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Vol. 3, No. 3, Mujiburrahman

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3


Islamic Theological Texts and Contexts in Banjarese Society: An Overview of the Existing Studies*


* I would like to thank Martin van Bruinessen for his valuable comments on the earlier draft. I also thank Syuan-Yuan Chiou for sending me some materials for this article. The first draft of this article was presented at the Fourth al-Jami’ah International Conference, State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, 14-16 December 2012.

** State Institute of Islamic Studies, Antasari, Jl. Jend. A. Yani KM. 4, 5 Banjarmasin 70235 Kalimantan Selatan, Indonesia

e-mail: mujib71[at]hotmail.com

This article will describe and analyze the continuities and changes of Islam in Banjarese society, Indonesia, by looking at the existing studies of theological texts produced and transmitted by the Banjarese ulama since the eighteenth century up to the early twenty-first century. There is a scholarly controversy on the authorship of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, but there is strong evidence that it was written by Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari in the eighteenth century. In this theological text, the author proposes a wider view of Sunnism, and at the same time attacks some local religious rituals considered opposed to Islamic monotheism. From the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the theological texts were written in Jawi. By the twentieth century, the ulama had also produced theological texts in Indonesian language, but the use and production of Arabic and Jawi texts still continued. From the early twentieth century, the Sanusi’s conception of Sunni theology has become the dominant among the Banjarese. However, since the 1920s, this dominant theology has been challenged by Salafism introduced by the reformist Muslim group, the Muhammadiyah. By the 1990s, some of the ulama had proposed the theology of God’s Beautiful Names as an alternative to the Sanusi’s conception. All of these theological conceptions, however, seem to pay too little attention to the challenges of the increasing religious plurality of Banjarese society.

Keywords: Islam, theology, Banjarese, Indonesia

According to the statistics compiled for the year 2000 on ethnic identities, the Banjarese ranked 10th among the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia (Suryadinata et al. 2003, 31–68).1) Most Banjarese live in South Kalimantan, and many of them live in Central and East Kalimantan, as well as in Sumatra, especially in Bangka Belitung, Riau, Jambi, and North Sumatra.2) The Banjarese are generally identified as Muslims. Starting around the sixteenth century, the Banjarese Kingdom was converted to Islam by the Javanese Sultanate, Demak, as a compensation for the latter’s military aid.3) The process of Islamization apparently became more intense by the eighteenth century after the return of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari from his study in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. During the Banjar war (1859–1905), and the revolutionary war in the first half of the twentieth century, the Islamic leaders and organizations also played an important role. Presently, Muslims constitute 97.3% in South Kalimantan.

Islamization is a continuing process, and probably would never end. One of the ways to see the development and dynamics of Islam among the Banjarese is to study Islamic theological texts written and taught by the ulama in the region. During the last three decades, there has been a number of studies on the subject, undertaken by Banjarese scholars, and most of whom are of the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Antasari, Banjarmasin. Given the fact that most of these studies are largely unknown, unpublished, and simply sitting on the library shelves gathering dust, I am interested in investigating these texts, hoping that, through my own interpretation and analysis, we can find a general picture of change and continuity in Islamic theological thought in Banjarese society.

Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari’s Theological Text and Context

There is no doubt that Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari (1710–1812) is a very important figure in the Islamization of Banjarese society. At the age of 30, he was sent to Mecca by Sultan Tamjidillah (1734–59) to perform hajj and to study all branches of Islamic knowledge with the prominent ulama in Mecca and then Madina. After more than 30 years of study, he came back home, and then became the advisor to the Banjarese sultanate.4)

As an Islamic scholar, Arsyad al-Banjari wrote a number of works on Islamic teachings, including Islamic theology.5) There are at least two works of al-Banjari discussing the Islamic theological doctrines, namely al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar fî ’alâmât al-Imâm al-Mahdi al-Muntazhar (A short explanation on the signs of the expected Imam al-Mahdi), and Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn fî Bayâni Haqîqat Îmân al-Mu’minîn wa Mâ Yufsiduh min Riddat al-Murtaddîn (A gift to the seekers, explaining the essence of faith of the believers and its damages due to the apostasy of the apostates). The former is academically less studied than the latter.6) It is probably because al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar is only concerned with eschatological doctrines, while Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, besides describing basic Islamic theological doctrines, also attacks certain existing traditional rituals. In addition, its authorship also triggers a scholarly controversy.

Therefore, this section will only analyze the studies of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. The treatise was written in 1774, two years after al-Banjari’s return to the Banjarese Sultanate (1772). Like most works of the ulama of the archipelago in that period, this work by al-Banjari was written in the Malay language using Arabic script or the so-called Jawi script. The earliest print edition known to a researcher is the one published in 1887 by al-Mathba’ah al-Haj Muharram Affandi, Istambul (Hasan 2007, 71). The transliteration of the book into Latin script was carried out by Abu Daudi (2000) and M. Asywadie Syukur (2009). The existing research on this treatise raises the following questions: Is Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn the work of al-Palimbani or al-Banjari? What are the theological views presented in the work? What are the possible sources of al-Banjari’s theological views? Are these theological views relevant to our times? What influence does it have on Banjarese society?

The Author of Tufat al-Râghibîn: al-Palimbani or al-Banjari?

It seems that the question of whether Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani or Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari had emerged, particularly among the Banjarese intellectuals, after the publication of M. Chatib Quzwain’s dissertation in 1985. In his dissertation, with reference to two Dutch Scholars, P. Voorhoeve and Drewes, Chatib Quzwain argues that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Palimbani (Chatib Quzwain 1985, 14–25). This issue gave rise to serious discussion during the seminar on the research report on Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, held at the IAIN Antasari on November 17, 1988, and another discussion attended by Banjarese intellectuals on December 25, 1988 (Analiansyah 1990). The question of the authorship of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is also analyzed in an undergraduate thesis written in the same year by a student of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari (Yusran 1988). M. Asywadie Syukur, a professor of Dakwah Faculty at IAIN Antasari also wrote a research report on the same controversy in 1990 (Asywadie Syukur 1990). Finally, 17 years later, it was to be discussed again by Noorhaidi Hasan, a Banjarese by origin and a lecturer at the State Islamic University (UIN) Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta (Hasan 2007).

All of the researchers agree that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari, not al-Palimbani. Yusran, without any mention of the opposing view, proposes some arguments to prove that al-Banjari is the author of the treatise. First, Yusran indicates that there is a clear similar diction of the introduction, particularly the doxology, of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn with that of Sabîl al-Muhtadîn, another and most famous work of al-Banjari. Second, there are several Banjarese words found in the text. Third, the text mentions two Banjarese traditional rituals, namely manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. Fourth, some authoritative books on Arsyad al-Banjari’s biography also mention that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is one of his works. Fifth, some prominent Banjarese ulama and descendants of Arsyad al-Banjari also affirm that it is the work of al-Banjari.

Moreover, M. Asywadie Syukur, besides mentioning similar arguments, attempts to extend these arguments by examining the text in more detail, comparing it with the works of al-Palimbani and, refuting the arguments of Voorhoeve and Drewes (Asywadie Syukur 1990, 18–32). First, Asywadie Syukur does not only show the same dictions of the doxology between Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn and Sabîl al-Muhtadîn, but also indicates their differences from that of the works of al-Palimbani. He also finds that al-Banjari usually uses the personal pronoun of “aku” or “daku” (means “I”), while al-Palimbani uses “hamba” (which means “slave”). Likewise, to begin each chapter, and to indicate the year of writing of their respective works, al-Banjari and al-Palimbani use different phrases and style. Finally, unlike al-Palimbani, al-Banjari never mentions the place where his work was written.

Second, Asywadie Syukur also finds a number of Banjarese words in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. While Yusran draws attention to only two words, kasarungan (possessed by spirit) and manyarung (possessing), Asywadie Syukur adds the following words: simpun (concise), pataruhan (treasure), manyaru (to call), lamuhur (ancestor), disambur (being sprayed by water through mouth), mahangusakan (to burn), and lanjuran (trap). Asywadie Syukur particularly finds that al-Banjari also uses the word simpun in his two other works, namely Luqaṭ al-’Ajlân and al-Qawl al-Mukhtaşar.

Third, like Yusran, Asywadie Syukur argues that the rituals called manyanggar and mambuang pasilih mentioned in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn are Banjarese traditional rituals. For Asywadie Syukur, manyanggar is a ritual in which people give certain offerings to evil spirits to appease them and to avoid their bad influences. The ritual is usually held when people suffer from natural disaster or moral troubles such as adultery and quarrel. In contrast, mambuang pasilih is a ritual held for a family who is believed to have a hidden brother or sister. It is believed that, the hidden person will do harm to the family if the ritual is not carried out. Like manyanggar, in mambuang pasilih, the family also gives certain offerings to the hidden brother/sister.

Moreover, in 1987, Asywadie Syukur observed the manyanggar ritual being held in Barikin village of Central Hulu Sungai District, South Kalimantan.7) He also found the mambuang pasilih ritual held in Banjarmasin and Barito Kuala of South Kalimantan. The evidence, argues Asywadie Syukur, indicates that Drewes’ assumption that the rituals are found in the hinterland of Palembang is weak. Moreover, Drewes only mentions the manyanggar ritual, not mambuang pasilih. The latter is clearly a Banjarese ritual because it is based on the local belief in the existence of hidden people (urang gaib), which nowadays can still be found in Banjarese society. In addition, the discussion on rituals in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is quite detailed. The author describes a dialogue (real or imagined) between himself and the participants of the rituals. This is certainly difficult to do for al-Palimbani who already left Palembang as a teenager, and never came back.

Fourth, in his introduction to Asywadie Syukur’s research report, Analiansyah cites a number of books which confirm that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari. Most of the books are also mentioned by Yusran in his undergraduate thesis. Asywadie Syukur, however, makes no mention of them, but refers to another evidence, namely the second printing of the book, published by al-Ihsan Surabaya in 1929 based on the request of Abdurrahman Shiddiq (1857–1939), a Muslim scholar and a descendant of Arsyad al-Banjari. This edition clearly puts al-Banjari as the author of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. In contrast, the Voorhoeve manuscript, which is believed to be the work of al-Palimbani, does not mention the name of the author.

Fifth, Asywadie Syukur also refutes the arguments made by Voorhoeve and Drewes. Voorhoeve manuscript is a gift from Braginsky. It is written on the manuscript “Van Doorninck 1876,” the name of a Dutch official who worked in Palembang in 1873–75. It was, argues Voorhoeve, the period when Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani produced a lot of writings. Moreover, this manuscript is also accompanied by a treatise on jihâd (holy war), which is, according to Voorhoeve, a special expertise of al-Palimbani. Drewes speculates that the work was written in Mecca based on the request of Sultan Najmuddin or Bahauddin, and was brought to Palembang by returning pilgrims. For Asywadie Syukur, all of these arguments are weak. The fact that Van Doorninck worked in Palembang does not necessarily mean that the manuscript is the work of al-Palimbani. Moreover, in that period, the Banjarese Sultanate was already abolished by the Dutch. It was not surprising, therefore, if many Ducth people came and forth to Banjarese region at that time. Regarding the treatise on jihâd, for Asywadie Syukur it is clearly another independent work, not part of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, because at the end of the manuscript, we find that it is closed by prayer which indicates that the work is already finished. In addition, the manuscript of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn and the treatise on jihâd are written in different fonts. Finally, like al-Palimbani, al-Banjari was also prolific in this period.

Sixth, Drewes argues that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn rejects the Sufi doctrine called wujûdiyyah which may indicate that this Sufi doctrine was found in Palembang, as it was also criticized by al-Raniri in seventeenth century Aceh. This argument, for Asywadie Syukur is not strong enough to support that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Palimbani because in Sair al-Sâlikîn, he accepts wujûdiyyah as the peak spiritual achievement. On the other hand, for Asywadie Syukur, al-Banjari opposes wujûdiyya doctrine and even gave a fatwa of capital punishment for Abdul Hamid Abulung, a Banjarese Sufi believed to embrace the wujûdiyyah doctrine. Asywadie Syukur assumes that the fatwa is expressed in the statement of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn: “. . . tiada syak pada wajib membunuh dia karena murtadnya, dan membunuh seumpama orang itu terlebih baik daripada seratus kafir yang asli” (there is no doubt about the necessity to kill him because of his apostasy, and killing such a person is better than killing a hundred of genuine unbelievers).

Those are the arguments put forward by Asywadie Syukur to affirm that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is truly the work of al-Banjari rather than al-Palimbani. It is noteworthy that almost all of the arguments analyzed in Noorhaidi Hasan’s work are the same as those in Asywadie Syukur’s work. It seems that the only new argument from Hasan is that, a Malaysian scholar, Wan Mohd. Shagir Abdullah wrote that Dawud al-Patani (1740–1847) mentioned Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn as the work of al-Banjari. If this information is true, argues Hasan, then it is an early piece of evidence that the author of the work is al-Banjari because Dawud al-Patani was al-Banjari’s friend when both studied at Mecca (Hasan 2007, 71–72).8) Moreover, in his article Hasan directly refers to the existing manuscripts, and the fact that he had communicated with V. I. Braginsky who gave the manuscript to Voorhoeve. Last but not least, Hasan successfully put the issue for the international scholarship, because his work was published in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (BKI).

All of the arguments proposed by the above researchers are apparently convincing, except Asywadie Syukur’s view that the execution of Abdul Hamid Abulung was based on al-Banjari’s fatwa in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. Did that truly happen? As far as I know, historical evidence for Abulung’s life is very scarce.9) Steenbrink maintains that Abulung’s story is very similar to that of Siti Jenar in Java. Since Banjar has close relationships with Java, it is possible that Abulung is a Banjarese version of Siti Jenar, and Siti Jenar is a Javanese version of al-Hallaj (Steenbrink 1984, 96). Moreover, Feener argues that, although Siti Jenar’s narrative (and Abulung) are similar to that of al-Hallaj, it does not mean that the teachings of al-Hallaj were already introduced to Southeast Asia. The narrative, he said, “may in fact be a reflection of an earlier indigenous or Hindu-Javanese motif recast in a Javanese Muslim setting” (Feener 1998, 578).

In addition, Asywadie Syukur’s quotation from the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn regarding the death penalty is not specifically related to Hallajian teachings, or to wujudiyyah as he claims, but to a false saint claiming to be beyond the shari’a law.

Kata Imam Ghazali, jikalau menyangka seorang wali akan bahwasanya ada antaranya dan antara Allah ta’ala martabat, dan hal yang menggugurkan wajib sembahyang, dan menghalalkan minum arak seperti disangka oleh kaum yang bersufi-sufi dirinya, maka tiadalah syak pada wajib membunuh dia karena murtadnya dan membunuh seumpama orang itu terlebih baik daripada membunuh seratus kafir asli. (Arsyad al-Banjari 1983, 32)

[Imam Ghazali said, if a saint assumes that there is a position between him and God that abolishes the obligation to perform daily prayers, and allows him to drink alcohol as it is believed by pretending Sufis, then there is no doubt about the necessity to kill him because of his apostacy, and killing such a person is better than killing a hundred of genuine unbelievers.]

In fact, only after those sentences al-Banjari starts describing the wujûdiyyah. In his description, he does not say that the followers of wujûdiyyah should be punished with the death penalty. He only said that the wujûdiyyah mulẖid is one form of kâfir zindîq (true unbeliever), without mentioning any punishment for the followers of this doctrine. Moreover, in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, al-Banjari said that there are two kinds of wujûdiyyah, mulẖid and muwaẖẖid. He only opposes the former, not the latter. In his explanation, the former seems to be the view that the entire universe, including human beings are God. However, he does not explain what wujûdiyyah muwaẖẖid is. Probably, for him, the wujûdiyyah muwaẖẖid is the teachings of Ibn al-’Arabi and his students, which strike a balance between God’s immanency and transcendency. In fact, this is also the position of ’Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani which is probably shared by al-Banjari. Moreover, one of the important works of Banjarese ulama of the eighteenth century, al-Durr al-Nafîs by Muhammad Nafis al-Banjari, apparently follows the same line (Muthalib 1995). It seems, for Arsyad al-Banjari, al-Palimbani and Nafis al-Banjari, the works of al-Ghazali do not contradict those of Ibn ’Arabi and the like because they are aimed at different audiences. The works of al-Ghazali are for elementary and intermediate levels (mubtadi’ and mutawassi), while those of Ibn ’Arabi are for the muntahi, the advanced level.10)

The Tufat al-Râghibîn, Its Teachings, Relevance, and Influences

What are the theological teachings presented in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn? If we compare this work with other popular Islamic theological texts in South Kalimantan or even in the archipelago, the structure of this work is obviously unique. The contents of the work are divided into three parts: on the essence of faith, on the things endangering faith, and finally on repentance. All researchers find that the work follows the line of Sunni theological thought of Ash’ariyyah and Maturidiyyah. In addition, the research team at the IAIN Antasari has discovered that the description in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn on deviant sects (based on the hadith which predicts that Muslims will be divided into 73 groups), is similar to that of al-Milal wa al-Niẖal by al-Shahrastani, although the latter describes them in more detail.11) In contrast, after careful investigation, Khairil Anwar finds that the names and classification of the deviant sects in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn are not similar to those of al-Milal wa al-Niẖal, but to another theological book, namely Uşûl al-Dîn by al-Bazdawi (d. 1100) (Khairil Anwar 2009, 69–70).

As a follower of the Sunni theological school, al-Banjari explains in the first part of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn that the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart (taşdîq), while the oral confirmation (iqrâr) and its actualization through action (’amal) are not the essence but the perfection of faith (kamâl al-îmân). Al-Banjari, however, also quotes Abû Hanîfah and some Ash’arite figures, who argue that faith includes both believing and oral confirmation. The latter’s view, for al-Banjari, is also found in Sunnism, but it is not sanctioned (ghair mu’tamad). Moreover, to support his criticisms of those sects considered deviant, al-Banjari refers to al-Ghazali (an Ash’arite figure), ’Umar al-Nasafi (a Maturidite figure), and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (a Salafi figure).

Scholars have different views of the relevance of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn’s theological viewpoints. Khairil Anwar, for instance, indicates that some ulama do not accept the authenticity of the hadith mentioned in the treatise, which predicts that the Muslim community will be divided into 73 groups, but only one will gain salvation.12) Khairil Anwar even notices another hadith with the opposite meaning quoted by the ulama, namely that 72 groups will go to heaven, and only one will go to hell. He argues that the prominent Indonesian Muslim scholars such as Quraish Shihab, M. Thalhah Hasan, and Nurcholish Madjid, prefer this hadith, because it is more inclusive and relevant to the present plurality of Muslim groups. Shihab and Thalhah Hasan quote ’Abd al-Halim Mahmud’s al-Tafkîr al-Falsafî fi al-Islâm in which the author said that the hadith is sahîh according to al-Hâkim, while Nurcholish Madjid refers to al-Ghazali’s Faishal al-Tafriqah which quotes the same hadith (ibid., 70–71).13)

On the other hand, as has been mentioned earlier, al-Banjari believes that the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart, while oral confirmation and its implementation are only the perfection of faith. This minimalist view of the essence of faith, according to the research team at the IAIN Antasari, is relevant to the present plurality of Muslim people. This view would enhance religious tolerance and inclusiveness because if the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart, then no one knows the quality of a person’s faith except God, and that a believer whose conducts do not accord to the teachings of Islam does not necessarily become an infidel. Moreover, the fact that al-Banjari refers to different figures of Sunni theological schools, namely of Asha’rite, Maturidite, and Salafi, indicates that he has a wider conception of Sunnism (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 49–50; Khairil Anwar 2009, 95). Al-Banjari’s view is actually wider than that of the Indonesian Muslim traditionalist organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which in theory follows the Ash’arite and the Maturidite, but in reality, only follows the Ash’arite. Similarly, as we shall see, the later dominant theological views in Banjarese society only follow the line of Ash’arite formulated by al-Sanusi.

Moreover, the research team at IAIN Antasari points out that, although al-Banjari has a minimalist view of the essence of faith and a wider view of Sunnism, he does not neglect the importance of making one’s faith functional in daily life. This is indicated by the fact that al-Banjari explains various beliefs and actions that may endanger one’s faith, and therefore, should be avoided. As has been alluded, al-Banjari also criticizes the traditional rituals called manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. For him, these rituals may lead to polytheism because they are based on beliefs that there are other unseen forces, rather than God alone, who have power over human life. In this regard, al-Banjari’s theological assessment is based on Asy’arite view regarding cause and effect relationship. He said, if the actors believe that the ritual itself can protect them from harm, then the actors are infidels. If the actors believe that only God, not the rituals, who can protect them from harm, then their action is heterodox innovation (bid’ah dhalâlah). Moreover, in the rituals, various cakes are given as offerings to the hidden people, and this for al-Banjari, represents a waste of food (tabdzîr), which is religiously forbidden (harâm). For the team at IAIN Antasari, al-Banjari’s criticisms of the traditional rituals, are still relevant today because some pre-Islamic rituals have been revived and supported by the government, partly for tourism (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 37–38, 41–44).

In contrast, in his MA thesis, M. Rusydi, an alumni of the Postgraduate Program of the State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, has more critical views of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn (Rusydi 2005, 93-133). With reference to the Egyptian philosopher, Hassan Hanafi, Rusydi argues that al-Banjari’s theology is based on faith and defense method. This type of theology is characterized by theocentric views, which glorifies God, while the position of human being is neglected. In the political realm, this type of theology tends to defend, and subject to, the rulers. For Rusydi, this is clearly indicated by the opening remarks of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn in which al-Banjari says that he was asked to write the treatise by the Sultan (namely, Sultan Tahmidillah). Likewise, the execution of Abdul Hamid Abulung who was considered heretic based on al-Banjari’s fatwa mentioned in this work, argues Rusydi, is another indication of how this theology operated through political power.

Moreover, for Rusydi, al-Banjari actually could not escape from the theological debates inherited from Muslims of the Middle Ages, and therefore, he was trapped in a defense of the Sunni views against other theological views. This becomes more obvious, says Rusydi, when al-Banjari strongly attacks the traditional rituals of mambuang pasilih and manyanggar. Al-Banjari’s attack on traditional rituals, is actually an attempt to defend the purity of Muslim beliefs. Thus, for Rusydi, al-Banjari’s minimalist view of the essence of faith, and his wider conception of Sunnism, did not lead him to be tolerant towards other theologies.

For Rusydi, therefore, al-Banjari’s theological views are not something to be maintained for the present society. This type of theology belongs in the past, not the present, nor the future. In other words, it is irrelevant to the problems of the twenty-first century. For Rusydi, in order to be relevant, Islamic theology, especially for the Banjarese people, should think of current problems of environmental destruction such as deforestation, excessive exploitation of natural resources, and the pollution of rivers. These problems, he said, are real problems for the Banjarese people in particular, and the people in Kalimantan in general.

The above conflicting views of the relevance of al-Banjari’s theology demonstrate the dynamics of Islamic theological thought among the Banjarese Muslim scholars. In this regard, I would like to make some comments. First, it is important that we do not view the past through the lens of contemporary beliefs and values, because if we do this, we may come to two extreme conclusions: we will either glorify the past, or condemn it as decadent and backward. Therefore, it is important for contemporary scholars who study history, including history of ideas, to depict the past in an objective historical and social context. This certainly demands us to find a relatively complete description of the past in question. In the case of al-Banjari’s Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, so far we have very scarce historical sources, and therefore, our description of the past is far from satisfying. For instance, is it historically true that al-Banjari wrote this treatise because the Sultan asked him to issue a fatwa for Abdul Hamid Abulung as a Sufi heretic? On the other hand, did al-Banjari’s minimalist view of the essence of faith, and his wider conception of Sunnism lead him to be tolerant towards theological differences? Honestly, if we rely on the available historical evidence, we cannot convincingly answer these questions.

Second, for believers, a religious tradition, including theological views contained in the works of the ulama in the past, is something that defines their lives at the present, and at the same time connects them with the past and the future (Asad 1986). In this regard, the Moroccan scholar, Muhammad ’Abid al-Jâbirî said that there are three approaches to studying religious tradition. First, reading the tradition within the framework of the tradition itself. This kind of study is usually ahistorical and simply intended to preserve the tradition. Second, reading the tradition as something of the past without any relevance to the present day. This is exemplified by the works of the orientalists. Third, reading the tradition with critical historical analysis, and at the same time, trying to find its relevance to the present and the future (Jâbirî 1986, 1–23). If we look at the contesting views of the researchers of al-Banjari’s theological heritage from al-Jâbiri’s framework, then we may say that the Muslim scholars actually try to do their best to find the relevance and irrelevance of the tradition for their present and future. Their studies, therefore, are engaged scholarships. The only problem for them, as has been said, is the limited historical evidence to support their respective views. Apart from this problem, the controversy indicates that theological studies at the IAIN are not very dogmatic, and therefore, even a young scholar like Rusydi has the courage to propose strong criticisms of the views of highly respected figure like al-Banjari.

Apart from the debates on the relevance and irrelevance of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, it is important to know whether the Banjarese society at large know and study this treatise. In 1988, Yusran interviewed a number of prominent ulama, and found that only 10 of them knew that the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn was one of the works of Arsyad al-Banjari (Yusran 1988, 62-63). Around the same period, the research team at IAIN Antasari interviewed 23 prominent ulama in six cities of South Kalimantan (Marabahan, Banjarmasin, Martapura, Kandangan, Negara, and Amuntai), and found some interesting facts. The interviewees generally knew of Arsyad al-Banjari not as a writer of religious texts, but as a saint imbued with the power to perform miracles, and whose tomb was frequently visited by pilgrims. Only a few of the ulama, most of whom were descendents of al-Banjari, used the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn for teaching Islamic theology. Most of the ulama did not know about al-Banjari’s theological views in the treatise either, including the fatwa on the heresy of the wujûdiyyah mulẖidah. On the other hand, they knew that al-Banjari opposes the traditional rituals of manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. The majority of the ulama also take the same stance as al-Banjari, in opposing any traditional rituals which may lead to polytheism, but they do not always succeed in stopping them. It is said that a strong attack is not effective, but a persuasive propagation is slow in achieving the goal. Some of the ulama tolerate certain traditional rituals because they have been Islamized, while others say that syncretism cannot be tolerated because it pollutes the purity of the Islamic faith (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 101–102).

These findings are very similar to those of the previous and subsequent studies. In the early 1980s, Alfani Daud found in the field that manyanggar ritual was not practiced anymore, but other rituals accompanying the passages of life, from birth to death, were still practiced by many. Alfani Daud, however, also found that the contents of the rituals have been Islamized (Alfani Daud 2000). Likewise, in 1985, the research team of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, found that many Banjarese Muslims in Martapura and Amuntai (both are known as the cities of ulama) still believe in certain taboos, and practice traditional rituals like tapung tawar,14) shower ritual for pregnant women or for bride and bridegroom. However, most of the Muslims no longer adhere to the beliefs underlying the ritual anymore. They perform these rituals simply to pay respect to the tradition of their elders (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1985). Another source of empirical evidence is found in the undergraduate theses of the students of the Ushuluddin Faculty from 1995 to 1999. The theses show that Banjarese Muslims believe in sacred places, times, goods, and symbols, and some of them are of pre-Islamic origins. Similarly, the Banjarese Muslims still practice certain traditional rituals in which pre-Islamic and Islamic elements are mixed.

The above empirical evidence indicates that the influence of Islamic theological views on traditional rituals has become increasingly stronger in society, and perhaps, this is partly because of al-Banjari’s attack on these rituals in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. On the other hand, one may ask, why many Banjarese ulama interviewed by the researchers in the late 1980s did not know about the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn? The research team at IAIN Antasari try to answer this question. First, the works of al-Banjari are written in Jawi which is difficult for younger generation to understand. Second, the economic malaise during the Japanese occupation forced people into a struggle for economic survival, which left them little time and energy for learning religious texts. In contrast, during the period of Dutch colonial rule, al-Banjari’s works were read in many religious gatherings by the ulama. This explains why the ulama who were familiar with al-Banjari’s works were at the age of 50 or older in 1988. Third, after independence (1945), formal education at schools was open for all the people, including religious education. In this educational system, texts used in religion classes are mostly in the Indonesian language, which is easier to understand for the younger generation. On the other hand, the students of Islamic boarding schools who are specialized in Islamic studies, would prefer Arabic to Jawi texts (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 98–105).

Islamic Theological Texts Taught in Banjarese Society

It would be naive to say that the development of Islam in the region, including the Banjarese Muslims’ theological views, simply depends on Arsyad al-Banjari’s influences. The social, political, and cultural changes from the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, undoubtedly exerted a great influence on their Islamic theological views. In this regard, there has been a number of studies carried out by the scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, which provide empirical evidence of the development of Banjarese Muslim theological views following Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari’s period to the present. These studies explore various research questions, namely: What are the theological texts taught in Islamic study gatherings (pengajian)15) in South Kalimantan? What are the theological texts written by Banjarese ulama? What are the theological texts taught in Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in South Kalimantan? What are the theological schools represented by the texts? What are the philosophical elements contained in the texts? What are their possible influences on Muslim daily life?

The Theological Texts Taught and Written by Banjarese Ulama

In 1982, a team of students of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari were assigned to study the theological texts taught in various pengajians in South Kalimantan. The scope of the research is quite impressive. The students investigate 109 pengajians in three districts, namely 51 pengajians in Hulu Sungai Utara district, 29 pengajians in Banjar district, and 29 pengajians in Banjarmasin City (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1982).

The findings of the research indicate that there are 24 titles of theological texts used in the pangajian, and Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is not one of them. Many of the pengajians use more than one theological texts, even though they are taught by the same ulama. However, most of the texts follow the Ash’arite school formulated by ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi (d. 1490). The most widely used text is Kifâyat al-’Awâm, the work of Muhammad Syâfi’i al-Fudhâlî (d. 1821), which is used in 47 pengajians. It is followed by Hâshiyah ’ala Matn al-Sanûsiyyah by Ibrâhîm al-Bâjûri (d. 1861) used in 37 pengajians, and Hâshiyah al-Hudhudî ’alâ Umm al-Barâhîn by Abdullâh al-Sharqâwî (d. 1812), used in 29 pengajians. The work of al-Sanûsi, Umm al-Barâhîn is only used in 12 pengajians. This is probably because, al-Sanûsi’s work is very concise and difficult to understand. Therefore, the texts used are mostly commentaries on this work. Interestingly, the work of the founder of the Ash’arite school, Abu al-Hasan al-Asy’arî (d. 935), al-Ibânah ’an Uşûl al-Diyânah is only used in one pengajian in Banjarmasin. The text is taught by Gusti H. Abdul Muis (d. 1992), a prominent Muhammadiyah ulama.

Besides the Arabic texts, there are also nine texts in Jawi. If we look at the names of the authors and the publishers of the Jawi texts provided in the research report, we may conclude that they are mostly written by Banjarese ulama except the ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn by Zain al-’Âbidîn Ibn Muhammad al-Pattâni, and the Sirâj al-Hudâ by Muhammad Zainuddin from Sumba. As we can see from Table 1, a significant number of Jawi texts are used. The use of Sirâj al-Hudâ is 18, ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn is 17, Kifâyat al-Mubtadi’în and Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, each of them is 16. In total, the use of the Jawi texts reaches 86. This is much lower than the use of the Arabic texts which reaches 170, but it is still a significant number. In other words, following the example of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, the Banjarese ulama of the twentieth century also wrote theological texts in Jawi, in order to help ordinary people to learn Islam.


Table 1 Theological Texts Used in Religious Gatherings (Pengajian)


The table clearly shows that some texts do not follow Sanusi’s Ash’arism, and some of them are written by modern ulama. The texts include Fatẖ al-Majîd Sharh Kitâb al-Tawîd by Abdurrahman Ibn Hasan, a commentary on the work of Muhammad Ibn ’Abd al-Wahhâb (the founder of Wahhabism), Al-’Aqîdah al-Islâmiyyah by Sayyid Sâbiq (d. 2000), Al-Hușûn al-Hamîdiyyah by Sayyid Husein Affandi al-Ṭarablusi (d. 1909), and Al-’Aqîdah al-Islâmiyyah by Bașri Ibn H. Marghubi. It is not surprising that these texts are mostly used by ulama in Banjarmasin, the capital city of the province, and in Amuntai where the theological contest between the reformist Muhammadiyah and the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama was strong.

In another research conducted in 1994, the team of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari found almost the same theological texts used in different pengajians in Banjarmasin and Hulu Sungai Utara. However, there are a few new titles found in the pengajians, namely Aqâid al-îmân by Abdurrahman Siddiq (d. 1939), Hidâyat al-Mubtadi’în by Muhammad Sarni, and Risâlah ’Ilm Tawîd by Ja’far Sabran, all of which are written in Jawi (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1995). There are other Banjarese ulama who wrote Islamic theological texts in Jawi, Indonesian, and even Arabic (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2008). Among these texts are Risâlat al-Tawîd by Muhammad Kasyful Anwar (d. 1940), written in Arabic; Ibtidâ’ al-Tawîd by Abdul Qadir Noor (d. 1940), written in Jawi. Other texts are written in Indonesian, namely Sendi Iman, Risalah Ushuluddin, Ilmu Tauhid and Pengetahuan Agama Islam by Abdul Muthallib Muhyiddin (d. 1974); Iman dan Bahagia and Akidah dan Perkembangan Ilmu Kalam by Gusti Abdul Muis; and Pelajaran Ringkas Agama Islam, Majmu’ah Shuhuf Pelajaran Agama Islam, Simpanan yang Berguna, and Ilmu Ketuhanan dan Kenabian by Darkasi (d. 2003).16)

In 2004 and 2005, a research team of the Ushuluddin Faculty, tried to find out the theological texts taught in traditional and modern Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in South Kalimantan (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b; 2005). The traditional pesantrens include Darussalam in Martapura (founded in 1914), Ibn al-Amin in Pamangkih (founded in 1958), Darussalam in Muara Tapus (founded in 1967), and Arraudhah in Amuntai (founded in 1992). Although these four cannot represent all traditional pesantrens in the region, which number more than 200, they probably can give us a more general picture, particularly because, other traditional pesantrens follow the curriculum of Darussalam in Martapura, the oldest pesantren.17)

If we look at the findings of the research, we can see that only three theological texts are taught in pesantren but not in pengajian, namely the Sharah Tîjân al-Durari by Nawawi al-Bantani (d. 1897), the Kashf al-Asrâr by Abd al-Mu’ti Ibn Salim Ibn Umar al-Shibli, and the Tuẖfat al-Murîd ’alâ Jawharat al-Tawẖîd by Ibrâhîm al-Bâjûri. The texts found in the research are also in line with Martin van Bruinessen’s list of popular theological texts among Indonesian Islamic boarding schools. However, in the South Kalimantan case, Bruinessen does not include the Tîjân al-Durari (perhaps because in this region, the text used is its commentary), while the Kashf al-Asrâr is not mentioned by him at all (Bruinessen 2012, 175).

On the other hand, the modern pesantrens—mostly founded by the alumni of modern Pesantren Darussalam, Gontor, East Java—use different theological texts. There are four modern pesantrens studied in this research, namely Darul Hijrah (founded in 1986), Ibnu Mas’ud (founded in 1990), Darul Istiqamah (founded in 1990), and Darul Inabah (founded in 1995). All of these pesantrens use the theological texts taught in Pesantren Darussalam, Gontor, namely Uşûl al-Dîn by Imam Zarkasyi, and Kitâb al-Sa’âdah by Abd al-Rahîm Manâf. In addition, Pesantren Darul Istiqamah and Ibnu Mas’ud also use a text produced by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, namely al-’Aqîdah wa al-Akhlâq. The modern pesantrens also use theological texts of Salafi-Wahhabi leanings. For instance, Ibnu Mas’ud uses a text called al-Tawîd published by Yayasan al-Shofwa, Jakarta; Darul Inabah uses al-Ma’lûmât lâ Ya’lamuhâ Katsîr min al-Nâs by Muhammad Ibn Jamil; and Darul Hijrah uses al-’Aqîdah al-Wâsithiyyah by Ibnu Taimiyyah (d. 1328), and Ta’lîqât al-Mukhtaşar al-Mufîd by Șalih Ibn Fauzân, a commentary on Kitâb al-Tawîd by Muhammad Ibn ’Abd al-Wahhâb (d. 1792), the founder of Wahhabism.

The findings of the studies described above, highlight certain features of the development of Islam, especially in terms of theology, in Banjarese society. First, the studies conducted in the early 1980s and 1990s show us that the theological texts used in most pengajian follow the Ash’arite school conceptualized by ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi. The same case is also found in traditional pesantrens, even up to the present time. On the other hand, certain pengajian use different kinds of theological text, either modern or classic, that do not follow the conception of al-Sanûsi. In the modern pesantrens, we find the theological texts with Salafi-Wahhabi leanings. Thus, we can see that the production of Islamic theological knowledge in Banjarese society has eventually become fragmented, and the dominant school of Sanusi-Ash’arism has been contested by Salafism/Wahhabism. This does not mean, however, that Salafism had only started developing by the late 1980s, because the reformist organization, Muhammadiyah, whose theology mostly follow the Salafi school, was already established in 1925 in this region.18) Apparently, what happened was that, previously the Salafi theological texts were only taught in various pengajians and schools of Muhammadiyah, but since the second half of the 1980s, they have been taught in modern pesantrens as well. It is noteworthy that, unlike religious education in pengajian and schools, religious teaching in pesantrens is given to students who are prepared to become ulama. Thus, we may say that the Salafi theological school has been strengthened in Banjarese society since the late 1980s.

Second, we can see from the findings of the above studies that the Islamic theological texts written by Banjarese ulama since the eighteenth century have been in Jawi or Arabic, but since the early 1970s, some Banjarese ulama have also published theological texts in the Indonesian language. The use of Indonesian is no doubt, due to educational developments. After the independence, the younger generation had more opportunities to study at schools where Indonesian language is used. Thus, the new generation of ulama and their students are more familiar with Indonesian texts. Moreover, if we look closely at the use of the texts in terms of their language, we find that Jawi texts is mostly used in pengajian, while the Arabic texts are mostly taught in pesantren and some in pengajian. Pesantren apparently prefers Arabic texts because they are intended for students who specialized in Islamic studies.19) On the other hand, at schools, including the state Islamic schools (madrasah negeri), the texts used in religious instruction are mostly in Indonesian.

The Contents and Relevance of the Theological Texts

As has been mentioned earlier, in 1982 the research team of students of the Ushuluddin Faculty found that the dominant school represented by the theological texts taught in pengajian was Ash’arism conceptualized by al-Sanusi, or we may call it, “Sanusi-Ash’arism.” The research team arrived at this conclusion by analyzing the contents of the texts, particularly those on major theological issues such as the relation between reason and revelation, and the attributes of God. These texts follow the Ash’arite’s view that reason is totally dependent on revelation for knowledge of the attributes of God, good and evil, and God’s commands and prohibitions. Likewise, following Ash’arism, the texts explain that God has certain attributes. The attributes are different from, but inherent in, God’s substance (dzât).

