Territories.


Sources for the maps:

Kasetsiri, Charnvit (ed.). ประมวลแผนที่ : ประวัติศาสตร์-ภูมิศาสตร์-การเมือง กับลัทธิอาณานิคมในอาเซียน-อุษาคเนย์ / Collected maps : history-geography-politics and colonialism in Southeast Asia. Krung Thēp: Mūnnithi Khrōngkān Tamrā Sangkhommasāt læ Manutsayasāt. 2012.

Pons Muzzo, Gustavo. Las fronteras del Perú: historia de los límites. Lima: Ediciones del Colegio San Juan. 1962.


Winichakul, Thongchai. Siam mapped: a history of the geo-body of a nation. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 1994.

Strate, Shane. The lost territories: Thailand’s history of national humiliation. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2015.