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February 6-9, 2003
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Response Paper

Chusak Wittayapak

How do individuals and citizens maintain their unique identities -personal, regional, religious, civic, state, local, ethnic, or other—amidst the universalizing discourses of citizenship, modernity and globalization? What is the range of possible relationship among these multiple identifications?

History, Identity, and Resource Struggles
of the Ethnic Enclaves in Modern Thailand

Vernacular history of displacement and settlement

This study takes the cases of Lao Puan and Khamu ethnic groups to exemplify the official identification and state simplification of people located in different geographical space and historical context in the hegemonic Thai society. These two groups of people were migrated to Northern Thailand (known in another name as Lanna) during the period known among Thai historian (Lanna historian in particular) as "Keb Pak Sai Sa, Keb Kha Sai Muang", literally means "collect the vegetable into the basket, collect the people into the town". It was the time of tremendous social dislocation and warfare in the 18th century when the Northern Kingdom rebuilt the city after liberation from the Burmese domination. These two ethnic minorities were among various groups of people formed as the ethnic mosaic in the valley and hill landscape of Northern Thailand. Overtime, through the modern Thai nation state making the identification of these two ethnic minorities have been shaped by the state simplification materialized by state projects such as citizenship, national security, development discourse, natural resource management and environmentalism.

The Lao Puan ethnic migrated to Thailand from Muang Puan (Muang is a kind of city-state/mini-state), now in Chiang Kwang province, Laos PDR, in the 18th century. Puan city- state in the past was under the rise and fall of Vientiane, Vietnam, and Siam (former name of Thailand). Waves of migration of Lao Puan people to Thailand were about 5 periods of time since 1778 until 1834, some of them were war captives. Lao Puan of Ban Fai Mun, Pa Kha sub-district, Tha Wang Pa district, Nan Province had migrated here around 1834. Their memory of displacement is centrally around the story of inter-city-state warfare and being forced to settle here to be labors in building the weir and canal of the traditional irrigation system (known in Thai as Muang Fai, which literally means canal-weir). This traditional water management is essential for supplying water to rice field of the king of Nan. Every year the villagers had to contribute their labor for collective work on the royal paddy field and harvest the product to store in the royal barn. They also had their own paddy field to produce rice for own consumption. In fact, they were not the only diasporas forced to do public work for the king. The nearby Lue communities (Lue are ethnic Tai displaced from Muang La in Sipsong Panna, Yunnan Province, PR.China) also participated in building the irrigation system and working collectively on the royal rice field. Basically their livelihood during the settlement period was wet rice cultivation supplemented with upland rice (swidden agriculture) especially for the ones who lack lowland paddy field. Some villagers took up the itinerant trades during the post-harvest season using oxen caravan to transport goods for long distant route.

In the context of independent state, the making of modern Thai nation-state has undergone through territorialization, nationalism, and modernization (Vandergeest and Peluso, 1995). Thai state formation has undertaken the series of state-led development schemes to increase the presence of the state power in the village. Transformation into Thai and uphold Thainess has been seen by the ethnic Lao Puan as the safest practices to secure their niche in Thai society. Their Lao cultural identities were considered as cultural traits kept inside for their own consumption. Being Laoness, whether in terms of language, costume, or ritual, was hidden to the outsiders. Nevertheless, with their identification of being valley dweller, sedentary community, wet rice grower, devout Buddhist, and recognition in official Thai history as people with nation-state of their own, this Laotian enclave has been able to co-exist nicely with the larger lowland Thai. At some point, although, they experienced hardship and often felt somewhat different and subordinate, especially in terms of culture, language and custom. This village had stop slash-and-burn cultivation completely in 1983. Part of the reason is because it is seen as a symbol of backwardness and environmental destruction, not favored by the modern Thai society, which increasingly concerns about the environmental issues.