However, unlike the founder of Ash’arism, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi classifies God’s attributes into three ontological categories, the necessity (wâjib), the impossible (mustaîl), and the possible (jâ’iz). In al-Sanûsi’s classification, God has 20 necessary attributes, and 20 impossible attributes (as the opposite of the necessary attributes), and 1 possible attribute. The 20 necessary attributes (and automatically the impossible attributes as their opposites) are then classified into four: (1) the selfness (nafsiyyah), namely the attribute of being and existence (wujûd); (2) the negative (salabiyyah) which includes: without beginning (qidam), without end (baqâ), the opposite of temporary beings (mukhâlafatuh li al-hawâdith), standing on Himself (qiyâmuh binafsih) and oneness (wahdaniyyah); (3) the potential attributes (ma’ânî) which include power (qudrah), will (irâdah), knowledge (’ilm), life (hayâh), hearing (sama), seeing (bașar), speaking (kalâm); and (4) the actualization of the potential attributes (ma’nawiyyah). Finally, the possible attribute of God is doing and not doing the possible. In the same line of reasoning, al-Sanûsi also classifies the attributes of God’s messenger (rasûl) into four necessary attributes, namely honest (şidq), trustworthy (amânah), delivering God’s messages (tablîgh), and intelligent (faanah), and four impossible attributes as their opposites. Moreover, a messenger has one possible attribute, namely possible weakness as a human being. In short, the total of God and His messenger’s attributes are 50, and these represent the Muslim confession: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.

The Sanusi’s conception known as “Sifat 20,” is actually very philosophical, but why is it very popular? Perhaps, there are at least two reasons for this. First, many ulama of the archipelago learned this conception of Islamic theology, particularly from the nineteenth century commentaries on al-Sanûsi’ treatise, with their masters in the Middle East, so when they returned home, they transferred it to the Muslims in the archipelago. The Jawi text called ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn by Zain al-’Abidîn Ibn Muhammad al-Patani, which contains the Sanusi’s conception, was completed in 1308 H or 1891 CE (Patani no date, 139).20) Second, apart from its philosophical arguments, this conception is simple in terms of the number of God’s and His messenger’s attributes, 20 and 4 respectively. So, they can be easily memorized by ordinary people, including the illiterates. In fact, most teachers in pengajian encourage their audiences to memorize them.

On the other hand, the popularity of al-Sanûsi’s conception drew critical responses from the ulama, especially the Muslim scholars at IAIN Antasari. Many of them say that, because of this conception, people have had only a narrow understanding of Sunni theology, which is limited only to al-Sanusi. In fact, Sunni theology includes many important figures such as al-Ash’ari, al-Mâturidi, al-Ghazâli, al-Juwaini, al-Bâqillâni, and even Salafi figures like Aẖmad Ibn Hanbal. As has been mentioned earlier, Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari has this wider conception of Sunni theology, and does not refer to al-Sanûsi at all. Thus, from this perspective, the popularity of al-Sanûsi’s conception is somehow a regression (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1982, 25).

The Muslim scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty also observed that because the philosophical arguments are not easily grasped by ordinary people, the teaching of Islamic theology eventually becomes very formal, i.e., memorizing doctrines without clearly understanding them. Therefore, it is difficult to expect that people can internalize Islamic values through learning this conception of theology (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1995, 100). Moreover, because the arguments are mostly rational, the experiential and spiritual dimensions of faith tend to be neglected. The scholars also observed that, in a number of pesantrens, the method of teaching is apparently ineffective because the teacher explains the meaning of the Arabic text without trying to find its relevance to daily life. Consequently, it would separate the discourse of theology from ethics (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b, 104–107).

On the other hand, there are some studies undertaken by scholars who try to explore and appreciate the philosophical contents of the texts. In 1993, a lecturer of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, Bahran Noor Haira, attempted to understand the idea of ta’alluq (relation) developed in al-Sanûsi’s conception. For Bahran Noor Haira, this idea is apparently related to the Ash’arite’s view that God has eternal attributes different from, but inherent in His substance. The differentiation of God’s substance from His attributes, is important partly in explaining the relationship between the eternal and the temporal, the creator and creature. In other words, God’s attributes become the medium between the eternal and the temporal. For instance, God has the attributes of power (qudrah) and will (irâdah), and these attributes are related (ta’alluq) to the possible things. So, the eternal God creates the temporal world through the “mediation” of His will and power. This view is obviously conceptualized to oppose Mu’tazilite, who maintains that God, as a perfect being, has no attributes, and that God’s substance and attributes cannot be differentiated (Bahran Noor Haira 1993).

Besides Bahran Noor Haira’s explanation above, there is also another important reason behind the idea of ta’alluq. If we look at al-Sanûsi’s arguments, it is clear that this idea is related to his basic three ontological categories, namely the necessary, the impossible, and the possible. The idea of ta’alluq is set up in order that we will not fall into an inconsistent logic which may lead to confusion. For instance, God’s attribute of knowledge is related (ta’alluq) to the necessary, the impossible and the possible, but why God’s attribute of power is only related to the possible? This is set up to avoid inconsistent logic, like someone asking you: Can God by His power create another God? This question is absurd because it confuses the impossible with the possible. To avoid this, al-Sanûsi makes the idea of ta’alluq, namely that the relation of God’s power is only to the possible, not to the necessary or the impossible.

Another interesting research is by a professor of Islamic theology of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, M. Zurkani Jahja. He undertook a study of a theological text written in Jawi by a Banjarese ulama, Asy’ari Sulaiman (d. 1981) entitled Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în (Zurkani Jahja 1995). Zurkani Jahja concentrates on finding the philosophical elements contained in the text. Because this text is based on al-Sanûsi’s conception, it is actually a sample which represents a wide range of popular texts of the same line. In this study, he shows that al-Sanûsi’s conception is full of philosophical elements, drawn from Greek and Islamic philosophy, both in terms of material, as well as method of arguments.

Zurkani Jahja observes that Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în uses several philosophical terminologies such as șifah, dzât, jirm, jawhar, jins, nau’, and gerak. For him, dzât is actually an Arabic translation of substance and șifah of accident, originally from Aristotle. A substance is something whose existence is independent from something else, while accident is something whose existence is dependent on substance. If we look at a red hat, then the hat is substance, while red is accident. For Zurkani Jahja, the use of these philosophical terms was also found among Muslim theologians in the Middle Ages. Likewise, the term jirm was used by Muslim philosophers to refer to celestial bodies, jawhar to substance, jins to genus, and nau’ to species. The origin of these terms can also be traced back to Greek philosophy.

However, Zurkani Jahja finds that the meaning of the term gerak (harakah/movement) in Islamic theological texts, including the Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, is different from that of Aristotle. In Islamic theology, according to Zurkani Jahja, the term harakah was initially introduced by Abu Hudzail al-Allâf (d. 784), and subsequently by other theologians. For them, gerak or movement simply means spatial change, as opposed to diam (sukûn/calm), while for Aristotle, movement means the change of potentiality into actuality. The wood has the potential to become a chair, so when it becomes a chair, there is a movement. On the other hand, the Muslim theologians, including Asy’ari Sulaiman in his Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, follow Aristotelian cosmological argument that the movement is finally moved by the unmovable mover that is God. To support this argument, they reject the idea of infinite chain of causes (tasalsul) and infinite rotation of causes (dawr).

Another important philosophical issue discussed in Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în is causality. Zurkani Jahja explains that, according to Aristotle, knowledge is to know the causes behind an object. This idea leads to Aristotelian beliefs in the necessity of cause-effect relationships. In this regard, Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Fârabi, and Ibn Sînâ follow Aristotle. However, the Ash’arite theologian, al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111), disagrees with them. For al-Ghazâlî, the relationship between cause and effect is not necessary. It is simply God’s custom to act in this world. In other words, the cause-effect relationship totally depends on the will and power of God. According to Zurkani Jahja, the Muslim theologians before al-Ghazâlî like al-Juwainî and al-Bâqillânî actually had a similar idea, but it was al-Ghazâlî who introduced it in more detailed manner. Again, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în simply follows it.

In addition to the issue of causality, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în also touches upon the problem of human freedom in the face of God’s absolute power, or the issue of determinism versus indeterminism. For Zurkani Jahja, Aristotle apparently was not interested in discussing this issue because for him, God as the unmovable mover is far away from events in this world. In contrast, following Ash’arism, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în argues that a person does not create his/her own acts, but God creates them. This view, according to Zurkani Jahja, is in line with that of the Christian theologian, Augustine (d. 430). In this context, it is curious why Zurkani Jahja does not discuss the idea of kasb developed by Ash’arism, which explains that a person acquires his/her act when God agrees with his/her will.

In terms of method, Zurkani Jahja also finds some philosophical elements in this treatise. When the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în starts introducing Islamic theology as a discipline, he follows what is called mabâdi’ ’asharah (10 foundations). The 10 foundations include its definition (adduh), its object (maudhû’h), its founder (wâdhi’h), its name (ismuh), its value (fadhluh), its religiously legal consequence (hukmuh), its fruit (tramaratuh), its sources (istimdâduh), its affiliation (nisbatuh), and its issues (masâiluh). For Zurkani Jahja, at least the idea of definition comes from Aristotle, while the 10 foundations as a whole apparently come from Muslim scholars. In this case, the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în refers to a scholar named Ahmad Ibn Suhaimi who is quoted to say that the 10 foundations are necessary to identify a certain discipline. Zurkani Jahja argues that if we look at the common identification of three aspects of a discipline in modern philosophy of science, i.e., ontology, epistemology, and axiology, then we may say that the idea of 10 foundations is more comprehensive.

In addition, as one may rightly expect, like other Sanusi-Ash’arism texts, the Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în also bases its reasoning on three ontological categories called hukm al-’aql (which literally means rule of reason), namely the necessary (wâjib), the impossible (mustaîl), and the possible (jâ’iz). Each of the three is then divided into dharûrî (axiomatical), and nazharî (theoretical). According to Zurkani Jahja, the three ontological categories were created by the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Sînâ. The difference is only in the names, not in their meanings. Ibn Sînâ calls the impossible mumtani’ instead of mustaîl, and the possible mumkin instead of jâ’iz.

Zurkani Jahja also explores the way in which the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în presents rational arguments. It is obvious, argues Zurkani Jahja, that this treatise follows the reasoning structure devised by Aristotle called syllogism. A simple syllogism starts with a general proposition, then followed by a specific case, and finally it comes to a conclusion. For instance, it is argued in this treatise that anything that changes is temporal, and the world is changing, then it is temporal. Aristotelian syllogism is known among the Muslim scholars since the Middle Ages, when the Aristotle Logic was translated into Arabic as Manṭiq. Thus, like other philosophical elements mentioned earlier, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în and similar texts of Sanûsi-Ash’arism simply follow this classical Muslim heritage.

Having analyzed the philosophical elements in Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, Zurkani Jahja poses this important question: What can we learn from this, to develop material and method of Islamic theology today? M. Zurkani Jahja then answers that, if the classical Muslim Scholars were able to keep an open mind towards Greek philosophy, and to use some of its elements in their explanation of Islamic theological doctrines, then we should adopt a similar attitude towards modern philosophy and scientific findings. By keeping an open mind, modern Muslim scholars can make Islamic theological terms and arguments familiar with, and relevant to, the contemporary society and culture.

Besides analyzing the texts of Sanûsi-Ash’arism, researchers also look at other texts of Salafi orientation as well as texts written in Indonesian language. The findings of their research indicate that the theological texts written in Indonesian apparently try to explain Islamic theological doctrines in terms familiar with, and relevant to, daily life. These texts generally do not use the intricate philosophical arguments, nor restrict themselves to explain the attributes of God and His messengers, but move on to the whole six pillars of the Muslim faith (the other four pillars are belief in angels, holy books, day of judgment, and God’s determinism). There is even a theological book in Indonesian entitled Iman dan Bahagia which explains how Islamic faith will bring happiness to people. This text is written by a Banjarese Muhammadiyah leader, Gusti Abdul Muis (1979). In addition, the theological texts with Salafi leanings taught in modern pesantren are generally written in a language easy to understand, and most of their arguments are taken directly from the Qur’an and the Hadith. Moreover, many of the Salafi theological texts are written by modern scholars. Because the impetus of the Salafi theology is the purification of the Muslim faith from allegedly un-Islamic elements, this type of theological texts are easily perceived as relevant to people’s daily life (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b, 104–107).

The analysis of the contents and relevance of the theological texts by the researchers above may give us a picture of the development of theological thought in Banjarese society. In general, the researchers question the relevance of the outdated and complex philosophical arguments of the Sanusi-Ash’arism. However, there are still weaknesses in this criticism. First, the criticism is generally only based on textual evidence rather than direct experiences of the actual learning and teaching process in pengajian or pesantren. In fact, it is very possible that a good teacher will not only read the text to his students, but also explains the relevance of the text to daily life.21) At present, Guru Zuhdiannor is one of a few Banjarese ulama, who teaches a similar Sanusi-Ash’arism text in his pengajian, and with extraordinary skill explains the relevance of the text to Muslim ethics. This is why his pengajians are held regularly in two big mosques in Banjarmasin, and are usually attended by thousands of people. Besides, one must remember that in traditional Islam, the oral tradition is very important to understand the classical texts (Nasr 1992). Second, to say that the Sanusi-Ash’arism’s texts neglect the spiritual dimension of faith is not completely true. For instance, at the end of a commentary on Umm al-Barâhîn by al-Sanûsî himself, he introduces a Sufi model of invocation (dzikr) or remembrance of God, to internalize the Islamic theological values. In the same text, one finds an explanation of the Islamic Sufi ethics such as tawakkul (sincere trust to God), zuhd (ascetism), ayâ’ (shameness before God), faqr (spiritual poverty), and so on (Sanûsi n.d., 226–237).22) Third, sometimes, a Muslim scholar who teaches in pengajian, uses not only a theological text, but also a Sufi text. Therefore, it is very possible, in this case that the teacher would explain the relationships between theology and Islamic spirituality.

In any case, some scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, have tried to offer an alternative in terms of material and method of Islamic theology. One of them is M. Zurkani Jahja. He wrote a dissertation on al-Ghazali’s metholodogy in theology, supervised by the two prominent Indonesian Muslim theologians, Harun Nasution and Nurcholish Madjid.23) From September 1998 to October 2000, Zurkani Jahja regularly wrote a column in the local weekly tabloid called Serambi Ummah. The column is concentrated on explaining the meaning of each of the 99 names of God (al-Asmâ’ al-Husna). For Zurkani Jahja, the theology of 99 names of God is a good alternative in terms of materials to Sanusi’s 20 attributes of God because it is relatively easier to understand, and it is easily related to Muslim daily life in terms of its ethical and spiritual implications. The weekly columns were then compiled and published in two volumes in 2000 by a local publisher, Grafika Wangi Kalimantan. In 2010, the book was republished in one volume by Pustaka Pesantren, Yogyakarta (a branch of LKiS publisher), and became widely distributed all over Indonesia (Zurkani Jahja 2002; 2010).24)

Certainly, a book on 99 names of God is not new at all, even in traditional Banjarese society. However, as Nurcholish Madjid wrote, the names were studied mostly not as materials of theology but as sources of “magical” power (Nurcholish Madjid 2012, 53–54). A Banjarese ulama, Husen Qadri (d. 1967), also wrote a short explanation on the 99 names of God in his Sanjata Mukmin (A believer’s weapon), a work written in Jawi. This work mostly concentrates on the spiritual power of each name that could be gained by any Muslim who recites it (Husin Qadri 1971). Zurkani Jahja’s work, however, is different. It is an attempt to explain Muslim understanding of God through His Names, and how they relate to Islamic ethics and spirituality. He also tries to use some western modern philosophical arguments to support his ideas, but at the same time, he still adheres to Sunni-Ash’arite theological views.

Another alternative theological material produced by a team of lecturers of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari is a book entitled Kitâb Uşûl al-Dîn (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004a). The book was distributed in some pengajians and sold in the market. It was not accidental that the book is written in Jawi. For traditionalist Muslims, especially in Banjarese society, the Arabic script is considered sacred. Thus, the ulama usually reads a text in pengajian if it is written in Jawi or Arabic, not in Indonesian. The contents of the book still discuss Sanusi’s formula of 20 attributes, but at the same time, it includes other pillars of faith such as the beliefs in angels, the day of judgment, and so on. The book has been used in some pengajians, but it probably will not replace the other popular texts.


We can see from the previous discussion that the existing studies on Islamic theological texts in Banjarese society may give us a clearer picture of the development of Islamic theological thought in that society. There have been continuities and changes in terms of texts, issues, and languages. The early theological text analyzed by researchers is the work of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari in the eighteenth century, Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. In 1988, there was a controversy over the authorship of this work. Some scholars debated whether it was the work of Asryad al-Banjari or of Abd al-Samad al-Palimbani. However, based on strong textual evidence, some scholars have convincingly argued that the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari. In addition to the controversy, this theological text illustrates the strong influence of Sunni-Ash’arism and its application in Banjarese socio-cultural contexts. Al-Banjari’s opposition to some pre-Islamic traditional rituals can be seen as his efforts to intensely Islamize his society. Al-Banjari’s antagonistic attitude is also evidence that the assumption that traditional Islam in Indonesia is always accommodative to local beliefs and rituals, is contentious (Feillard 2011).

By the early twentieth century, the most popular theological texts are those which follow the Sanusi-Ash’arism. This means that al-Banjari’s earlier text has a wider perspective of Sunnism than those written in the later period which limit themselves to the Sanusi conception. Moreover, due to the fact that the Sanusi theological conception is strongly based on rational philosophical arguments, researchers often assume that it is not easily understood and internalized by ordinary people. Partly because of this difficulty, since the early 1970s, some Banjarese ulama have begun writing Islamic theological texts in the Indonesian language, as well as developing more comprehensive materials and familiar arguments. Moreover, a few other Banjarese ulama, following Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, also wrote theological texts in Jawi. Given the Banjarese Muslim perception of Arabic script as sacred, even a team of the Ushuluddin Faculty produced a similar Jawi text in 2004. On the other hand, there was also an effort in using the 99 Names of God as materials for learning Islamic theology. This was partly as a response to the inadequacy of the Sanusi conception, and an attempt to relate Islamic theological values to Islamic ethics and spirituality. Since the 1980s, some modern pesantrens have introduced Salafi theology which is simpler in terms of its arguments, and is clearly oriented toward purifying Muslim faith from pre-Islamic beliefs. This development is obviously a challenge to the dominant Ash’arism among the Banjarese. Unlike in the 1920s when the reformist Muhammadiyah—whose theology is a kind of Salafism—started its influence among the Banjarese mostly through pengajian and modern schools, since the 1980s, the salafi theology has been taught to students who are expected to become ulama.

With this development, one may ask if the traditional Sanusi-Ash’arism will soon decline? This question could be better answered by looking at the power behind the contesting theologies. To my observation, the production and transmission of traditional religious knowledge through pesantren and pengajian in Banjarese society remain strong. Most Banjarese Muslims, especially from the lower class, in terms of religious matters, still depend on what the traditionalist ulama say. This is very different from their attitudes towards Muslim intellectuals at the IAIN, even though some of them also become highly respected ulama. The influences of the intellectuals at the IAIN are apparently limited to the middle and educated class. On the other hand, Islamic sects such as Islam Jamaah and Ahmadiyah whose theologies are partly but significantly different from that of the Sunni majority, have also entered South Kalimantan, at least since 1990s. Moreover, since the Reformation Era (1998 onwards), the political theology of radical Islam, especially that of Hizbut Tahrir, has been strongly influential among university students, particularly at the secular university of Lambung Mangkurat. Daily reports on corruption, violence, sexual promiscuity, and so on, apparently make the younger generation dissatisfied with the traditionalist theology, and therefore, they become attracted to a religious utopian ideology offered by new movements like Hizbut Tahrir. Last but not least, the Banjarese society has become religiously more and more plural, both internally and externally (Mujiburrahman et al. 2011; Mujiburrahman 2012), and this certainly poses new important theological questions which probably cannot be answered by the classical theology of Sanusi-Asy’arism.

Accepted: March 26, 2014


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Bibliographical Notes

“Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin” means a team of researchers of the Faculty of Ushuluddin of the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Antasari, Banjarmasin, while “Tim IAIN Antasari” means a team of researchers from different faculties of the Institute. Therefore, there are several names written in the bracket, following the Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin and the Tim IAIN Antasari as the authors. The first name mentioned in the bracket is the coordinator of the research.

1) The 10 largest ethnic groups in Indonesia are: Javanese (41.65%); Sundanese (15.41%); Malay (3.45%); Madurese (3.37%); Batak (3.02%); Minang (2.72%), Betawi (2.51%); Buginese (2.49%) Bantenese (2.05%); Banjarese (1.74%).

2) Alfani Daud maintains that, given the vast similarities between Malay and Banjarese language, the ancestors of the Banjarese probably came from Sumatra (Alfani Daud 1997, 1–4). In contrast, Noerid Haloei Radam (1995) argues for two possible hypotheses. The first is that the Banjarese were a hybrid of various ethnic groups who came to South Kalimantan. The second is that the Banjarese were the Dayak people who assimilated with the migrants, thereby cultivating their own unique culture. Moreover, Mary Hawkins argues that the Banjarese were not identified as an independent ethnic entity until the coming of the Dutch and later, the emergence of the Indonesian state (Hawkins 2000, 24–36). While these theories can be justified in one way or another, there is one important element of the Banjarese ethnicity that is very obvious, namely the Banjarese language. It is true that there are several words which are uniquely used by people of Banjar Hulu as opposed to Banjar Kuala, but both groups generally can understand each other.

3) The myth of the conversion is found in Ras (1968). For an analysis of the conversion myths to Islam in the archipelago, see Russell Jones (1979, 129–158).

4) For the studies of al-Banjari’s life, see Jusuf Halidi (1968), Zafri Zamzam (1979), and Abu Daudi (1980).

5) There are some terms used to refer to Islamic theology, such as ’ilm al-tawîd, ’ilm al-kalâm, or ’ilm al-’aqîdah. The main issues discussed in Islamic theology are the conception of monotheism, the prophethood, and life after death.

6) There are a few scholarly studies on al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar, two of them deserve to be mentioned, namely a small part of Chapter III of the research report by Tim IAIN Antasari (1989) and Khairil Anwar (2009, Ch.V). The last work is originally a PhD thesis at the State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, in 2007.

7) In addition to the manyanggar ritual, Asywadie Syukur also refers to a research report published in 1978 by the Provincial Government of South Kalimantan, regarding the mambuang pasilih ritual which took place in Candi Agung, a Hindu temple, in Amuntai. The actors were the descendants of an aristocratic family of the Banjarese court. The influence of Javanese culture in this ritual is obvious because it uses the Javanese traditional music, gamelan and gong (Asymadie Syukur 2009, 10–16).

8) Hasan refers to Wan Mohd. Shaghir Abdullah (1982, 106). In fact, this information is not found there but in the revised edition of the same work (Abdullah 1990, 106). As we can see in the latter, it was Abdurrahman, a Banjarese intellectual and currently a Supreme Judge, who suggests Wan Mohd. Shagir Abdullah to investigate the issue. In a letter sent to M. Chatib Quzwain, dated January 13, 1986, Abdurrahman argues that most Arsyad al-Banjari’s biographers say that the treatise is his work. Abdurrahman then sent a copy of the letter to Abdullah.

9) A recent research indicates the scarcity of such evidence, apart from the myth regarding the relocation of his grave (Mufidatun Nisa 2009).

10) This classification is found in al-Palimbani’s work, Sair al-Sâlikîn (Palimbani n.d., 176–187). However, the fact that Arsyad al-Banjari and Nafis al-Banjari had the same line of masters, it could be safe to argue that they have the same position as that of al-Palimbani.

11) The research team formally consists of 10 persons, but the theological section was probably written by M. Zurkani Jahja (d. 2004). See also Zurkani Jahja (2005, 157–158).

12) The authenticity of this hadith is controversial. Ibn Hibbân, al-Hâkim, and Ibn Taimiyah believe that the hadith is saẖîẖ li ghairih (authentic based on various similar reports), but Ibn Hajar and Tirmidzi consider it ẖasan (literally “good,” which is below the saẖîẖ), while Ibn Hazm and two modern Muslim scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and ’Abd al-Rahmân Badawi put it as dha’îf (literally “weak”) (Khairil Anwar 2009, 90, 182). Another modern Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman, sets up a general principle to reject similar kinds of hadith. He says, “a Hadith which involves a prediction, directly or indirectly, cannot, on strict historical grounds, be accepted as genuinely emanating from the Prophet and must be referred to the relevant period of later history” (Rahman 1995, 46). Italics is original.

13) It is interesting that al-Ghazâlî tries to synchronize the two opposite hadiths. For al-Ghazâlî, the statement of the hadith that only one group will go to heaven refers to those Muslims who enter paradise without the process of interrogation (ẖisâb), while the only one group who will go to hell mentioned in the second version of the hadith refers to the zindîq (the unbelievers). So, for al-Ghazâlî, most Muslims will go to heaven, but some of them should pass through the interrogation, and some of them even should stay for a certain period of time (in accordance with their respective sins) in the hell (Mujiburrahman 2008, 358).

14) Tapung tawar is a ritual for making peace between two conflicting parties. In the ritual, coconut oil mixed with fragrant spices smeared on the heads of both persons in conflict. Sometimes, bapalas bidan ritual, which is believed to be a way to free a new born baby from magical power of the midwife, is also called tapung tawar (Alfani Daud 1997, 472–473).

15) Pengajian is an Islamic study gathering with regular meetings. It can be at the mosque, majelis taklim (a special place used for religious teaching and gathering), or a spacious home of an ulama or a rich person.

16) Of course, there are other theological texts written by Banjarese ulama which are not analyzed in the research. In the last notes of the 2008 research above, there are two other works which are not mentioned, namely Risalah Pengajian Ilmu Tauhid (in Indonesian) by Jafri bin Utuh and al-Durr al-Farîd fi Shar Jawharat al-Tawîd by Muhammad Kasyful Anwar (in Arabic). See Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin (2008, 135).

17) The official statistics of the Ministry of Religious Affairs of South Kalimantan indicate that the number of pesantrens in this region reaches 300, and certainly most of them of traditionalist type. However, one must also realize that many of the pesantrens are very small (Kementerian Agama 2011).

18) For a study of conflict between the traditionalists (NU) and the reformists (Muhammadiyah) in Banjarese society, see Achmad Fedyani Saifuddin (1986), and for a current and small case, see Ahmad Muhajir (2010).

19) In his careful research on “books in Arabic script” used in the pesantren mileu, Martin van Bruinessen calculates that around 55 percent of the books are in Arabic, and 22 percent are in Malay (Bruinessen 2012, 151).

20) Zain al-’Abidin Ibn Muhammad is “one of the four great Patani ulama in Mecca in the 19th century, the others being Shaykh Daud, Shayk Ahmad . . . and Muhammad bin Daud” (Matheson and Hooker 1988, 34).

21) Similarly, there is a significant difference between the written text and oral presentation in the reading ritual of Sufi anecdotes (Millie 2008).

22) It is noteworthy that the Muslim Banjarese traditional gathering for reciting Lâilâha illallâh (there is no god but God) 70,000 times called “dzikir tujuh laksa,” which is believed can save the dead person from hell, is probably based on this Sanûsi’s work as well. It is still practiced up to now.

23) The dissertation was defended in 1987 at IAIN (now UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. It was published in 1996, and reprinted in 2009 (Zurkani Jahja 2009). Unlike most scholarly works on al-Ghazali, both in the Middle East and the West, Zurkani Jahja convincingly argues that there is no contradiction among al-Ghazali’s works written before and after he became a Sufi. They are simply different methods for different levels of theological views.

24) I edited both editions, and I wrote a preface to introduce Zurkani Jahja’s theological views. As his student, I was quite influenced by his ideas, so I wrote my undergraduate thesis in 1994 on the same subject (Mujiburrahman 2005).


Vol. 3, No. 3, Piyada Chonlaworn

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Contesting Law and Order: Legal and Judicial Reform in Southern Thailand in the Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century

Piyada Chonlaworn*

* ปิยดา ชลวร, College of Policy Science, Ritsumeikan University, 56-1 Toji-in Kitamachi, Kita-ku, Kyoto 603-8577, Japan

e-mail: u2piyada[at]yahoo.com

This paper examines legal and judicial reform in Thailand (then Siam) imposed in the southern Malay provinces, once a sultanate kingdom of Pattani, in the 1890s and 1910s. Legal and judicial reform was one of the three main reforms Siam imposed countrywide at the end of the nineteenth century as an attempt to modernize the country and defend it against Western colonial powers. However, Siam’s rule and reform in the Malay region, especially during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, is viewed by recent studies as colonial modernity in itself. These measures included the appointment of a Siamese commissioner in the Malay region, the enforcement of Thai law, and Siam’s endeavor to preserve local practices such as Islamic family law and courts, which resembled those of the British and Dutch East Indies. While the notion of Siam’s inner colonialism is not entirely wrong, this paper argues that there is also another side of the coin that should be considered especially when looking from legal and judicial perspective. Right after a new regulation was imposed in 1901, it was clear that local people were ready to make use of the new judicial system. This is partly because the new system, regardless of its shortcomings, gave local people, including Malay ruling elites, opportunities to file cases against their enemies or demand justice.

Keywords: Pattani, Siam, Malay, Islamic law, Tok Kali, judicial order, colonization

I Introduction

The nineteenth century was a period of transition in most parts of the world in a move from the traditional state to a modern nation-state under a clearly defined territory. Thailand, then Siam,1) was no exception. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially the “long decade of the 1890s,” Siam had experienced a series of political reforms and modernization as an attempt to resist the European colonialism that was sweeping across Southeast Asia. This also brought about tremendous changes to Siam’s southernmost region where the majority of the people were Malay-speaking Muslims.

Situated in the south of Thailand and northeast of the Malay Peninsula, Pattani, or Patani in Malay spelling, has long been an area bridging the Buddhist-nominated Thai and Malay-dominated Muslim worlds. It was once an autonomous sultanate state, prospering from maritime trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, until it was incorporated into Siam in the early twentieth century. The kingdom covered the area of three of the southernmost provinces of present-day Thailand: Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, where violence by Muslim insurgents has escalated since 2004.

Historically, Pattani and nearby Malay states such as Kedah and Kelantan were in a loose suzerain relationship with Siam since around the sixteenth century, symbolized by a triennial tribute of the bunga mas or ornamental tree and flower made of gold and silver.2) When Siam’s power was contested, these vassal states often revolted and asserted their independence from Siam. After a series of rebellions by Malay rulers near the turn of the nineteenth century, Pattani was defeated by a resurgent Siamese state and in 1810 was subdivided into seven provinces. It was renamed “the seven Malay provinces” (hereafter “the seven provinces”), comprising of Tani (capital of the former Pattani kingdom) as the headquarters, and Nong Chik, Saiburi, Yaring, Yala, Raman, and Ra-Ngae (Phan-ngam 1976; Koch 1977, 70) (see Map 1). Each province had its own ruler who was allowed to exercise his authority under the supervision of Siam.3) Siam, however, asserted indirect control through the recognition and sometimes appointment of local rulers; this area was also placed under the supervision of Songkla, a provincial headquarters of Siamese government in the south.



Map 1 The Seven Provinces (Former Pattani Kingdom)

Source: Kobkua (1988, 160).


The political situation in and around the seven provinces became more intense when the British expanded their influence over the Malay Peninsula in the late nineteenth century. As part of a provincial administrative reform initiated nationwide in 1892, Siam saw the need to impose reforms in the Malay region as well. In 1901, the seven provinces were regrouped into one administrative unit called the “Area of Seven Provinces” and placed under the control of an Area Commissioner who resided in Tani and who came under the supervision of the Superintendent-Commissioner of Nakornsrithammarat (see Fig. 1).



Fig. 1 New Administrative Structure in the Siamese Malay Provinces, 1896–1906

Source: Adapted from Phan-ngam (1976, 216).


In the same year, Siam issued a set of “Regulations concerning the Administration of the Area of Seven Provinces,” which aimed at increasing centralized Siamese control over the region. Judges (who were mostly Siamese), deputy governors, and revenue officers were appointed to assist local rulers. Treasuries of the Area were handled by the Revenue Department in the same way as the rest of Siam. As compensation, the rulers and Malay nobilities were given fixed but adequate pensions (Nantawan 1976, 201–203). Needless to say, Siamese reform bred resentment and resistance among the Malay rulers.

In 1906, the position of sultan was abolished and the seven states were reorganized as Monthon Pattani (Pattani Circle). Triennial tribute to Bangkok being abolished, the seven provinces were amalgamated into four provinces: Pattani, Yala, Ra-Ngae, and Saiburi, each with its own commissioner instead of an imposed sultan. This reorganization finally put an end to the position of Pattani as a sultanate state, marking the beginning of the integration of the Malay states into Siam. Not long after, in 1909, the Anglo-Siamese treaty was signed. As a result, Siam had to relinquish Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Trengganu to British Malaya in order to keep the newly created Monthon Pattani under Siamese territory (ibid., 203–204). The splitting of the Pattani kingdom and the assertion of Siamese control over the area in the nineteenth century is said to be the root of Malay nationalism and political conflict between the Thai government and the Malay south, which in the past decades has turned into an ethno-religious cleavage between Buddhist Thai and Malay Muslims (Harish 2006; Thanet 2008).

Consequently, studies on Thai-Malay relations have so far focused on political tensions between the two parties. Pattani nationalists often stressed the suppression of Thai authority and the struggle of the Malays for justice.4) Historically, Siam’s expansion of its southern periphery, which intensified in the reign of King Chulalongkorn, is seen as a pursuit of imperial expansion rather than as a measure to assure Siam’s independence or survival from colonial threat (Koch 1977, 70–71; Loos 2004–05, 7–8; 2006, 70–88). Loos (2006, 88) argues that the enforcement of Thai law and the establishment of an Islamic family court in Greater Pattani in the early twentieth century, modelled after the British, were the most important displays of Siamese colonial modernity.

While the notion of Siam as a colonial aggressor is not entirely wrong, there are other elements that should be examined more closely with regards to Thai-Malay relations and to the history of Pattani per se. This paper focuses on the legal and judicial reform Siam imposed in the southern Malay region between 1896 and 1906. This period was probably the most crucial period for both Siam and Malay ruling elites in the political sense, especially with the growing influence of the British in the Malay Peninsula. It examines political structures and judicial practice in the seven Malay provinces prior to the Siamese reform, and how these changed after the legal reform of 1901.

Historical sources regarding law and jurisdiction in the seven provinces are mainly composed of Thai documents since indigenous data on this subject, especially in the period studied, hardly exists. Most of these documents are official reports sent by Siamese local officials to the Ministry of the Interior (Prince Damrong) and King Chulalongkorn, who sometimes sent back comments and suggestions. Siamese officials during the era of modernization often viewed the peripheral region with bias, revealing their imperial perspective. However, among the Thai archives are documents on court cases, letters, and petitions from local elites, translated from Malay to Thai, which shed light on some aspects of Malay society and local politics. This paper will make use of these documents to examine the first 10 years of the reform.5)

II Law and Society in the Siamese Malay States in the Pre-reform Period

In order to understand the Siamese rationale for reform, we need to understand the political structure of the Malay provinces, how traditional law and jurisdiction functioned in the society, and why the Siamese found it problematic.

Political Structure and Administrative Practice

Political and social structure in the traditional Malay states is probably the least studied subject in Malay studies. This is worse for Pattani, which fell out of the orbit of concern of British colonial officers; data are scattered and we only have very rough knowledge about it. What we do know is that the sultan or raja, like in the other states in traditional Southeast Asia, occupied the highest position. A British personnel wrote in his 1895 report of the raja of Ra-Ngae, the biggest province close to Kelantan, that he is “supreme in his state, and his word is law.”6)

The raja supervised an administrative department called krom-karnmuang, staffed by several high-ranking officials called Sri tawan kromakarn.7) The highest official in the krom-karnmuang was the deputy governor, who assisted the raja and replaced him when he was absent, followed by the datok, who acted as judge in civil and criminal cases in the city. The datok also supervised district headmen called mae kong or tok kwaeng. Apart from the datok who exercised jurisdiction duty, there were also tok kali in charge of religion and Islamic law, deputy tok kali called tok kiri, as well as revenue officers and officers taking care of bunga mas, or tribute-sending, to Bangkok. The hierarchical relations of these officials are far from clear.

At the district and village level, the mae kong or district headman was entrusted with important duties ranging from assuring social order in his village, dealing with conflicts in small cases to collecting suai tax, or tax in kind. Below the mae kong was the penghulu, a Malay term for village headman, who was the mae kong’s assistant. In big villages there could be more than one penghulu. There were also revenue officers called kwaeng, who collected land taxes and dealt with land disputes; jaa or tokjo, policeman answerable to the mae kong; and nai-dan or custom officer in charge of collecting duties to be sent to the raja (Phan-ngam 1976, 49–52; Somchot 1978, 72–75) (see Fig. 2).



Fig. 2 Political Structure in Pattani before the 1901 Reform

Source: Adapted from Somchot (1978, 72–75).


It is not clear whether this administrative structure was applied in the same manner in all the seven provinces. In Ra-Ngae, for example, the raja had five deputies: mekong Sulong who held the highest position next to the raja, datok Basong, mekong Betong, Hadji Kuchang, and Pah Chu Bujal. There was another important official called “Captain China”—Lim Keo Min, who owned all the farms in the country and collected all kinds of taxes and revenue in Ra-Ngae. Lim reportedly paid the raja $1,260 a year.8)

Somchot has pointed out some problems in the political structure of the seven provinces. First, the duty of these officials often overlapped as there was no functional division of labor (Somchot 1978, 74). Tok kali, datok, and kwaeng all had the juridical authority to hear cases, and both datok and district headmen (mae kong) could collect taxes as land revenue officers (kwaeng). Second, and more importantly, the appointment and dismissal of these officials was decided by the raja alone, which gave him supreme power over all matters, often resulting in despotic rule (ibid., 75). It might, however, be premature to pinpoint the problems from the fragmented data we possess. Duties may seem overlapping, but it might have been a division of labor between the city and outlying districts.

Legal and Judicial Practice

What kind of law was applied in the seven provinces before the reform, how disputes were settled, and how crimes were punished are questions difficult to answer since we only have scattered information. First, regarding law and punishment, it seems that Islamic law was originally applied in the seven provinces. Then in the early nineteenth century, when the Siamese expanded their control in the southern Malay provinces, Siamese law was introduced. Later on, when the Chinese population increased in the region, Chinese law was also applied for the Chinese (Phan-ngam 1976, 52–53). In some provinces where Siamese influence was strong, for example Nong Chick, only Siamese law was applied, while in other provinces such as Pattani, Raman, and Ra-Ngae, both Siamese and Islamic law were applied, and there were kali or Islamic courts in most of the provinces (Somchot 1978, 131). According to Engel (1978, 19–20), it should be noted that even though Siamese law was promulgated by early Siamese kings, it was not strictly observed in the provincial areas since there were traditional ways of handling conflicts, such as ordeal and oath, witchcraft proceedings, mediation by elders or people of high status, and formal judicial proceedings conducted by local rulers. Regarding Malay customary law or adat, while other Malay states such as Malacca, Kedah, and Pahang had their own texts, Pattani did not seem to have one. According to Hooker (1972, 76–81), there are some references to laws in Pattani in the Malacca Maritime Laws, which concern rules and punishment on ships and other miscellaneous laws.9)

When Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit (or Phrya Yommarat), Superintendent Commissioner of Nakornsrithammarat, visited Pattani in 1896 in preparation for administrative reform, he made some observations about law and jurisdiction there. According to his report to Bangkok, first, two courts existed in this big province—the Commissioner Court and the Governor (raja) Court—but there was no regulation on which cases should be sent to which court, causing overlapping in judicial procedure. In outlying provinces such as Raman and Ra-Ngae, there were no courts or trials being held at all. Second, there were no regulations on when Thai or Islamic law should be applied. In some cases, Siamese law was applied while in other cases, “religious and customary law” of the khaek10) was applied, causing difficulties for judges and litigants. He added, “If it is a dispute between the Thais and the Chinese, Siamese law was usually applied. If it is a dispute among khaek, sometimes Siamese law was applied, sometimes khaek law was applied.11) Those who applied Siamese law usually lived in or near the city, while those in rural areas normally applied khaek law, which means that they don’t bother to appeal. So it means they can choose the law that suits them.”12)

Like elsewhere in traditional Southeast Asia, there was no professional judge of a Western standard. Disputes at village level were usually first settled by mediation or negotiation. If agreement could not be reached, or in cases of crime, the village headmen such as mae kong or penghulu of each community would act as a judge. Appeals to the raja of each province could be made, but this would have been rare due to the inconvenience of traveling in those days. As for the Islamic judges or tok kali (or kadi, kathi), traditionally the raja of each province appointed two to four tok kali, who heard cases and delivered verdicts. However, Phrya Sukhum observed that since there was no written penal code of Islamic law, kali judges in each province tended to have different stances and decisions were totally arbitrary (Phan-ngam 1976, 299). According to the report of a Siamese official in 1902, a similar case was decided differently according to different judges. As a result, some litigants asked the judge to apply Siamese law.13)

Another concern for the Siamese was the fact that raja had absolute power in jurisdiction and often judged in an arbitrary manner.14) If it was a case that directly concerned the raja, such as an affair of adultery involving his wife, the raja would order the suspect to be killed without investigation, as in the case of the raja of Saiburi province, who killed his minor wife and her lover, or the son of the raja of Yala, who killed his wife and her lover. Siam opposed this practice and ordered Phrya Sukhum to judge these special cases, as we will see below (ibid., 301–303). Besides, because of their absolute power, local rulers often usurped jurisdiction over any profitable case of inheritance and marriage that should have fallen within the purview of Islamic judges (Somchot 1978, 169; Loos 2006, 91). For example, court fees paid by litigants meant to be sent to Mecca as a donation often ended up in the pockets of the rajas (Phan-ngam 1976, 300).

