Webinar on “Smoothing Subversion: Silk as Political Strategy in Modern Thailand”

In this hybrid seminar, Dr Alexandra Dalferro explored the roles that silk and sericulture played in Thailand during the Cold War period, highlighting the ways silks were integrated into counterinsurgency and rural development projects established across provincial Thailand.


21 June 2022, Tuesday – This hybrid seminar explored the roles that silk and sericulture played in Thailand during the Cold War period. It highlighted the ways in which silks were integrated into counterinsurgency and rural development projects such as the Self-Help Settlement communities that the Bangkok government established across provincial Thailand. The seminar drew 52 attendees, in-person and via Zoom.

Speaker Dr Alexandra Dalferro (right) with moderator Dr Ian Storey. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The speaker addressed the process of sericulture, the use of silk as a central part of a smooth strategy to domesticate ‘rough’ populaces, and the roles of individuals such as Queen Sirikit, Jim Thompson and others in promoting silk as Thai cultural heritage. Dr Dalferro connected these dots to the landscape of silk production, especially in ethnic Khmer communities in Surin Province, Northeast Thailand.

A 1964 booklet produced by the Thai Silk Promotion Committee offered a full-page warning on how to distinguish ‘genuine’ Thai silk. The booklet was distributed among international tourists in Bangkok, and silk commodities exported from Thailand help to convince American society that the country was ‘an oasis on a troubled continent’ during the Cold War period. Silks have been woven in Thailand for over 1000 years, and they were historically important tributary gifts exchanged among kingdoms. The ability of women to weave was viewed as an important skill by male suitors.

Most silk produced in Thailand today comes from the Northeast, or Isan. Eighty percent of Thailand’s raw silk is produced there, in a region whose people are often stigmatized and marginalized in Central Thai discourse – perceived to be poor, undereducated country folk inferior to other Thai people in the country’s codified ethnic hierarchy. The varied methods, techniques and patterns that characterise silks from the Northeast materialise the region’s ethnolinguistic diversity.

In the late 1950s, some members of the Thai ruling elite believed that opposition leaders from the Northeast were allied with a communist conspiracy, and any political dissent in the region was perceived by the Bangkok government as communist activity. Members of ruling circles viewed the ‘communist’ problem in the Northeast as a provincial-level nuisance at first, but the perception later shifted to one that regarded the communist insurgency in the region as a potential threat to the continued existence of the Bangkok government and of Thailand itself. With ample economic and personnel support provided by the United States, that government engaged in various counterinsurgency and cultural and economic development projects to change the balance of power in the Northeast in its favour.

Members of Thailand’s royal family played a role in the implementation of these cultural and economic development projects. King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit visited Central and Northeast Thailand for the first time in 1955. Queen Sirikit became captivated by silk, as she was impressed by the silk sarongs worn by the women who greeted her. The queen then promoted silk and weaving as symbols of herself and, by immediate extension, of the nation and national cultural heritage. The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, opened in 2012, showcases the former queen wearing silk as a resplendent symbol of the “good, refined, morally correct and aesthetically beautiful”. In addition to the royal family’s role in countering communism, Queen Sirikit’s programs may have unfolded as a direct response to the threat posed by foreign ‘Silk Kings’ such as Jim Thompson and Lewis Cykman, who were also investing heavily in the Thai silk market and reorganizing production to meet standards and attain volumes for international consumption.

Dr Dalferro explained the project called the Self-Help Settlement for Sericulture-Surin under Royal Patronage. Established in 1977, this settlement brought people together from across Surin Province and other provinces of the Northeast region in a carefully designed resettlement project that aimed to care for the nation’s supposedly roughest, most vulnerable populations. In reality, the inhabitants of this and Thailand’s other Self-Help Settlement communities were given little choice but to support the nation through sericulture and other pursuits as they became productive national subjects. Self-Help Settlements were intended to provide landless families in the poor Northeast region with homesteads; to resettle ethnically minoritized highland groups in Northern Thailand to permanent lowland sites; to resettle people forced from their homes by development projects; and, lastly, to stabilize the ‘communist-infested’ borders. The speaker observed that rough experiences were, however, produced through the structural violence of the Thai government’s paternalistic care rooted in anti-communism. The sericulture settlement continues to perpetuate this system through the enduring signification of silk as a national-royal symbol that must be protected and preserved.

In her final thoughts, Dr Dalferro described the socio-economic conditions of silk weavers today. People who work with silk at the village level do not necessarily identify primarily as weavers, or as artists, artisans or craftspeople. They usually also cultivate rice, raise livestock, care for children, and volunteer in their villages. The weaving and silk-making network in Surin is tight-knit and well-connected by social media platforms such as Facebook and Line, and silk actors form a ‘community of practice’ as they share a body of common knowledge, similar passions, and unique perspectives on their pursuits. Members of this Surin community enjoy following the accomplishments of a group of ambitious young people – particularly queer or gay men. Yet most people who continue to raise silkworms and produce silk are middle-aged and elderly women who engage in these practices as part of complex, patchwork livelihoods. Profits from weaving complement other streams of income, and, for each two-meter piece of silk that they sell, many village silk weavers make a profit of less than 500 baht. Therefore, the speaker ended her discussion with a question for the audience. “Weaving has long been viewed as a form of supplementary income”, she said, “but what happens when all sources of income are supplementary, and no single source can be relied upon to make ends meet?”