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Civility and savagery: Social identity in tai states. (Southeast Asia).

Civility and Savagery: Social Identity in Tai States


Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000. Pp. xxii, 376. Maps, Plates, Notes, Index.

The collective focus of the chapters in Civility and Savagery is on social identity in Tai areas of mainland Southeast Asia. The material in the book derives from an international Conference on Thai Studies. Such 'ethnic studies' associations are increasingly common, and it is a sign of a certain maturity that the collection aims at an understanding of the multiethnic and multisocietal character of the region. There are two chapters on Thai-speaking Muslims ('Sam Sam') on the borderlands with Malaysia, four chapters on Laos, three on inter-ethnic relations in Lanna ('northern Thai' states) areas, and five on various aspects of Tai-uplander relations. Nicholas Tapp also provides a Postscript where he discusses the changing configuration of local histories and regional studies. In his introductory chapter, Andrew Turton locates the book's materials in historical and theoretical context, and he also provides an introductory discussion to each of the book's sections.

The stated theme of civility and savagery, which shows up most prominently in notions of 'Kha' peoples as the (savage) opposites of (civilised) Tai, is not as central to the book as one might imagine. This opposition provides a productive angle on the social landscape of mainland Southeast Asia in the chapters where it is central, which are written by Thongchai Winichakul, Ronald D. Renard, Shigeharu Tanabe. I kept hoping for a more region-oriented discussion regarding similar issues on the Malay Peninsula, in Indonesia, and in the Philippines, that would have contributed to a better-rounded regional understanding of Tai and others. But even if the book's contributors do not venture much beyond the Tai area, the book is a major step toward a regional understanding of the historical relations between identity and society. As such, it should be of interest to Southeast Asianists outside the realm of Tai-speaking peoples.

Thongchai's 'The Others Within' explores the role of ethnographic knowledge in Siamese self-and nation-constructions around the turn of the twentieth century. His examination is primarily concerned with travel and proto-ethnography, and he discerns a clear 'ethno-spatial' pattern in the accounts of strange forest people and more mundane villagers. His analysis of the construction of ethnographic knowledge shows how the Siamese elite conveyed itself as civilized vis-a-vis its subject peoples, in the context of Siam's encounter with the West. But while he borrows the notion of 'contact zone' (from M. L. Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation [Routledge, 1992]) to describe the elite's engagements with Western ideas and practices, he does not apply this term to the then-changing relations between the elite and the people they constructed as Siam's internal Others. His aim is an analytical critique of hegemonic constructions of Siam (as in his Siam Mapped [University of Hawaii Press, 1994]), but his choice of sources limits his description of social reality to the elite's voices and agendas. Renard's 'The Differential Integration of Hill People into the Thai State' draws on Karen histories to examine patterns of political relations between courts and peoples who subsequently became minorities. His account of varied political connections on Siam's fringes is an important contribution to a more comprehensive understanding of shifting upland-lowland relations in the context of nation-building, and can also serve as a test of the social resonance of the Siamese proto-ethnography that Thongchai describes.

Katherine A. Bowie's 'Ethnic Heterogeneity and Elephants' is framed as a challenge to the view of Thailand as ethnically 'remarkably homogenous' (p.330). This is a curious starting point, but her case is interesting regarding the difference between the keepers of royal and commoner elephants. Tanabe ('Autochtony and the lnthakhin Cult of Chiangmai') and Tapp ('Ritual Relations and Identity: Hmong and Others') examine the ritual aspects of the relations between marginal groups and lowland states. Both cases concern the role of intersocietal appropriations in ritual for the (re-) production of identity. Tanabe's analysis is more attuned than Tapp's to historical changes in ritual forms. While the structural approach of both studies has its problems (how do we know that this understanding reflects 'Hmong' or reflects Tai relations with Lua'?), the focus on ritual is a productive angle on the politics of inter-ethnic relations that raises questions regarding local understandings of identity and of politics.

Skirting the issue of anti-Muslim sentiment in recent Thai history, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian ('The Historical Development of Thai-Speaking Muslim Communities') takes an antiquarian's approach to identity. She contrasts Sam Sam in Malaysia, who now speak Malay and have thus in her words 'destroyed' social and cultural forms that previously made them 'unique' (p. 172), and those on the Thai side of the border, who have their identity 'intact' and are determined 'to preserve it even in the face of great difficulties' (p. 174). In 'Emergence and Transformation of Peripheral Identity Ryoko Nishii offers a much more nuanced sense of Sam Sam identity and history, and how these relate to local memories, as well as an interesting case of a local big man on the eve of national integration.

Considering that the book is essentially a conference volume, the mixed-bag approach is understandable. As an indication of the state of Thai studies, the book suggests a certain ferment and an openness to new directions. But as a compilation of studies concerning Thai-Other relations it is very much lacking a discussion of Chinese and Westerners in Thailand. Several of the cases have appeared in some form elsewhere, but this is not clear from reading the book. The editor's introduction to the book and its sections are well done and informative, but there is little evidence of an editorial hand in the individual chapters. They do not appear to have been updated from the 1993 conference, and several of them make for a very disjointed reading. Leo Alting van Geusau's chapter is possibly in the worst shape, editorially speaking. His argument for the match between Akha internal history and the 'external' history of the region from about 220 BCE is difficult to follow, as he weaves conjectural and generally accept ed histories together with (his own) speculations. In addition to a convoluted argument and very difficult prose, this chapter is a further challenge to read because of 45 citational mismatches and at least five other obvious mistakes in the bibliography.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the collection as an indication of the directions of Thai studies is that Charles Keyes and Thongchai Winichakul, both very prominent in the field, are writing primarily about royalty and the Thai elite. In his contribution, Keyes relates how a Thai princess's visit to Laos in 1990 was 'a significant watershed in Thai-Lao relations' (p. 222). Even if scholars are looking 'uphill' or 'outward' in their studies of the larger context of Tai peoples, many of them still mostly notice Bangkok royalty past and present.
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Author:Jonsson, Hjorleifur
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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