From the observation of Phrya Sukhum above, it is obvious that the Siamese viewed legal and judicial matters in the seven provinces as confusing and lacking in clear regulations, all of which called for “reform.” This perspective was not so different from the imperialist view of British officials towards other Malay states.15) The biggest concern for Siam, however, was probably the juridical power of local rulers to execute their subjects. Phrya Sukhum might have felt that a death sentence for the crime of adultery was too severe, but as Loos points out, Siam’s concern was that local rulers should not have that kind of power since it infringed on and challenged the authority of the Siamese king who alone had legitimate control over the life and death of his subjects (Loos 2006, 91).

It can be noted too that the problems faced by the seven provinces in legal and judicial matters were actually not much different from the legal problems the Siamese encountered at that time. Siam at the end of the nineteenth century was also trying to improve its law and jurisdiction: judges were often biased and did not apply the law, cases were often heard at the homes of judges since they received no salary, legal experts were lacking, etc. (Thailand, Ministry of Justice 1992, 23–24).

III New Rules and Regulations

For Siamese bureaucrats at that time, the modernization of legal and judicial matters was one of the most urgent tasks in their attempt to eliminate extra-territorial rights treaties with foreigners. Foreign legal experts were hired to set up legal systems, amend old laws, and institute new ones, and the Ministry of Justice was established in 1892. Civil and criminal courts in Bangkok were put under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, while provincial courts in the rest of the country remained under the Ministry of the Interior (Thailand, Ministry of Justice 1992, 26–28).

Legal reform in the southern Malay provinces took place not long after it was embarked upon in the rest of the country. The process started with the dispatching of Phrya Sukhum to observe legal practice in the seven provinces and his subsequent proposals of a number of new rules in 1897. The motives behind legal reform have been subject to various interpretations. While most conventional Thai scholars (such as Phan-ngam 1976; Somchot 1978) saw it as a way to “improve” local society by abolishing the bad habits of local rulers and introducing a better modernized system, a recent study by Loos views Siam’s legal reform in the south as imperial expansion (Loos 2006; 2010).

Phrya Sukhum might have observed the local jurisprudence in the Malay provinces through the distorting prism of modernity that motivated colonial-style reforms, as Loos (2006, 90–91) points out, but the detail of his proposals is worth paying attention to. Following the Decree of Provincial Court R.S 114 promulgated in 1896, Phrya Sukhum first ordered that the Area Commissioner Court be abolished in order to avoid double filing of cases. A provincial court (saan muang) was to be established in each of the seven provinces, and larger provinces could have additional district courts (saan amphoe) for convenience’s sake. The highest court, the Area Court (saan boriwane), was to be set up in Pattani. Nonetheless, in the early days of the reform, not all provinces had their own provincial court, for example, Nong Chik and Yaring.16) Court hearing outside the courthouse was no longer permitted except with special permission.17) Phrya Sukhum also set up a temporary court in Pattani in 1897, open to the public during trials. It was probably the first public court established in the Malay region, consisting of three judges, two of whom were appointed by the raja of Pattani and one by the (Area) Commissioner.18)

Second, regarding the judge, traditionally up to five or six judges were appointed in each province. The new rule reduced the number of judges to three, one of whom must be Siamese. They were also to be appointed by the Area Commissioner and the raja. Verdicts had to be delivered by at least two of the judges, and appeals could be conducted in the Monthon court in Songkla. The number of judges in the seven provinces varied. A relatively big province like Pattani seemed to have had more judges than the other areas. In 1899, for instance, there were four judges there—three Malays and one Siamese. Only two judges were appointed in smaller provinces like Nong Chik and Yala. In Nong Chik, both judges were Siamese while in Yala, one was Malay and the other was Siamese (Skeat 1953, 49–50). District courts in Raman and Ra-Ngae had no judges, so the head of the district often acted as a judge (Somchot 1978, 173).

How to train professional judges was one of the biggest challenges for the Siamese authority. In the early stages of legal reform, it was hard to find legal experts in the capital, let alone in provincial areas. Thus the Area Commissioner of the Malay provinces was given considerable power to oversee the jurisdiction. Apart from appointing Islamic judges, the Area Commissioner was required to give legal and judicial advice to judges and observe their court hearings from time to time. In cases concerning Islamic matters, Islamic law was applied, but the judgment had to be ratified by the Area Commissioner before the final verdict was given, except for petty cases where two out of three judges were allowed to deliver verdicts.19) That the Area Commissioner was given so much power was a concern for King Chulalongkorn, who warned Phrya Sukhum to choose the appointee carefully.20) Phrya Sakseni, or Naa Bunnag, was appointed to the position at the time of the reform.21) Since the appointment of the Area Commissioner greatly reduced the power of the Malay rajas, his authority was often challenged (Phan-ngam 1976).

Another significant change was the law itself. New rules ordered that Siamese law be applied to all criminal and civil cases among people in the seven provinces regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Family disputes among Muslims or with Muslims as defendants would be heard at an Islamic family or kali court. Other minor rules called for the building of a prison in each province, and that court fees in both civil or religious courts be collected according to the Thai decree of 1896.22)

After some years of observation and discussion with local judges, a new legal system was formally promulgated in the “Regulations concerning the Administration of the Area of the Seven Provinces R.S 120” in December 1901. This regulation, however, provided only the outline of a new jurisdiction; additional regulations were made later on.

The newly introduced system faced teething troubles, especially in the area of procedures in Islamic courts. As such, Siamese officials often had to hold ad hoc meetings with Islamic judges. Besides, apart from the lack of magistrates as mentioned above, one of the problems that the Siamese authority faced was cases where defendants were relatives or subordinates of indigenous rulers. Since they were influential people, witnesses were often too intimidated to show up at court to testify against these defendants. Siam solved the problem by imposing Siamese law in 1904, which made testifying in court compulsory. If witnesses failed to turn up without a valid reason, they would be detained in jail. When the Siamese implemented this measure, people reportedly started to appear in court as they were more afraid of the law than the influence of the governor.23)



Fig. 3 Courthouse in Monthon Pattani in the Early Twentieth Century

Source: Bangkok National Archives.


Kali Courts in the Seven Provinces

The most remarkable change following legal reform in the south is probably the establishment and systemization of Islamic family courts called kali courts in the seven provinces. Kali courts dealt with family affairs such as marital (mostly divorce and adultery) and inheritance cases among the Muslims or cases involving Muslim defendants. Kali courts probably existed before the reform, but they were systemized and put under Siamese supervision after the reform. It has been pointed out that, along with state courts, the Islamic family court system in the Malay south is the invention of the modern Siamese state (Loos 2006, 88). We should, however, also take into consideration the details of the new system and ask who benefited from it.

The strongest incentive for the Siamese to incorporate Islamic courts was, as stated above, probably to remove the raja’s juridical power and shift it to appointed Islamic judges or tok kali. However, it should be noted that Islamic judges did not have sole authority to judge cases; they had to hand their verdict to secular judges to co-sign.

What were the new rules in the Islamic courts? First, before the reform, tok kali often acted as judges, ruling over cases themselves. Litigants who were not satisfied with the verdict often appealed to the Siamese commissioner or the raja. Under the new system, a case must be heard by more than one tok kali, who acted more like the jury rather than the judge. The plaintiff and defendant were given a chance to choose the most appropriate tok kali to handle their case. If all the tok kali delivered the same verdict, their judgment was final and no appeal would be allowed; if the verdict among the kali varied, they had to designate one person as head of the jury and decide by vote.24) In principle, cases in the kali court could not be appealed, but if the verdict of the secular judge contradicted with the original verdict of the tok kali, the plaintiff or defendant could appeal to a higher court in Nakornsrithammarat (Somchot 1978, 169–172).25)

The first trial in a kali court post-reform was held in Pattani in 1902. The litigants were a pair of brothers who disputed over the inheritance of some land left to them by their father, with the younger brother accusing his older brother of taking away a piece of land that he claimed was rightfully his. Eight kali were appointed and the plaintiff and defendant were each required to choose the kali they trusted from among the eight. Seven were thus selected, with two of them, chosen by both parties, acting as juries. After calling for witness and interrogation, the court found that the land had been given to the youngest son, so the two kali delivered a similar verdict, ordering the older brother to return the land to his younger brother and both of them to share the court fee. According to Phyra Sukhum, the litigants seemed to be satisfied with the fact that they could choose the tok kali. The tok kali who were requested to try the case complained about the work, but after Phrya Sukhum promised to reward them adequately, they agreed to do so.26)

Other new rules ordered that court fees for Islamic courts be charged in the same way as civil and criminal courts. Instead of handing the fees to the raja as before, they would be allotted to kali judges as a reward. Phrya Sukhum further proposed that, just like in secular courts, money be given to witnesses who came forward to give their testimony—a move accepted by Islamic scholars (Phan-ngam 1976, 300; Somchot 1978, 169).27) The validity of cases regarding inheritance was also standardized among the provinces. It was agreed by the tok kali and imam in the seven provinces in 1905 that, to avoid double standards, inheritance cases would be valid for up to one year after the death of the proprietor.28)

IV Imposition of the Legal and Judicial System

It is hard to evaluate to what extent the new system worked, since we do not have data before the reform to compare with.29) However, some court cases reveal how local people responded to and made use of the new judicial system. Here two court cases will be raised as case studies: a dispute between a Malay man called Nikuan and the raja of Yaring, and an adultery case concerning the wife of the raja of Raman.

Case 1: Nikuan versus the Raja of Yaring

According to a report by the head judge Luang Borirakphuben in 1902, a total of 451 cases were filed in civil courts in the seven provinces (see Table 1), but this number fell to 370 in the following year.


Table 1 Number of Cases Filed in Criminal Courts and Civil Courts in the Seven Provinces (1902–04)



The head judge explained that there were so many cases in 1902 because in that year alone, up to 100 cases were filed by a man called Nikuan and his men in Yaring province against the raja of Yaring.30) The dispute between Nikuan and the raja of Yaring actually started 10 years earlier. In 1893, Nikuan, an apparently wealthy Malay man in Yaring who owned many rice fields, made a petition to the governor of Songkla, Phrya Wichiankiri, who was the head of the seven provinces at that time, that the raja of Yaring had killed his family and servants and had taken away his property. The raja of Yaring counter claimed that Nikuan’s servants had trespassed on other people’s rice fields and killed his lawyer in a big fight in Yaring city. The governor of Songkla decided to investigate this case and asked Nikuan and the raja to come to Songkla for a trial. Nikuan appeared but the raja of Yaring refused to comply, informing the governor that “[the dispute] between Nikuan and me cannot be solved even if one dies.” From documents about this case, it seems that the raja of Yaring was not on good terms with the governor of Songkla; instead he had connections with a royal family member in Bangkok from whom he probably sought help. Since the raja refused to go to Songkla, the matter was never investigated.31)

Ten years after this dispute, a civil court was established in the seven provinces. This seemed to have allowed Nikuan to file cases against the raja—which explains the surprising number of cases in 1902. It is not known how the case between Nikuan and the raja was finally settled, or who was in the wrong since both parties seemed equally vindictive. It can be pointed out, however, that in the event of conflicts among Malay elites, a third party like Siam was required to step in to settle disputes, and that those involved in conflicts made use of the new judicial system in order to express their anger or to seek justice.

Case 2: Sadloh versus the Raja of Raman

This case happened in 1904, when the raja of Raman province, Phrya Rattanapakdi (hereafter Phrya Rattana), sued a Malay man called Sedloh whom he suspected of having an affair with his wife. He filed the case in the kali court in Raman province. The tok kali, consisting of six juries, called for witnesses, all of whom claimed to have no familial relations with either the plaintiff or the defendant. All testified that they saw Sedloh spending nights with Phrya Rattana’s wife on many occasions but did not see them having sexual intercourse. Sedloh, the defendant, denied the accusation, protesting that Phrya Rattana had made a false accusation against him in order to get him into trouble.32) According to Islamic law, since the two suspects were not caught in the act, they were exempted from the death sentence.33) The tok kali, referring to an Islamic text called Kitab Kunwa,34) held that if a man and a married woman were seen sleeping together, punishment would be meted out only to the man. According to the kitab, many kinds of punishment could be carried out, such as detention, whipping, or shaming in public, and it was up to the head of the state to decide. The six tok kali found Sedloh guilty and ordered him to be detained. They asked Phrya Sukhum to decide on the length of his detention.35) Phrya Sukhum initially planned to move Sedloh to Nakornsrithammarat and detain him there for two years, as he had done with convicts in previous cases involving Malay rulers.36) However, King Chulalongkorn suggested that, in order for the raja to “maintain his dignity and not to lose his authority,” the wrongdoer should not only be put in jail but also punished in some ways.37)

Before imprisoning Sedloh, Phrya Sukhum received a royal order to investigate this matter carefully since it concerned the raja and could jeopardize his status. Thus he went to Raman and talked to those involved in the disputes. He discovered that Sedloh, who was charged with preparing opium for the raja’s wife daily, had actually been plotted against by the raja’s wife because Sedloh had left her for another woman, the daughter of a Malay noble. The raja’s wife wanted to take revenge by making her husband sue Sedloh. In spite of this knowledge, Phrya Sukhum could do nothing more than imprison Sedloh and act as a mediator among those involved in this conflict.38)

This case has been highlighted because it is very revealing. It demonstrates not only judicial procedure in the Islamic courts immediately after the reform, but also the inside story of Malay ruling elites not easily available elsewhere. This case can be interpreted in many ways. Seen in a colonial context, the formalization of Islamic courts might be interpreted as an intervention of Siam in Islamic family matters. But in this case, it was the Malay ruler who manipulated the newly established court as a way to punish the wrongdoer. Whatever the result was, it is clear that Sedloh was actually the victim of a jealous woman. The real winner in this case was probably the wife of the raja who successfully managed to “punish” Sedloh through the legal process.39)

Concluding Remarks

Studies on Thai-Malay historical relations have been controversial since it very much depends on which angle one takes—the Siamese authorities who saw the need to reform and modernize, or the Malay rulers who viewed Siam as a colonial aggressor. These differences will probably never end as long as different historical perceptions between Thais and Malays remain and continue to be dominated by political and ethno-religious cleavages between the two parties. But at the same time, we cannot neglect the essence of the reforms and changes brought about by the Siamese authorities, as well as the socio-political circumstances in Malay society at that time.

Legal reform Siam imposed on the seven Malay states might be seen as a colonial modernity, but if we look in detail at court cases, at least those conducted immediately after the reform, it can be argued that the changes in judicial procedures benefitted, to some extent, those involved, such as Islamic judges and litigants, since it reduced the judicial power of local rulers and prevented them from abusing their power, whether intentionally or not. Moreover, if we take into consideration local politics within Malay society, as demonstrated by the case studies above, it is notable that when conflicts occurred among Malay elites, the intervention of a third party like Siam was needed. Likewise, when civil and criminal courts were set up, it gave people recourse to the judicial system; they were ready to make use of the new judicial system to confront their enemies or to demand for justice. Therefore when discussing Thai-Malay or Thai-Pattani historical relations, the notion of inner colonialism alone might not be enough; local politics and the conflict of interest among ruling elites within Malay society should be taken into consideration as well.

Accepted: September 6, 2013


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1) The terms “Thailand” or “Thai” are used as the country name or when referring to geographical setting, language, and current politics. “Siam” (and “Siamese”), as the former name of Thailand, is used mainly in a historical context.

2) Expenses for making bunga mas were covered by levying taxes on the Malay people in the seven provinces twice every five years. This was called the bunga mas tax. The money was supposed to be spent on making ornamental flowers but it is reported that sometimes the raja took a large part of it for his own use (Phan-ngam 1976, 59).

3) Most of the rulers in the seven provinces were of Malay origins. However, resistance from Malay rulers was intense in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, and those who revolted against Siam were replaced by pro-Siam officials. After a revolt in 1830, Malay rulers of Pattani and Yala were temporarily replaced by an ethnic Chinese from Songkla, whose family had ruled over another Malay province called Yaring since the 1790s (Phan-ngam 1976, 30–33).

4) For example, Ibrahim Syukri, the author of History of the Malay Kingdom of Patani (2005 [1985]), who greatly influenced later Malay scholars in producing works of a similar discourse (such as Bang-nara 1976 [2008]; Arifin et al. 2000). This discourse has been seized upon by Malay-Muslim nationalists and separatists from the 1950s onwards in their drive to gain autonomy for Pattani. On the other hand, from the Thai perspective, Pattani has long been seen as part of Siam, and direct control of Siam through political and economic reform as a successful endeavor by Siam to build a unified nation and save her territory from foreign expansion (Phan-ngam 1976; Somchot 1978). The role of royal elites like Prince Damrong Rachanuphab and Phrya Yommarat in incorporating and modernizing the south is highly recognized by conventional Thai scholars (see Maneeratana 1977).

5) Documents concerning Pattani and other southern provinces in this period are not available for public access. Special permission was given to the author to use these materials.

6) “Reports and Particulars of the Legeh Concession” by A. D. Machado in 1895 (with Forward by Mr. J. B. M. Leech, Managing Director of Liang Exploration Company, Limited and government officer in charge of the Kinta district of Perak in the Malay States). British National Archives, F.O 69/276.

7) Literally “department of politics” in Thai.

8) “Reports and Particulars of the Legeh Concession” by A. D. Machado in 1895 (with Forward by Mr. J. B. M. Leech, Managing Director of Liang Exploration Company, Limited and government officer in charge of the Kinta district of Perak in the Malay States). British National Archives, F.O 69/276.

9) Adat, according to Hooker, in its wider sense means Malay tradition, while also meaning law. With the arrival of Islamic influence in the Malay region, adat law was adjusted to the new situation and incorporated basic Islamic teaching. The penetration of Islamic law varied from district to district. Adat law mainly functioned as a code of conduct and was often called on in land disputes. Unlike in other Malay states, it is far from clear to what extent adat law was applied in Pattani. For more on adat law, see Hooker (1972; 1986).

10) Khaek is a Thai word generally referring to people from India, the Middle East, and the Indonesian archipelago. Here it refers to Malay people in southern Thailand.

11) Khaek law here means Islamic law.

12) Explanation from Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit to Prince Damrong Rachanuphab regarding court regulations in the Malay provinces, February 6, R.S 116 (1898). Bangkok National Archives, Rama 5 Mahathai (hereafter abbreviated as N.A., R 5 M), 43/16.

13) Report from Prince Damrong Rachanuphab to King Chulalongkorn, December 3, R.S 121 (1902). N.A., R 5 M, 49/05.

14) Report from Prince Damrong Rachanuphab to King Chulalongkorn, August 9, R.S 123 (1904). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

15) For example, William Skeat visited Kelantan in 1899 and observed the juridical practice in Kota Bharu that “there was no code of laws in use in this state. The Malay magistrate claimed to be able to decide all the cases ‘by the light of nature’” (Skeat 1953, 113). Graham also noted that “Malay custom” practiced there, especially that concerning the punishment of crime, was in many ways problematic and should be got rid of (“General report of Affairs in the State of Kelantan for the Year Aug. 1903–Aug. 1904 by W. G. Graham.” British Archives, Foreign Office, 69/265, p. 294).

16) Report from Prince Damrong Rachanuphab to the royal secretary of King Chulalongkorn, Prince Sommut Amornphan, regarding the establishment of kali court in the seven Malay provinces, August 9, R.S 123 (1904). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

17) Report from Prince Damrong Rachanuphab to the royal secretary of King Chulalongkorn, Prince Sommut Amornphan, regarding the establishment of kali court in the seven Malay provinces, August 9, R.S 123 (1904). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

18) Report from an official to the royal secretary of King Chulalongkorn, Prince Sommut Amornphan, regarding the report from Phyra Sukhumnaiwinit, May 6, R.S 117 (1898). N.A., R 5 M, 49/28.

19) Rules and regulations regarding courts in the seven Malay provinces drafted by Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit, February 6, R.S 116 (1898). N.A., R 5 M, 43/16.

20) King Chulalongkorn’s reply to Prince Damrong Rachanuphab regarding new court rules in the Malay provinces, February 23, R.S 116 (1898). N.A., R 5 M, 43/16.

21) Phrya Sakseni was previously a High Commissioner in Lampang in northern Thailand and probably had no knowledge about Malay culture; it is doubtful that he performed his duty well.

22) Rules and regulations regarding courts in the seven Malay provinces drafted by Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit, February 6, R.S 116 (1898). N.A., R 5 M, 43/16.

23) Description of court case by Luang Borirakphuben, submitted to Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit, R.S 123 (1904). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

24) Rules and regulations concerning the establishment of Islamic court, sent from the royal secretary of King Chulalongkorn to Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit, date not clear, R.S 121 (1902). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

25) However, during the reign of King Vajiravuth and beyond, the authority of the kali was reduced to the role of religious advisor to the Thai judge, who sometimes ignored the kali’s opinion. Thus, unlike during the period of King Chulalongkorn, people relied less on the Islamic family court (Somchot 1978, 214–215).

26) Report from Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit to Prince Damrong Rachanuphab, November 9, R.S 121 (1902). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

27) Report from Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit to Prince Damrong Rachanuphab, November 11, R.S 121 (1902). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

28) Draft of a regulation about inheritance case in Islamic court, R.S 124. N.A., R 5 M, 49/5; Letter of Prince Damrong Rachanuphab to King Chulalongkorn asking for permission to promulgate Inheritance Law in Islamic court, April 20, R.S 124 (1905). N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

29) For example, reports from the head judge of the seven provinces stated that after the systemization of the Islamic courts, there was a rapid increase in the number of cases filed, showing that people preferred the new system to the old one (Report of court cases by Judge Luang Borirakphuben, R.S 121–123 [1902–04]. N.A., R 5 M, 49/5).

30) Description of court case by Luang Borirakphuben, R.S 122 (1903), p. 4. N.A., R 5 M, 49/5.

31) Letters and reports about Phrya Yaring and his men robbing Nikuan’s house in Songkla, R.S 112 (1893). N.A., R 5 M, 49/58.

32) Copy of the court case regarding the infidelity of the wife of Raja Ratthanapakdi, no. 188/1947. N.A., R 5 M, 49/81.

33) Siamese and Malay judges who objected to the idea of an execution reached an agreement anyway that adultery cases would be regarded as civil cases, and that the convicted would be punished according to Siamese law, that is, by paying fines only (letter of Prince Damrong Rachanuphab to King Chulalongkorn, August 28, R.S 122. N.A., R 5 M, 49/5). The fine was reportedly two catties (1 catty=596 grams) (report concerning tok kali court by Luang Borirakphuben, April 11, 1904. N.A., R 5 M, 49/5).

34) กีตับคุนวา

35) Report of tok kali court in Raman to Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit, June 17, R.S 123 (1904). N.A., R 5 M, 49/81.

36) Letter from Prince Damrong Rachanuphab to King Chulalongkorn, no date. N.A., R 5 M, 49/81.

37) Letters from King Chulalongkorn to Prince Damrong Rachanuphab concerning the punishment of Sedloh who committed adultery with the wife of Raja Rattanapakdi, May 1, R.S 123, and May 27, R.S 123 (1904). N.A., R 5 M, 49/81.

38) “Records concerning the wife of Raja Rattanapakdi committing adultery” by Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit, June 22, R.S 123 (1904). N.A., R 5 M, 49/81. The daughter of a nobleman, the raja’s wife reportedly sold all her belongings in order to live with Sedloh and refused to go back home to her father. Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit had to persuade her to do so.

39) According to Phrya Sukum, it appears that the wife of the raja of Raman did not want Sedloh to be executed. She reportedly visited Sedloh after he was jailed, proposing to him that if he went back to her, she would help him out of jail (“Records concerning the wife of Raja Rattanapakdi committing adultery” by Phrya Sukhumnaiwinit, June 22 R.S 123 [1904]. N.A., R 5 M, 49/81).


Vol. 3, No. 3, Trinh Ly Khanh

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference: Evidence from Vietnam

Trinh Ly Khanh*

* Trịnh Khánh Ly, Department of Criminology, Criminal Law and Social Law, Ghent University, 4 9000 Gent, Belgium

e-mail: lykhanh.trinh[at]ugent.be

In recent years, Vietnamese trade unions have made considerable strides in trade union organizing. However, studies show that workplace trade unions are generally dominated and controlled by employers. Increasing labor unrest, particularly in the private sector, reveals the failure of trade union organizing and operation in Vietnam. This article aims to provide a picture of trade union organizing as conducted by the communist Vietnamese trade union system in the private sector, particularly trade union organizing that is free from employers’ interference. It also examines whether the new legal framework may contribute to this form of trade union organizing in the near future.

Keywords: Party-led trade unions, trade union organizing, employers’ interference, anti-unionism, Vietnam


The reforms (doi moi) initiated in 1986 by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to transform a centrally planned economy to a socialist market economy has created significant changes in the Vietnamese labor market. Before the innovation most people of working age were employed in state agencies or state-owned enterprises. Today, the majority of the employed population works for the private sector (approximately 41 million persons are employed in local enterprises and approximately 1.6 million persons are employed in foreign-invested enterprises) (Vietnam, General Statistics Office [GSO] 2010). Vietnam still has a socialist political system and trade union policy: the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) is the only trade union. Workplace trade unions (công đoàn cơ sở), immediate upper-level trade unions (công đoàn cấp trên trực tiếp cơ sở), and other trade unions of different levels must follow the Statute of VGCL. Workers from different sectors have the right to voluntarily form, join, or participate in trade unions in accordance with the law. The trade unions are open to Vietnamese salaried workers and self-employed Vietnamese,1) irrespective of their occupation, gender, or religious belief. However, they are only entitled to form, join, or participate in trade unions affiliated with the VGCL2) since independent trade unions operating outside the umbrella of the VGCL are not legally recognized.3) The change in labor structure has led to a shift in the VGCL’s focus regarding union organizing in the private sector, dominated (97 percent) by small and medium enterprises (Tự Cường 2012). In 2003, the VGCL set a target to gain 1 million new trade union members in the period 2003–08 and 1.5 million new trade union members in the period 2008–13. Accordingly, by the end of 2013, workplace trade unions should be established in 70 percent of the eligible enterprises under the provisions of the VGCL Statute, gathering at least 60 percent of the workers (Nguyễn Duy Vũ 2012). By the end of 2011, the number of new trade union members had increased by over 1.3 million. This brought the total number of trade union members in the whole country to over 7.5 million, scattered over 111,319 workplace trade unions, of which the private sector accounts for 74.2 percent (ibid.).

Despite the sharp rise in trade union memberships and trade union organizing, there has been a constant increase in wildcat strikes4) since the enforcement of the first Labour Code of 1994, which came into effect on January 1, 1995.5) According to VGCL’s statistics, in the period 1995–2010, there were 3,402 wildcat strikes (Vietnam, VGCL 2011b, 32). The global economic recession led to thousands of workers losing their jobs in 2011. The number of wildcat strikes that year (978 cases) was double that of 2010, concentrated in foreign-invested enterprises in the key economic provinces and cities in the south (Quang Chính and Việt Lâm 2012). The percentage of wildcat strikes occurring in organized enterprises is high, for example, 70.99 percent in 2010 (ibid., 36). Current practices of trade union organizing is one of the major causes of wildcat strikes. Despite the increase of workplace trade unions over the years, several established workplace trade unions are in fact “yellow unions,” formed and influenced by the management of the enterprises in order to serve the employers’ interests (see the following sections for more details). In the face of increasing wildcat strikes, the VGCL has attempted to conduct trade union organizing free from employers’ interference in the private sector. This effort, which is seen as a pilot initiative, has been carried out in a small number of targeted private-sector enterprises in Hai Phong city, Binh Duong province and Ho Chi Minh City since 2011.6) These are representative localities in terms of a high concentration of private-sector enterprises, a large workforce, and a high percentage of wildcat strikes. The aim of this effort is to establish trade unions with democratic participation of workers, based on a bottom-up principle of organizing and minimal influence of employers in the process.

On the one hand, from a structural perspective, the VGCL faces the challenge of reforming its organizational structure in order to gain greater operating independence and better adapt to the global situation of trade unions and the trade union movement. During the revision process of the Trade Union Law of 1990, initiated since 2009, it was proposed that the Communist Party’s leadership in the trade union movement be removed, as clearly mentioned in draft 10 of the proposal of April 30, 2012. However, Article 1 of the current Trade Union Law of 2012 reaffirms the leadership of the Communist Party over Vietnamese trade unions. On the other hand, Vietnamese trade unions have gained more benefits from the Trade Union Law of 2012, for example: legal protection for trade union officers; intervention of immediate upper-level trade unions in non-unionized enterprises; increase of trade union contributions from employers, etc. (see infra).

This article explores how the VGCL conducts trade union organizing in the contemporary Vietnamese industrial context. It explains how employers are able to influence trade union organizing and operations at the workplace level, and outlines the organizational challenges faced by trade unions in implementing reform. Using the example of a few cases where trade union organizing is free from employers’ interference, the difficulties of operating such trade unions is discussed. The article also reflects the changes and potential impact of the new Labour Code of 2012 and the Trade Union Law of 2012 on trade union organizing.

This article is derived from the personal observations of the author garnered after years of involvement in the operation of the VGCL and its initiatives in independent trade union organizing, as well as participation in different seminars and group discussions among trade unions of different levels and other stakeholders such as the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA), the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI), etc. The article also draws on documentation on relevant policies and legal acts.

Current Trade Union Organizing Practices

Traditional Practices of Trade Union Organizing

It is immediate upper-level trade unions instead of rank-and-file workers that take the initiative in establishing workplace trade unions. According to a survey conducted by the VGCL, more than 99 percent of workplace trade unions are established by upper-level trade unions (Vietnam, VGCL and International Labour Organization [ILO] Industrial Relations Project 2012, 16). This usually takes one to three months (45.5 percent) or three to six months (32.7 percent) (ibid., 13).

The immediate upper-level trade union first conducts surveys on the situation of enterprises and workers in the target areas in order to identify enterprises suitable for union organizing. These surveys are conducted in coordination with the relevant authorities: planning and investment departments, labor departments, invalids and social affairs departments, tax departments, management committees of industrial zones, etc. (ibid., 25). As soon as the surveys are completed, the immediate upper-level trade union contacts the employers in writing to propose a meeting. If the enterprises do not respond, the union sends another letter or tries to make direct contact (ibid.). If the union’s proposal is not accepted by the employers, trade union officers cannot access the enterprises and workers cannot leave the production site to meet them (Nguyễn Ngọc Trung 2012). If the enterprises agree with the proposal, an official response is sent and a meeting is arranged at the companies’ premises (ibid., 16).

During the meeting, trade union officers meet the workers and expound the necessity and benefits of joining trade unions. They instruct the workers on how to apply for membership and nominate members of the temporary executive committees of the workplace trade unions after discussion with the enterprise’s directors. Next the enterprise management, together with the upper-level trade union and the temporary executive committee, prepares and organizes a ceremony for member admission and creation of the trade union (ibid., 25–26). The decision on forming a workplace trade union and the nomination of its temporary executive committee, issued by the upper-level trade union, is based on the employer’s recommendation (Nguyễn Văn Bình 2011, 13).

How Employers Interfere in Trade Union Organizing

As analyzed above, upper-level trade unions are too dependent on the goodwill of employers in the organization of workplace trade unions. If employers deny the upper-level trade unions access to their premises to conduct a campaign for their workers, the trade union organizing is considered a failure. Moreover, there has been a misinterpretation for many years now of the VGCL’s procedure concerning the application dossiers for starting workplace trade unions. The VGCL does not require the employers’ signature in the application dossier submitted to the immediate upper-level trade unions. In practice, however, the unions often request the enterprises and workers to provide the employer’s signature in the application letter, which includes the recommended list of the temporary executive committees of the workplace trade unions.7) This signature is taken as proof of the employers’ commitment to create favorable conditions for the operation of trade unions in their enterprises (Nguyễn Văn Bình 2011, 15).

Trade union activity is still heavily influenced by the centrally planned economy period where there was no conflict of interests between the employers and workers in state-owned enterprises. The VGCL does not prohibit the management of a company from joining its trade union or from holding leadership positions in the union, for example, as president or members of the executive committee. The VGCL has taken measures to correct this anomaly. On May 6, 2009, the Presidium of VGCL promulgated Guidance No. 703/HD-TLD, Item 1.2, Chapter I, banning the owner(s), president, and/or deputy president of the governing board; general director and/or deputy general director; directors and/or deputy directors of a private-sector enterprise from joining its trade union. However, this ban does not apply to other persons from the management, notably, heads and/or deputy heads of functional departments and production workshops, etc. Indeed, a survey shows that 60–70 percent of workplace trade union presidents hold managerial positions within the company (ibid.).

Members of the management who became trade union members before the promulgation of Guidance No. 703/HD-TLD automatically lose their trade union membership status, but the VGCL has no regulation preventing them from becoming honorary trade union members and participating in trade union activities.8) Consequently, this allows employers to continue participating in trade union activities and monitoring and influencing its operation. Moreover, employers are statutorily required to make a financial contribution to the trade union on a monthly basis. This requirement was equal to 2 percent of the workers’ salary fund, which is used as the basis for social insurance contribution, and was applied in both state-owned and in private-sector enterprises. In foreign-invested enterprises, this amount was equivalent to 1 percent of the total wage budget.9) Since January 1, 2013 this amount has been amended to 2 percent of the total workers’ salary fund for all organizations and enterprises of both the public and private sector.10) This legal provision formally creates room for the employers to dominate and control workplace trade unions, which is inconsistent with Article 2 of the ILO Convention No. 98, to which Vietnam is not a signatory.

Before the formulation of the Labour Code of 2012 and the Trade Union Law of 2012, the Vietnamese government carried out a study on the compatibility of Vietnamese laws with Convention No. 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining of the International Labour Organization. The study showed that parts of Vietnamese laws were incompatible with the Convention, particularly provisions on the independence of trade unions (Vietnam, MOLISA 2012, 48). With the promulgation of the Trade Union Law of 2012, which restricts the independence of trade unions, the possibility of joining Convention No. 98 is vague in the near future.

Another reason the trade union system facilitates employers’ interference in trade union organizing arises from the VGCL’s target of developing trade union membership. There have been numerous cases where the principle of voluntary participation of workers has been ignored during the process of workplace trade union establishment, as acknowledged by VGCL (Vietnam, VGCL 2010, 16). Moreover, due to the shortage of upper-level trade union officers with experience in leading the organizing process in private-sector enterprises, the process does not always match the enterprises’ needs, and the methods and contents of the campaigns do not leave the workers convinced.11)

Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference

Since 2011 the VGCL has initiated innovative ways of organizing trade unions in the private sector in the localities mentioned above. What is new is that the trade union organizing is conducted by the immediate upper-level trade unions outside the enterprises’ premises and outside working hours. Officers of immediate upper-level trade unions approach workers of targeted enterprises in order to learn about their working conditions (the total number of workers, wages, issues with management, etc.). The officers try at the same time to select focal workers who can influence the other workers to join the trade unions.12) Leaflets about trade unions and the rights and obligations of trade union members are distributed to the workers. Other services such as legal aid, sports and entertainment activities, etc. are organized to improve the relations between immediate upper-level trade unions and the workers (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 8).

Once it receives the application letters of at least five workers, the immediate upper-level trade union issues a decision to admit the workers into the trade union. Members of the temporary executive committee for the new trade union are voted in directly by the trade union members and officers help to organize meetings for members on trade union operation. Only after all this has been put in place are the employers informed (ibid., 9, 10).

Trade Union Responses to Employers’ Interference

Case 1: Company K (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 21–22)13)

In 2007, Ms L, a staff of the human resources department was elected as the union president. The management asked her not to approach workers at the workplace; instead, they suggested that the workers go and see her at the human resource department if needed. Ms L did not agree and continued meeting workers at their workplace when necessary. In early 2011, as the trade union was preparing for its congress in the new term, the management opposed Ms L’s occupation of the position of trade union president and prepared a list nominating members of the executive committee—excluding Ms L. She was then forced by the management to put the stamp of the executive committee on this document. When the upper-level union learnt about this case, it issued a decision to cancel the congress and reorganize another one.

Case 2: Dong A Vina Company (Đức Minh 2012)14)

Dong A Vina is a 100 percent foreign-invested company in Binh Duong industrial zone, Di An, Binh Duong province, employing 530 workers. Mr Tran Van Sy, head of the production section, was elected as a member of the company trade union’s executive committee at the trade union congress.

After his election, Mr Sy went on leave. When he came back to work, the human resource department launched a procedure to dismiss him on the grounds that he had returned to work a few days late without a valid reason. To protest against this unjust decision, 512 workers of the company went on strike on July 12, 2012, demanding that Mr Sy be reinstated and that the officers of the human resource department responsible for this decision be dismissed instead.

Representatives of the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones and the management board of Binh Duong industrial zone (the local authority) came to the company to try to resolve the dispute. On July 23–24, 2012, approximately 30 representatives of the workers, including the executive committees of the workplace trade unions and heads of the production groups and production lines, were invited to attend a conciliation meeting with the company management. The company agreed to pay Mr Sy benefits if his dismissal was found to be illegal. The workers’ demands that the staff of the human resources department involved be dismissed and that the strikers be paid 70 percent of their wages for the days they did not work were denied by the company.

At the end of the meeting, the representative of the workplace trade union promised to encourage the workers to come back to work on July 25, 2012. However, the workers refused and stuck by their earlier demands. The company then dismissed all 512 workers on the grounds that they had been absent from work for over five days without valid reasons.

The above examples show a commitment from certain immediate upper-level trade unions to prevent employers’ interference in the organizing of non-“yellow” trade unions in the workplace. It demonstrates that not all workplace trade unions in the private sector are “yellow unions” and that not all upper-level trade unions ignore the problems faced by workplace trade unions. It also shows that effective linkage and communication between the upper-level and workplace trade unions can be effective in limiting employers’ interference.

At the central level, in order to counter anti-unionism by employers, the VGCL has implemented some measures, including the establishment of a fund to support workplace trade union delegates (presidents, deputy presidents, executive committee members) who are victims of anti-union actions by their employers. This applies to delegates who have been illegally dismissed or transferred to a position that does not meet their skill level or one that pays 30 percent less than their current salary. Concretely, this support entails the following:15)

• Financial support, equal to the minimum wage, for two months immediately after the termination of the labor contract.