At the present time, Thai society has become relatively opened and plural. The fluid identification of being Thai Puan and/or Lao Puan is considered as a "social capital" of this Lao-origin community. The Lao Puan has re-invented their ethnic identity materially and symbolically. They built the statute of Chao Luang Moei Fa, their hero from the Puan city-state era. The statute has quickly become the node of community unity. They also re-built the Lao Puan-styled house to symbolize their living quarter. Handcrafts such as blacksmith and weaving are revived to demonstrate a traditional expertise of Lao men and women respectively. Their local history has been re-told on the painting so-called ancestor wall. To speak Lao dialect, while still fluent in northern dialect and Thai, is a sort of pride instead of shame as in the past. Promptly, they are able to link up with other Lao Puan diasporas scattering all over Thailand. The Thai Puan Association of Thailand led by the former Supreme Commander of the Thai military provides them more political space in Thai society.

Khamu, the Mon-Khmer linguistic group, is one of the nine official ethnic hilltribes of Thailand. A big number of Khamu are found in Lao PDR. A Khamu community in this case study was evacuated from Chiang Saen in the 18th century by king of Nan. They were settled in two different places before moved to the present location in 1899. History of Khamu is ambiguous among the Thai. Some scholars maintain that Khamu were lowland native in this area. They fled to the mountain during the invasion by the Thai (flight from valley to hill area in Jame C. Scottís term, 1999). In Thaiís view, Khamu are the labor working for other people including Thai, European loggers, and other ethnic minorities. They are known among the Thai people as slash-and-burn cultivator, nomad, animist, and hill dweller. In fact, Khamu are rather in between of valley and hill, in terms of geography and ecology. In this particular case, they had been once introduced to wet rice cultivation and orchard growing by the state-led agricultural development. However, they later went back to upland swidden agriculture. Khamu also depend on the non-timber forest product to supplement their upland rice cultivation. Accessibility to market economy turn Khamu livelihood to more exposure to labor market outside the village. They are considered as the honest and hard working people. The young generations have switched from shifting cultivation to waged labor in non-agricultural sector outside the village, unlike the Lao Puan who abandon shifting cultivation in the upland but remain farmer in a capital-intensive farming in the valley. During the communist insurgency penetration in rural Thailand the Khamu, like other hilltribes in Thailand, were subject to close surveillance by the paramilitary forces of the government.

The Lao Puan and Khamu, like many ethnic minorities and peripheral communities, have been incorporated into the modernization of the Thai nation-state since the early period of development era. However, for the Lao Puan, they have been able to harvest the benefit from the state-led development project by Thai-ization themselves well through the identification of Thai Puan meanwhile maintain, sometimes re-invent, their Lao past when necessary. When Thai society destines towards civil society where cultural diversity becomes asset and commodity the Lao Puan community has re-constructed their ethnic identity and vernacular history, which have long been oppressed by Thai hegemony. Khamu, on the other hand, has suffered dearly in the hand of development discourse and capitalist penetration. With their official identification as the hilltribe and vernacular identification as labor class, the development process further condemned Khamu to be waged labor in both local and national economy. Increasing accessibility from outside, Khamu community is vulnerable to all social illnesses such as drug uses and violence.

Resource uses and identification

Lao Puan identity and history also attach to the traditional resource management system known locally as Muang Fai—the irrigation system for wet rice cultivation in the lowland valley. As Lao Puan people specialized in blacksmith such as knife, plow, axe, hoe and all kinds of steel equipment needed for construction of the irrigation infrastructure. They were, at that time, considered indispensable citizens in the local agro-ecosystem. Being wet rice grower and Buddhist likens them to the lowland Thai majority. Lao Puan of Ban Fai Mun are widely praised for their contribution in irrigation construction and water resource management. They engaged in wet rice production since the settlement period. Some of Lao Puan households had additionally cultivated on the upland but abandoned later as the pressure from the conservation mounted. Instead, they transformed their former upland swidden into community forest to maintain their control and access to forestlands to counter the reclaimed by the Royal Forestry Departmentís reforestation scheme. Although this community forest is the compromised choice it is still better than losing it all to the state conservation project. It also makes them the good citizens in the official perspective. Discourse of cultural diversity and the resurrection, reinvention, and retelling of the history can be a discursive means of gaining access to natural and economic resources (Ribot and Peluso, 2003). Lao Puan community has used its identity-based access as the mechanism to secure the Social Investment Fund (SIF) during the 1997 economic crisis.

