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Review of Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand by Tamara Loos

Tamara Loos—Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand

Instead of taking a side in the widespread controversy over whether Siam was colonized, Tamara Loos’ Subject Siam provides a third trajectory, in which Siam not only traveled along both paths of being independent and getting colonized, but also simultaneously acted as an imperial power through “alternative modernity” by conducting conscious reforms and experiencing unconscious social transformations in legal, economic, political, cultural, and social realm of society. Loos has carefully investigated the emergence of Siam’s modern family law, the establishment of Islamic courts in its southern periphery, the changing perception and regulation of polygyny, as well as the intersection of religion, political culture, and sexuality. In doing so, she wonderfully demonstrated Siam’s interesting position as “sitting at the nexus of colonialism and imperialism,” in which Siam asymmetrically linked itself to its objects such as Malay Muslims, lower classes, and European form of modernity; In the meantime, however, Siam was also “subject to European norms of civility, economic dependency, and legal penalties that discipline and reconstitute Siam in the process of creating knowledge about it.”(25) By borrowing Foucault’s theory about knowledge as a form of power, Loos argues that Siam was both an agent and object of knowledge.

Like many other historiographies concerning the colonial period, modernity is also a main topic discussed in Loos’ work. People commonly perceived that the archetype of modernity, as an ideal that actually never existed even in Europe, was transported throughout the world by colonialism. In the Siamese case, although the paradigm was also applicable in certain ways, the idea of modernity was significantly shaped by the sense of “Siamese exceptionalism”, as Siam “escaped” from being colonized. Therefore, she tried to scrutinize “Siam’s unique trajectory toward modernity without glorifying it”—Loos argued that in contrast to making a direct copy of the European modernity as its colonized neighbors, Siam, especially its monarchy, adopted a conscious approach to appropriate it by bridging its gap with Siamese traditional culture. This is particularly evident in Siam’s legal reforms, in which the absolute monarchical power was further stabilized, centralized, and solidified. In controlling codification, translation, construction and reconstruction of legal concepts, the reforms not merely strengthened Siam’s independent status, but also successfully preserved the existing social hierarchies, and eventually made its imperial expansions possible. Some reviewer also paralleled Loos’ work with Tongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped, indicating that what Loos has done for law mirrored what Tongchai has done for geography—“to shed a special light of understanding on the complex processes of modernity in Siam by looking closely at a particular sector of governmental activities where we find, intersecting, Western colonialism, Thai political culture and religion, and the attempt by the Thai state to dominate its peripheral areas.”

The Muslim south was demonstrated as a “showcase” of Siam’s ability to conduct modernization in “foreign” and “backward” areas, so that “Siam’s very survival as an independent country” could be guaranteed. In this sense, the monarchy did not really care about how much Siam could economically benefit from the grasp of Malay territories, but rather, it is the political significance of Siam’s imperial presence in these areas that served as its initial motivation and ultimate goal. While implementing aggressive reforms as a sign of guiding the barbarians to modernity, Siam also made great efforts (such as establishing Islamic courts) to preserve “local cultural authenticity”, just like any other colonial governments did elsewhere. Being besieged by foreign powers, the Siamese monarchy was very sensitive about being doubt as “unable to rule”, thus, it replicated the British administrative practices in Unfederated Malay States in order to legitimize its rule in Patani. As Loos put it, “Siam is in a purgatory of in-betweens,” where “they could, at any moment, be colonized.” As a result, Siam “appears colonized from the perspective of its asymmetrical relationship with European imperial powers and imperial in its relationship to the Malay states in the South.” (80)

The later chapters of the book mainly examined the debates over polygyny and sexuality by looking at the intertwined concepts of cultural specificity, authentic national identity, and political culture. Loos pointed out that polygyny, as an ethnographic concept, was a foreign import to Siam from Eueopean privileged knowledge. In addition, the Christian system of monogamous marriage was also hegemonic, because it was projected globally by imperial countries through law. Although the idea that polygyny and extraterritoriality indicates culture’s level of civilization and the practical manifestation is problematic, it was still an integral part of imperial discourse that always served as a justification for foreign intervention. Therefore, Siam’s full sovereignty, which was largely contingent on foreign recognition, could hardly be achieved unless it “modernizes its legal system.” However, this is still insufficient to explain Siam’s abandonment of polygyny, since this rationale does not touch on deeper social roots that lead to the comprehensive transformation. Loos further indicated that the legal reform could take place precisely because of the impact of three factors: (1) reflective association existed among the king, the kingdom, and behavior of individuals; (2) the shifting function and meanings of polygyny; and (3) the expansion and changing composition of bureaucracy. As Siam’s top-down reforms being conducted and intensified from one king’s reign to another, polygyny’s function of demonstrating people’s masculine authority and integrating the kingdom through blood ties of loyalty was profoundly undermined. Along with this process, “polygyny’s sexual connotations were emphasized, moralized, and politicized while its former role in state affairs was depoliticized, disavowed, or omitted altogether.” (129).

On a larger scale, the notion of modern family, sexual morality, and proper sexuality was also used in state-building projects. As Loos elaborated in her book, the monarch attempted to utilize the notion to maintain the existing domestic hierarchies, excluding groups that threatened its absolute power; whereas commoner officials used the same idea to advocate political and social change and usurp sexual privileges associated with the traditional ruling class. Ironically, polygyny could serve as symbols of authentic national identity or Buddhism as opposed to imperial Christianity, but in the meanwhile, it could also simultaneously signify anti-monarchical and modern political stance. In such cases, knowledge regarding sexuality and morality such as male-female relationship and demarcation of citizenship was constantly reproduced and manipulated according to people’s political wills and their relative positions within the hierarchy.

Distinct from other nationalist discourse elsewhere derived from anti-colonialism, Siam’s “dynastic-as-nationalist” narrative emerged through “internal struggles dominated by alternatively competing and collaborative relations between varying factions of the monarchy, the aristocracy, the bureaucracy, the military and emergent middle class.” (157) Loos also added that the legal reforms, as only one aspect of the whole discourse, were conducted in a transnational context. Admittedly, these two points (internal struggles and transnational process) were made very clear in Subject Siam, and each of the argument was supported by detailed information. Other than these existed materials, however, I also believe that there must be more sources available to be taken into Loos’ future account: how did Siam implement its legal reforms in other peripheral areas? It seems to me that the paralleled model of “Europe- Siam” and “Siam-Muslim South” is oversimplified, as it to some degree overlooked the country’s diversity in ethnic composition and complexity in inter-ethnic relationship. Although Chinese communities were briefly mentioned in her book, some of her points regarding the monarch’s conduct against Chinese and other non- Siamese aliens should be further elaborated. As some reviewers criticized, Loos was not very successful in presenting real details concerning the actual functioning of the imperial-style system of Islamic family courts due to the lack of available archival materials. Rather than only focusing on the Muslim south, this restriction could be resolved by looking at the making of Siamese legal pluralism as a monolith.


1. Loos, Tamara, and Andrew Harding. 2006. "Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand". The American Journal of Legal History. 48 (3): 347.

2. Sturman, Rachel. 2007. "Subject Siam: Family, Law and Colonial Modernity in Thailand (review)". Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. 8 (1).

3. Lysa, Hong. 2007. "Thailand. Subject Siam: Family, law, and colonial modernity in Thailand. By Tamara Loos. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. 240. Tables, Graphs, Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography and Index". Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 38 (1): 188-189.

4. Loos, Tamara Lynn. 2006. Subject Siam: family, law, and colonial modernity in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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