• Monthly support, equivalent to the minimum wage, for 1.5 months during the period of unemployment, not exceeding 6 months.

• When a labor dispute between a trade union delegate and the enterprise’s management is brought to court, the fund will cover 50–100 percent of the delegate’s court fees, to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Key Challenges for Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference

Challenges within the Trade Union System

The traditional method of union organizing, whereby workplace trade unions are dependent on employers, has been carried out for years. This has become ingrained in upper-level union officers and is hard to change (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 33).

In addition, trade union organizing free from employers’ interference requires considerable effort in terms of policy commitment, time, human resources, and finance. The first challenge for upper-level trade unions is the imbalance in staff and workload. As communist trade unions, the VGCL and its affiliated trade unions are tasked with many jobs that are not directly related to the function of trade unions, as compared with conventional trade unions in other countries. These include involvement in politics and the organization of socio-cultural, humanitarian, sports, and recreational activities. Yet they face a shortage of officers, particularly qualified officers, because they do not have a free hand in deciding the number of trade union officers (see infra) .

On average, immediate upper-level trade unions comprise two or three full-time trade union officers. Trade unions in industrial zones generally comprise four full-time trade union officers (ibid., 1, 3). The number may increase for some trade unions in the industrial zones of key economic localities. Table 1 shows the number of trade union officers in three economic hubs in South Vietnam: Binh Duong, Dong Nai, and Ho Chi Minh City (ILO 2012, 14).

Table 1 reveals the disproportionate division of work between the technical officers, who are directly responsible for trade union organizing, and the administrative officers. For example, there are 3 technical officers versus 6 administrative staff in the trade union of the industrial zones of Binh Duong; 12 technical officers versus 6 administrative staff for Ho Chi Minh City; and 5 technical officers versus 7 administrative staff for Dong Nai province.


Table 1 The Number of Trade Union Officers in Three Economic Hubs in South Vietnam



Table 1 also shows the huge workload shouldered by the technical officers, given the big number of enterprises, workplace trade unions, and trade union members under their charge. Furthermore, it also shows up the imbalance in workload among the technical officers of the three localities. In Binh Duong, there are only three officers for 490 enterprises, 318 workplace trade unions, and 120,000 trade union members (this equates to one officer taking charge of 163 enterprises, 106 workplace trade unions, and 40,000 trade union members). Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City, 12 officers are responsible for 800 enterprises, 724 workplace trade unions, and 179,000 trade union members (or one officer for 66 enterprises, 60 workplace trade unions, and 14,916 trade union members). In Dong Nai province, five officers are allocated for 369 enterprises, 350 workplace trade unions, and 130,000 trade union members (that is, one officer for 74 enterprises, 70 workplace trade unions, and 26,000 trade union members).

As mentioned above, the tasks of these trade union officers include many non-traditional activities. This work accounts for 14.18 percent of their workload (Vietnam, VGCL and ILO Industrial Relations Project 2012, 14). This is in addition to participation in political affairs not directly related to trade union activities, for example, with the Party, state authorities (People’s Councils and People’s Committees), Women’s Union, Veterans’ Union, the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, which account for 14.74 percent of their workload, according to a survey conducted by the VGCL (ibid., 10, 14).

As shown in the case studies above, there is evidence of anti-unionism committed by employers against workplace trade union delegates. However, a survey by the VGCL (ibid., 13) shows that this is not taken into serious consideration by upper-level trade union officers. This exposes the weakness of the trade union system in protecting their union officers. In the case of the Dong A Vina Company above, no systematic measures were put in place by the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones to protect the workplace trade union officer. The company very clearly interfered in the operations of the trade union by victimizing the trade union officer. Yet his dismissal was not handled any differently than an ordinary case of dismissal and no special measure was taken to counter these acts of discrimination. Moreover, all the workers who went on strike to show their support for Mr Sy and their dissatisfaction with the company were “persuaded” by the company to sign an agreement terminating their contracts. This constituted a major anti-union act targeting the trade union members, yet the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones did not put up any opposition.

Challenges from the Workers’ Side

Reports show that young workers account for the majority of the private-sector workforce. Most of them are unskilled workers, with unskilled workers who have not received any vocational training accounting for 83.54 percent (Ban Mai 2013). A large number are also migrant workers who work for enterprises in industrial zones and processing zones, for example, 30 percent of the workforce in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the biggest industrial hubs in Vietnam with approximately eight million inhabitants, is made up of migrants from other provinces and cities (Vietnam, Centre for Industrial Relations Development [CIRD] 2012, 3).

A survey by the Binh Duong trade union of 38 enterprises in industrial zones shows that workers’ wages are often too low: 76.8 percent has a monthly income of VND 2,000,000–3,000,000 (equivalent to EUR 66–100 or USD 94–142), which is insufficient for a living; and 76.6 percent of workers has no savings at all (91.7 percent of them cannot afford a house and must rent an apartment). A large number of workers must work overtime16)—up to 50 hours/month (66 percent) or 50–100 hours (31 percent) (Lê Nho Lượng 2011).17)

The situation is similar in Hanoi city. Most workers in the Hanoi industrial zones have to work overtime because of low wages (Phong Cầm 2011). As such, they do not have much time for trade union organizing. Some are also reluctant to join for fear of being discriminated against by their employers. Yet others do not join because they constantly change work in search of higher salaries and better working conditions (ibid., 18).

Challenges from the Employers’ Side

Case 1: Yoneda Vietnam Company (Phong Cầm 2011, 3–6)18)

Yoneda Vietnam is a Japanese company producing stationery products in Hai Phong city. It employs 225 workers. In 2007 an unlawful trade union was formed by the employer in the name of the workers and “trade union dues” were deducted from the workers’ wages. This came to an end in November 2010, after intervention by the trade union of Hai Phong Economic Zones.

The trade union of Hai Phong Economic Zones approached the workers outside the company’s premises, and four core workers’ groups based on common interests were formed: sports, home fellows, age, and living quarters. Trade union activities were gradually introduced to the meetings of these groups.

Currently, some 243–277 workers have applied to join the trade union and 5 workers have been selected for the temporary executive committee. To prepare for the establishment of the grassroots trade union, the trade union of Hai Phong Economic Zones attempted to approach the company director but was turned down. The company director tried instead to divide the workers, instigating them not to join the trade union and putting pressure on influential workers. The contracts of a few of the workers who are members of the core workers’ groups have not been renewed upon expiry.

Case 2: Sonics Company (ibid., 9–10)19)

Sonics International Limited Liability is a Taiwanese company producing bicycle parts in Binh Duong province. It employs 120 workers.

After the launch of a new initiative on trade union organizing, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones approached workers outside the company’s premises to obtain more information on the company’s situation. A core workers’ group was then formed, which included three influential workers from the company selected by the trade union. The workers’ group is headed by an officer of the trade union. Members received training on trade union organization, labor law, trade union law, occupational safety, health, etc. This group is responsible for encouraging other workers in the company to join the trade union.

In March 2011, a trade union recruitment ceremony was conducted and 70 workers were recruited. The company director has, however, repeatedly opposed the formation of the trade union. A few months later, in July, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones issued a decision declaring the establishment of the trade union of Sonics International Limited Liability. Four members of the formal trade union executive committee were also elected.

The company trade union has been hampered in its operations by the uncooperativeness of the company director, despite numerous meetings arranged by the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones. On September 15, 2011, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones wrote to the management board regarding 11 cases of labor law violations committed by the company and requested an inspection of the company. On October 13 an inspection team led by the management board of the industrial zones made its way to the company. The trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones nominated its officer to join the inspection team. Via this inspection, the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones formally notified the company of the establishment of the enterprise trade union and asked for its cooperation.

However, until now no effort has been made by the company to comply with labor law. No improvement has been made with regards to the trade union activities. The trade union is facing even greater difficulties in running its activities. Trade union meetings have been forbidden within the company’s premises, including meetings outside working hours. The number of members has been reduced by 42 because some workers have left the company, while others have withdrawn their membership because of the pressure exerted by the company. The executive committee of the trade union has been similarly affected—three members have left, including one who resigned due to the opposition by the company. The executive committee has managed to keep up with its regular meetings; however, other activities, such as recruitment of new members, have been neglected.

Case 3: S. C. Johnson & Son Company (ibid., 7–8)20)

A producer of cosmetics, shower gels, etc., S. C. Johnson & Son Company operates in Song Than I industrial zone, Binh Duong province and currently employs 300 workers. Johnson Mutual Benefit Association (JMBA) was formed by the company to promote the welfare of the workers as well as strengthen industrial relations in the company, in keeping with regulations of S. C. Johnson & Son Corporation. The company has therefore rejected the formation of a company trade union. It has even issued a rule that JMBA will provide monthly financial support for each worker—on the condition that he/she does not join the trade union. Those who wish to join the trade union will lose access to different benefits by the company. As a result, workers in the company do not want to join the trade union. Another obstacle is that the workers are members of other labor-leasing companies. Meanwhile, many of the workers in the company are office workers who live in Ho Chi Minh City and travel to work by company transport. This has made it impossible for the trade union of Binh Duong industrial zones to approach the workers in S. C. Johnson & Son Company.

Case 4: F.C. Company (ibid., 20–21)

Ms TT. Ch. was elected in October 2008 as president of the workplace union in F.C. Company (a foreign-invested company). The company director threatened that she would not receive her monthly responsibility allowance as a production group leader, amounting to VND 150,000 (equivalent to around EUR 5.8/USD 7), unless she resigned from her position as president of the trade union. According to the director, Ms TT. Ch. could not fulfil her production group leader duties if she were to undertake the trade union activities; therefore she was not entitled to her allowance.

Ms Ch. was forced to comply and held her union position from October 2008 to the end of April 2009. During this period, the company management kept an eye on her and threatened her with disciplinary action should she be found lacking in her duties.

In May 2009, Ms Ch. resigned from her union position. Only then was she able to recover her responsibility allowance and only then did the monitoring and threats of sanctioning end.

Case 5: Company F (ibid., 24)

Mr NN. H, who worked as a warehouse assistant, was elected as the president of his company union in March 2007. Mr H organized trade union activities well, winning members’ trust. However, due to active trade union activities, he was discriminated against by the management. In 2009, he lost his position as warehouse assistant and was transferred to a rank-and-file worker position.

The above examples illustrate the general behavior of employers towards independent trade unions. These employers attempt to control the trade unions through ploys such as promising workplace trade union officers financial benefits and promotions; exerting pressure on part-time trade union officers in their normal work; transferring these officers to lower-grade and/or lower-pay positions; excluding trade union members from certain benefits enjoyed by non-unionized workers in the company, etc.

Enactment of the New Legal Framework: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

The fact that no labor case related to the right to organize, join, and participate in trade union activities has ever been settled by the competent courts (Vietnam, VGCL 2011b, 8), speaks volumes of the authorities’ failure to deal with anti-unionism. Moreover, workplace trade unions established and operating outside companies’ premises are not regulated by the Trade Union Statute or any other relevant regulation,21) leading to the denial of their legal status by relevant stakeholders, including the authorities. This issue remains unresolved by the new Trade Union Law of 2012 or the Labour Code of 2012.

As for staffing, there has been no change between the old Trade Union Law and the Trade Union Law of 2012. Full-time trade union officers who work at upper-level trade unions are still public cadres and civil servants.22) The VGCL does not have full autonomy in deciding the number and positions of trade union officers. While it may develop the organizational structure of the trade union and positions within, this is still submitted to the competent authority,23) which has the ultimate say on the positions and workload of full-time trade union officers.24) As a result, the disproportionate distribution of workload among full-time trade union officers in upper-level trade unions remains unresolved.

Nonetheless, there are some positive changes in the new legal framework concerning trade union organizing. In order to prevent anti-union practices among employers, the Trade Union Law of 2012 prohibits the use of economic measures and other methods to interfere in the establishment and operation of trade unions. The Trade Union Law of 2012 also reaffirms the former Trade Union Law of 1990 in prohibiting acts that prevent or cause difficulties to the establishment and operation of trade unions, and which discriminate against or disadvantage workers in the establishing or joining of trade unions or the undertaking of trade union activities.25) The new Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP imposes stricter sanctions against anti-unionism acts. The fine for employers who prevent or hamper employees from forming or joining trade unions, or carrying out trade union activities, has been increased from VND 10,000,000 to 15,000,000 (EUR 350–524 or USD 473–710).26) A fine of VND 5,000,000–10,000,000 (around EUR 175–349 or USD 237–473) is also imposed on other types of discriminatory acts in the form of working hours, wages, etc.27)

The new legal framework reaffirms the role of immediate upper-level trade unions in trade union organizing,28) but acknowledges for the first time their rights and responsibilities to approach workers in enterprises.29) This legal acknowledgment was necessitated by cases in the past years of employers preventing upper-level trade unions officers from accessing their premises, as we have seen above. Henceforth the act of preventing trade union officers from entering company premises is liable to a fine ranging from VND 5,000,000–10,000,000 (around EUR 175–349 or USD 237–473).30)

There is another encouraging change in the VGCL’s policy, reflecting signs of decentralization in union organizing. In addition to the role of the immediate upper-level trade unions as mentioned above, the amended VGCL Statute also recognizes the role of rank-and-file workers in trade union organizing. Accordingly, workers may establish an organizing committee at the workplace, responsible for conducting campaigns, receiving workers’ application letters to join the trade union, and preparing for the congress for the establishment of the trade union when a sufficient number of members, as prescribed by the VGCL’s Statute, has been reached. Nonetheless, the establishment and operation of the workplace trade union still requires the acknowledgment of the immediate upper-level trade union in order to be considered lawful.31)

The new law also entitles immediate upper-level trade unions to represent and protect the legitimate rights and interests of workers in non-unionized enterprises at the workers’ request.32) The Vietnamese government has promulgated a new decree in this regard. Accordingly, the role of immediate upper-level trade unions in representing and protecting the rights and interests of workers in non-unionized enterprises includes: consulting workers on employment contracts; representing the workers’ collective to implement collective bargaining and monitoring the implementation of concluded collective bargaining agreements; partnering enterprises to develop and monitor the implementation of wage scales, wage tables, labor norms, wage payment regulations, bonus payment regulations, and work regulations; conducting dialogues with enterprises to settle issues concerning the lawful rights and interests of the workers; working with relevant organizations to guarantee labor dispute settlements in accordance with law; requesting settlement by the competent authority when the lawful rights and interests of the workers/workers’ collective are violated; representing the workers/workers’ collective to request for a settlement in court when these rights and interests are violated; representing the workers’ collective in legal proceedings in labor, administrative and/or bankruptcy cases; and organizing and leading strikes.33) Part-time trade union officers are granted minimum working hours for performing trade union activities. Presidents and/or vice-presidents of workplace unions are entitled to at least 24 working hours per month; part-time trade union representatives who are members of workplace unions’ executive committees, heads, and deputy heads of trade union groups in charge of trade union activities are entitled to at least 12 working hours/month.34)

In addition, the act of preventing part-time trade union officers from using their working hours to undertake trade union activities; not paying them for the time they spend on trade union activities; and excluding full-time trade union officers from benefits enjoyed by other workers, is now liable to a fine ranging from VND 5,000,000–10,000,000 (around EUR 175–349 or USD 237–473).35) The new law also provides a better protection mechanism for workers who are working as part-time workplace trade union officers. In the event that a part-time trade union officer’s employment contract expires while he/she is still serving the trade union term, the officer is entitled to prolong his/her contract until the end of the trade union term.36) And for the first time, employers will be fined VND 10,000,000–15,000,000 (around EUR 350–524 or USD 473–710) for not extending the expired employment contracts in such an event.37) Finally, if part-time trade union officers are illegally dismissed, trade unions can request for intervention by competent authorities, taking the case to court if necessary. In the meantime, the unlawfully dismissed officers will be supported by the trade unions in their search for new jobs and will be provided with allowances.38)

Concluding Remarks

Despite high trade union density in Vietnam, the formalistic operations of workplace trade unions are one of the main causes of increased labor unrest in recent years. Trade union organizing free from employers’ interference is the decisive factor in enabling workplace trade unions to function effectively. Recently, the VGCL implemented initiatives in this direction, which served as input for revising the Trade Union Law of 2012 and the Labour Code of 2012. The new legal framework will create more opportunities for immediate upper-level trade unions in dealing with enterprises.

However, there are challenges ahead, one of which is the heavy workload of full-time trade union officers. Not only are they burdened by tasks irrelevant to trade union operations, as a consequence of the VGCL being an affiliated organization to the CPV, there is also a severe imbalance in the number of full-time trade union officers compared with the number of enterprises, workplace trade unions, and trade union members.

The new legal framework imposes stricter sanctions against anti-unionism acts committed by the employers and regulates the protection of part-time trade union officers at the workplace. However, whether the new legal provisions will be strictly enforced in practice very much depends on the commitment of relevant authorities—the VGCL and its immediate upper-level trade unions—in identifying anti-unionism acts committed by the employers.

Another challenge lies within the VGCL itself. A synchronous understanding and coherent interpretation of the VGCL’s policies among the upper-level trade unions is necessary if the involvement of employers in the establishment of the workplace trade unions is to be avoided. Officers of the VGCL and its trade unions also need to be more open and ready to apply different, innovative ways of trade union organizing.

Accepted: May 27, 2013


The author would like to express her gratitude to the autonomous referees for their valuable comments in the previous draft of the article. My thanks also go to Ms Narumi Shitara for her effective facilitation and instruction, and to Ms Wee Wong for her editorial assistance. I wish too to thank my colleagues Thu Huong and Van Binh at the Industrial Relations Project, ILO office in Hanoi for their support in documentation and material-gathering. Any errors contained herein are mine.


Amended Statute of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), approved by the National Trade Union Congress, July 30, 2013.

Circular No. 76/1999/TTLT/BTC-TLDLDVN, June 16, 1999, on the contribution of trade union dues; and Circular No. 17/2009/TT-BTC, Section 3a, January 22, 2009, on the contribution and use of trade union dues in foreign-invested enterprises and units.

Constitution of Vietnam, April 15, 1992.

Decision No. 525/QĐ-TLĐ, April 25, 2011, on temporary regulation of wages and allowances of trade union delegates.

Decision No. 953/QD, July 20, 2010 of the Presidium of VGCL, on the establishment of pilot working groups for innovating trade union organizing and establishing trade unions, and improving the linkage between upper-level trade unions, workplace trade unions, and workers.

Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP, August 22, 2013 of the government, on administrative sanctions concerning labor, social insurance, and the sending of Vietnamese workers abroad to work under contract.

Decree No. 43/2013/ND-CP, May 10, 2013 of the government, detailing Article 10 of the Trade Union Law on the rights and responsibilities of trade unions in representing and protecting the lawful and legitimate rights and interests of workers.

Decree No. 44/2013/ND-CP, May 10, 2013 of the government, detailing the implementation of a number of Articles of the Labour Code on employment contracts dated February 5, 2013.

Decree No. 133/HĐBT, April 20, 1991 of the Council of Ministers, guiding the implementation of the law on trade unions.

International Labour Organization (ILO). Convention No. 98 on the right to organize and collective bargaining, 1949.

Labour Code, June 18, 2012.

Law on organization of the People’s Court, April 2, 2002.

Law on public cadres and civil servants, November 13, 2008, approved by the National Assembly.

Law on trade unions, June 20, 2012.

Plan No. 13/KH-TLD, June 22, 2012 of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) on continuously implementing pilot activities of the VGCL in the transitional period to December 31, 2012.

Plan No. 2202/KH-TLD, December 27, 2010 of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), on implementation of the pilot program to innovate trade union organizing and improve the linkage between upper-level trade unions and workplace trade unions.

Resolution No. 07/NQ-TLD, July 18, 2008, on developing and strengthening the capacity of trade unions in small and medium enterprises.

Ban Mai. 2013. Lưc lượng lao động vẫn “thừa lượng, thiếu chất” [The labor force is abundant in quantity but short in quality]. The Saigon Times, April 25, 2013, accessed September 8, 2014, http://www.thesaigontimes.vn/Home/xahoi/doisong/95327/Luc-luong-lao-dong-van-%22thua-luong-thieu-chat%22.html.

Đức Minh. 2012. Cơ chế bảo vệ cán bộ hữu hiệu [Effective protection mechanism for trade union officers]. Lao Dong Newspaper, August 1, 2012, accessed March 20, 2013, http://laodong.com.vn/Tranh-chap-lao-dong/Co-che-bao-ve-can-bo-huu-hieu/76428.bld.

―. 2009. Sẽ có cán bộ công đoàn chuyên trách [There will be full-time trade union officers]. Tien Phong Newspaper, October 19, 2012, accessed March 10, 2013, http://www.tienphong.vn/Thoi-Su/Tin-Tuc/174974/Se-co-can-bo-cong-doan-chuyen-trach.html.

International Labour Organization (ILO). 2012. Context Analysis Needs Assessment and Recommendations for Phase 2 of Apheda Project. Hanoi.

Lê Nho Lượng. 2011. Minutes of Tripartite Conference on Industrial Relations in Binh Duong Industrial Zones. Tripartite conference on industrial relations in Binh Duong industrial zones, Binh Duong province, July 22.

Lê Trường Sơn. 2010. Cán bộ công đoàn như lính cứu hộ [Trade union officers are like firefighters]. Lao Dong Newspaper, August 5, 2010, accessed March 27, 2013, http://laodong.com.vn/cong-doan/can-bo-cong-doan-nhu-linh-cuu-ho-7034.bld.

Nguyễn Duy Vũ. 2012. Công tác phát triển đoàn viên, thành lập CĐCS sau hơn nửa nhiệm kỳ thực hiện Nghị quyết Đại hội X Công đoàn Việt Nam [Trade union membership development and workplace trade unions establishment after more than halfway through the process of implementing the Resolution of Vietnamese Trade Union Congress, meeting session X]. Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), January 16, 2012.

Nguyễn Ngọc Trung. 2012. Vai trò của công đoàn cấp trên trực tiếp cơ sở tại các doanh nghiệp chưa có tổ chức công đoàn [The role of immediate upper-level trade unions in non-unionized enterprises]. Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), January 13, 2012.

Nguyễn Văn Bình. 2011. Tăng cường và bảo đảm tính độc lập, đại diện của công đoàn để tham gia một cách thực chất, hiệu quả vào các quá trình của quan hệ lao động [Strengthening and guaranteeing the independence and representativeness of trade unions in order to participate truly and effectively in industrial relations processes]. Hanoi: International Labour Organization (ILO).

Phong Cầm. 2011. Đình công nhiều vì lương tối thiểu quá bèo [Too many strikes due to overly low minimum wage]. Tien Phong Online, July 7, 2011, accessed March 27, 2013, http://m.tienphong.vn/thoi-su/544219/Dinh-cong-nhieu-vi-luong-toi-thieu-qua-beo.html.

Quang Chính; and Việt Lâm. 2012. Cần phấn đấu giảm 50% số vụ đình công [It is important to strive to reduce strikes by 50%]. Lao Dong Newspaper, February 22, 2012, accessed March 15, 2013, http://laodong.com.vn/Cong-doan/Nam-2012-can-phan-dau-giam-50-so-vu-dinh-cong/626.bld.

Thu Trà. 2012. Hạn chế thao túng hoạt động công đoàn của người sử dụng lao động [Minimizing employers’ influence on trade union activities]. Lao Dong Newspaper, March 24, 2012, accessed March 27, 2013, http://laodong.com.vn/cong-doan/han-che-thao-tung-hoat-dong-cd-cua-nguoi-su-dung-ld-56999.bld.

―. 2008. Tập trung vào vấn đề bảo vệ người lao động [Focusing on the protection of workers]. Lao Dong Newspaper, November 5, 2008.

Tự Cường. 2012. Doanh nghiệp vừa và nhỏ vẫn khó tiếp cận vốn [Small and medium enterprises face difficulties in accessing capital]. Daibieunhandan, October 5, 2012, accessed March 15, 2013, http://daibieunhandan.vn/default.aspx?tabid=75&NewsId=259982.

Vietnam, Centre for Industrial Relations Development (CIRD). 2012. Kế hoạch phát triển quan hệ lao động tại thành phố Hồ Chí Minh trong giai đoạn 2013–2020 [Master plan for industrial relations development in Ho Chi Minh City in the period 2013–2020]. Hanoi.

Vietnam, General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO). 2010. Population and Employment, accessed May 19, 2012, http://www.gso.gov.vn/default_en.aspx?tabid=467&idmid=3&ItemID=9875.

Vietnam, Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA). 2012. Báo cáo nghiên cứu về Công ước số 98 của Tổ chức lao động quốc tế [Research report on Convention No. 98 of the International Labour Organization]. Hanoi.

Vietnam, Trade Union of Binh Duong Industrial Zones. 2010. Báo cáo khảo sát về hoạt động của công đoàn cơ sở và mối quan hệ với công đoàn cấp trên cơ sở [Report on the survey of operations of local-level trade unions and relationships with upper-level trade unions]. Binh Duong province.

Vietnam, Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL). 2011a. Báo cáo đánh giá hoạt động thí điểm đổi mới cách thức tổ chức đoàn viên, thành lập tổ chức công đoàn và tăng cường mối liên kết giữa công đoàn cấp trên với công đoàn cơ sở và người lao động từ tháng 11/2010 đến tháng 12/2011 [Evaluation report on the pilot program: Strengthening representational capacity of the trade union through innovative ways in union organizing, establishing workers’ representative organizations and improving the linkage between upper-level trade unions and grassroots unions and workers from November 2010–December 2011]. Hanoi.

―. 2011b. Báo cáo về ngừng việc tập thể và đình công từ năm 2006 đến tháng 4 năm 2011 [Report on collective work stoppage and strike from 2006–April 2011]. Hanoi.

―. 2010. Báo cáo khảo sát về phát triển đoàn viên và thành lập công đoàn cơ sở [Report of survey and research on organizing and recruiting members at enterprise level]. Hanoi.

Vietnam, Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) and International Labour Organization (ILO) Industrial Relations Project. 2012. VGCL Initiatives. Hanoi.

―. 2011. Research Report on Membership Development, Workplace Union Organizing and Collective Bargaining. Hanoi.

1) During the revision process of the Trade Union Law of 1990, a proposal was submitted to enable foreign workers working in Vietnam to join trade unions affiliated to the VGCL, as mentioned in Article 5 of the latest draft 10 of the Trade Union Law proposal of April 30, 2012. However, this proposal was not accepted and the Trade Union Law of 2012 still excludes the right to trade unions of foreign workers in Vietnam.

2) Article 5 of the Trade Union Law of 2012 and Article 1 of the VGCL Statute amended in 2013.

3) Article 4, Section 1, Section 2; and Article 7 of the Trade Union Law of 2012, approved by the National Assembly on June 20, 2012 and effective from January 1, 2013, replacing the Trade Union Law of 1990.

4) This refers to strikes that are not organized and led by workplace trade unions and which are carried out without respecting legal procedures.

5) The Labour Code of 1994 has been replaced by the Labour Code of 2012, which was approved by the National Assembly on June 18, 2012 and took effect from May 1, 2013.

6) This initiative was regulated by Decision No. 953/QD, dated July 20, 2010 of the Presidium of VGCL on the creation of pilot working groups to innovate trade union organizing and the establishment of trade unions, and to improve the linkage between upper-level trade unions and workplace trade unions and workers; comprehensive Plan No. 2202/KH-TLD, dated December 27, 2010 of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour on the implementation of the pilot program to innovate trade union organizing and improve the linkage between upper-level trade unions and workplace trade unions. This initiative was implemented in Binh Duong province on December 31, 2012, as mentioned in Plan No. 13/KH-TLD, June 22, 2012 of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour.

7) See the instructions (in Vietnamese) of immediate upper-level trade unions, e.g., Federation of Labour of District 1, Ho Chi Minh City: http://www.ldldq1hcm.gov.vn/thutucthanhlapcongdoan.aspx (accessed October 3, 2013); Federation of Labour of Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City: http://ldldbinhtanhcm.gov.vn/vn/default.aspx?cat_id=806 (accessed October 3, 2013); Trade Union of the Industrial Zones of Ha Nam province: http://hanam.gov.vn/vi-vn/bqlckcn/Pages/Article.aspx? ChannelId=39&articleID=60 (accessed October 3, 2013), etc. for more details of the procedures for establishing workplace trade unions.

8) Items 1.3 and 1.4 of Guidance No. 703/HD-TLD prohibit honorary trade union members from voting in meetings and congresses or from holding leadership positions at any level.

9) Article 2b of Circular No. 76/1999/TTLT/BTC-TLDLDVN and Section 3a of Circular No. 17/2009/TT-BTC.

10) Article 26, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

11) Section 1, Resolution No. 07/NQ-TLD, dated July 18, 2008 on development and strengthening the capacity of trade unions in small and medium enterprises.

12) This is a summary of the innovative organizing approach implemented by trade unions in the economic zones of Hai Phong city; the industrial zones and processing zones of Binh Duong province, and the Federation of Labour of District 12, Ho Chi Minh City in 2011. The author has participated in these activities alongside the trade unions.

13) Summarized by the author.

14) Summarized by the author.

15) Article 7, Article 8, and Article 19 of Decision No. 1521/QD-TLD, dated September 29, 2006 of the VGCL Presidium, regulating the establishment, organization, and operation management of the workplace trade union delegate support fund.

16) Article 106, Section 2b of the Labour Code of 2012 provides that supplementary working hours of the workers shall not exceed 50 percent of the normal working hours in a day. Regulation for weekly work provides that the sum of normal working hours and overtime working hours shall not exceed 12 hours per day, and the sum of overtime working hours shall not exceed 30 hours per month and 200 hours per year. In special cases, this can be extended to but not exceed 300 hours per year.

17) Workers may enter into employment contracts with multiple employers as prescribed in Article 30, Section 3 of the Labour Code of 1994 amended and supplemented. However, this issue was regulated in neither the Labour Code of 1994 amended and supplemented nor in Decree No. 44/2003/ND-CP, dated May 9, 2003, detailing and guiding the implementation of a number of articles of the Labour Code on employment contracts. Things have changed with the promulgation of the Labour Code of 2012. The Vietnamese government has promulgated Decree No. 44/2013/ND-CP of the Government dated May 10, 2013, which has taken effect since July 1, 2013. This decree specifies the employees’ participation in social insurance and health insurance, and occupational health and safety issues when entering into employment contracts with multiple employers as prescribed in Article 4 and Article 5. It is hoped that the new legal framework will create more opportunities for workers to work at different jobs at the same time in order to improve their income situation.

18) Summarized by the author.

19) Summarized by the author.

20) Summarized by the author.

21) This is the case of a workplace trade union with 27 members drawn from different small enterprises in Tan Thoi Nhat ward, formed by the Federation of Labour of district 12, Ho Chi Minh City in 2011. It operates under the direct management of the Federation of Labour of district 12, Ho Chi Minh City.

22) Article 4, Section 1, Section 2; and Article 70, Section 2 Law on public cadres and civil servants.

23) The competent authority here refers to the CPV as mentioned in Article 66, Section 6 of the Law on public cadres and civil servants approved by the National Assembly, dated November 13, 2008 and taking effect from January 1, 2010.

24) Article 23, Section 2 and 3 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

25) Article 9, Section 1, 2 and 3 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

26) Article 24, Section 3 of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP of the government, dated August 22, 2013, on administrative sanctioning in the field of labor, social insurance, and sending Vietnamese workers abroad to perform work under the contracts. This has been in effect since October 10, 2013 and replaced Decree No. 47/2010/ND-CP dated May 6, 2010, Decree No. 86/2010/ND-CP dated August 13, 2010 and Decree No. 144/2007/ND-CP dated September 10, 2007.

27) Article 24, Section 2c of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

28) Article 16, Section 1 of the Trade Union Law of 2012, and Article 189, Section 2 of the Labour Code of 2012.

29) Article 16, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

30) Article 24, Section 2dd of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

31) Article 2, Section 1b and Article 17, Section 1a, b, and dd of the amended VGCL’s Statute of 2013; and Article 5, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

32) Article 17 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

33) Article 13, Section 1 of Decree No. 43/2013/ND-CP dated May 10, 2013, in effect since July 1, 2013, spelling out Article 10 of the Trade Union Law on rights and responsibilities of trade unions in representing and protecting the lawful and legitimate rights and interests of workers.

34) Article 24, Section 2 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

35) Article 24, Section 2a, 2b and 2d of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

36) Article 25, Section 1 of the Trade Union Law of 2012.

37) Article 24, Section 3d of Decree No. 95/2013/ND-CP.

38) Article 25, Section 3 of the Trade Union Law of 2012. This regulation refers to Decision No. 1521/QD-TLD dated September 29, 2006 of the VGCL Presidium, mentioned above, which provides a regulation on the establishment, organization, and operation of the fund for workplace trade union delegate support.


Vol. 3, No. 3, Thak Chaloemtiarana

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Are We Them? Textual and Literary Representations of the Chinese in Twentieth-Century Thailand

Thak Chaloemtiarana*

* ทักษ์ เฉลิมเตียรณ, Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University, 209 Kahin Center, 640 Stewart Avenue, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA

e-mail: tc17[at]cornell.edu

King Vajiravudh famously published an essay titled Jews of the Orient in 1914 demonizing the Chinese in Siam as ingrates and parasites. The local Chinese became the “Other Within” in the Thai nation that the king was trying to establish. Whether his reaction to the local Chinese was fueled by ire over the recent strike by the Chinese which paralyzed Bangkok, or a reflection of his English education and exposure to European anti-Semitism, is not the focus of my concern. My interest for this exercise is to study how the Chinese in Siam/Thailand are portrayed in Thai language texts, that is, prose fiction and non-fiction produced in the twentieth century (I will not include related areas such as movies, television drama, music, and cartoons). This study does not involve an exhaustive review of all texts but will focus on a few well-known and popular ones. I would like to know whether King Vajiravudh’s portrayal of the Chinese is reflected in subsequent literary production or muted by other realities that existed in Thai society, and how the production of texts on the local Chinese changed over time. More importantly, I am very curious to know how this issue is played out in neighboring countries, especially the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, countries where the “assimilation” of the Chinese into the majority culture happens in varying degrees.

Keywords: Thai literature, Sino-Thai, identity representations, assimilation


When I first arrived on the campus of the University of the Philippines in 1962, I was struck by the unexpected question that cropped up regularly in class and in conversations with my Filipino friends. They would ask, “Who are the Filipinos?” My Thai friends and I felt rather smug about knowing who we “Thai” were and somewhat sorry for the Filipinos. To the Thai students, Filipinos had ambiguous identities—they had Spanish/Mexican names, spoke English with a peculiar accent, served a cuisine that was a mix of Spanish, native Filipino, Chinese, and American dishes, and spoke different tongues even though there was one “national” language. Classes in the university were in English, and students used English to speak to each other.

Those of us from Thailand knew that we were “Thai” because we all spoke the same language, practiced the same religion, and loved the same king. When King Bhumibol visited Manila in 1963, all of us went to pay our respects and show our loyalty to the monarchy by having group pictures taken with the king and the queen.

Looking back, it did not occur to any of us that we had “Thai” classmates who spoke Thai with a heavy Chinese accent and many of them still called each other by their old Chinese names while fooling around even though they all had Thai names. The fact that my best friend in college was a second-generation Sino-Thai who still spoke Thai with a Chinese accent did not make me think of him as non-Thai. It did not seem important for me to dwell on the truth that my own father was perhaps half or a quarter Chinese, or that my mother had both a Thai and a Chinese name. None of these facts ever made me feel that I was not 100 percent Thai, even though my father’s great-grandfather was Chinese, and his mother’s ancestors came from a line of Hokkien Chinese shipbuilders. But after four generations of living in Thailand, my father, aunts, and uncles had complete amnesia as far as their ancestral race was concerned. My mother conveniently explained that many in Chantaburi province had Chinese names as well as Thai names. She said that because the Chinese in her home province were rich and successful, Thai families gave Chinese names to their children so they could become prosperous like the Chinese. I will never know whether this is true or not, but should it matter? I suspect that after several generations of becoming Thai, my own family had fallen prey to self-denial and self-lobotomy about its past and had subconsciously severed all ties with and discarded all memories of its Chineseness.1)

In this essay, I use Thailand to designate both the historical Siam and the current Thailand. Prior to 1939, the country was usually referred to as Siam. The name change was the result of Premier Phibunsongkhram’s extreme nationalism. The name reverted briefly to Siam at the end of the World War II. I also use “Sino-Thai” loosely to describe the Thai with Chinese ancestry. Sino-Thai is a slippery concept because there is no clear definition of when an individual is no longer considered Sino-Thai following generations of intermarriage with the local population. In the past, first- and second-generation Chinese have been essentialized as Jiin Sayam or Jek—neutral descriptive designations of the Chinese in Siam. Over time, the Sino-Thai rejected Jek because it had acquired derogatory and pejorative connotations. More common today is for a Thai to admit that he or she mi chuesai Jiin or has Chinese blood, which is different from the previous designation of luk Jek (children of the Jek) or luk Jiin (children of the Chinese), suggesting a second- or third-generation Sino-Thai.

Texts, Literature, and the Study of Twentieth-Century Thai History and Culture

At the March 2010 Association for Asian Studies conference, Michael Montesano organized the panel “Bringing Literature into the Study of Twentieth-Century Thai History” with intentions to offer an early preview of how literature, especially fiction, can complement historical sources and how it can produce new perspectives. I was the discussant of the five excellent papers that suggested directions research can take, and what kinds of methodological conundrums are involved in using literature as historical data.

For the purposes of this essay, I will not go into the details of the five papers but will address some general observations about the relevance of literature in the study of history and as artifacts of changing social values.

Benedict Anderson and Ruchira Mendiones’ In the Mirror (1985) uses short stories to illuminate the history and politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Thailand.2) And to the surprise and delight of Anderson, a third of the chapters in his festschrift, Southeast Asia over Three Generations (Siegel and Kahin 2003), focus on the importance of fiction in Southeast Asian studies. Four chapters in that volume are specifically about how literature informs historical and political knowledge. Webb Keane (2005), who reviewed the book, remarks that “everyone was reading fiction.” In 1982, Nidhi Eoseewong examined classical Thai literature to substantiate the rise of the bourgeoisie in Bangkok.3)

The intersection between fiction and history is not new. Umberto Eco writes in The Name of the Rose (1983) that there are three ways to narrate the past: the romance, using the past as scenery, pretext, or fairy tale; the cloak-and-dagger mystery, using real and recognizable pasts and characters; and the historical novel, which creates characters and situations that make historical events and complicated ideas easier to understand. Herbert Butterfield explains in The Historical Novel that literary authors could describe in human terms the historical period in which they live and their writings could be mined for historical facts. Butterfield goes on to say:

It is not exactly that history and fiction should dovetail into one another to produce a coherent whole . . . but it is rather that in the historical novel, history and fiction can enrich and amplify one another, and interpenetrate. They can grow into one another, each making the other more powerful. And they can make a special kind of appeal to the reader. (1924, 7)

More recently, Oliver Wolters’ last book manuscript, available online at the Cornell University library, experiments with Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1981) “polyphony of dialogic exchange,” which proposes the intertextuality of exchanges between literature and history. Wolters constructed fictitious conversations among groups of Vietnamese elites in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries to show what the Tran dynasty meant to the various groups within those elites. He also wanted to show how the Le dynasty planned to erase those meanings in subsequent generations. Wolters’ novel-history is an attempt to illustrate that the Buddhist Tran dynasty was more Southeast Asian than the Confucian Le dynasty, suggesting that Vietnam is intrinsically more Southeast Asian than Sinitic. Perhaps the historian can become the amateur novelist in much the same way that the novelist can also become the amateur historian. Of course the intersection or the blurring of boundaries between history and literature is proposed by Hayden White (1973), who points out that historians skew their analysis by using literary tropes and emplotments.4)

Linking literature to its contextual site, Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism advocates the centrality of historical texts to provide deeper meaning to literary criticism and vice versa. To Greenblatt, literature as culture acts as constraints that enforce cultural boundaries through praise and blame. To do this, authors expressed their beliefs, values, and criticisms of the society in which they write. Debunking elitist views, Greenblatt also suggests that we look more seriously and systematically at obscure or minor texts left behind by ordinary people to fully understand history and literature (1995, 226).