Khamuís resource uses, on the other hand, having been labeled with shifting cultivation and as hill dwellers, are recently viewed as a threat to local and national environment in the face of growing concern on the environmental conservation of the lowland Thai. Like other ethnic hilltribes, Khamu are constantly blamed as the culprits of deforestation and subject to be relocated out of watershed forest. They have been under pressure from conservation policies to stop shifting cultivation. Their cultivated areas are marginalized by the expansion of national park and reforestation scheme. They are also under the eminent threat of being displaced by the reservoir project. In the situation of highly competitive resource access and widespread drug addiction, the Khamu have been further marginalized and stigmatized with the imposed construction of their past identification. At some point, the Khamu turn to their culture as the repertoire of resource struggles. Belief in spirit and practice through ritual such as sorcery were used as the weapons to fence off the threat of displacement. Khamu believe that the place they are living now is important for being Khamu because it has been chosen by the spirit as the right place. Uncertainty about displacement has traumatized their life and caused suffering. Belief, ritual, magic and sorcery are instrumental to disperse both outside (reservoir project) and the inside enemies (fear, anxiety and suffering). Crisis of resource contest has led to the re-invention of Khamu identity and history. Customary practice and belief have been reproduced as the symbolic contest for resource and place their livelihood depends upon. The shared belief in common identity is rooted in an attachment to place. This spatial dimension of collective identity is catalyzed at the intersection of psychology, geography and history. A community sense of attachment to place and to each other is maintained, even consolidated, when the community is under the threat of displacement from it geographic referent, a direct result from struggle over access to, or control over, natural resource. Displacement here means both physical eviction and the sociological and psychological instability that result from the loss of familiarity. When threatened with displacement, it is common that the members of community come together to consolidate their symbols and boundaries of self-definition.

Both Lao Puan and Khamu cases illustrated here are resonated in Janet Sturgeonís account from the study done by our Chinese colleagues on the intersection of development discourse, ethnic identity, history and resource contestation in the political economic contexts of developmental state and the interplay of official and vernacular identifications.

Conclusion: Through the lens of valley and hill identifications

The valley identification of Lao Puan is attached to the civilized images of wet-rice cultivator, sedentary village, Buddhist and having nation state of their own. The hill identification of Khamu is, in contrast, fixed to the uncivilized images of shifting cultivator, moving around, animist, stateless hilltribe. Both are the products of state simplification project (Scott, 1998). In the case of Lao Puan, they transform from the subordinate enclave community to become the culturally distinctive community, which well identified with the valley civilization in the context of emerging pluralism in Thai society. Reinvention of vernacular history and cultural identity to suit with the state project help them to gain benefits from changing politics of identification. To maintain the fluid identification between the Lao and Thai axis allow them to alternate and enjoy the nourishment from both identification over space and time. Identity and vernacular history of Khamu are filled with the story about oppression, marginalization, suffering and the struggles to free themselves from the fixed official identification of being hilltribes. Under the threat of displacement and uncertainty, they have turned to their culture, ethnic identity and telling their subaltern history to mobilize collective forces and unity in contesting and negotiating with the state and dominant lowland valley dwellers.


Ribot, J. and N. Peluso, 2003, "A Theory of Access" Forthcoming in Rural Sociology

Scott, J.C., 1998, Seeing Like a State. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Scott, J.C. 1999, The State and People Who Move Around / Hill and Valley in Southeast Asia, or Why Civilizations Canít climb Hills (annual lecture)

Vandergeest, P. and N. Peluso, 1995, "Territorialization and State Power in Thailand" Theory and Society. 24: 385-426.

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