In a similar vein, the anthropologist Herbert Phillips (1987, 3–4) uses literature to study culture. He argues that Thai writers can be “the most sensitive, reflective, articulate . . . members of Thai society. . . . The writing of literature is integral to the social process, as both historical precipitant and product.” To Phillips, vernacular literature could be considered a “noetic expression of a social and cultural milieu,” and it is possible to treat “literary works as embodiments of culture.” He argues further that because Thai writers write for fellow Thai, the communication is “intracultural and reflects the native point of view, making literature a valuable corpus of knowledge for anthropological inquiry.”

This essay will use literary texts and other selected texts to animate how the Chinese in Thai society are viewed and how they see themselves in the last 100 years. By assessing textual evidence, I will explore the evolving nuances of demonization, rejection, acceptance, assimilation, and accommodation of the Sino-Thai in the Thai cultural imaginary. I argue that texts can be good sources to reflect social and cultural values when they are readily consumed and embraced by the general public. Large sales figures, multiple editions, and persistence over time indicate acceptance or acquiescence of the portrayals of society, and the representation of characters within those texts.

The Problematic Chinese: The Other Within

Although the Chinese had been living in Ayutthaya/Siam/Thailand for centuries without much controversy or severe discrimination, they were suddenly identified as being non-Thai by King Vajiravudh when he penned Yiw haeng Buraphathit (Jews of the Orient) in 1914 (Asvabahu 1914).5) That short essay, published both in Thai and English, made clear that the Thai and Chinese were separate “races” and that the Chinese, very much like the Jews in Europe, exploited the country where they resided to amass wealth, yet remained separate, aloof, and ungrateful—never to become good citizens. In that article, the king demonized the Thai Chinese for their relentless avarice, their willingness to do anything for money, their insistence on Chinese cultural superiority, and their attempts to raise their children, even those by Thai wives, as Chinese.

The king accused the Chinese of being parasites on the Thai economy.6) His outburst and indictment seemed rather strange given the history of Thai-Chinese relations, where the Chinese had for centuries played a vital role in the Siamese trade with the outside world. Many Chinese families had become prominent members of the Thai aristocracy and been given royal appointments and sakdina (noble titles). Historical data tells us that the Chinese had intermarried with the Thai and, importantly, sired many important Thai noble families. In fact, according to historians, the founder of Ayutthaya was not a Thai but a successful Chinese merchant; the hero Taksin, who liberated Siam from Burma, had a Chinese father; and the mother of the founder of the present Chakkri dynasty was Chinese. Additionally, by the mid-1800s, most of the governors of the southern provinces, such as Ranong, Songkhla, Nakhon Sithammarat, Pattani, Trang, Phuket, and Chanthaburi, were Chinese merchants who had been given noble titles by the king.

From the Taksin to the early Bangkok period (up to Rama V), Siam maintained close trade relationships with China. The Thai kings represented themselves in documents using Chinese names beginning with Taksin’s Chinese clan name, Tae, such as Tae Jiew, Tae Hua, Tae Hok, Tae Huk, Tae Meng, and Tae Jia (Phimpraphai 2001, 190). Trade and foreign relations before the administrative reforms of Rama V were split between two senior titled bureaucrats who were in charge of the Port Authority. The official responsible for dealing with traders from the East was typically the richest Chinese merchant, who held the title “Phraya Chodukratchasetthi.” Many were tax farmers and the founders of some of the best-known families in Thailand today, to wit, Krairerk, Chotikapukkana, Chotiksawat, and Laohasetthi.7) The daughters of senior Chinese officials were also taken as concubines by Thai kings to sire princes and princesses with family ties to the Chinese. For example, M. R. Kukrit Pramote, the famous author, critic, newspaperman, and one-time prime minister, publicly acknowledged that his grandmother was Chinese, and while he was alive, he never failed to conduct rituals during important Chinese holy days.

One of the tasks of this essay is to assess whether the king’s demonization resulted in severe discrimination or lasting demonization of the Sino-Thai, especially in Thai literary texts. Prior to the publication of Jews of the Orient, the Thai monarchy was not antagonistic towards the local Chinese. Vajiravudh’s own father, King Chulalongkorn, emphasized in numerous speeches that the Thai and Chinese were like close relatives. In fact, several of his concubines were Chinese. Under Chulalongkorn, the Thai state had maintained an open immigration policy to attract more Chinese labor. And instead of corvee labor, the Chinese paid a very low triennial head tax to the Crown. This goodwill towards the immigrant Chinese was echoed in a speech by King Vajiravudh himself during the cremation rites for his father in December 1910. The king said:

The Chinese people and our own people have long been of one heart; the Chinese have acted like people of the same race as our people from ancient times to the present day. I am resolved, therefore, always to assist and protect all the Chinese who come to live in this country. (Vella 1978, 191)

A few years later, however, the policy of “protecting” the Chinese took a turn for the worse as the exigencies of world politics and new fears of rising republicanism became acute. To strengthen the position of the monarchy, Vajiravudh instituted a nationalistic campaign as a strategy to galvanize the people of Siam to resist the spread of republican ideology, the handmaiden of incipient Han Chinese nationalism. The demise of the Manchu dynasty in China in 1911 to a republican Kuomintang made Vajiravudh worry that the security of his own position as absolute monarch was in jeopardy. He also resented Sun Yat-sen’s visit to Thailand to raise money from the local Chinese.8)

Two other local incidents may have also contributed to the king’s ire. The first was the three-day strike of June 1910, just before the death of King Chulalongkorn and a few months before the coronation of Vajiravudh. Chinese workers went on a general strike to protest the increase in the head tax to match the amount levied against the general population following the abolition of corvee labor. The strike paralyzed Bangkok, a palpable indication of the potential power of the local Chinese. The second event was an attempted coup by young military officers in 1912. Among its leaders, several were Sino-Thai officers who protested the unfair increase of the Chinese annual head tax and the privileging of the Wild Tigers Corps over the regular army, and advocated the need for political freedom and the rejection of one-man rule.9) The Thai monarch undoubtedly viewed these developments with alarm. To shore up his position, and influenced by his educational experience in England, Vajiravudh coined and promoted the concept “Nation, Religion, and King” as the main pillars of Thai nationalism. European anti-Semitism and the Anglophone “God, King, and Country” seemed to have inspired Vajiravudh’s Thai nationalism. In this official nationalism, a good Thai is one who loves the nation, is a good Buddhist, and loves the king.

Vajiravudh’s articulation of official Thai nationalism contrasted the Thai people/race against a selected Internal Other, namely, the Chinese. In short, the Thai were defined by who they were not, that is, they were not like the Chinese. It should be kept in mind that Vajiravudh only targeted the recent arrivals from China who were mostly poor laborers from rural villages, ignoring the Chinese who had been absorbed into the bureaucracy and old merchant families that had close business and personal ties to the monarchy. Thus, the official construction of the Chinese Other in Vajiravudh’s nationalism defined the Chinese as poor and desolate peasants who had come to Thailand with just “a straw mat and a pillow (sua pheun mon bai)” to “seek the protection of the king’s righteous generosity (pheung phraboromaphothisomphan).”

Although Vajiravudh racialized the concept of the Thai nation, he only targeted the Chinese, ignoring the other races within Siam. It is a known fact that Siam was not populated by only Thai people, but by Malays, Lao, Mon, Shan, Yuan, Indians, Europeans, and many others. But these other races seemed harmless to the Thai state. The Chinese, on the other hand, represented an imminent threat because of their growing numbers, especially in urban centers, their control of business and rising wealth, and their propagation of subversive ideologies arising from China itself.

The nationalism initiated by Vajiravudh, and later to be enhanced by the Phibun regime in the late 1930s and early 1940s, facilitated or forced the assimilation of the Chinese into Thai society. The decree of 1913 urging the Thai to adopt family names (in contrast to Chinese clan names) spilled over into the local Chinese population because some also adopted Thai surnames. In that same year, the nationality law was ameliorated to allow local-born Chinese to have Thai nationality. Paradoxically, the raising of the head tax to the level of all other citizens took away the distinction between the Chinese and the Thai, and the fall of the Manchu dynasty also led to the shearing off of Chinese pigtails to allow Chinese men to look similar to Thai men. By the 1920s, city dwellers found Western clothing and haircuts and women’s hairstyles fashionable. These new developments, among others, in effect made differentiating the Chinese from the Thai more difficult.

Assimilation was intensified during the Phibun regime’s nationalistic campaign from 1939 to 1942. Sino-Thai serving in the bureaucracy and the military were urged to discard their Chinese surnames and to replace them with invented Thai ones (Vella 1978, 128–136).10) In addition, new laws that required all private schools to register with the government placed Chinese schools under the control of the state. All schools were also required to teach the Thai language (reducing Chinese language instruction to one hour each day) as well as history, geography, and culture (leaving no time for Chinese subjects). In 1939, Phibun closed Chinese schools but at the same time made naturalization even easier for the Chinese. That same year, Chinese papers were banned, so news about China was filtered through the Thai language press.

By the end of World War II, Chinese language schools were weakened, harassed, and demoralized. Eventually, Chinese education in Thailand ended, and the Sino-Thai lost the ability to read, write, and speak Chinese. This meant that they were cut off from their own culture and could only learn about it through the Thai language. By 1949, immigration of Chinese into Thailand was limited to only 200 per annum, further cutting off the supply of new Chinese to help sustain Chinese culture and language. In addition, the separate dialect groups, whose members do not necessarily speak Mandarin as a lingua franca, were soon using the Thai language to converse, which indirectly forged new common grounds based on a newly shared language. Therefore, those who remained in Thailand attended Thai schools, took on Thai names, were exposed more to Thai culture and less to Chinese culture, found jobs in the bureaucracy and the military, and diversified traditional employment in the family business into new fields.11) In short, Vajiravudh’s railing against the Chinese did not result in a purge or genocide (as suffered by the Jews in Europe) but led to political policies that began the process of forcing the Chinese to assimilate into Thai society.

Now I shall turn to discuss whether sentiments expressed in Jews of the Orient affected or infected how the Chinese were represented in Thai literature and other selected texts that followed. By reviewing textual representations of the Chinese by Thai and Sino-Thai authors, I will demonstrate how the Thai and the Sino-Thai negotiate identity issues, and how this process not only destabilized Chinese identity but also Thai identity in twentieth-century Thailand.

Early Thai Prose Fiction, Literary Texts, and the Sino-Thai (1900–World War II)

The introduction of prose fiction to Thailand occurred in the early twentieth century. Students sent to Europe to study were exposed to the novel and to short stories that were different from traditional Thai literature, which relied heavily on formulaic plots and magical characters but lacked realism. The first novel to be published in the Thai language appeared in 1902. It was a translation of Marie Corelli’s Vendetta.12) Thirteen years later, a novel written by a Thai author appeared in 1915. It was a parody of Vendetta, using the title Khwam mai phayabat (Non-vendetta).13) This first Thai novel appeared the year after King Vajiravudh’s Jews of the Orient, but the Chinese were not featured in the novel even though it was about the modern tastes of the middle class in Bangkok. Other early novels—including the three published in 1929 that Thai literary critics have canonized as the first real Thai novels, namely, Luk phuchai (The real man), Lakhon haeng chiwit (Circus of life), and Sattru khong jao lon (Her enemy)—also failed to mention tensions between the Thai and the local Chinese (Thak, 2009b). Thus, it appears that King Vajiravudh’s complaint against the local Chinese was not a major social issue among early literary authors.

Interestingly, a few years after penning Jews of the Orient, Vajiravudh composed and published a collection of letters written by a young man returning to Thailand from England. The letters appeared around 1917 under the title Huajai chainum (A young man’s heart) in the Dusit Samit magazine, edited by the king himself. The letters are between two friends, Praphan (Author—which suggests a reference to Vajiravudh, who is known as the “Great Writer”) and Prasert (Noble—which refers to the ideal of the noble Thai), with only Praphan’s letters appearing in print. Because only Praphan’s thoughts are revealed to the readers, Huajai chainum could be interpreted as Vajiravudh speaking his mind—a soliloquy of sorts—about what kind of person he thinks the good Chinese should be.

In the first letter, Praphan tells his friend how he misses England, his English girlfriend, and life in civilized Europe. He is compelled to return home because of his love for Thailand and the Thai people. His second letter is written from Singapore. He complains that he has been refused a room at the hotel because of his looks. It is only after he has pointed out to the clerk that he is Thai and not Chinese that he is given a room. Praphan tells his friend that the Jek are everywhere and are looked down upon by the English and Europeans. He confides that being in Singapore and getting used to the Jek again is good preparation for his reintroduction to Siam. It is only when he complains that his own father has refused to give up the ways of the Chinese that we learn that Praphan is also a Jek or luk Jek (child of the Jek). In subsequent letters, Praphan tells his friend about the Chinese girl his parents have picked for him. Fortunately, she marries someone else, a Thai who holds the bureaucratic title “Luang.” Praphan eventually marries an upper-class Thai woman but soon after she runs off with another man. Praphan wants badly to become a kharatchakan (civil servant/servant of the king) and is eventually accepted into the Thai titled bureaucracy. He is also allowed to join the king’s exclusive and controversial Wild Tigers Corps, a paramilitary group loyal only to the king (Ram Chitti [1917?]).

From what is said in the 18 published letters, we could easily surmise that even Vajiravudh himself, like most Thai of that period, still considered the Chinese and their descendants as different but yet an integral part of Thai society. Praphan himself denies his Chinese heritage by making sarcastic remarks about the Jek and by telling the hotel clerk in Singapore that he is Thai. By writing Praphan into the Thai bureaucracy and into the Wild Tigers Corps, Vajiravudh had no trouble accepting Praphan as Thai—a Jek who loved Siam, the Thai people, and the king. It appears that his demonization of the Chinese in his 1914 Jews of the Orient only singled out the “bad” Chinese who refused to become Thai, rejecting the Thai language, the culture, and service to the king.

Although we learn that Praphan is Sino-Thai and that his father is rich, we know little about him and his family. Praphan’s background appears irrelevant and unimportant. It is as if he has vaulted from the condition of being part of a Chinese family to becoming Thai and being accepted as Thai.

Vajiravudh was not the only person to express anxiety about the ambiguous identity of the Thai and the Sino-Thai. Contemporary with the publication of Huajai chainum, another Thai author, Nai But, published the poem Nirat chom Talat Sampheng (A trip to Sampheng Market) ([1920s?]), describing what goes on in the Chinese district of Bangkok. Aside from his colorful description of the hustle and bustle of the place, he has written the following:

Small road is crowded by Jek (Chinese) and Thai,
Unavoidably mingling, clashing with one another.
Jek mix with Thai beyond recognition,
Who is who?
One can’t help but wonder.
Modern times deviantly mess up the place.
Jin (Chinese) cut off their pigtails and become Thai undetectably.
What an unconventional abnormality,
People surprisingly reverse their ethnicity.14)

Although written in 1957, another popular novel, Kulap Saipradit’s Lae pai khangna (Gazing at the future), gives readers a sense of the changing values that undermined absolute monarchy in the late 1920s. In that novel, Kulap writes about social disparities present in an elite school in Bangkok, a school similar to the one that he had attended. Students in the school come from many backgrounds—the children of princes, scions of wealthy families, a few provincial students on scholarships, and even Sino-Thai students. The story is told from the viewpoint of Chantha, a poor provincial student who marvels at what he sees happening at his school. The two smartest students are an outspoken Thai student, Nithat, and a humble Sino-Thai student, Seng. Seng is liked and accepted by his classmates because he is generous with his time, helping to tutor those who need it. During an incident when a student with royal background boasts about the achievements of his ancestors, Nithat reminds his classmates that Thai history should also include peasants like the ancestors of Chantha and the Chinese like Seng. He says that Isan peasants and the Chinese also helped to free Siam from the Burmese (Siburapha [1957] 1974, 182–242). Kulap’s Sino-Thai character is kind, smart, loyal, Christian, and broad-minded. I suspect that Kulap and other progressives like him saw the need to reconfigure Thai identity to include non-elites who have made major contributions to the Thai state. To them, Thai historiography should also make space for the Sino-Thai.15)

I shall turn next to a highly influential novel series in which one of its three main characters, and perhaps the most endearing, is a Sino-Thai by the name of Kim Nguan. P. Intharapalit’s Phon Nikon Kim Nguan is a serial that first appeared in 1939 and ran continuously for over 30 years.

The series of comedic novels features the antics of three wealthy playboy adventurers. Not only are the stories funny and entertaining, they also highlight the important issues of the time. Taken together, the series provides a good historical record of what was happening in Siam from 1939 to 1968. Most Thai readers are familiar with Phon Nikon Kim Nguan. All in all, nearly 1,000 episodes were published (Wichitwong 2001–02, Vol. 1, 49).16) Because examining all these episodes is beyond the scope of this essay, I will focus only on the significance of one of the main characters, namely, the rich Sino-Thai Kim Nguan.

Similar to Praphan in Vajiravudh’s short story, we know very little about Kim Nguan’s background or his family. We learn that he was born in Sampheng, the Chinese district in Bangkok, that his father is the billionaire Kim Bae, and that his grandfather is the rich businessman Kim Sai. And although his father and grandfather spoke Thai with a heavy Chinese accent, Kim Nguan is a native speaker of Thai who also knows Chinese because he studied at a local Chinese school before attending the prestigious Assumption College where instruction is in Thai. We also know that he has been sent abroad to observe how business is conducted before returning to become manager of his father’s department store, aptly named Siwilai Phanich or Civilized Commerce (ref. Thongchai [2000]).

To stop readers from focusing too much attention on Kim Nguan’s background (in fact, we never learn his Chinese family name), P. Intharapalit tells the reader that the billionaire Kim Bae passes away at the age of 80, soon after Kim Nguan’s character is introduced. We know that his mother is Thai, but she and Kim Nguan’s Thai relatives are never brought into the narrative. We know that Kim Nguan is a rich Jek who has inherited 10.5 million baht deposited in three different banks, another 60,000 baht buried in tin cans at home, 10 rice mills, 10 sawmills, 10 cargo ships, a bus company, and scores of rental properties. In fact, in the Thayaat khun tia (Father’s offspring) episode, which appeared in December 1939, Kim Nguan’s daily income from his business is more than 5,000 baht a day, in a time when servants made 10 baht a month.

Kim Nguan acknowledges his Chinese ethnicity, but he usually makes lighthearted jokes about his family. When two privileged Thai girls first meet Kim Nguan, they ask him who he is and what he does. Kim Nguan replies: “Who, me? I am Jek, a luk Jiin (child of the Chinese) born in Thailand. My mother is Thai, her sister is Thai, but my father’s elder and younger brothers are Jek. But the Chinese and Thai are not that different; we are relatives.”

In pushing further, the girls ask him about his profession (ah cheep). Kim Nguan deflects the question by choosing to interpret ah cheep as “Uncle Cheep” instead. He responds, “I do not have an uncle named Cheep (a Thai name), but I have one named Kim Lee (a Chinese name).”

Exasperated, the girls say that they already know he is Jek but want to know what he does for a living, which in Thai translates as “what do you cook to eat (tham aray kin)?” Kim Nguan replies that he does nothing because it is the duty of the cook (quoted in Wichitwong 2001–02, Vol. 1, 215; translation is mine). In his own mind, Kim Nguan is unequivocal about his own identity. In this case, he selects the bilateral kinship system of the Thai, siding with his Thai mother, and not the Chinese paternal kinship system on his father’s side.

In the episode Ratthaniyom (State mandates)—which appeared in December 1940 and is set in the period when the Phibun government campaigned to promote nationalism in order to unify and galvanize the Thai people against foreign enemies—the lead characters decide to form a sympathetic Ratthaniyom Club in response to the government’s call to resist foreign domination of the Thai economy. Thai citizens have been urged to fire foreign employees and hire Thai workers instead. Before agreeing to join this club, Kim Nguan asks for an exception. He says that there is only one Thai in his company, he himself, and all his workers are tueng nang (newly arrived Chinese). He says that if he fired them, then it would bankrupt his company. In describing the single Thai in his company, Kim Nguan uses the Chinese term for one person, jek kai, which suggests that he can claim Thai identity even if he still retains aspects of Chinese culture and language. His Thai companions and readers of that episode also understand the meaning of jek kai.

When P. Intharapalit introduces Kim Nguan, he does not have a family name. This situation changes during the Ratthaniyom period when all Thai people are urged to take on Thai family names. Thus, Kim Nguan becomes Kim Nguan Thaithae. The word Thaithae means authentic Thai. This wordplay has a deeper significance than just being funny. The construction of this new name once again destabilizes the notion of “Thai-ness” by allowing a person with a Chinese name the option of becoming an authentic Thai. To complicate matters, Kim Nguan switches names on several occasions. At one point, he goes by Sanguan Thaithiem instead of Kim Nguan Thaithae.

By proposing these two versions of the character’s name, P. Intharapalit illustrates the complexities of identity construction, especially when it is applied to the Jek. The couplet Sanguan Thaithiem could be translated as “to keep safe the imitation Thai,” or “to preserve the imitation Thai.” The name uses all Thai words to proclaim that the person is a fake Thai. On the other hand, Kim Nguan Thaithae combines his given Chinese name with a Thai family name which declares that he is Thaithae or an authentic Thai. In this case, Kim Nguan defiantly claims that the Jek is also an authentic Thai. Who, one may ask, is more trustworthy in these two cases?17) Interestingly, the cartoon drawings on the cover of the novels always show Kim Nguan wearing dark glasses. We could think of this as a way to hide his “Chinese” facial features, especially his eyes, so he could look “Thai,” or metaphorically, he was a Chinese looking at the world through “Thai-tinted” glasses.

Kasian Tejapira, one of Thailand’s leading scholars on the Sino-Thai, has also written about Kim Nguan’s ethnicity and his business background. He analyzes the episode where Kim Nguan attempts to sell his autobiography, Kerd Sampheng (Born in Sampheng). Kim Nguan is convinced that because he is revealing secrets to his success, his autobiography will become a sure best-seller. The elaborate and beautifully printed book is to be priced at 20 baht a copy with a targeted sales figure of at least 50,000 copies. But unlike the market today where Chinese and Sino-Thai business manuals sell easily, no one back then seems interested in the autobiography. The few who buy the book curse the author and return their purchases. To sell his books, Kim Nguan resorts to inserting a 100-baht note into each copy, which still costs only 20 baht. This marketing scheme allows him to sell all the books, but at a huge loss.

Although it is unclear when this episode was written, it was probably in 1950, the same year that Prince Chulachakrabongse published Kerd Wang Parut (Born in Parut Palace) (1958), chronicling his life as a young boy growing up in the palace of his grandmother, the dowager queen. Perhaps P. Intharapalit was poking fun at his former military preparatory school classmate. Born in Sampheng makes the statement that a Sino-Thai born in Chinatown should be considered Thai if Prince Chulachakrabongse, whose mother is Russian, can be considered a Thai prince (Kasian 1994, 69).

P. Intharapalit has also made Kim Nguan more nationalistic than even his two Thai buddies. Kim Nguan is always the first to show vehement anger towards the enemies of Thailand, especially the French, who had forced King Chulalongkorn to cede territories east of the Mekong to France in 1893. When the Siamese-Franco war in Indochina breaks out during World War II, Kim Nguan and his two Thai buddies immediately volunteer to fight the French. They enlist in the army as foot soldiers and later as fighter pilots. The three friends also receive battlefield commissions, and by the end of the Indochina conflict, Kim Nguan rises to the rank of lieutenant general. In sum, P. Intharapalit wanted to show that in spite of his given name, Kim Nguan is indeed Thai, and that the Sino-Thai have reason to act more Thai than even the Thai and, as a corollary, could be trusted and promoted to senior military positions.

It is during Phibun’s ultra-nationalistic campaign (1939–42) that the Chinese came under great pressure to assimilate. His economic nationalism also deprived the Chinese of participation in several business areas such as petroleum products, taxi driving, and trade in bird’s nests. Many Sino-Thai also joined the Seri Thai movement as nationalists. An example is Puey Ungphakorn, later to become governor of the Bank of Thailand and rector of Thammasat University. Puey experienced discrimination at school because both parents were Chinese and he had a Chinese name. He said that if the Thai could understand that the Sino-Thai had to face pressure from both the Chinese and Thai communities, they would be more accepting of the plight of the Sino-Thai. But his mother always told him that he was born in Thailand, is Thai, and must be loyal to Thailand (1973, 7–8).18)

The next novel that I will examine is Lep khrut (The garuda’s talons), written during the early Cold War years.

The External Chinese Other: Lep Khrut (The Garuda’s Talons), 1956

The mid-1950s to the mid-1960s was a turbulent time for Southeast Asia. France was fighting a losing war in Vietnam, Indonesia was facing internal political problems, the Hukbalahap rebellion was still unsettled in the Philippines, and Malaya was reeling from the struggle for independence. Coming off its participation in the Korean War, the Thai government was feeling its way towards becoming a member of the “free world” in its struggle against Communism. The early 1950s was the dawn of Thailand’s Cold War period. By the early 1960s, the United States was becoming more involved in Vietnam, and China under Mao was beginning to flex its muscles by supporting overseas Maoist parties. Communism and especially Communists were demonized in the press and government pronouncements. There was also a fear that the local Chinese would become Communists.

How to deal with the local Chinese was spelled out in a recently declassified secret government policy targeting the local Chinese and their descendants, formulated by the National Security Council (1965) with detailed steps to be taken by the various government ministries and departments.19) This document is the first I have seen that spelled out the full range of goals and policies to reinvigorate the assimilation process begun by King Vajiravudh. The document warned against using repressive measures against the local Chinese, noting that the implementation of extreme nationalism intended to eliminate Chinese influence in commerce and politics, the closing of Chinese schools, the formation of Chinese living zones, and the elimination of Chinese associations and newspapers would only lead to unrest, resentment, and eventual friction within the country. All government agencies were urged to find ways to help make the local Chinese loyal Thai citizens. These new guidelines would prevent the spread of Communism among the Chinese community by creating security for both the Thai and Chinese.

The government should also provide just treatment for all Chinese who are loyal to Thailand; severely punish those who undermine national security; reduce drastically the number of Chinese immigrants; make sure that those who become naturalized citizens must give up their former citizenship; praise the Chinese and their descendants who have done good deeds for Thai society; encourage the Chinese to change their names to Thai; provide equal rights to naturalized Chinese; and be more strict with the Chinese who retain their alien resident status. The overarching guideline is to use gentle and subtle policies to assimilate the Chinese by replacing Chinese benevolent societies with state organizations, quietly encouraging more mixed marriages, considering policies that would lower Chinese birth rates, preventing Chinese government representatives or the embassy from having influence, exerting more control over Chinese schools—their curriculum, funding, and influence from abroad—and providing adequate Thai schools for new citizens and their children.

Reflecting the heightened threat of a potential spread of the political influence of Maoist China, the novel Lep khrut was published in 1956 by Phanom Thian ([1956] 1970), the pseudonym of Chatchai Wisetsuwannaphum, to exploit or to respond to the public’s paranoia of the external (Chinese) Communist threat. The novel was serialized in Ploenchit Weekly Magazine and ran for 14 months. And even though the finished novel was over 3,000 pages long, the first printing run was 100,000 copies, which at that time (and even today) was the top figure for published novels. Parenthetically, this novel has also been reprinted numerous times. While there has been other published crime fiction, Lep khrut was the first of that genre circulated in huge numbers. The novel has also been made into a very successful movie.

Lep khrut involves the attempt of the Thai secret service and police to infiltrate and destroy a Chinese secret society that is extorting money from local Sino-Thai businessmen. This secret society, known as Sing Eng (The Eagle) in the Taechiu dialect, has set up cells in Bangkok to illegally import weapons to support the fight for independence in Malaya. As we know, the struggle for Malayan independence began soon after the defeat of Japan and the return of the British, leading to the start of the Malayan Emergency in 1948. The armed insurrection was led by the Communist Party of Malaya under the leadership of Chin Peng, a Chinese born in Malaya. The Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army was transformed into the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) to fight the return of the British. Although most of its members were Chinese, there were also some Malays, Indonesians, and Indians. In the novel, Sing Eng, which the Thai authorities have relabeled Lep Khrut, join forces with the Malayan Communists to help procure weapons for the MRLA. Sing Eng assassins begin murdering prominent Sino-Thai businessmen to intimidate others into contributing to its coffers. The assassins use a large garuda or eagle’s talon to kill their victims.

The Thai authorities investigating Lep Khrut are led by several young and daring police captains and detectives. Their secret weapon is a James Bond-ian figure, the army lieutenant Khom Sorakupt. Lieutenant Khom, who has seen combat in Korea, speaks English, French, and several Chinese dialects fluently. In addition, he is a sharpshooter and an expert in hand-to-hand combat. He is also a well-known ladies’ man, a rascal, and a rogue. Lieutenant Khom assumes the character of a recently deceased criminal named Cheep Choochai, whom he resembles. As the notorious criminal Cheep Choochai, he is soon hired by Lep Khrut to help recover the pieces of an eagle sculpture that contains a secret formula it needs in its quest to dominate the world.

The novel opens with a group of “Thai” policemen discussing the recent murder of a well-known Sino-Thai businessman. The Thai police officers make disparaging remarks about the recently assassinated man by inferring that he was not really Thai because he had just changed his name from Chinese to Thai. They also discuss the task of protecting another businessman named Wikun. Even though Wikun speaks perfect Thai and acts no different from any other Thai, the policemen still jokingly refer to him as Ma Yu Lung in Mandarin, and Bae Yu Lung in Taechiu. They also poke fun at the Chinese by speaking Thai with a Chinese accent and using common Chinese words such as haw to say “yes” during their conversation. Even though Wikun refuses police protection, the authorities are compelled to protect all Thai citizens, including the Sino-Thai.

It is clear to the reader that the heroes and heroines in this novel are Thai who are tasked with protecting the local (good) Sino-Thai from bad outsiders. The villains in the novel are foreigners, mostly Chinese from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, and mainland China. They have names such as Peter Wong, Tunku Gustafa, Dr. Hang Lee, Dr. Fung Tian, and Ignitius Sung. The female villains are Chinese, Ceylonese, and Malay, with exotic names like Feuy Aian, Kinaree, Euphrasia Rose, and Pridahanam. The foot soldiers guarding the Lep Khrut headquarters are Chinese fighters from Hainan. Although one of the assassins is a Thai-born Chinese, he has never registered himself as a citizen, which makes him, too, an alien outsider.

The phony Cheep Choochai works to find the pieces of the eagle sculpture, made of white gold and smuggled into Thailand. Secret agents from all over the world also descend upon Bangkok to look for these pieces but, miraculously, Cheep is the one who finds them. In doing this, he has to evade both the Thai police and crooks, kills many protagonists, and seduces numerous women along the way.

Lep Khrut also establishes cells in Thailand to coordinate its weapon-smuggling operations. Heading up these cells are Chinese scientists who secretly enter Thailand—one to operate a foundry and another as chief priest of a Chinese temple. With the help of the police, Cheep destroys these Lep Khrut centers and kills the two leaders. The supreme leader of the group, on the other hand, is much craftier and more lethal than the two that Cheep eliminates.

This shadowy figure goes by the name Chang Su Liang. He is the Thai equivalent of the dreaded Dr. Fu Manchu, created by the imaginative Sax Rohmer (1917). Dr. Fu Manchu achieved international notoriety when he became a cinematic character responsible for linking “evil” with “Chinese” permanently.20) The description of Chang Su Liang in the novel and as a film persona is a classic imitation of Dr. Fu Manchu. Both are described as a slender and tall Chinese man with a thin face, slit eyes, and a mouth framed by a long moustache and a long wispy beard. In effect, the Thai Chang Su Liang reinforces the European Fu Manchu so much so that the two names have become synonymous, striking fear in the hearts of many Thai children and adults alike.

Chang Su Liang has larger intentions than merely supplying smuggled weapons to the Malayan freedom fighters. He is intent upon ruling the world and resurrecting China as a great power. Chang is obsessed with finding the eagle sculpture because underneath the white gold veneer is the secret formula for a weapon even more powerful than the recently exploded hydrogen or atomic bombs. The weapon is a cosmic ray that can destroy anything it is aimed at. A German Jewish scientist had invented that death ray after being abducted and taken to Russia. After the death of Stalin, the formula had been inscribed onto the eagle before it was broken up into six pieces and smuggled out, first to Hong Kong, and later to Thailand.

As dangerous outsiders, Chang Su Liang and his henchmen are able to operate freely in Thailand because they can become invisible in the large Chinese community, especially in Sampheng. The novel paints a picture of Sampheng/Yaowarat as a foreign site where even the Thai police have a hard time patrolling and controlling crime. In effect, Sampheng/Yaowarat is an alien space where the police and Chinese gangsters are engaged in fierce fights and gun battles.

To the Thai policemen, entering Chinatown is akin to entering a foreign world of restaurants, night clubs, gambling dens, and bars that cater exclusively to the Chinese. In that world, Chinese is the lingua franca. The police have to disguise themselves to pass off as Chinese to operate there. Even the hoodlums and crooks in Chinatown are mostly Chinese whom the police describe disparagingly as “fighters from the saliva-spitting nation (nak buu chat khak thui),” alluding to the Chinese penchant for spitting in public.21) And because the police treat Chinatown as an alien site, its denizens are also the dangerous Other Within, who can be dispatched without any legal constraints. In one incident, police captain Krit Kamchorn, one of the leading characters in the novel, summarily hangs a Chinese gangster. In another, he also executes Peter Wong, a Lep Khrut assassin, after the latter murders a female police informant.

In the end, police brutality and the use of extrajudicial executions of external Chinese enemies allow the authorities to stamp out the threat of Chang Su Liang, his secret society, and his world-conquering weapon. Chang’s treachery against the Malayan freedom fighters is eventually revealed before he is dispatched. The demonization of the external foreign Chinese is sufficient justification for the Thai police to use force without having to worry about legal procedures or consequences. Although we still do not learn much about the personal lives of the Sino-Thai in Lep khrut, the readers are exposed to Sampheng, Bangkok’s Chinatown, as a community. Paradoxically, even though the Chinatown in this novel comes across as familiar, it is depicted as a zone of difference and rather foreign—a dangerous place even for the Thai police and secret service. The Chinese characters in the novel are spies, professional killers, hooligans, secret-society members, multi-national businessmen, informants for the police, and other villainous characters. The Chinese once again become a danger to Thai society. However, the threat is from the External Chinese Other.22)

As Thai authors, both P. Intharapalit and Phanom Thian had little familiarity with the lives and struggles of the Chinese. They had no sense of the challenges faced by the generations of Chinese who grew up in Thailand. Like most Thai, they knew many Sino-Thai and accepted them as friends, but as Thai authors they were not able to write about the Chinese qua Chinese. This condition would be rectified when the Sino-Thai began to find their voice and to feel secure enough to write about their own history as residents and citizens of Thailand. The yoke of otherness was finally shaken off after decades of silence.

Echoing Official Interpellation of Chineseness: Jotmai jaak Muang Thai (Letters from Thailand), 1970; Yu kap Kong (Life with Grandfather), 1976

By the end of the 1960s, the Sarit-Thanom-Praphat dictatorial regime had lost its firm grip on Thai society. The war economy of the Vietnam era had brought wealth, new infrastructure, and better tertiary education that helped to expand the ranks of the urban middle class.23) One group which had gained much from that situation was the Sino-Thai community. It got richer and became better educated. Increasingly, the presence of the descendants of the Chinese pervaded not only business and banking but also higher education, government, the military, and politics. As a community, it became part of the new educated middle class and even members of the power elite poised to take over from the old bureaucrat-dominated elite, and as such, there was new-found self-confidence, self-assurance together with the desire to tell the story of their successes. This new generation of educated Sino-Thai was no longer cowed or intimidated by the negative image painted by King Vajiravudh.

A major worry for the Thai state during the early 1970s was the impending withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam and the possible spread of Communism into Thailand. Already, the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) was operating internally, albeit in peripheral areas in the north, northeast, and south. The Thai authorities were worried about the CPT, its Maoist philosophy, and its Sino-Thai leadership. This new threat, no different from the threat King Vajiravudh felt regarding the spread of Chinese republican ideology, was centered on the loyalty of the local Chinese. The Thai state needed a way to reassure both the Thai and Sino-Thai that they were fellow citizens who should be loyal to their country.

If the novel Lep khrut tells us anything, it is that many Thai were anxious about the loyalty of the Sino-Thai. One strategy, as we have seen in that novel, was to clearly differentiate the external (bad) Chinese from the internal (good) Chinese. The next two novels are the first major works to focus attention on the lives, struggles, and successes of the internal Chinese, the good Sino-Thai. They were quickly embraced by the Thai authorities and used as a way to educate both the Thai and the Sino-Thai to live together in peace and harmony. These two novels—narrated from the viewpoint of the immigrant Chinese who had found peace and prosperity in Thailand—were awarded prestigious literature prizes. Subsequently, they were selected as reading assignments for Thai secondary-school students. The Thai authorities wanted to neutralize possible Sinophobia and reassure the general population that the Sino-Thai were also Thai, and at the same time, remind the Sino-Thai that they also had a stake in Thailand’s security and prosperity.

Jotmai jaak Muang Thai (Letters from Thailand) appeared in 1970 and immediately became a best-seller.24) The novel was also awarded the SEATO prize in literature in 1970. It should be noted that SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, was established in 1954 as a regional anti-Communist organization to support the legitimacy of South Vietnam and to reassure US allies such as Thailand and the Philippines that in case they were attacked by a foreign enemy, the United States would come to their rescue.25) Letters from Thailand was written by Botan, the pen name of Supha Sirisingh. Unlike the authors of the works examined earlier, who are Thai, Supha is Sino-Thai. Her father, Tian Sae Li, and her mother, Ngaw Sae Tang, were Taechiu Chinese who grew betel leaves and pomelos for sale. Supha was an excellent student who placed 13th in the national university entrance examination. She went on to study at the prestigious Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University, the bastion of Thai royalist conservatism.

Notably, Letters from Thailand has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, French, English, Tagalog, Polish, German, and Hebrew. In 1975, which coincided with the end of the Vietnam War, the Thai Ministry of Education chose this novel for teaching social studies in all Thai schools. The stated purpose was to make sure that all Thai citizens acquired a deep appreciation and understanding of the important contributions made by the Sino-Thai to Thailand’s prosperity. In contrast to Vajiravudh’s Jews of the Orient, Letters from Thailand showed empathy for the struggles and hardships Chinese immigrants endured to succeed in Thailand. Perhaps the Chinese family in Letters from Thailand represented the type of Chinese that King Vajiravudh would have approved of, whose offspring by the second or third generation had become like Praphan, the Sino-Thai who rejected his parents’ Chinese culture in the king’s Huajai chainum. To reiterate, Vajiravudh’s and the popularly sanctioned interpellation of the Chinese in Thailand was that they came to Thailand with sua pheun mon bai ma phueng phraboromaphothisomphan, that is, with only a straw mat and a pillow to seek the protection of the king’s righteous generosity. And as long as the Sino-Thai adhere to this accepted characterization of their place in Thai society, they could be considered good and contributing members of Thai society.

Letters from Thailand opens with a foreword by the fictitious police general Sala Sintutawat of the Thai National Police Department. General Sala reveals that in arresting a Chinese Communist who had defected from (bad) China to seek asylum in (good) Thailand, the police found a bundle of letters written by the prominent Chinese businessman Tan Suang U to his mother in China. The defector, a postal worker, never delivered the letters but pocketed the money Suang U had sent to his mother with those letters. Inexplicably, the man had kept the letters and brought them with him to Thailand. The suspicious-looking letters were confiscated and subsequently translated into Thai by the police. The first letter was written in 1945, when Suang U arrived in Thailand as a young boy. The last letter was written in 1967. All in all, 96 letters were sent to his mother. When asked by the Thai police, Suang U readily agreed to have his letters published even though some contained unflattering remarks about Thai culture and Thai society. He only regrets that his mother never had the chance to read his letters, and that he has never received any word back from her.

General Sala explains his motives as follows:

I am well aware that the letters are often offensive, occasionally foolish, and certain to make Thai people angry. It is even possible that they may harm the cause of Chinese integration in our society, a process which in its continuing success has marked us favorably among the nations of Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, I am convinced that our people will profit by reading them and that making them public is not only a service but a responsibility which I must not shirk. . . . I am a Thai, a patriot, and a man concerned with the honor of the Thai people, as you surely are yourself. But I recommend that you read his letters with an open mind, and think fairly about what he has to say. (Botan 1982, 7)

The novel chronicles in detail (albeit fictionally) the daily life of a young immigrant, his acquaintances, his work, his love life, his business dealings, his thoughts about home and his new surroundings, and, just as importantly, how he feels about Thai values and behavior, both good and bad. The novel is a mirror reflecting both the images of the Chinese living and working in Thailand and also how the Thai are perceived by the Chinese. Thus the readers, both Thai and Chinese, could learn about each other and the shared society in which they live.

In his letters, Suang U describes his arrival in Siam by boat in 1945, accompanied by two other young men from his village. We learn from the letters how he is first hired as a bookkeeper because he has math and writing skills that his mother has taught him. Suang U remarks that unlike the Thai, who prefer diplomas over knowledge, the Chinese value instead substantive knowledge and real skills. He concludes that Thai children go to prestigious schools hoping to land cushy jobs afterwards, but they are not trained to work hard (ibid., Letter 1). Suang U complains to this mother that a Thai works only half time and uses only 50 percent of his ability. A Chinese, on the other hand, exerts himself 100 percent in whatever he does (Letter 15).

Because he is recognized as a learned man, Suang U is asked to teach his employer’s two daughters. Eventually, he marries the elder daughter. After saving enough capital, Suang U starts his own business by exporting and importing goods. Soon after, he opens a bakery and becomes rich. His friend Gim, who works in Suang U’s business, eventually marries Chaba, a Thai woman. Chaba’s mother does not mind her daughter marrying a Chinese. She says being married to a Chinese means that they all “could eat pork every day” (Letter 26).26)

Not long after they are married, Chaba’s drunken father falls into the klong (canal) and drowns. Suang U and Gim are surprised that guests at the funeral drank, gambled, and quarreled (Letter 28). The Thai seem to know how to live well, how to have fun, and how to live the easy life. But to the Chinese, such behavior only means that they are lazy and irresponsible. The Thai are constantly smiling, but most of the time they drink whiskey until they become intoxicated. The Chinese are amazed that not only do the Thai like fighting with each other, they also love fighting of all sorts—fish-fighting, cock-fighting, and even bull-fighting (Letter 33).

While King Vajiravudh accused the Chinese of being obsessed with money to the point that they would do anything to accumulate wealth, the Chinese in this novel see the Thai as overly lazy, working just enough so they can enjoy life. Suang U writes to his mother that the Thai and the Chinese have different work ethics—“The Thai could certainly work as hard as we do, but there is not anything that they want bad enough to ‘work like a Jek’” (Letter 19).

Suang U explains to his mother why he does not like Thai officials. In one letter, he tells her that the clerks just lounge around reading the newspapers, waiting to be bribed. He laments that the district officer is never there on time because he likes to sleep late. When he appears, he always acts superior to the Chinese, and takes at least two hours off for lunch. Suang U says that he does not mind paying taxes or even bribes, but he bristles at the time wasted waiting for Thai officials.

Stereotypical jokes about the Chinese also annoy Suang U. For example, a common joke is that the Chinese were so poor and stingy that they would suspend a salted fish above the dinner table while eating porridge. The funny part to the Thai is when the Chinese mother warned the children not to stare so hard at the salted fish or else they would become very thirsty when they slept that night. In reverse mockery of the Thai, after buying a radio in 1947, Suang U wonders why there are no programs in Chinese. “Don’t they realize those who can afford a radio are Chinese?” he asks (Letter 29).

According to Chinese custom, Suang U is determined to have a son to carry on the family name, and to lead his funeral procession. His firstborn is indeed a boy, whom he names Weng Kim. Weng Kim grows up speaking Thai at school, but his father forces him to speak only Chinese at home. Even though Weng Kim is a Thai citizen by birth, his father wants him to retain his Chinese culture and heritage. Suang U also insists that the family use chopsticks during meals and that only drinking water is allowed. He tells his children that the Thai only drink soft drinks to show others that they are not poor.

Weng Kim is pulled out of school after Grade Four to start work as an apprentice in his father’s shop. In contrast to the Thai, who want their children to attend school so they can find a prestigious career, the Chinese usually have already predetermined what each child would do to help extend the family fortune. Weng Kim wants to become a teacher and resents his father’s wishes for him to become a businessman (Letters 54; 58).

After living in Thailand for 16 years, Suang U realizes that his Chinese identity and those of his children are slipping away. Firstly, his only son, Weng Kim, rebels and runs off with an older Thai prostitute. Secondly, his youngest daughter attends a Thai school and graduates from a Thai university. She meets her husband, Winyu, a Thai, while she is at the university. To his surprise, Suang U later realizes that he actually likes his Thai son-in-law, and that his negative view of Thai culture and Thai people has been based on contact with his workers. Thirdly, as a respected businessman, he is eventually asked to be a director of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. As a director, Suang U knows he has to use his Thai name for official purposes even though he still feels that he is Chinese (Letter 61). The formality of his family’s assimilation into Thai society took place in 1961 when the family goes to the District Office to change their names to Thai ones. The district officer selects Thaiyunyong (Forever Thai) as their new family name. Suang U believes that the district officer has done it to mock the Chinese. His four children also change their names to Withya, Duen-Penh, Maliwan, and Ploy-jarat, names that he finds dreadful (Letter 68).

Soon after, tragedy strikes when his wife is killed in a car crash and a fire destroys their bakery. After the fire, Suang U goes to live with his youngest daughter and her Thai husband. When she was growing up, Suang U had ignored this daughter because he had hopes for another son. This neglect has allowed her to adjust to Thai culture and society unimpeded by her Chinese family. After living with his Thai son-in-law and his mother, Surang, Suang U comes to realize that the two work as hard as the Chinese. Suang U’s new-found respect for the common Thai person comes about when he addresses his son-in-law’s mother as Khun Surang, using the honorific “Khun” even though she is only a woman who made and sold candy on the streets. Khun Surang is very kind to Suang U. She also gives him insight into the Thai belief that it is possible to be happy without having much money. In the end, not only do he and his family change their names, Suang U’s impression of the Thai and Thai culture also changes. Becoming more “Thai,” he decides to divide up his wealth among his children so he could live a simple life not driven by the need to acquire more and more money (Letter 95).

Letters from Thailand is thus the rags-to-riches story of a Chinese immigrant. The novel represents a textual instrument for the Chinese to gaze back at the Thai to highlight what they perceive as weaknesses and flaws, in much the same way that Vajiravudh had done with the Chinese in Jews of the Orient. The novel is significant because it reveals in a serious way what Chinese immigrants have to cope with to become successful in their new home. It is not just leaving their homeland that is at stake, but they also are in danger of losing their culture and identity. This particular narrative not only reinforces the stereotypical Chinese “straw mat and one pillow” immigrant story but is one of the first to provide a more detailed account of the life of one family. The fact that this fictitious family becomes assimilated within two generations must have been attractive to the Thai state authorities.

Unsurprisingly, Letters from Thailand was selected by the Ministry of Education for all secondary-school students to read in their social studies classes. The novel allows young Thai to appreciate the struggles of the Chinese and their contributions to Thai society. And, perhaps just as important, it reminds the descendants of the Chinese attending Thai schools that it is all right to become Thai. The novel also contains constructive criticism of Thai culture and behavior, chastising Thai bureaucrats, especially district officers, and reminding them not to be lazy and not to discriminate against the Chinese. The reconciliation of cultural differences and the recognition of what is good and bad in both cultures are good messages to pass on to the younger generation. Not only have the Chinese submitted to the majority culture, the Thai majority in turn also has to learn about hard work and sacrifice and to accept the local Chinese and especially their offspring as fellow Thai.

A year after the selection of Letters from Thailand as an official school text, another novel about the Chinese immigrant appeared. Written in 1976, Yu kap Kong (Life with Grandfather) is the work of Chalerm Rodplin, who used the pseudonym Yok Burapha (Jade of the Orient).27) It is interesting to note that the author chose Jade of the Orient to write a novel about the Chinese in Thailand. The name reminds us of King Vajiravudh’s Yiw haeng Buraphathit (Jews of the Orient). Yok Burapha’s name is a play on “Jews of the Orient.” “Jew” becomes “Jew-el,” that is “Jade”—turning a slight into something valuable—indicating that the Chinese are not social and economic parasites, but a precious jewel to be cherished.

While not openly admitting that he is Sino-Thai, there are hints that the author has Chinese origins. Yok Burapha’s family owned a rice mill (a business mostly owned by the Chinese), and when growing up, he lived with relatives in Bangkok’s Chinese district. The author graduated from Thammasat University and pursued a career as a professional writer. He has published numerous novels, including several that focus on the Sino-Thai. Most importantly, Yu kap Kong, his first book about the Chinese, was awarded the prestigious National Committee to Develop Publications book prize in 1976. And similar to Letters from Thailand, it was also selected as supplementary reading for Thai literature classes by the Ministry of Education. The novel has been made into a movie (1979) and a television series (1993), and also published as comic books (2005) and as a collection of wise sayings (2005). This novel, perhaps even more than Letters from Thailand, has been used by the state to reinforce the notion of the Chinese as a “model minority” grateful to have come to live and die in Thailand.

In this novel, the author-narrator assumes the part of Yok, the grandson of Ah Kong, a first-generation Chinese immigrant. Yok Burapha’s intentions are quite clear from the beginning when he writes:

I am confident that all Chinese in Thailand love this land, and they understand their debt and loyalty to the shade (of the king’s protection) that has given them immense happiness and freedom. I can fully say that there is no other place where the Chinese are happy besides living in Thailand.
 At certain times there have been disturbing problems and events caused by the Chinese or their descendants that have annoyed the owners of this country, but please understand that the disturbances were caused by a small minority.
 Thailand and the Thai people have never faulted the upright and trustworthy Chinese, which is a truth that is firmly stamped in the minds of the Chinese who have come to seek the righteous protection of a magnanimous king. And because of this deep and unshakeable gratefulness, the Chinese like Grandfather are plentiful.28)

Similar to Botan’s novel, Life with Grandfather valorizes the life of a first-generation immigrant, his struggle with life, with work, with family, and with the clash of cultures. What is different from Letters from Thailand is that the principal voice, Ah Kong, does his best to say good things about his new home and the Thai people. He always reminds Yok that love for Thailand is a paramount value to be cherished. Ah Kong becomes the model Other Within who chastises other Chinese when they criticize Thailand and Thai culture.

Addressing the concern raised in Jews of the Orient that the Chinese always feel superior and do not want to mix with the locals, Yok Burapha uses Ah Kong to scold the Chinese for looking down on the Thai people. Instead of maintaining racial purity, Ah Kong openly encourages Chinese men to marry Thai women. He tells the Chinese who complain about Thailand that they should go back to China. To Ah Kong, the Thai people may not be good at business but they work hard at other jobs. He says that the Thai work hard, just as hard as the Chinese, to plant rice to feed the nation, echoing official propaganda that Thai farmers are the “backbone of the nation.”

Although he cannot read or understand Thai well, at one point Ah Kong asks his grandson to translate the Thai national anthem into Chinese. He does not seem bothered by the opening sentence, which declares that Thailand is the land of the Thai race. In fact, he readily admits that the Chinese are guests and should always be grateful that they live in Thailand (Yok Burapha 1976, 104). When Yok asks his grandfather about his love for Thailand, Ah Kong does not answer immediately but waits until the end of the last stanza of the national anthem playing in the background before saying, “Kong will die here” (ibid., 142).

Writing the Chinese Back into Thai Historiography: Nidhi Eoseewong and Sujit Wongthet

In the 1980s, the prominent historian Nidhi Eoseewong and the provocative author Sujit Wongthet published several books that shook the core of official Thai historiography, which had downplayed the contributions of non-Thai actors. Taken as a whole, these radical books give the Chinese in particular a more prominent place and role in shaping Thai history. I would like to believe that these publications and the ideas they put forth lured Sino-Thai writers out of hiding to tell stories that are closer to the truth. This intellectual shift plus the growing influence of the Sino-Thai families in business and politics no doubt contributed to the production of new, bold, and realistic texts about the Chinese in Thailand.

Nidhi published “Watthanatham kadumphi kap wannakam ton Rattanakosin” (Bourgeois culture and early Bangkok literature) in 1982 as a long research paper to commemorate the bi-centennial of the founding of the Rattanakosin dynasty. The paper is a serious piece of research about the rise of bourgeois culture using literature as data to argue that it had already appeared before the signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855—a date which historians have used to mark the beginning of modern Siam. The Bowring Treaty opened Siam to free trade and the imposition of extra-territoriality, which compromised Siamese sovereignty. Nidhi convincingly argues that the appearance of an indigenous bourgeoisie predated free trade. In Nidhi’s formulation, the nascent bourgeoisie was a combination of the Crown and his family, the nobles, and the rich Chinese families who had been co-opted into the king’s service. This notion treats the old Chinese elite families as an “indigenous” entity that helped form a nascent bourgeoisie (2005).

A few years later, Nidhi dropped another bombshell by publishing Kanmuang samai phrachao krung Thonburi (Politics during the Thonburi period), which questions the conventional version of the heroic life and tragic death of King Taksin of the Thonburi period (1986). In the Thai chronicles, King Taksin was supposedly raised as nobility because his mother was from a noble family. Nidhi’s research contradicts the official record. He argues that Taksin’s mother was forced to marry a rich merchant from Swatow and that far from being a Thai noble woman she was in fact Chinese, thereby making Taksin a full-blooded Chinese. Nidhi makes a distinction between the Chinese (Jiin) and the local Sino-Thai (Jek). A Jek is someone brought up in a mixed culture—Thai and Chinese. It was Taksin’s ethnicity as Jek that allowed him to rally the support of the Jek community, first in Chanthaburi and later Thonburi, to fund his fight with the Burmese and to free Siam. Even after he became king, Taksin would use his father’s clan name, Sae Tae or Tia, to conduct diplomatic relations with China. Nidhi argued that Taksin’s fall from grace was not because of his religious hallucinations but that he was deposed in a coup d’etat by his general Chaophraya Chakkri. That general later became King Rama I, who established the current Chakkri dynasty. Scholars have also noted that Rama I’s mother was also Chinese, thus reminding the Thai they owe a debt of gratitude to these two kings who were in fact Jek.

Perhaps more effective in decentering the ethnic Thai from their own history was the slim volume published by Sujit in 1987 under the cheeky title Jek pon Lao (Jek mixed with Lao).29) Sujit had just come back from visiting Laos and was inspired to write about the two minority groups in Thailand, which had been targets of prejudice and discrimination. In that popular book, Sujit claims that the Thai of today are really Chinese mixed with Lao. He insinuates that the Thai are no longer a well-defined race but an ethnicity composed of many races and cultures. Furthermore, the various races in Thailand have also made major contributions to the modern state. If the Thai are nothing but Jek mixed with Lao, then there should not be any guilty feeling about one’s family background. And even if one’s family has come from China, there is no longer the need to kowtow to the officially sanctioned version of the grateful and obedient Chinese. Thailand belongs as much to the Jek as to the Lao, the Indian, the Khmer, the Thai, and others. In this reconceptualization of race and history, the culture of the Jek and the story of their lives in Thailand become integral to Thai culture and history.

The Subaltern Writes Back: Lod Lai Mangkorn (Through the Dragon Design), 1990; Sing Tueng (Newly Arrived Chinese), 1996

If we are to subscribe to the notion that the Sino-Thai were singled out as the dangerous Other Within—the foreign element in Thai society that helped defined the Thai, or the minority group that was forced to accept the role of supplicant to the generous Thai king and people—then it is possible to call the Sino-Thai subalterns in mainstream Thai society. The literature that we have reviewed thus far depicts the Sino-Thai as suppressed voices. Even the last two novels, although written by Sino-Thai authors, have also accepted the Chinese inferiority enforced by the official state interpellation of Chineseness. The next two novels selected for this study reject the existing stereotype of the meek and marginalized Chinese.

By the 1990s, Thai society had seen more than a decade of double-digit economic growth. The middle class had grown rapidly following the era of Sarit’s phatthana (development and structural change) policy that fueled the economic and educational boom during and immediately following the Vietnam War. More and more young people were entering universities, and many of these students were Sino-Thai. Because government service, which used to be the standard career of university graduates, was unable to absorb the large influx of graduates, they found jobs in the private sector, jobs that paid better. The emerging well-educated Sino-Thai middle class both in the capital and provincial cities became more self-assured and began to question received truths about the place and social station of the Sino-Thai in Thai society and culture. The global economy penetrating into Thailand also benefited large business families active in banking, low-level manufacturing, import-and-export business, retail sales, and hotels and resorts. Most of these business families happened to be Sino-Thai families. These socio-economic changes also had an effect on the production of texts about the Chinese in Thailand.

The author of the next two novels, Praphatsorn Sewikun, tells us that he is Thai, but we also know that he has Chinese relatives. He says that his family was the only “Thai” family living among the Chinese in the Sao Chingcha district of Bangkok (Phib 2002).30) He tells us that he grew up in the midst of the Chinese, which explains why he could write about their lives with great insight. He also says that he read Chinese novels to his maternal grandmother, and as a youth enjoyed studying the Thai version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Therefore, it is very likely that Praphatsorn represents many modern Thai with Chinese ancestry who no longer admit to being or to feeling Sino-Thai.

The first novel which we will examine, Lod lai mangkorn (Through the dragon design), was written while Praphatsorn was serving in the Thai embassy in Turkey and published in 1990.31) That novel won a Merit Prize at the 1990 National Book Fair. Because of its popularity, this novel, like the two examined earlier, was also made into a television drama series, thereby reaching a far greater audience compared to readers of the novel itself. The television series, however, was embraced by its Sino-Thai audience as a more realistic portrayal of the lives of their own families. They were pleased that the novel and television drama highlighted the good values of Chinese culture, and showed how the Sino-Thai lived honorable lives different from the one insinuated in Vajiravudh’s Jews of the Orient (Kasian 1994).

This novel is not your typical rags-to-riches story as narrated in Letters from Thailand and Life with Grandfather. Unlike those two novels, where the narrator and main character are immigrants, Through the Dragon Design is written from the viewpoint of a third-generation Sino-Thai, perhaps very much like the book’s author, someone who has grown up more steeped in Thai culture than Chinese, and is culturally Thai. It is also a novel about the contemporary. We only learn about the past from what the patriarch of the family tells his children and grandchildren. Only the patriarch and his first two wives and the children born outside Thailand have Chinese or Anglicized names. The rest have Thai names. Conceding to the family’s Chinese roots, those with Thai names do not have nicknames. The lead character in the novel is referred to as “Grandfather” using the Thai Poo and not the Chinese Kong, the honorific used in Life with Grandfather. The narrator is the child of the patriarch’s eldest son by his second wife; we never hear the name or gender of the narrator, who comes across as a neutral observer, but sounding very Thai.

The novel is about the various members of the Suephanich clan. We are told that Liang Suephanich comes as a young man to Siam in the 1920s, either during the end of the Sixth Reign or the beginning of the Seventh. He was married in China and had two sons there; they, too, are brought to Thailand after the Communist victory in China. Subsequently, the China-born sons are sent to Hong Kong to study. Liang’s second wife is Sino-Thai and he has three sons and two daughters with her. Later in life, he marries a young Thai woman from the north and they have a son and a daughter. The novel paints in detail intrigues, fights, tragedies, successes, and lessons about how to conduct business involving the Suephanich clan—all three generations, most of whom live in the same compound.

Starting from work as a coolie, Liang eventually saves enough to open a small import business. He is successful enough to later build a textile factory using outdated machinery from Japan to mill cotton cloth for the Thai market. The Japanese have moved on to manufacturing synthetic fabrics, leaving a gap that Liang’s cotton cloth fills (the Thai are partial to cotton cloth, which is also less expensive than nylon or rayon). From manufacturing, Liang expands into finance, founding several financial and investment firms in Hong Kong and in Bangkok. Most of his children work in the family factory and various financial enterprises. The second- and third-generation Suephanich family members are sent to study in Thai schools and universities, and several are sent abroad to Hong Kong and to the United States. One son even completes a doctorate in business administration from America. We know that Liang is rich because the amounts cited in the novel concerning investments, losses, and profits are in the hundreds of millions of baht.

The novel is appealing to the Thai reader because it is well written and accessible. It is especially appealing to the Sino-Thai because it portrays realistically the life history of one family, a history about the Chinese in Thailand that is not constrained by previous political or social concerns. Kasian Tejapira, the most astute scholar of Sino-Thai studies, finds this novel, and especially its television adaptation, touching in many ways. Firstly, he feels that the opening episode about Liang’s impending bankruptcy more indicative of Chinese values than the stereotype established by Vajiravudh. Liang’s first business involves importing instant coffee and tea from abroad. At one point he loses the major part of a shipment because of a storm. Liang, however, is determined to meet his obligations. He first delivers what he has recovered to his closest customers; he then borrows money to buy back his goods from them so he could supply the rest of his customers. Because of his honesty, his customers appreciate what he has done and become very loyal to him. Eventually, his European suppliers pay him insurance money to cover his losses.

Kasian admits that as a Sino-Thai he had forgotten about the good Chinese values that his parents had taught him—to be lao sik (honest), khiam siep (thrifty), nu li (diligent), and yeun nai (persevering). These honorable Chinese values are represented in the novel by a large painting of an ant that is displayed prominently in the entrance hallway of the Suephanich mansion. Under the painted ant is the Chinese word ngee, written with a brush in gold on red paper. Ngee means “good values,” values that the ant epitomizes, namely, diligence, perseverance, tirelessness, and the ability to struggle against all odds without admitting defeat. Every day, members of the Suephanich family have to pass by this painting and are reminded about ngee (Kasian 1994, 43).

Secondly, to Kasian the novel and television drama are a revolt against the “tradition of representation” of the Chinese, especially in the popular media, as unsavory merchants using their influence and money to cheat the public and the Thai nation. The portrayal of the Chinese in literature and the media is usually as lower-class traders selling coffee, unscrupulous money-hungry businessmen, or comedians in television variety shows who cannot speak proper Thai. In this novel, the main character and hero is an old Chinese who, in spite of his accented Thai, is able to convey important cultural lessons to his “Thai-ified” children and grandchildren on how to live and how to operate an honest business. The hero is no longer an upper-class Thai male “who gets the girl,” but a Chinese man from China who wins the hand of the beautiful Khun Niam (his second wife) over Sangiam, her upper-class Thai suitor. Kasian quotes the heated exchange between the two suitors:

Liang (speaking in accented Thai): Every penny you have you get from your parents. How dare you come courting a woman?

Sangiam: You are here as a guest of Thailand. How dare you insult a Thai like me?

Liang: That is right. I have come to live in Thailand, but I do not depend on you to make a living. I am ready to kowtow to Thai people who work hard in this land, but I do not respect someone like you. (ibid., 16–17; translation is mine)

Kasian remarks that the exchange, where the subaltern bourgeois Chinese talks back to his elite Thai tormentor, is revolutionary in Thai entertainment culture. Although it is unclear whether Liang speaks with a thick Chinese accent or not in the novel, he does so on television. Kasian reminds us that whether Liang speaks perfect Thai or imperfect Thai is unimportant. What is important is the fact that contemporary Thai capitalists, even those who speak perfect Thai or are portrayed as “Thai,” have historical precedents that are Chinese.

If the dynamics of Thai modernity and change rested with bourgeois and middle-class action, then the local Chinese, including those who did not “speak perfect Thai,” played an essential role in that process. The bourgeoisie that Anderson wrote about and the one identified by Kasian both had mastered and conquered the Thai capitalist market and were soon to become major players in the new global economy. The next logical step for them was to enter politics to contest the allocation of values that were still in the hands of the military and their bureaucratic and political allies. No longer were the Sino-Thai content to be supplicants of the ruling elite; they wanted to be major players in national politics.

At this point, I want to focus briefly on another novel by Praphatsorn (2001) titled Sing tueng (Newly arrived Chinese), which was first serialized in 1996–97 in Sri Sayam magazine. This unusual novel is about Jia, a young Sino-Thai from the provinces who comes to Bangkok to search for his Thai mother. She has run away from home to escape her husband’s murderer, who was harassing her. Jia learns that she is working as a masseuse somewhere in Yaowarat, the Chinatown of Bangkok. In his search, he is given shelter by an elderly blind Chinese woman who sells lottery tickets. Soon after his arrival, Jia falls in with a group of Thai and Chinese gangsters who work for a boss called San Pao Kung, the name synonymous with the famous Muslim eunuch Admiral Cheng Ho.

Jia, who is quite a fearless fighter, is an expert in hand-to-hand combat and the use of all types of weapons. More importantly, he soon gains the respect of the local Thai hoodlums. He is accepted into the brotherhood of gangsters because, like them, he is nakleng. The nakleng code transcends class, profession, and in this case ethnicity to reflect the ideal type of manliness in Thai culture. The nakleng is a man who is not afraid to take risks, a person who likes to live dangerously. He is also a man who is loyal to his friends but cruel to his enemies, a compassionate man, a gambler, a heavy drinker and smoker, and a lady-killer.32)

Although I will not go into the details of the novel, what is significant is this portrayal of a young Chinese from the provinces as nakleng. Sharing a common Thai cultural trait allowed the Chinese to become easily a part of Thai society. This depiction of Jia as a Thai nakleng and the epitome of Thai manliness can be seen as a subversion of the traditional concept of luk phuchai, or manliness, in canonical Thai prose fiction.

One of the three texts that have achieved canonical status as the first real Thai novels is Kulap Saipradit’s Luk phuchai (The real man), published in 1929. The real man in that novel is a man from a working-class family who does well enough in school to win a government scholarship to study abroad. But before he leaves for Europe to study, he gives up courting a beautiful and idealistic upper-class woman so his best friend can marry her. After his return as a nakrian nok (person who has studied abroad), he becomes an official in the Thai bureaucracy. This narrative helps establish the ideal of the desirable modern Thai man—someone who is a good student, foreign-educated, a senior titled bureaucrat, rich and respected. At the end of that novel, his best friend and his friend’s wife become aware of the sacrifice he has made. The story ends with “the real man” getting the girl after all, except that she is the beautiful daughter of his friend and his first love.

In Sing teung, the hero is a Sino-Thai from a lower-class background, a nakleng and not a nakrian nok, a gangster and not a bureaucrat. His prize is a poor but good-hearted Sino-Thai girl from Chinatown whose father is a gambler and a drunk, and not the well-heeled daughter of a Thai aristocrat. The acceptance of the Sino-Thai as the epitome of the Thai nakleng and the embodiment of Thai manliness (not an aberration or alternative model) is confirmed by the fact that the novel is made into a television drama series and consumed by the Thai public of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Therefore, in both Through the Dragon Design and Newly Arrived Chinese, the heroes in these very Thai stories are Chinese. Their ethnicity no longer seems problematic in the discourse of Thai-ness in literature or on television.

In addition, the Yaowarat in Sing teung is no longer a foreign site; it has become a more familiar one.33) Chinatown in this novel is treated as an integral part of Thai society, where both Thai and Chinese do business, shop, gamble, find entertainment, and dine. Chinatown is no longer treated as foreign and dangerous, the way it was portrayed in Lep khrut, where even the police were threatened and had to appear in disguise to blend into that alien site.

Excavation and Recovery of Lost Identities: Family Histories, Biographies, Autobiographies, Handbooks, and Guidebooks

Although this section of my essay deviates from the analysis of fiction and turns to texts written by the Sino-Thai about themselves, their business advice, and their lost culture, taken as a whole, they tell us about the mindset of contemporary Sino-Thai who now consider themselves part and parcel of Thai society. The Sino-Thai have become comfortable with their place in and contribution to Thailand and are ready to reclaim their Chinese heritage within the context of modern Thai culture.

The blurring of lines between what is Thai and what is Sino-Thai, and the significance or the necessity of the dichotomy are now less critical to understanding the dynamics of culture, politics, and even the economy of contemporary Thailand. For example, when Forbes magazine listed Thai billionaires like the owner and founder of the Red Bull energy drink or the chairman of the Charoen Phokaphan international conglomerate, the magazine did not indicate that these men are Sino-Thai. Furthermore, recent Thai prime ministers such as Thanin Kraiwixien (1976) and Banharn Silapa-acha (1995) had Chinese parents, but that did not prevent them from taking on the top political position in Thailand. If the racial background of these two men has proved unproblematic in politics, then one is hard-pressed to equate Chineseness with the likes of prime ministers Chuan Leekphai, Thaksin Shinawat, or Yingluck Shinawat.34)

The recent production of texts about the Chinese in Thailand indicates that the Sino-Thai have shrugged off their cultural amnesia and have recovered their self-confidence to publish an endless string of books about their own history, their struggles, and their successes. These authors see themselves as Thai, descendants of Chinese immigrants interested in their historical roots. Although some may exploit their connections to their Chinese origins as “flexible citizens” in certain situations, the Sino-Thai know of no other home but Thailand.35) They are no longer sojourners. They may visit and write about their ancestral home but only as curious tourists and as amateur historians piecing together family histories.

Although a lot can be said about the recent inundation of texts about the Sino-Thai, for the purposes of this essay, it should suffice to highlight just a few examples.

One of the most read and talked about books about a major Chinese family history is Chamnongsi Hanchenluck’s Dut nawa klang mahasamut (Like a ship in the middle of the great ocean) (2000). The book developed from the cremation volume for prominent businessman Suwit Wanglee (1995). It was first serialized in the Sayam Araya magazine in 1996 and published as a book in 1998. The book is about the contributions of the Wanglee-Lamsam families to the development of Thai capitalism, from trading in rice to the opening of banks. The book also chronicles Chamnongsi’s visit to the family’s ancestral home in China. Just as revealing are charts showing how intermarriage and family alliances among the Sino-Thai have created a network of relations that facilitated and enhanced major business ventures. This special ability to close ranks and to pool resources allowed the Sino-Thai business families to displace foreign competitors, especially in the banking and financial service sectors, following the conclusion of World War II. And although the book is about the Sino-Thai network established by her family and its centrality to the development of Thai capitalism, the author identifies herself as a “Thai” author. The book also features an acknowledgement from Crown Princess Sirindhorn and an introduction by Nidhi Eoseewong.

The princess endorses the notion that the Wanglee-Lamsam clan has played a pivotal role in the establishment of Thai capitalism. She agrees that the new Sino-Thai capitalists have already displaced the old Sino-Thai families absorbed into the official class under absolute monarchy. She calls that latter group the old “bureaucratic capitalist” circle, referring to Nidhi’s analysis of the birth of the bourgeoisie in the early Bangkok period. Nidhi’s own introduction praises the book for succinctly telling the story of a Sino-Thai family and its 100-year history, a history that resonates with other successful Sino-Thai families. He asserts that the book allows the Chinese in Thailand, who at one time were considered outsiders, to rightfully claim that a major part of their heritage is firmly embedded in Thai society. According to Nidhi, the book encourages the descendants of the Chinese to consciously accept their rightful place in Thai society; at the same time, non-Chinese readers would be forced to consciously accept the important place the Sino-Thai have and the critical role they played in Thai history and culture.

To provide more detail about the relationship between the new Sino-Thai capitalists and the old Chinese “bureaucratic capitalists,” Phimpraphai Phisarnbut, a cousin of Chamnongsi, published Samphao Sayam (Siamese junk) in 2001 and Nai mae (Mistress mother) in 2003. These books are about historical Chinese families who served as royal officials dating back to the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin periods.36) In these books, Phimpraphai writes about the ancestry of some of Thailand’s most prominent aristocratic families, relating them back to their Chinese roots. Phimpraphai’s books remind readers that wealthy Chinese merchants were appointed as court officials holding positions equivalent to cabinet ministers today. Samphao Sayam in particular traces the history of Chinese families that held the title “Phraya Choduk Ratchasetthi,” the title conferred by the king to the minister of the Port Authority, responsible for trade and foreign relations with the East. Phimpraphai illustrates how the relationship between the Crown and the elite Chinese families was strengthened through marriage. Thai kings frequently took the daughters of rich Chinese families as wives and concubines. Most of these families have been fully assimilated and are now an integral part of the Thai power elite.

In awakening from the long slumber and self-induced amnesia about their own cultural heritage, the Sino-Thai eagerly bought books such as Chitra Kohnanthakiat’s Tung nang kia (Children of the Chinese).37) The 1999 edition that I have in my personal library is the book’s 19th printing. Chitra has written at least four other books that focus on Sino-Thai culture. And even though the books are about Chinese culture, they have received awards from national book organizations. Most of Chitra’s books are full of important information about Chinese culture, the meaning of Chinese words, celebrations, rituals, opera, food, religious events, and much more. They are guidebooks about how to become culturally Chinese again. Paradoxically, the books are written in Thai to explain Chinese culture to the Sino-Thai, who must now read about their ancestral culture in an adopted mother tongue whose transliteration of Chinese words is not always accurate. It is as if the Sino-Thai now speak and think Chinese with a Thai accent, unlike their ancestors who did the opposite. In addition, the wide popularity of the books indicates that Sino-Thai culture has also been embraced by the larger Thai public.

In the past decade or so, numerous biographies of Thai billionaires have also appeared in bookstores. Increased interest in the lives of the Sino-Thai encouraged others to write about themselves or to translate stories of their ancestors written in Chinese.38) Many books about the top richest families in Thailand have been published to satisfy the curiosity of the public. Because members of this exclusive club are mostly Sino-Thai, some these books use Chao Sua, the Chinese term for very rich people, in their titles. Translated texts on business practices and theories, which used to be of influential American and European authors, bankers, and industrialists, have been recently replaced by business advice from prominent Sino-Thai businessmen. Instead of books revealing the secrets of an MBA, we now have books about how Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War can be adapted for business, how to pay attention to Tia (Father) and Kong (Grandfather), whose business advice is more appropriate to the Thai situation.

Craig Reynolds’ (2006, 214) analysis of the importance of manuals in Thai society argues that manuals are systematic archiving of knowledge which is a “form of cultural capital, a resource that enables people in a society to make sense of the world and to live safely, in good health, and with dignity.” Therefore, one can argue that the proliferation of Sino-Thai guidebooks and manuals about rituals, practices, Chinese wisdom, business strategies, medicine, cuisine, worship, etc., written in the Thai language for consumption by the public is a clear indication that Sino-Thai culture is part and parcel of Thai cultural capital.39)

Ironically, the change in focus from American and European business practices to practical Chinese business (and warfare) strategies has restored the Thai appreciation of the Chinese and Chinese culture as the fountain of wisdom. Since late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok, the Thai elite have relied upon lessons imbedded in Sam Kok, the Thai version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to guide their actions. In fact, literate Thai know Sam Kok quite well because it was required reading in school. It should be noted here that in most of the novels about the Chinese, Sam Kok is frequently invoked.40)

I would like to end my textual analysis by highlighting two texts that prepared the way for two Sino-Thai businessmen to participate in national politics. These texts are the autobiographies of Thaksin Shinawat, Ta du dao thao tid din (Eyes on the stars, feet on the ground) (Wallaya 1999), and Sonthi Limthongkul, Tong phae kon thi chana (One must lose before winning) (2005). Autobiographies highlight what the authors want others to know about them and what they consider important. In these two cases, they tell us about their family roots that can be traced back to Chinese immigrants. Both became rich through the mastery of telecommunications and the media in the new global economy.

In preparing for his run in politics, Thaksin published a life story portraying himself not as a Bangkok insider but as really a boy with Chinese roots from Chiangmai. He tells readers that his ancestors were Hakka who had come to Thailand from China probably in the 1860s. His great-grandfather, like many Chinese businessmen, became a tax farmer.41) He also married a Thai woman and moved to settle in Chiangmai. There, the family opened a modest coffee shop, became involved in the production and sale of silk, ran movie theatres, and even operated a car dealership. Thaksin’s father later ran for political office and was elected to represent Chiangmai in Parliament.

Thaksin’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father married Thai women, which makes him more Thai than Chinese. Yet he openly acknowledges his Chinese ancestry, perhaps to show that he came by his entrepreneurial talents honestly. Even though he followed a preferred Thai career path of attending the military preparatory school and the Police Academy, and eventually being commissioned as a police officer, Thaksin always operated a business on the side. When he eventually resigned his commission, he used his government connections to obtain concessions to supply the police department with computers. He later formed a company that sold beepers and mobile phones. Thaksin hints that because of his Chinese business background, he was able to tolerate risks and large debts and eventually turn his enterprises into successful entities. The autobiography emphasizes his upbringing as a normal Thai whose father was a Member of Parliament, whose uncle and cousins were senior military officers, and whose father-in-law was a police general. For all purposes, in spite of his Chinese ancestry, it is hard to consider Thaksin a Sino-Thai.42)

Sonthi Limthongkul’s autobiography begins with his grandfather, who came from Hainan to settle in Sukhothai. Sonthi’s father was sent to China to study and eventually became an officer in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, fighting the Japanese until he was summoned back to Thailand by the family. After returning from China, Sonthi’s father worked for a Chinese newspaper and later opened a lumber mill. Sonthi’s mother is also from Hainan; she was disowned by her family for marrying a half Thai-half Chinese man. Therefore, Sonthi admits that he is three-quarters Chinese, but he is unable to read or write Chinese. He studied at the Assumption School in Bangkok before going to the National University of Taiwan for a year. After Taiwan, he attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Oregon, studying history.

Although he says that he liked his one year in Taiwan more than his eight in the United States, Sonthi’s intellectual leanings were formed during the anti-war hippie period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He returned to Thailand an idealist ready to change the world and to rid Asia of Western domination. The traumatic experience of October 6, 1976, where left-leaning students were massacred and driven to join the CPT in the countryside, convinced Sonthi that he should focus on political change in Thailand first. He began work at Prachathipatai (Democracy), a progressive paper which was eventually closed by the reactionary Thanin government.

By the 1980s, Sonthi started his own newspaper Phuchatkan (The Manager), aiming to make it the Thai equivalent of The Wall Street Journal. He soon expanded his business into a media publishing group, eventually owning 12 newspapers and several magazines in Asia and the United States. Sonthi also was a television talk-show host who supported Thaksin until a business disagreement led to their falling out. Sonthi then used his talk show to attack Thaksin at first but later took his show on the road. He helped form the People’s Alliance for Democracy (the Yellow Shirts) to oppose Thaksin. Although he has been referred to as “Jek Lim,” or “Lim, the Chink,” his ethnicity as three-quarters Chinese has not been central to his identity. He is still considered a Thai royalist and conservative, a very strange trajectory for someone who was once active in the anti-war movement in the United States and who supported the cause of leftist students in the mid-1970s.

We Are Them, and “Them” Are Us

From this short and discursive study of the production of Thai language texts about the Chinese, I can conclude that targeting the local Chinese as the dangerous Other Within by King Vajiravudh had some effect on how the Sino-Thai were perceived, but not as much as one would have thought. It seems that the king was only using his admonition to remind the Chinese to be grateful and to assimilate into Thai society. We have seen how his policies and those of following governments facilitated the assimilation process.

Although Vajuravudh’s nationalism predicated on race problematized Chineseness in Thai culture and society, the vilification of the local Chinese as the dangerous Other Within did not have lasting effect on the general Thai psyche. I have shown that there is minimal anti-Chinese sentiment in Thai literature and texts. If texts and literature are contextual representations of social values or reflect social perceptions, then they tell us that the Sino-Thai are seen as natural and integral to Thai society. We have witnessed how major Thai authors write about the Sino-Thai. And though he demonized the Chinese at first in Jews of the Orient, Vajiravudh soon ameliorated his position in Huajai chainum. In his wildly popular and enduring Phon Nikon Kim Nguan series, P. Intharapalit’s writing about the Jek clearly accepted and promoted Kim Nguan as Thai. And in the case of Phanom Thian, who demonized the Chinese as enemies of the Thai state, he identified the villains as the external Chinese and foreign secret-society members. In Lep khrut, the police and Thai state authorities were obligated to protect Sino-Thai businessmen. Nevertheless, these Thai authors knew little and said little about the real-life stories of the Chinese.

Not until the appearance of Sino-Thai authors like Botan and Yok Burapha were fictionalized but realistic accounts of the Chinese experience revealed to the public. Their pioneering novels about the Chinese still seemed rather tentative in claiming a rightful space in the conscious construction of Thai history, culture, and society. In fact, the two novels, Letters from Thailand and Life with Grandfather, continued to pay lip service to the official interpellation of the Sino-Thai as grateful, humble, and subservient immigrants in a generous new country.

By the 1990s, however, the Sino-Thai and their offspring had become better educated and wealthier. With wealth and education came the need to exercise their right to speak out on issues important to their lives. The rise of the modern Thai middle class in the last decades of the twentieth century was closely linked to the prosperity of the Sino-Thai. It was only then that the hitherto subaltern Chinese began speaking out as members of the power elite. Not only have the descendants of the Sino-Thai become prime ministers but they have also penetrated the upper echelons of the military and civilian bureaucracies, university faculties, and the banking and manufacturing sectors, and are among the wealthiest families in Thailand today. Ironically, members of the Sino-Thai middle class, like their Thai counterparts, have had very little contact with the majority of Thai, who exist in an agrarian society. It is no wonder that this middle class is a conservative one that continues to rely on the monarchy to put an official imprimatur on its status.43) Even today, the close relationship between rich Sino-Thai families and the Thai court is strengthened by profitable business dealings, donations to the Crown, and other royally sponsored rituals like weddings and cremations.

The production of texts written by Sino-Thai authors about themselves, their struggles, and their successes are now consumed by all Thai readers, and more than likely embraced as a natural part of Thai social and cultural history. Compared to the literature produced by other diaspora communities such as Asian Americans, the literature written by the Sino-Thai lack the edgy resentment found in early Chinese American novels and the feeling that it is somehow inferior. Furthermore, Sino-Thai literature is void of the Filipino American lament of exile and non-acceptance by the host community.44)

I have made the case that the exigencies and changing conditions of both local and world politics and economy, and changing social conditions have affected the representation of the Sino-Thai in textual production over the last century. The Sino-Thai are no longer considered the dangerous Other Within, and even when they were portrayed as such, that condition was short-lived. From a dangerous Other Within forced to become a meek and grateful subaltern, the Sino-Thai eventually found their voices when, as a community, they became better educated and wealthier. Assimilation helped to parry discrimination based on race to allow the Sino-Thai to easily become Thai. Thai and Sino-Thai have ceased to be critical analytical categories in contemporary Thai studies.

Before closing, we should review once again the question “What, then, is Thai identity?” Since Vajiravudh’s time, Thai identity has been defined by the people’s love of “Nation, Religion, and King.” Nation is defined by the geo-body that is Thailand, with a shared common language; religion is the tacit state religion—Buddhism; and the king is the embodiment of the glorious historical precedent, the moral present, and the enduring future of the nation.

Thai assimilation policies also forced the Chinese and their offspring to become Thai by giving them Thai first names and changing or masking their clan names with Thai surnames. The closing or control of Chinese schools eventually obliterated instruction of the Chinese language, history, and culture in favor of state-sanctioned Thai language and Thai classes. The various Chinese dialect groups soon spoke the new common language that is Thai, and their Chinese writing system was replaced by Thai script. The closing of open immigration eventually isolated and distanced the Sino-Thai from their ancestral home and culture. In addition, the granting of citizenship gave native-born Sino-Thai equal political rights, benefits which prompted even those born in China to become naturalized. We have already seen the success of official nationalism, which reminded the Chinese to be grateful and loyal to the king, and other reasons why the rich and successful Sino-Thai have become ardent royalists.

Furthermore, Chinese identity based on patrilineal lineage and ancestry quickly broke down because of intermarriage with the Thai, who practice a bilateral kinship system. Hence, it became easy over time for the children of the Chinese to select their Thai mother’s ethnicity as their own identity. Such was the case illustrated by Kim Nguan. In terms of religion as an obstacle to assimilation, even early European travelers have noted that when the Chinese arrived in Thailand, most adapted easily to Thai Buddhism, Thai animistic beliefs, and other cultural practices similar to Chinese ones.45)

In short, the assimilation of the Chinese was a process in which the Sino-Thai became Thai citizens, assumed Thai names, spoke and wrote Thai, practiced Buddhism or rituals associated with it, and professed a love for the Thai monarch and nation. We have also seen through the evidence of literature and other textual production that the ethnic Thai were at the same time educated through novels, texts, guidebooks, and manuals to appreciate Chinese hard work, business acumen, and contributions to Thai national prosperity. The consumption of texts about Chinese practices, shrines, and temples indicates that the Thai have also embraced Chinese religious practices and worship at Chinese temples. And far from being treated as alien space, Sampheng is now part and parcel of Thai society, an important commercial center and promoted as a tourist attraction.

My necessarily brief analysis suggests that accepting Sino-Thai as an aspect of Thai national identity does not diminish that identity, nor does accepting a Thai identity diminish the pride in ancestral cultural ties of the Sino-Thai. Perhaps it is this mutual consciousness that undergirds the assimilation of the Chinese into Thai society.46) Modern Thai identity is one shared by both Thai and Sino-Thai because the category “Thai” no longer signifies a single race but an ethnicity that gives emphasis to shared cultural and historical characteristics. Today, the idea that “we” the Thai are gazing (down) at the Sino-Thai “them” has been subverted to the point where the critical distinctions between the two categories are no longer clear.

The fact is, to most Thai today, we (Thai) are them (Sino-Thai), and “them” are us.


I hope that my initial foray into the subject of literary and textual representations of Chineseness would lead other colleagues to conduct similar exercises. In particular, I am interested to know how the Chinese have been represented in fiction and non-fictional texts in neighboring countries, especially the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, where the assimilation of the Chinese has also occurred.47) Today the interpellation of “Jek” and its implied discrimination has abated in Thailand; at the same time, there has been a de-emphasis on defining “Thai” as a race. I wonder what has happened in neighboring countries where the distinction between the native son—pribumi or bumiputera—and the locally born Chinese—peranakan—still exists. As the dichotomy between the Thai and the Sino-Thai has become less distinct as inflected in textual production, will or can the peranakan ever become pribumi or bumiputera in Indonesia and Malaysia? Are the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma cases similar to the Thai example or are they different?

I also recognize that there are methodological issues, especially authorship and ethnic identification; debates about Chinatown as racial ghetto, privilege space, or contact zone; the use of literature to illuminate social reality and values; and the linearity of my narrative that smoothes over resistance and bumps along the way. How to determine who is Thai and who is Sino-Thai can also be problematic—When does a person relinquish or stop being Sino-Thai? My own designation is somewhat arbitrary (if not heuristic), based on some knowledge of their ancestral background, what they say about their familiarity with Chinese culture, and self-identification.

Accepted: July 23, 2013


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1) Besides their Thai names, my mother and her three sisters also had Chinese names—Kim An, Kim U, Kim Eng, and Kim Yiam. A famous Thai who also had a Chinese name (Kim Liang) is Luang Wichit Wathakan, the ideologue of modern Thai nationalism. Luang Wichit also denied his Chinese roots. See Thak Chaloemtiarana (2003, 145–146). The classic study of the Chinese in Thailand is G. William Skinner (1957). Also see Akira Suehiro (1989; especially Ch. 3). For a study of major non-Thai influential families during the Ayutthaya period, see David Wyatt (1994, 97–130). An innovative study of the Chinese in Thailand is Nidhi Eoseewong (2005; especially pp. 57–114). Nidhi, who admits that he is Jek, says: “Jek is a Thai word meaning those with Chinese heritage in Thailand. . . . To consider oneself Jek only means that one acknowledges birthplace and certain practices and traditions that are related to the culture of the people of China, but it is not to say that they are imitations of Chinese culture. . . . Jek customs and tastes are a stable culture in Thai society.” Quoted in Phimpraphai Phisarnbut (2001, n.p.). Translation is mine. In the foreword of the same book, Sulak Siwarak, one of Thailand’s best-known public intellectuals, writes: “From the start, I am always agreeable to calling myself Jek because ancestors from both my father and my mother’s sides were from mainland China. . . . But the word Jek is no longer a word preferred by the offspring of the Chinese even though Jek is not derogatory but a word that people use to call the overseas Chinese in Thailand” (ibid. n.p.). The largest influx of the Chinese to Thailand took place from 1918 to 1931, when Chinese laborers were needed for modernization projects in Bangkok. The behavior of the lower-class Chinese coolies contrasted with the Thai norm of proper behavior. The culture clash between what the Thai considered refined etiquette and the unrefined behavior of Chinese laborers from rural China resulted in unflattering essentialization of Chinese behavior as “Jek soom saam,” meaning the “uncouth/blundering Chinese.” See Krit Sombatsiri (1986, 22). A more recent study that compares the Chinese in Southeast Asia to the Jews of Europe is Daniel Chirot and Anthony Reid (1997). A more recent study of the Chinese in Thailand is Tong Chee Kiong and Chan Kwok Bun (2001). The editors argue that assimilation is not a one-way process and not necessarily dominated by the host culture, and that Chinese cultural tenacity should also be accounted for.

2) Also see Suvanna Kriengkraipetch and Larry E. Smith (1992).

3) The English version of “Bourgeois Culture and Early Bangkok Literature” (Nidhi 1982) appeared in 2005 in the compilation Pen and Sail: Literature and History in Early Bangkok (Nidhi 2005).

4) White argues that historians and novelists use the same method to explain the story or reality. He identifies four modes of emplotment—romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire.

5) Copy used is the cremation volume for Rear Admiral M. R. Kraithawat Sithawat, Wat Mongkutsasat, Bangkok, January 7, 1985. This nostalgic republication seems anachronistic. I suspect that Vajiravudh vilified low-class Chinese who flooded Thailand during his father’s reign. Earlier, Chinese merchants were accepted as members of the Thai elite, intermarried with the kings, princes, and aristocracy. The Taechiu Chinese during the early Bangkok period were a privileged group known as Jiin Luang, or the King’s Chinese. They worked for King Taksin and lived in the vicinity of the current grand palace until they were moved to Sampheng by Rama I. These upper-class Chinese, especially those who selected a career path in the bureaucracy, quickly acquired Thai culture and values and were generally accepted as Thai. As a group, the old power elite accepted Chinese values and customs. For example, Chinese religious customs have been practiced by the Thai court since the reign of Rama III (1824–51), when worship tables in Thai temples were Chinese. The worship table in front of the Siam Devathirat (divine figure created by Rama IV to protect the country) and worship rituals are fashioned after Chinese customs. See Crown Property Bureau (2012, 63–67). The Thai court continues to celebrate Chinese New Year with Chinese rituals, and Chinese funeral rites (Kong Tek—incineration of paper replicas of worldly goods such as money, houses, and cars to be used by the deceased in the afterlife) first performed during Rama IV’s reign were later adopted as a royal ceremony by Rama V for the funeral of his queen who drowned in 1880. This Chinese funeral tradition still takes place during the cremation of important members of the royal family—most lately, the cremations of Queen Rambhai, the queen mother, and Princess Kalayani. See Kiti Lohpetcharat (2011, Ch. 2). Kiti also details important royal family members who are descendants of the Chinese. For example, M. R. Seni and Kukrit Pramote’s great-grandmother (consort of Rama II) was born in China. Queen Sirikit’s great-grandmother was also Sino-Thai, the daughter of a titled Chinese merchant. Rama V saw her peeking at him from a window while he was traveling by boat. Rama VII had no problem admitting publicly that he had Chinese blood in a speech during a visit to Chinese schools in 1927 (ibid., 141).

6) Prior to Vajiravudh’s outburst, European advisers had warned the Thai authorities about the Chinese and their potential monopoly of the Thai economy. For example, H. Warington Smyth, the British director of the Royal Department of Mines, wrote a report in 1898 referring to the Chinese as “Jews of Siam”; see Skinner (1957, 160–165).

7) Many of the richest Chinese families were founded by tax farmers and merchants engaged in the junk trade with China. They made money by winning bids to collect taxes for the Thai king from people and businesses. They were also allowed to operate gambling dens and lotteries, to produce and sell liquor, and to buy and sell opium. For details on tax farming, see Suehiro (1989, 72–83) and Skinner (1957, 118–125).

8) Rising Han Chinese nationalism and Sun Yat-sen’s promotion of republican political ideology greatly alarmed the Thai monarchy. Sun Yat-sen visited Bangkok in 1908 and on three other occasions to recruit followers. He believed that the overseas Chinese would be the “mother of the revolution” and the vanguard of modernization. Another leading nationalist, Kang Youwei, was appalled by the rate of assimilation of the Chinese into their host countries. The Chinese paper Chinosayamwarasap also appeared in 1907, and its editor openly debated Vajiravudh on sensitive subjects such as the loyalty of the Chinese. See Phenphisut Intharaphirom (2004). These factors may have led to the establishment of Chinese schools in Thailand. By the time Vajiravudh became king, four Chinese language schools, a Chinese library, and a lecture hall were already established. See Wassana Wongsurawat (2008, 164–165).

9) An excellent study of the 1912 coup is Atcharaporn Komutphisamai (1997).

10) For the development of hypernationalism, see Scot Barme (1993, Ch. 6).

11) For details, see Wassana (2008).

12) The standard texts for the genesis of the Thai novel are Suphanni Warathorn (1976) and Wibha Senanan (1975).

13) Misunderstandings about the novel as fiction and not reality stunted the growth of this form of writing. See Thak Chaloemtiarana (2009a, n29).

14) Translated and quoted in Supang Chantavanich (1997, 256). This poem is also found in Sujit Wongthes (2002, 263–296). Kasian Tejapira has also written about the slippery identification of who is Chinese and who is Thai just by looking at how the men wear their hair (1992).

15) Seng is also berated by the aristocratic headmaster when he catches Seng urinating against the school fence. Seng was tutoring another student and had no time to go to the toilet when the bell rang for the next class. After the headmaster learns the truth, he asks Seng to forgive him. Unfortunately, Seng has to leave school after his father dies. Even though he is accepted by his classmates, Seng still feels like an outsider. He tells Chantha that it is because his father is Chinese and not Thai, and that although his mother was born in Thailand, she is Sino-Thai. After leaving school, Seng becomes a journalist, perhaps an unusual profession for a Sino-Thai. Although written in 1953, Kukrit Pramote’s Sii phaendin (Four reigns) makes the distinction between the good and bad Sino-Thai. Prem, who marries the heroine, Ploy, is the son of a rich Chinese. He becomes a bureaucrat and an officer in the Wild Tigers Corps, much the same as the good Chinese in Vajiravudh’s Huajai chainum. Their daughter unfortunately marries a “bad Chinese” who does not treat his wife’s family generously. See Saichon Satayanurak (2006, 170–172).

16) When the novel first appeared in 1939, demand was so high that 30,000 copies were printed, compared to about 2,000 copies for other publications. To illustrate the reach and popularity of Phon Nikon Kim Nguan, considering that 25 episodes were published in 1939, this would mean that about 750,000 copies of the novel were read that year alone. If we were to add up all the episodes in this long series, the number would be staggering. P. Intharapalit’s father taught Thai in the military preparatory school. The author was also a classmate of Prince Chulachakrabongse and eventual Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat.

17) Kasian’s interpretation of the naming issue is slightly different from mine. He asserts that the name Sanguan Thaithiem says this person is a phony and deceitful. Kim Nguan Thaithae, on the other hand, suggests that Kim Nguan feels a sense of guilt that he was not born a full Thai and has an inferiority complex. Kasian also critiques the misrepresentation of Chinese names by P. Intharapalit, which shows that the Thai author is unfamiliar with Chinese culture. Kasian points out that sharing the first part of a Chinese name such as Kim can only apply to those of the same generation. Therefore, Kim Bae’s son cannot be named Kim Nguan, nor could Kim Sai’s son be named Kim Bae (1994, 65–75).

18) Many of the most ardent anti-Chinese officials in the 1930s and 1940s who pushed for more Thai control of the economy were themselves Sino-Thai—Luang Pradit Manutham and Luang Wichit Wathakarn, for example. It should be pointed out here that most local-born Chinese had been assimilated into Thai society by the 1940s. Many joined government service and were given Thai noble titles, which made them part of the elite. Other local Chinese who were in the private sector soon realized that their future was primarily in Thailand and, therefore, to attain more prestige, status, and power, they had no choice but to identify with the Thai elite, many of whom were Sino-Thai. This identification with the ruling elite may also explain why most Sino-Thai businessmen are ardent royalists, who rely on the monarchy to give them the stamp of elite status through large and frequent personal donations to the king’s charitable projects. In return, the monarch gives the Sino-Thai prestige by sponsoring the weddings of their children, and by sponsoring or presiding over the funerals of prominent Sino-Thai businessmen. To be cremated by a flame that comes from the palace is highly prestigious. It is only reserved for high officials and those who have been benefactors to the country. The rich Sino-Thai have been beneficiaries of such a royal boon.

19) This document, circulated in 1965, summarizes systematically past, present, and future assimilation policies that would turn the local Chinese into Thai citizens.

20) Thai readers are familiar with Sax Rohmer because King Vajiravudh translated The Golden Scorpion into Thai. See Ram Chitti (2004). Elaine Kim (1982, 4) asserts that the cinematic character of the sinister Fu Manchu has created the stereotypical evil Chinese man.

21) Perhaps emulating the distaste of Europeans for public spitting, especially by low-class Chinese, the Thai had also latched onto this stereotyping of the Chinese. For example, to put a stop to the Chinese penchant for public spitting, there were signs posted by the English authorities at the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens that prohibited spitting. I was surprised to see such signs also displayed on the grounds of my Anglican secondary school in Hong Kong when I visited recently.

22) We should note that soon after this novel was published, Malaya gained its independence from Great Britain on August 31, 1957. The Malayan Races Liberation Army surrendered the following year. And, ironically, Chin Peng led his forces to hide near the Thai border, and they continued fighting from 1967 until 1989, while he was based largely in Beijing from the early 1960s. From 1989, he lived in southern Thailand till his death in September 2013. The deployment of repressive police tactics in Lep khrut reminds us of the recent elimination of drug dealers and the harsh treatment of Muslims in southern Thailand under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawat. As a parallel, the south of Thailand today is usually depicted as an alien site and its Malay population still considered khaek (guests), and not Thai. In both cases—the External Chinese Other and the Malay Other—the use of extrajudicial force has been justified on the grounds that it occurred in alien spaces and against foreign elements.

23) This argument is proposed by Benedict Anderson (1998).

24) For this essay, I am using Susan Fulop’s translation (Botan 1982).

25) On SEATO, see George McT. Kahin (1986, 71–75).

26) The practice of Sino-Thai marrying Thai continues to this day. The poignant story of the incarceration and death of Amphon Tangnophakun, known as Ah Kong (Grandfather in the Chinese Taechiu dialect), written by Roslin, his Thai wife, is a case in point. Ah Kong was imprisoned, accused of the crime of lèse majesté for allegedly sending inflammatory remarks about the queen to a government official. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and died soon after he was incarcerated. Up to the time of his death, Ah Kong maintained that he was innocent because he loved the monarchy and did not know how to send a text message. Even though Amphon and his father were born and raised in Thailand, they still spoke Thai with a strong Chinese accent. That did not prevent Amphon from marrying a Thai woman from Isan. His wife called him Ah Poh, which is his Chinese name, and when speaking to each other, they used Chinese pronouns. Even after he was arrested, he was not accused of being the ungrateful Chinese, but treated the same way as other (Thai) prisoners whose crime was disrespect for the monarchy. See Ida Aroonwong and Phiengkham Pradapkhwan (2012). The book was given to people who attended Amphon’s cremation and later reprinted and sold to the public. Proceeds were given to the relatives of prisoners incarcerated under Article 112 of the Thai penal code, known as the lèse majesté law.

27) The author also tested the waters for interest in how to become successful businessmen using Chinese trade secrets. He also wrote Kha baeb Jiin (Business the Chinese way) (1980), which contains advice from ordinary Chinese merchants about how to make it from rags to riches in Thailand.

28) Introduction in Yu kap Kong, quoted in Natthanai Prasannam (2007). Translation is mine. Natthanai’s excellent paper uses the Gramscian notion of hegemony and Althusser’s concept of interpellation as analytical tools to study Yok Burapha’s Yu kap Kong. Natthanai cites several MA theses that focus on the Chinese in Thai literature, to wit, Jatuphorn Mahaphrom (1994), Nittha Chanthapanyasilp (1998), and Phatcharee Warasai (1993). I thank Chairat Polmuk for bringing Natthanai’s paper to my attention.

29) Parenthetically, a Cambodian acquaintance described the Thai as someone who looks Chinese, wears Western clothing, and speaks bad Khmer.

30) When he was young, his father taught him to compose Thai classical poetry and encouraged him to write. Praphatsorn joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was posted abroad to places like Laos, Turkey, Germany, and New Zealand. He attended several universities in between assignments abroad and finally completed a bachelor’s degree. Even while working as a diplomat, Praphatsorn continued to write novels and short stories. All in all, he published more than 60 works of fiction. His success as an author was recognized when his fellow writers elected him president of the Thai Writers Association.

31) Praphatsorn also wrote another novel about a family who had to face bankruptcy after the 1997 Asian Contagion. That novel, Samphao thong (The golden junk) (1998), was written while he was serving in New Zealand. That year alone, he wrote eight novels.

32) Phaithun Khruekaew (1970, 84–103) identifies nakleng as one of nine qualities valued by the Thai—wealth, power, seniority, nakleng mentality, status, charity, gratitude, wisdom, and propriety in etiquette. He identifies three aspects of nakleng as sportsmanship, manliness, and benevolence. I have also used this term to describe Sarit Thanarat in Thak Chaloemtiarana (2007, 225). This concept has lost a lot of purchase in present-day Thai understanding. Nakleng can be both good and bad. Today it refers generally to someone with the heart of the nakleng—ready for a good fight and never backing down. Chalong Soontravanich says that during the Sarit regime, many of the nakleng hired to protect illegal activities were Sino-Thai. These nakleng gave a bad connotation to the epithet. Interestingly, Sarit made a distinction of this group as being both nakleng and anthaphan. The latter means hooligans and hoodlums (2013, 197–199).

33) Scholarly interest in Sampheng resulted in the publication of Supang Chanthavanich (2006). The book is a collection of studies on specific places in Sampheng and substantive articles on the history of the arrival of the Chinese in Bangkok, roads and canals, the evolution of trade from junks to steamships, commercial and entertainment centers, and the relationship between Sampheng and the Thai monarchy. In the chapter on the monarchy, there are two pictures of Rama IV and Rama V dressed as Chinese emperors (ibid., 131). One can argue that Sampheng is the ghettoizing of the Chinese community. But one can also posit that Sampheng is the first modern trading center of Bangkok, where one can find gold shops, fine restaurants, the first high-rise (nine stories), and wholesale markets. This is perhaps no different than present-day Silom. Although Sampheng is mainly Chinese, it is not solely Chinese. It is frequented by Thai and tourists from around the world.

34) Thanin Kraiwixien’s tenure lasted only a year. After his removal by a military junta, he was appointed by the king as a privy councilor. For a detailed study of Banharn’s career, see Yoshinori Nishizaki (2011). Two other illustrative cases come to mind. During the siege of Thammasat University on October 6, 1976, several students tried to escape but were captured by the police and armed goons. Before they were killed, their captors remarked that the students had “pale” faces. But instead of relating the pale faces to Sino-Thai students, the murderers said that they were Vietnamese infiltrators. The other case is the attack on Thaksin for trying to usurp or undermine the king’s moral authority. His accusers never said that Thaksin was behaving like an upstart Sino-Thai. Unlike politics in the United States today, where race is still central because political parties continue to target Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans to solicit their support, such is not the case in Thai politics. See Thongchai Winichakul (2002). One should note that at least 12 Thai prime ministers have Chinese ancestry—Seni and Kukrit Pramote, Pridi Phanomyong, Admiral Luang Thamrongnawasawat, Pote Sarasin, Thanin Kraiwixien, Chuan Leekphai, Banharn Silapa-acha, Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawat, Samak Suntornvej, and Abhisit Vejajiva.

35) The term “flexible citizenship” was first coined by Aihwa Ong (1999). Efforts to compile a recent biographical dictionary of personalities of Chinese descent in Southeast Asia revealed difficulty in dealing with the Thai case. Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, Tommy Koh, described talking to a Sino-Thai friend about inclusion in that book: “But he and his family are so well assimilated into mainstream Thai society that when I asked him if they could be included in the dictionary, he said no, because he felt he has lost his Chinese heritage and could no longer read and write Chinese” (The Straits Times, November 2, 2012). The dictionary (Leo Suryadinata 2012) includes 608 names from 10 countries.

36) A few years after these books appeared, Charoen Tanmahaphran published Waichao taam roythao tia (Father’s way of worshipping) (2009). Charoen’s book traces the support of kings during the Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods for Chinese Buddhist temples and Chinese shrines. The book is also a guide for both Sino-Thai and Thai worshippers at Chinese shrines about the history, meaning, and importance of those shrines.

37) Other books by this author covering similar subjects include Chitra (1993; 1998; 2003; 2010). To help the Sino-Thai excavate/recover their clan names, Chitra also published books about the origins of Chinese names and their transformation into Thai variations (2007). All of these books are so popular that they have undergone numerous printings. Caroline S. Hau (2013) argues that Chitra is no different from Amy Chua, known for promoting the idea of the Tiger Mom, who uses strict Chinese child-rearing practices to ensure the success of her children. She has also interviewed Chitra, who claims that she has sold over 600,000 copies of her books. Hau contends that such authors (including Malaysia’s Lillian Too) capitalize on claims of “Chineseness” to access local, regional, and family-mediated notions of Chineseness to exploit and profit from “national and cultural differences within nations as well as among Southeast Asia, the U.S., and China in order to promote particular forms of hybridized (trans)national identities while eschewing the idea of mainland China as the ultimate cultural arbiter of Chineseness.” In addition, many guidebooks and manuals about worship at Chinese temples and shrines have been published, for example, Khon Yaowarat (2007) and Bunchai Jaiyen (2009). A pioneering study of the legal status of Chinese temples and shrines, especially in Phuket, is Tatsuki Kataoka (2012).

38) Examples are Bunchai Jaiyen (2003) and Vikrom Kromadit (2004). I would like to mention two biographies of Sino-Thai doctors from southern Thailand: Bancherd Tantiwit (2006) and Moh Chin Waen (1998). Bancherd’s autobiography is about being a Baba, a designation used to describe the peranakan (locally born Chinese) in Malaysia. The Baba Chinese still maintain a cemetery on Silom Road in Bangkok, not far from the Hokkian cemetery. The second autobiography was written in Chinese and translated by Moh’s children and grandchildren into Thai. For a recent study of Sino-Thai capital accumulation in southern Thailand and the Chinese community there, see Phuwadon Songprasert (2003).

39) Examples are Thot Khanaphorn (2004), Thongthaem Natchamnong (1988), and Ah Koo Khon Sae Chang (2004a; 2004b).

40) Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sam Kok) was translated into Thai during the reign of Rama I. It was one of the first books to be printed by Dr. Dan Bradley’s press. Craig Reynolds has written extensively about the importance of Sam Kok in Thai history (1996). The best analysis of the importance of Sam Kok in Thai history, politics, and culture is Sombat Chantornwong (2006, 451–550). Even today, there are numerous websites in the Thai language dedicated to this epic. Kiarti Srifuengfung’s mausoleum near Phatthaya pays homage to Sam Kok with a gallery of ceramic tiles chronicling important episodes. For the story of Kiarti, see Arunee Sopitpongsatorn (1991). Perhaps conditioned by their familiarity with Sam Kok, Chinese literature, especially novels about Chinese martial arts, continued to be popular among the reading public. By the 1960s, most young Sino-Thai could no longer read these novels in the Chinese language. To bridge the gap, many Chinese martial arts novels were translated into Thai. One of the most prolific translators was Chin Bamrungphong, who used the pseudonym W. na Muang Lung. The name is derived from the initial of his first girlfriend and the place they met—Phatthalung. Chin was educated in both Chinese and Thai schools and was bilingual. He was able to translate and publish over 100 Chinese kung fu novels from 1963 to 1988. His prolific production was achieved by verbalizing his translation directly into a tape recorder, which allowed him to translate 30 to 40 pages of text each day. I suspect that the eager readers of his novels were both Thai and Sino-Thai. See Pratheep Muennin (1999, 88–90). A recently published book by Sitthithep Eksitthiphong argues that the Phlaphachai incident in 1974, where the Chinese attacked a police station in Sampheng, was a symptom of Sino-Thai frustration with the state. The author also argues quite convincingly that the popularity of Chinese martial arts novels, albeit written in Thai, was a sign of the resistance of Sino-Thai males against the oppression of the state and the depiction of them as merely weak and obedient citizens (2012, 166–174).

41) As far as I can tell, no one has written a novel about the lives of tax farmers. This lacuna could perhaps be explained by the fact that the most lucrative businesses for tax farmers involved selling opium, controlling gambling dens, distributing liquor, and other activities considered unsavory by today’s standards. A glimpse of the dangers involved in tax collection is the revelation that Thaksin’s grandmother was shot during one of her tax-collecting forays. In addition, the experiences of radical Sino-Thai students who joined the Communist Party of Thailand after the October 6, 1976, event have yet to produce fictionalized accounts of their struggle with the Communist old guard and with the Thai armed forces.

42) For additional information about Thaksin’s family background, see Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker (2004). The offspring of immigrant Chinese families had two main career paths to choose from—business or government service. Those choosing government service were the first to be assimilated into Thai society, discarding or cutting ties with their Chinese past. Those in business held on to their Chinese culture and connections outside of Thailand for a longer period before fully assimilating into Thai society.

43) Sulak Sivarak, one of Thailand’s leading public intellectuals, admits that although his family has Chinese origins, they were royalists and politically conservative. Members of his family had prospered under absolute monarchy and did not support parliamentary democracy. In his mind, they, like other elite Sino-Thai, believed that they were smarter and better than the rest of the public. This opinion shifted after the October 14, 1973, and October 6, 1976, events (1983, 55–79).

44) Although this paper does not delve into comparative issues, it should suffice to point out that, unlike Asian American literature, Sino-Thai literature is not considered literature of the minority. See Elaine Kim (1982). Furthermore, Sino-Thai literature does not suffer from what Shirley Geok-lin Lim identifies as the tokenism of Asian American literature in mainstream American literature (1992, 13–32).

45) Quoting John Crawfurd and Karl Gutzlaff, Skinner documents how immigrant Chinese became Buddhists, visited Thai temples, gave alms to monks, and readily conformed to the religious rites of the Thai. The Chinese also venerate Wat Phanangcherng in Ayutthaya, dedicated to the great Ming admiral Cheng Ho (even though he was Muslim). Cheng Ho is known in Thailand by the name San Pao Kung, and there are shrines dedicated to him as a deity and patron saint of the Chinese in Thailand. However, instead of writing his name using the correct orthography, which means “Three Protections,” the characters have been changed to “Three Treasures” to make the shrine resonate with Buddhism’s “Triple Gems”—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (1957, 129). Popular Chinese beliefs have also been embraced by the Thai. For example, many Thai have now given up eating beef in deference to the belief of devotees of the Chinese goddess Kuan Im.

46) In his study of assimilation, the sociologist Bunsanong Punyodhyana asserts that the process of Chinese-Thai social assimilation is a co-operative “two-way process which in the long run will leave Thai with something Chinese and Chinese with something Thai” (1971, 1).

47) Leo Suryadinata (1997) contains articles about how the various Chinese communities in Southeast Asia negotiate issues of identity. The articles cover Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam. However, the articles do not touch upon identity issues as reflected in novels and texts. Recently, Soledad S. Reyes acknowledges that although the Chinese have been present in the Philippines for centuries and Filipino culture is influenced by Chinese culture, there has not been significant study of Chinese Filipino literature. She cites the emergence of Chinese Filipino fiction writers during the last two decades who write about the experiences of their community, rejecting the stereotyping of the “Chinese as peddlers of bottles and newspapers, with their pigtail, funny accent and costumes” (2012, 238). The only citation she provides on the subject is an undergraduate thesis: Richard C. Uysiuseng (1985). Caroline S. Hau informs me that the situation is not as dire as depicted by Reyes. For example, one of the first studies of how the Chinese are portrayed in vernacular Filipino literature is Jaoquin Sy (1979). More recent are Lily Rose Tope (1993) and Shirley O. Lua (2001). Hau’s The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation, and Region in and beyond the Philippines (2014), analyzes a number of Chinese Filipino novels and short stories in English and Chinese, which I am sure will generate more scholarly interest in this subject.


Vol. 3, No. 3 of Southeast Asian Studies

Published in December, 2014


Are We Them? Textual and Literary Representationsof the Chinese in Twentieth-Century Thailand ・・・ Thak Chaloemtiarana pdficon_large
Contesting Law and Order: Legal and Judicial Reform in Southern Thailandin the Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century ・・・ Piyada Chonlaworn pdficon_large
Extending the Hydraulic Paradigm: Reunification, State Consolidation, and Water Control in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta after 1975 ・・・ Simon BENEDIKTER pdficon_large
Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference: Evidence from Vietnam ・・・ TRINH Ly Khanh pdficon_large
Research Reports
Islamic Theological Texts and Contexts in Banjarese Society: An Overview of the Existing Studies ・・・ Mujiburrahman pdficon_large
Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and Access and Exclusion: Obstacles and Opportunities in Cambodia and Laos ・・・ Ian G. BAIRD pdficon_large
Book Reviews
David G. Marr. Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, xix+721p. ・・・ Keith W. TAYLOR pdficon_large
Alison M. Groppe. Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2013, x+325p. ・・・ Cheow-Thia CHAN pdficon_large
William Chapman.A Heritage of Ruins: The Ancient Sites of Southeast Asia and Their Conservation. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013, 340p. ・・・ AKAGAWA Natsuko pdficon_large
Endo Gen. Diversifying Retail and Distribution in Thailand. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2013, xii+275p. ・・・ Veerayooth Kanchoochat pdficon_large
Puangthong R. Pawakapan. State and Uncivil Society in Thailand at the Temple of Preah Vihear. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013, xiv+125p.bibliography, index.Charnvit Kasetsiri, Pou Sothirak, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun. Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and Its Solutions. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2013, xiv+104p.; bibliography, no index. ・・・ Volker GRABOWSKY pdficon_large
Somboon Siriprachai (edited by Kaoru Sugihara, Pasuk Phongpaichit, and Chris Baker). Industrialization with a Weak State: Thailand’s Development in Historical Perspective. Singapore and Kyoto: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2012, xii+183p. ・・・ MIENO Fumiharu pdficon_large
Rodolphe De Koninck and Jean-François Rousseau. Gamblingwith the Land: The Contemporary Evolution of Southeast Asian Agriculture. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012, xv+187p. ・・・ Tomita Shinsuke pdficon_large
Meredith L. Weiss.Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications and Singapore: NUS Press, 2011, xi+302p. ・・・ IGA Tsukasa pdficon_large
Mely Caballero-Anthony and Alistair D. B. Cook, eds. Non-Traditional Security in Asia: Issues, Challenges and Framework for Action. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013, xvi+349p. ・・・ Gianluca BONANNO pdficon_large

Vol. 3, No. 3, Ian G. Baird

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3


Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and Access and Exclusion: Obstacles and Opportunities in Cambodia and Laos

Ian G. Baird*

* Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 550 N. Park St. Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA

e-mail: ibaird[at]wisc.edu

Recently concerns have been raised regarding the potential for the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) framework to recentralize forests, potentially setting back efforts to institute localized and decentralized forms of natural resource management. Here, I apply a political ecology approach to consider access and exclusion to land and natural resources in the contexts of three emerging REDD projects in Cambodia and Laos. I argue that each represents either a partial, incomplete, or so far unfulfilled—but nevertheless useful—example of efforts to use REDD to strengthen local resource tenure. Thus, it is possible to envision how REDD could be utilized to leverage decentralized forest tenure, even if such a reality seems far away at present.

Keywords: land tenure, common property, land-use management, carbon, forestry, ecosystem services


The Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) framework is being developed to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere due to deforestation and forest degradation. Phelps et al. (2010) have, however, raised concerns that REDD could cause the recentralization of forest lands in so-called “developing countries,” through providing central governments and international players with increased control over forests, thus potentially seriously setting back efforts to institute more locally sensitive decentralized models of forest management. They argue that over the last quarter century many non-industrialized countries have adopted more decentralized forms of resource management, hard fought reforms that have given many local forest users increased rights and responsibilities, at least over forests of lower economic value.

While the extent to which locals have been allocated rights and responsibilities in association with forest management varies considerably (see Hall et al. 2011; Ribot 1999; 2004; McCarthy 2001; Badola 1998; Fisher 1998; Vandergeest 1996), at least the rhetoric of the desirability to substantially increase the participation of local users in forest management has advanced considerably in recent decades. This has frequently translated into more agency for local people, although there are often important trade-offs between sustainability and local benefits when decentralization occurs (Jagger et al. 2005). In addition, devolving control in cases when local elites are able to capture benefits at the expense of other local resource users can be counter-productive (Barr et al. 2006; McCarthy 2001; 2004; Hutchcroft 2001), thus necessitating careful consideration of the circumstances surrounding particular cases. Still, overall efforts to devolve power to local resource users have resulted in better forest protection and increased benefits for local people (Persha et al. 2011; Agrawal and Ostrom 2008; Agrawal and Gibson 1999; Ribot 1999).

Crucially, the shift to increasing local forest management rights and responsibilities has largely been driven by two main arguments. The first is ethical, or rights-based, and is founded on the recognition that local people have often been severely and unfairly disenfranchised by governments, and that locals therefore deserve to gain significant rights and responsibilities over the lands and forests that they have long depended on for their livelihoods. This position asserts that governments and others have a moral obligation to rectify the serious wrongs that have been imposed on local and especially indigenous forest users, and that empowering people is the only ethically appropriate thing to do, regardless of whether such changes lead to improved forest management or not.1)

The second argument is fundamentally pragmatic, and is grounded on the fact that past efforts by distant actors, both governmental and private, to effectively manage forest resources have often failed to ensure sustainable management and protection (Ribot 1999; Agrawal and Ostrom 2008). Many have argued that decentralizing management and empowering local users to significantly benefit from forest resources is often the most efficient and cost-effective way to manage forests. Being participatory and transparent is particularly crucial (Cortula and Mayers 2009; Somanathan et al. 2009). Those taking this position frequently point out that central governments, especially in poorer countries, rarely have the resources or convictions to effectively protect forests from various threats (Ribot 1999; 2004; Ostrom 1990), although government recognition and support for local people in gaining rights to use and manage natural resources frequently remains critical, as without it limiting or excluding users may not be feasible (Ostrom 1990; Baird and Flaherty 2005).

At present the increased global focus on utilizing REDD (including REDD+) to fund forest protection represents a potential threat to the trend in forest management decentralization, as argued by Phelps et al. (2010). REDD is leading many in central level ministries and forestry departments—along with other global players—to view forests as important, not just for gaining revenue from logging operations, or as sources of raw materials or tourism revenues for fueling “development”—as in the past—but as potentially crucial sources of income derived from those willing to pay for ecosystem services. In particular, the idea is to ensure that forests are maintained and rejuvenated so as to facilitate the storage of carbon, and to decrease carbon releases into the atmosphere. Illustrative of how central governments are attempting to gain more control over forests, the Norwegian government has negotiated a US$1 billion agreement with the government of Indonesia regarding REDD (Lang 2010). These were central government to central government-level discussions, and there is no evidence that they included consultations with local people.

Those willing to pay for the ecosystem services associated with storing carbon stocks certainly desire that their investments lead to promised results; that is, they want forests to be protected so as to either reduce the impacts of climate change on their countries or business interests, or to justify their own continued production of greenhouse gases by claiming that their investments in forest protection have been successful in mitigating or off-setting their carbon releases. Oddly enough, however, this desire has considerable potential to lead to the increased centralization of forest resources by governments trying to capture as much revenue as possible, as argued by Phelps et al. (2010). Ensuring that investors and others do not blame them for forest destruction in the international arena is another reason that central governments may become more involved in forest management. This can be seen as potentially positive, in that there is increased interest in forest protection, but it is also encouraging governments to increase their control over forest resources, and their focus on dealing with the concerns of the international community in relation to forests could lead them to neglect the welfare of those whose livelihoods are directly dependent on forests. In other words, forests are becoming more of a concern for national governments and regional players, potentially at the expense of local forest users. This can be seen in the two countries that are the focus of this study, Cambodia and Laos, although unevenly.

The purpose of this article is to consider the concerns about REDD leading to the centralization of forest resources raised by Phelps et al. (ibid.) in the specific context of Cambodia and Laos, as well as to assess possibilities for utilizing REDD or related payment for ecosystem services systems to empower locals through strengthening tenure over forest lands. I will do this by utilizing a political ecology approach centered on the concepts of “access” and “exclusion” from land and resources. Through examining three emerging REDD projects, I consider how these projects fare in relation to ensuring access to resources, and ultimately how realigned systems of REDD focused on achieving secure long-term land and resource tenure might work, and what elements of existing REDD projects could be utilized to develop locally-tenure friendly REDD. This makes sense considering the recognition of the importance of tenure issues in relation to the official REDD development process (COP 16 2010).

When writing of “securing long-term tenure” over natural resources for local people, I do not mean simply privatizing common resources and dividing them up between local resource users, as doing so would remove the types of checks and balances that are frequently crucial for successful common property systems (Ostrom 1990; Steins et al. 2000). Instead, what I mean by long-term secure tenure is providing groups of resource users with secure access to resources along with a substantial say in decision-making processes regarding resource use and management.

I lay out the “access” and “exclusion” to land and resources conceptual framework for considering REDD in light of tenure issues in Cambodia and Laos. I then provide specific background information about REDD (and REDD+) and describe the development of REDD in Laos and Cambodia. I present three examples of REDD-related projects in Cambodia and Laos, and assess their potential implications in relation to resource access. I then discuss ways in which REDD could be reframed and reconceptualized in order to put land and resource tenure on the forefront of the agenda to leverage secure long-term tenure arrangements for local people. While I am so far unaware of any projects in mainland Southeast Asia that have successfully used REDD to truly empower local people in relation to land and forest resources,2) such approaches could be developed, provided that the donors of REDD projects, implementing agencies, and governments can be persuaded to more fully buy into systems of secure forest tenure for local people.

Political Ecology and “Access” and “Exclusion”

Political ecology encompasses a wide range of approaches and theoretical perspectives (Peet and Watts 2004; Escobar 1999; Zimmerer and Bassett 2003; Forsyth 2003; Robbins 2004). One of the early contributions of political ecology involved the development of the “access to resources” approach to examining the decision-making processes of small-scale natural resource users (Blaikie 1985; Blaikie and Brookfield 1987). This framework was later adapted and applied in other contexts (see, for example, Ribot and Peluso 2003; Turner et al. 2011). Fundamentally, “access” refers to the ability of local resource-users to effectively make use of natural resources to sustain their livelihoods. A wide array of factors can affect access, including resource use by others, government policy-frameworks, social shifts, market influences, and bio-physical changes (Ribot and Peluso 2003). Most recently, Derek Hall, Philip Hirsch, and Tania Li (2011), in their ground-breaking book, Powers of Exclusion, have contributed to the literature by building on the concept of access by focusing on exclusion. While access is frequently seen as something that is positive and inclusive, Hall et al. (2011) do not see exclusion as necessarily bad. Rather, they view exclusion as a necessary part of tenure relations. For example, farmers need to exclude others from harvesting their crops. Otherwise, why would they farm in the first place? Still, exclusion is not seen as universally positive. Instead, exclusion is simply seen as variously important for land tenure security. Crucially, both access and exclusion are conceptualized as important elements of land tenure, and thus both potentially have important implications in relation to REDD.

Here I am interested in the implications of REDD for access and exclusion to land in Cambodia and Laos. Through assessing the particular circumstances in these two countries, I both consider the present circumstances and possible ways that REDD could be used to strengthen resource tenure.


The research for this article began in 2009 when I was contracted by the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation to conduct an overview study of REDD-related issues in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, countries where the McKnight Foundation supports various programs and projects associated with natural resource management. The objective of that research was to consider all aspects of REDD+, in order to inform the donor of future opportunities and constraints to funding initiatives in this region in relation to REDD. This involved a literature review and over 20 semi-structured interviews with key informants involved with REDD in Laos and Cambodia. Later, however, I decided to specifically consider REDD+ in relation to land and forest tenure, since it seems like such an important issue, even though ultimately the full spectrum of challenges associated with REDD need to be carefully considered when deciding if and how to move ahead. Therefore, I drew on the parts of my original literature review and interviews. In June and July of 2011 I also conducted additional interviews in Laos and Cambodia to update and supplement the original research, and to specifically address my focus on REDD+ and land tenure issues. Those interviewed were mainly expatriates and Lao and Cambodian people working on various types of REDD+ projects. I was particularly interested in interviewing people with specific knowledge of the relationships between REDD+ and land tenure issues. I have, however, had to keep most of my sources anonymous.

What is REDD and REDD+?

Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas most responsible for the current global climate change crisis, and today forest ecosystems are estimated to store 50 percent more carbon than what is contained in the entire atmosphere (FAO 2005). Carbon dioxide releases into the atmosphere due to deforestation and forest degradation are recognized as amongst the most important causes of human-induced climate change, second only to energy production (ANU 2008), and in Southeast Asia deforestation and forest degradation are believed to be the most important sources of carbon dioxide emissions, contributing approximately 12 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases as of 2000 (ADB 2009).3)

REDD comes under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and is a system for financing the protection of forests in order to avoid carbon dioxide emissions or increase carbon sequestration or storage. Financing is mainly expected to be generated through marketing carbon credits, but some also advocate other publicly funded mechanisms to support REDD (ibid.). The idea is that those from richer countries can buy credits as a contribution to reducing their own emissions, and the funds generated can be utilized to address the causes (or drivers) of emissions, protect biodiversity, bolster government coffers, or support poverty alleviation and other forms of socio-economic development for people living near or in forested areas, thus potentially providing important financial incentives for protecting forests. The system requires performance-based payments for the reduction or avoidance of emissions, and increased carbon sequestration.

There has been considerable enthusiasm about the prospects for REDD initiatives amongst international organizations, although most recently some of that enthusiasm has dissipated due to problems with a lack of markets for carbon credits. Still, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) (ibid., 130) reported that, “REDD is already getting attention as a low-cost mitigation option with significant positive side-effects.” The World Bank has also been supportive of REDD, establishing the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) with US$400 million in funding. This includes US$75 million from each Norway and Germany to fund pilot REDD projects in a number of selected countries.4) The United Nations Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Program (UN-REDD) was set up in September 2008, with the first phase financed by a Government of Norway grant of US$35 million.

REDD, however, has also been criticized for a wide variety of reasons (see Baird 2010a for a summary). A full discussion of all the limitations of REDD is beyond the scope of this paper, but concerns have been raised regarding REDD making it easier for people in developed countries to avoid needed lifestyle changes, regional and in-country leakage (when deforestation or forest degradation is transferred to another area in order to protect an area under REDD, thus leading to no net gains), unfair benefit distribution to forest-based peoples, and the disempowering of local people from decision-making processes linked to their own areas, just to mention a few of issues of concern. Larry Lohmann (2006) has also demonstrated serious problems with carbon trading, arguing that carbon markets are getting in the way of possible solutions to the climate change crisis. He has instead advocated for a combination of large-scale public works, subsidy shifting, conventional regulation, legal action, and green taxes and non-trading market mechanisms to deal with climate change.

Over the last few years, the term REDD+ (instead of simply REDD) has become popularized, especially amongst some non-government organizations (NGOs), international organizations, and government agencies. While REDD was initially narrowly focused on reducing carbon emission, REDD+ includes provisions that reward the enhancing of carbon storage through forest restoration, rehabilitation, and afforestation/reforestation. While the co-benefits of REDD, including conserving biodiversity, alleviating poverty, improving governance, and providing other environmental services, have long been part of debates surrounding REDD, REDD+ is much more amenable to encouraging co-benefits apart from those related to greenhouse gases, and there is also now generally more interest in integrated systems that not only consider forests but also other land-uses, including agriculture (Campbell 2009). Some indigenous activists argue that the key to REDD+ is ensuring that the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples are recognized (IWGIA and AIPP 2011), but others, such as the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, have argued against REDD+ because of its potential to commodify forests.5) REDD+ has also been compared with Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs), since many REDD+ projects are attempting to integrate various conservation objectives with community development.6) REDD++ is used to refer to REDD initiatives that take all land use categories into account, rather than just forests, and is thus more expansive than even REDD+ (Minh Ha et al. 2010).7)

REDD in Laos and Cambodia


Cambodia has one of the highest proportions of forest coverage in Asia, estimated at 59.8 percent of the land base in 2006. The country’s rate of land use change and associated deforestation and forest degradation are, however, amongst the highest in the world, with an estimated annual forest loss of 0.5 percent between 2002 and 2006. This figure is equivalent to 75,000 ha per annum (UN-REDD Program Cambodia 2010). The forestry governance system in Cambodia is quite legally centralized (Nathan and Boon 2012). The Forestry Administration (FA), under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is the main government agency responsible for forests, although three million hectares of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries come under jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment (MoE). The Fisheries Administration of MAFF also has some responsibility for managing flooded forests and mangrove forests (Clements 2010). The government of Cambodia has the legal right to exclude or provide access to people wishing to use the forest. Decision 699 of the Council of Ministers, endorsed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 26, 2008, set the basis for forest carbon sales from the Oddar Meanchey REDD+ project by the FA and MAFF. Sub-decree 188, November 4, 2008, of the Royal Cambodia Government designated the FA as the responsible agency for assessing national forest carbon stocks, and regulating forest carbon trading.

Unlike Laos, which was amongst the first countries to get involved with the World Bank’s FCPF (see below), Cambodia was only accepted as a FCPF country in April 2009 (Evans et al. 2012). The initial lack of FCPF support to Cambodia resulted in direct UN-REDD Program Cambodia (2010) assistance to Cambodia’s REDD Readiness work beginning in 2009, in an attempt to fill at least part of the gap left by the FCPF’s slow start in the country (Clements 2010; UN-REDD Program Cambodia 2010). Cambodia’s UN-REDD National Program Document was approved by the UN-REDD Program Board in November 2010, and was signed in mid-2011 (Evans et al. 2012).

Efforts have been made to develop a REDD Readiness “roadmap” for Cambodia that outlines steps to be taken over the next one to three years. It is supposed to be consistent with the World Bank FCPF REDD Readiness Preparation proposal. A National REDD+ Taskforce has also been established in Cambodia (UN-REDD Program Cambodia 2010; Bradley 2011).8)

The political system in Cambodia is more open than in Laos, since the country is governed through a multi-party parliamentary democracy, but in fact, the political landscape is dominated by the Cambodia People’s Party, whose leadership previously operated under a similar political system to what exists in Laos. Furthermore, the state in Cambodia has been making various moves in recent years to silence opposition to its policies and practices. For example, a new “NGO law,” which has been being considered for years now, has been heavily criticized for potentially restricting civil society and even the assembly of those critical of the government (see, for example, Becker 2011).


The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or Laos) was estimated to have 41 percent forest cover in 2002.9) The country is, however, experiencing high rates of deforestation and forest degradation, including natural forest conversion into large plantations (Baird 2010b). Therefore, it is a prime target for developing REDD projects, and was an early recipient of support from the FCPF, including REDD Readiness work. The Lao government has prepared a Readiness Preparation Proposal (National REDD Taskforce of Lao PDR 2010), and REDD has received strong political support from the Lao government (Ounekham 2010; Vientiane Times, December 23, 2009).

In Laos, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) is responsible for the forestry sector, and the Department of Forestry (DoF) leads Laos’ National REDD Task Force. Like Cambodia, the government of Laos has the official mandate to exclude people or provide access to them in relation to forests (Government of Laos 2007). A number of other government departments and agencies in Laos are also involved in aspects of REDD, including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE). Other government ministries and research agencies have also shown interest in REDD, as have various donors, international NGOs, and private foreign investors (McNally et al. 2009).

Although it was originally believed that REDD could be developed at a national scale in Laos, or at least on a hybrid basis, with a combination of national and sub-national REDD initiatives, it is now expected that the technical difficulties and high transaction costs associated with developing national level REDD in Laos make it more likely that sub-national REDD development will be the focus over at least the next number of years, despite the issue of internal leakage (Alastair Fraser,10) pers. comm. June 2, 2010), which relates to potential problems within countries of forest degradation being transferred from one area where a REDD project is being implemented to another where REDD is not in place. Leakage across national borders is another major concern in Laos and more generally in mainland Southeast Asia (see, for example, Lang 2009; Meyfroidt and Lambin 2009; Baird 2010a), and there is a need for more accountability in relation to log exports from Laos (Forest Trends 2009). This indicates that REDD development is occurring within a difficult context.

One key issue in Laos is that the country is governed through a one-party communist political system modeled after Eastern bloc countries during the Soviet era. There have been various pro-market reforms in Laos since 1986, but political reform has hardly occurred. This raises potential serious problems in terms of state control and the inability to openly criticize the state or government policies, including those associated with resource tenure and REDD. It makes the type of participation associated with Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), which is now a requirement of REDD, difficult in the Lao context. Even if the Lao government fully endorsed FPIC, real FPIC would be hard to achieve, as community opposition to government endorsed projects is generally not tolerated (Baird 2010b).

Three Key REDD Pilot Projects in Cambodia and Laos

Using the access and exclusion theoretical framework outlined earlier, I now assess three REDD projects, two in Cambodia and one in Laos.

Pact—Oddar Meanchey Province

The most advanced and influential REDD Project in Cambodia, at least until recently, is located in the northwestern province of Oddar Meanchey, in an area dominated by the hardline communist Khmer Rouge for the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Although REDD has moved ahead relatively slowly in Cambodia at the national level, Pact’s project in Oddar Meanchey was once recognized as the most advanced REDD project in the region. In 2010, it was considered to be amongst the three most developed REDD projects in the world (Tom Clements,11) pers. comm. July 8, 2010). In November 2007, the FA, supported by the joint donor Technical Working Group on Forestry and Environment (TWG-F & E—a multi-donor body), unanimously approved a 68,696-ha REDD pilot project in 58 villages and with 7,000 households involved (Poffenberger 2009; Evans 2009b; WCS 2010). In 2011, the area being managed within Cambodia’s first REDD project was 64,318 ha (Bradley 2011). This initiative was initially supported by the US-based NGO Community Forestry International (CFI), which had already been working in Oddar Meanchey to support community forestry activities since 2005. The REDD Oddar Meanchey community forestry project was designed to test emerging REDD policies, as the area had experienced a 2.1 percent annual decline in forests over the previous decade (Poffenberger 2009). In March 2009, Pact agreed to take over activities in Oddar Meanchey from CFI, whose project in Cambodia had ended. The project methodology was designed to comply with emerging REDD guidelines developed by the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) (which confirms a project’s strong co-benefits for conservation and livelihoods). These CCB Standards, as they are typically known, seek to mitigate the impact of a number of drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, while responding to the economic needs of the low-income rural population (ibid.). The key to the Oddar Meanchey REDD project was providing a pilot for supporting community forestry activities in Cambodia, including assisting communities to sustainably manage their forests (Bradley 2011).

According to the project design, the government of Cambodia recognized the community forests in the project area under the Community Forestry Sub-decree, providing them with a 15-year renewable lease. Prior to 2003 when the Sub-decree was adopted, community forests were not legally recognized at the central government level. The project intended to create a 30-year income stream that would enhance livelihoods and build natural resource management capacity among the project’s 7,000 participating households (Poffenberger 2009; Bradley 2011). It was expected to sequester carbon and avoid emissions equal to 7.1 million tons of CO2 over 30 years through dealing with various drivers of deforestation at local, national, and international levels, including agriculture expansion due to in-migration, forest degradation due to forest fires and fuel wood consumption, land speculation, illegal logging and forest clearance for agriculture by military personnel, and the issuing of economic land concessions for commercial plantation development. The project was also expected to include some enrichment tree planting (Poffenberger 2009; Bradley 2009a; 2011).

The project has put considerable effort into educating locals about emission issues associated with forests, and REDD, and entered into community-level agreements as part of the process towards developing the project (Bradley 2009a; 2009b). Supporting communities was a key project objective (Bradley 2011), but it has been well documented that in Cambodia communities cannot easily object to government programs, although the situation is generally more open than in Laos.

It was suggested that US$1 million per year could be generated through REDD for the project (Evans 2009b), although there are many variables that could affect actual revenue. For example, more recently the prices of carbon credits have dropped considerably. Between 2009 and 2011, the various experts on REDD+ whom I interviewed for this research all seemed to believe that most of the REDD pilot projects in the region had not addressed the crucial issue of how to allocate potential revenues from selling REDD carbon credits. The Oddar Meanchey project, however, set out a long-term work plan for doing this, one that the FA partially endorsed, but not a budget associated with the work plan. It was envisioned that there would be costs associated with FA running the project, including carbon sequestration verifiers, and for Pact in supporting communities, but after deducting these fixed costs, the plan was for at least 50 percent of the net revenue from carbon credits to go to the communities. Up to 10 percent of net revenue was also expected to be used for developing new REDD projects elsewhere in Cambodia (Bradley 2011).

Although there are some potential problems with the Oddar Meanchey project in relation to villagers signing off on contracts with uncertain benefits and potential liabilities for them if they are unable to reduce deforestation and forest degradation as planned, a project representative argued, in 2011, that the initiative represented the best hope of keeping the forests from being commercially logged or converted into plantations, and thus giving locals continued access to important forest resources. Even if few REDD resources reach users, the people were apparently mainly interested in protecting the forest for their continued resource access, although REDD would have undoubtedly exclude some people from accessing forests (cf. Hall et al. 2011). For Pact, REDD represented an important option, a way of convincing the government to support community forestry, and thus they believed that it is a tool that should not be discarded (Bradley 2011; Amanda Bradley,12) pers. comm. June 2, 2011).

The Oddar Meanchey project may have been initially useful in discouraging the granting of large economic land concessions, but it has been reported more recently that there are continuing serious problems with economic land concessions nearby the project area (Shalmali Guttal,13) pers. comm. June 26, 2011). It appears that pressures to convert the forests into plantations have increased significantly. Through the establishment of community forestry groups, local control over forests initially increased, giving villagers continued access to forests that they depended upon, while excluding others (Amanda Bradley, pers. comm. June 2, 2011), but more recently there have been considerable problems. On January 23, 2014 Phorn and Peter (2014) reported that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces was cutting down large amounts of forest in the REDD project area, causing so much damage to the forest that some feared the whole REDD project could be derailed as a result.

Apart from the above forest encroachment problems, one of the main structural weaknesses of the project is that it has not been able to provide locals with secure long-term tenure, or access, over forests, only 15-year agreements14) that provide limited community control. In fact, the FA still has considerable control over forests, as these agreements can be revoked at any time by the FA, and those with agreements have to organize community forests following the FA’s framework. Communal land tenure for agricultural lands has not been established in Oddar Meanchey, since there is presently only the potential for this to happen amongst indigenous communities in Cambodia, based on the 2001 Land Law, and most of those in the project area are not legally definable as “indigenous peoples,” a term with specific legal standing in Cambodia (Baird 2011; 2013). Therefore, devolution of power has, at best, been only partially achieved, although communities involved in forestry groups in the area have somewhat increased their statutory rights over forests, while continuing to maintain frequently unwritten but nevertheless potentially important customary rights. But at another level the central government became more involved, at least for a period, increasing its stake in the forests, as the area became its national model for REDD. The MAFF and the FA are also responsible for selling carbon credits from REDD projects, although so far they have not been able to sell any. This is not meant as a criticism of Pact, as Pact must operate within the particular political context of Cambodia, one where government officials seem to want to maintain considerable control over forests. Still, if we assess this project using the concepts of access and exclusion, it can be concluded that it has been unsuccessful, as communities have not achieved secure long-term access to their resources, and they are having increasingly serious problems excluding others from encroaching on their forests.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—Seima, Mondolkiri Province

The second most advanced REDD Project in Cambodia is being developed by WCS in collaboration with the FA, which formally agreed to collaborate with WCS on the project in October 2008 (Evans 2009a). In May 2008, Winrock International completed an assessment for the Seima Protected Area REDD project, in Mondulkiri Province, northeastern Cambodia (Pearson et al. 2008). The initiative builds on the long-term support that WCS has provided for the Seima15) since 2002. The 187,983 ha covered by the REDD project includes 16 villages with a population of approximately 10,750 people, most of whom are classified as “indigenous peoples,” mainly the Bunong ethnic group (Evans et al. 2012). The project credits are to be certified by VCS and CCBA (Evans 2009a) like the Oddar Meanchey Project.

The key to the Seima REDD project for WCS is developing a pilot for supporting biodiversity conservation and protected area management in Cambodia. That is their acknowledged priority, and for right or wrong, local people are of secondary concern, although they have certainly not been ignored. Although it is expected that some revenue will be directed to community benefits, a significant portion are expected to be used for protected area management (Evans 2009b).

One of the hallmarks of this project is that WCS has successfully supported indigenous communities to gain communal land tenure. This area is amongst the first to register communal land tenure for locals, based on the legislative reform that occurred when the Land Law was adopted in 2001 (Baird 2011; 2013). Although the project has been somewhat successful in ensuring local access to agricultural land resources crucial to local livelihoods, neither trees nor forested land can be included within communal land titles in Cambodia, only agricultural land (Evans et al. 2012; Baird 2011). In one village in WCS’s target area, housing areas and most agricultural land (including rotational swidden areas) have been registered under communal title. In addition, within the 1,400 ha registered as communal lands, part of the area is legally recognized as “reserve lands,” which are in reality forests or old fallow lands that could potentially be cleared for agricultural in the future (Jeremy Ironside,16) pers. comm. July 11, 2011). Nevertheless, the main forests where people generate significant income from tapping wood resin trees (see Evans et al. 2003) have not been registered as communal land. Instead, they have become defined as “state lands,” which justifies the forests remaining under the control of FA and the protected area, and thus excludes locals from a high level of control, even if they still have access to the resin trees, at least for now. As important as developing communal tenure has been in principle, it ultimately has not provided locals with secure long-term tenure over most of the forests lands that they use, as most forests have been excluded from the communal lands. Thus, this project cannot be seen as exemplary in ensuring access to resources crucial to local livelihoods, despite supporting ground-breaking communal agricultural land tenure. WCS can only do so much because of the legal restrictions imposed by the government of Cambodia. WCS and the Rainforest Alliance have, however, been investigating options for including resin tree forests presently inside the protected area within a government recognized community forest (Jeremy Ironside, pers. comm. July 11, 2011).

Relying on the access and exclusion framework, it can be seen that REDD has helped increase tenure security over local agricultural lands and future agricultural lands, but has also supported a state-led process that has actually weakened local control over most forest areas, as the communal land tenure system in place is linked with the state’s move to take control of other forested lands as “state land,” a fundamentally disempowering designation for local people. Thus, in this case REDD has the potential to provide increased access to some, through helping exclude others from taking their land. Communal land titling could help provide comprehensive secure long-term land and forest tenure, but only if forests designated as “state lands” are allowed to be considered community land, as is the case in Laos (see below).

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)—Luang Phrabang Province

JICA, in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), is piloting an innovative five-year REDD-related project in northern Laos’ Luang Phrabang Province (JICA 2010). The Participatory and Forest Management for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Lao PDR (PAREDD) Project began in October 2009, but fieldwork could not begin until February 2010, and implementation only really started in February 2011. PAREDD is working in three areas where there are considerable amounts of forests but high deforestation rates: one in an approximately 1,500 ha area in Xieng Ngeun District, another in a 30,000 ha area in Phonxay District, and the third area in Phonthong District is so far undetermined. All three are populated by ethnic minorities, mainly Khmu, and Hmong to a lesser extent (Namura Takayuki,17) pers. comm. June 19, 2011).

The PAREDD Project plans to develop carbon credits through REDD, like the other two REDD pilot projects already discussed, but its main focus is to test a participatory REDD project model. Many details need to be worked out, and the project implementers are especially conscious of the difficulties of developing agreements and paying large numbers of people living in many villages. They are looking at ways to do this effectively without high transaction costs. PAREDD also hopes to address problems related to decreasing amounts of swidden agriculture for subsistence use in northern Laos, and the increasing use of upland areas for cash crop production (JICA 2010). They have applied the Lao government’s Participatory Land Use Planning (PLUP) process, which is supposed to provide more opportunities for local participation compared to the previous land and forest allocation process (Bourgoin and Castella 2011), which has been widely criticized (Fujita and Phanvilay 2008; Baird and Shoemaker 2007; Ducourtieux et al. 2005; Evrard and Goudineau 2004). However, Lestrelin et al. (2011) have indicated that it has not been easy to translate these new PLUP principles into concrete action, especially considering the one-Party political system in Laos, and that the participation of local people remains frequently inappropriately taken for granted.

PAREDD is being directed by a Japanese national who previously gained considerable NGO experience working on community forestry projects in Laos for the Japanese Volunteer Center (JVC). He wants to work with villagers to develop a standard community forest project, except with a REDD pilot component. The crucial point of the project is that villagers should be supported to gain government-recognized secure long-term tenure over their forests, although the exact mechanisms for achieving that goal still need to be worked out, as well as what conditions might be applied for gaining tenure. Once secure tenure is established it is hoped that villagers can gain and control REDD credits on their own, so that they can be the main beneficiaries of REDD, a concept quite unlike the Cambodian examples already presented. The vision is to help villagers gain control of their own forests through using REDD as leverage, and thus is different than many other REDD pilot projects in the region (Namura Takayuki, pers. comm. June 5, 2010).

The project advisor has referred to the project as “a community forestry project pretending to be a REDD project” (Namura Takayuki, pers. comm. June 19, 2011). The main project objective is not to support protected area management, as with the WCS project mentioned above, or to develop REDD at the central level. Nor does JICA envision retaining the status quo of official central government control, as with Pact. The idea is to specifically provide locals with secure government-endorsed forest tenure, using REDD as leverage to achieve these benefits for local people.

Although it is so far unclear whether the project will be able to achieve its goals, its objectives are noteworthy, as the project fares well when assessed with the access to resources framework, since it intends to explicitly strengthen villager access to resources. The main question is: can the project really be effectively used to generate significantly increased tenure over land and forests for local people? It is not certain whether this will be possible within the politically restrictive context of Laos, where the government has little history of providing secure tenure or access to villagers over forest resources, especially in forests of high economic value (see Baird 2010b; 2010c; Hodgdon 2007; 2008; Anonymous 2000).

Still, PAREDD has considerable promise for securing long-term land and resource tenure for local people. However, the project only really began in 2011, and at the time of this research had not yet achieved many actual results. Also, it is unclear whether JICA, apart from the project advisor, is truly committed to this approach. Some recent moves suggest that JICA headquarters in Japan may be more inclined to desire a standard REDD project (Namura Takayuki, pers. comm. September 12, 2011).

Although it is unclear whether the Lao government will allow local people to become empowered in the way that project proponents are advocating, it is quite encouraging that the Lao government has recently issued its first communal land titles to villages. These communal land titles do not only include agriculture land limited to indigenous people like in Cambodia (Baird 2011; 2013), but are fundamentally related to forest land. Crucially, they are expected to make the registration of land for REDD+ easier in the future (Chokkalingam 2011). If these same sorts of communal land titles can be secured for PAREDD, the project could fare well in terms of increasing access to local people, while helping locals exclude others from their land.

Possibilities for Using REDD for Increasing Secure Local Land and Forest Tenure

Each of the case studies presented here illustrates partial achievements and possibilities for securing local land and forest tenure through the use of REDD. None, however, can be said to have so far been successful in securing statutory access to resources for local people. Still, it is crucial to first create a vision of what would be desirable. This article strives to outline what might be possible.

The Pact Oddar Meanchey project has helped maintain access to forests for local people, and may have been preventing various threats to the forests, including the advancement of economic land concessions. Tenure to local people has, however, been partial and limited (to 15-year terms), and the central government of Cambodia is more involved in the project area than before. Gaining government support is, of course, often crucial for local empowerment processes, but still, secure long-term rights remain elusive, and there are no legal provisions for providing the largely non-indigenous population with permanent or long-term communal tenure, as there are in Laos (see below). Furthermore, the central government has a monopoly on selling carbon credits and can decide how revenues from REDD are divided up (Bradley 2011; Evans et al. 2012). Communities have not been empowered to make crucial decisions related to land and forests that they use. So at best, the achievements have been partial, and would appear to be tenuous and fragile, due to various factors possibly beyond the control of Pact, such as the continuation of various real threats to forests in the area, and the desire of the Cambodian government to retain substantial control in relation to selling carbon credits and dividing up the proceeds. This example is, however, useful for demonstrating some possibilities, including for potentially using REDD to leverage forest protection and obtain rights for forest users. Moreover, Pact’s work with the FA, which is accustomed to asserting that forests come under its centralized control (Nathan and Boon 2012), might lead to the FA empowering local people more in the future. But is Pact pushing the FA as much as it should with regard to this matter? Do they see increasing local tenure as the main reason for moving ahead with REDD? Pushing too hard might damage relations with the FA, thus reducing Pact’s ability to influence from within, but if they do not push enough the results may ultimately be less than possible or desirable. What is optimal?

For the WCS project in Mondulkiri Province, the main usefulness of the case study is to highlight the achievement of apparently permanent government-recognized land tenure to the indigenous communities in the area through the development of communal land rights, amongst the first in Cambodia and mainland Southeast Asia more generally. This project has significantly strengthened land tenure for local people, and so represents a real possibility. The example is sadly lacking, however, as only a very limited portion of the forests used by the people have been registered as communal land, and due to government constraints, the vast majority of forests that people rely on for their livelihoods remain outside of the communal lands. Moreover, WCS appears to accept the idea that forests used by villagers over a long period of time should be considered “state land” and thus not under local control. These lands and forests have been demarcated as part of Seima protected area, a biodiversity conservation area established without serious consultations, let alone local buy-in. While WCS claims that locals will still be able to access the lands where their wood resin trees are located, as well as access other resources in the protected area, provided that the objectives of conservation are not violated (Tom Evans,18) pers. comm. June 4, 2011), there is no guarantee that these access rights will be respected in the future. Experiences elsewhere in Cambodia and the world would suggest that local access within central government managed protected areas are likely to be tenuous at best (see, for an example from Cambodia, Baird 2009b). Furthermore, while some benefits from REDD are expected to go to local people, as with the Oddar Meanchey project, it would appear that locals in Mondolkiri have little control over how much of the benefits they will receive, or in what form they will be delivered. It seems likely that most of the benefits will go to protected area management, which is the main objective of the project, or to the FA. Protected area management may or may not work in the interests of local people. There are possibilities for developing community forests that could increase local forest tenure, but it is so far unclear how such a system might develop in the context of the protected area. Thus, this case study is useful for suggesting possibilities related to communal land rights, but has certainly not achieved secure long-term tenure over forests for rural people.

The final case study involving JICA in Luang Phrabang Province, Laos, represents a very interesting possibility, one that could really involve providing local people with access to resources through secure long-term tenure, using REDD as leverage to achieve this clearly defined and articulated objective. The aims of the project advisor appear to be in line with locals obtaining secure long-term tenure as a prerequisite for developing REDD. However, can such objectives really be achieved? Will it be possible to convince the Lao government, which does not have a history of granting strong rights over forest resources to local people, to buy into the process, especially considering the one-party political system that is in place in Laos? Would they be willing to recognize indigenous land-use systems such as those that involve swidden cultivation? This is something that the Lao government has discouraged and even prohibited for decades (Baird and Shoemaker 2007; Evrard and Goudineau 2004). Is JICA really willing to back up such efforts, or are the objectives only really being supported by the Japanese advisor of the project? Will the communal forest land titles presently being issued by the Lao government really be respected in the long-term? Unfortunately, the Lao government does not have much of a track record of granting secure communal land and forest rights to local people and then sticking to those agreements. For example, in the 1990s land forest rights were given to communities as part of the Land and Forest Allocation process, but since then many of those rights have been arbitrarily revoked by officials (Ducourtieux et al. 2005; Hodgdon 2007; 2008). This is partially due to the weak judicial system in the country, which makes it easy for governments to withdraw rights without much resistance. Thus, the chances for achieving the desired results would appear to be limited, and considerable compromising may be necessary, but at least the vision embedded within the JICA project demonstrates a possibility, one worth careful consideration and potential emulation.

Overall, if we consider all three projects discussed in this paper, it is possible to see how REDD could be used as leverage for providing locals with forest tenure and related benefits. This is provided, of course, that people and governments have the vision and convictions to do so. Thus, this paper does not only relate to assessing REDD projects, but is also about presenting possibilities, ones that many might argue are more utopian in nature than realistically achievable within present-day political and social contexts. That may be true, and taking small steps to achieve such objectives could represent the most realistic path forward. In fact, all three projects are doing this to varying extents and in different ways. It could be realized, providing that there is sufficient vision and political will to do so at various levels. This paper will certainly not, by itself, lead to the structural or conceptual changes that would be needed to make this a reality, but it can hopefully advance the vision.

One of the problems with the present REDD system is that it is being rapidly developed in order to be “efficient,” and in order to rapidly address the climate change crisis. To really establish an equitable system that gives locals secure long-term tenure, however, the ground work related to land and resource tenure, including appropriate legislative and judicial reforms, needs to be done first, and experiences worldwide would suggest that this cannot be expected to happen as easily, quickly, or as cheaply, as many advocates of REDD might hope. For example, the Cambodian Land Law was established in 2001, but it took a decade for the first villages to obtain communal land title, and it will take many more years before a large number of indigenous communities have communal land title. One of the main problems is that in order to meet the vision of REDD being linked to strong long-term land and resource tenure for villagers, there would need to be substantial reforms. While there are some positive indications of reforms occurring in Laos that would provide villages with tenure over forests, both the Lao and Cambodian governments still generally consider forests to be state property, and both the governments of Laos and Cambodia have been hesitant to give secure long-term tenure over forests to rural people in the past, or to recognize this tenure in the past. We need to recognize that at least in Laos and Cambodia, this is a crucial part of the problem with the way REDD is developing. The recent trend in both Laos and Cambodia of central governments reasserting control over forests can be linked to the trick of defining forested lands that local people have long used as being located on “state land.”


In this paper I have attempted to show how assessing REDD projects using an access and exclusion framework can be revealing and useful. Indeed, REDD initiatives have the potential to recentralize forest resources in particular ways in Cambodia and Laos, especially in relation to plans to market carbon credits. However, through examining the three case studies, and the particular contexts in Cambodia and Laos, it is evident that REDD has the potential, if initiated in particular ways, and with considerable government buy-in, to be used to leverage secure long-term access to resources for local people, thus helping them exclude others from taking their land. In fact, to some extent that is already occurring, albeit in very uneven and partial ways. True success is, however, only likely to be possible if tenure is elevated higher on the international agenda. There are also serious systemic concerns regarding the transparency and accountability of governance systems in Cambodia and Laos, which point to problems with government capacity to support effective decentralization, but also suggest that centralized control would likely be quite problematic as well. In any case, considering the widespread present-day interest in REDD, there are opportunities for using REDD to achieve increased resource tenure for local people, but it will not be easy, and will require focusing on tenure as a key part of REDD, something that has generally not been adequately done with for most REDD+ initiatives.

Finally, it must also be remembered—when taking a pragmatist position like the one outlined at the beginning of the paper—that providing secure long-term tenure over resources to local people in relation to REDD projects, if done correctly, is not only likely to benefit local resource users, but also to be crucial for the success of REDD projects themselves, as the governments of Cambodia and Laos are unlikely to be able to sustain forest protection over long-periods of time without the support of rural communities, and this is only likely to be forthcoming if they gain the types of secure long-term tenure that past experiences both in Southeast Asia and globally have indicated are crucial for successful natural resource management. REDD does not exist in a vacuum, and lessons about the importance of secure long-term tenure and access to resources are as relevant when it comes to REDD as with other types of land-use management programs.

Accepted: June 10, 2014


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1) I do, however, recognize that rights-based approaches do have potential pitfalls (see, for example, Li 2002).

2) There are some better examples of this in Latin America (see, for example, Lastarria-Cornhiel et al. 2012).

3) Approximately 35 percent of the greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere are a result of past deforestation (Blom et al. 2010; UN-REDD Program Cambodia 2010), and between 12–15 percent of annual global greenhouse gases emissions are presently believed to be coming from continued deforestation and forest degradation (van der Werf et al. 2009), although the percentage could even be lower (Holly Gibbs, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, pers. comm. December 16, 2011).

4) See: http://www.climatefundsupdate.org/listing/forest-carbon-partnership-facility, accessed December 25, 2012.

5) http://therightsofnature.org/indigenous-peoples-for-life/, accessed May 10, 2014.

6) Blom et al. (2010) suggest that implementers of REDD+ would benefit from assessing past successes and failures of ICDPs, as there are various important lessons from the ICDP literature that do not appear to have been considered in relation to the development of REDD.

7) Today, the terms of REDD, REDD+, and REDD++ are often used interchangeably. One could argue that the difference between these terms is difficult to determine without examining the details of individual initiatives. Therefore, for convenience sake, I refer to all three as simply REDD.

8) It should be noted, however, that Cambodia only has observer status with UN-REDD, unlike Vietnam which is a full UN-REDD country. It is expected that Cambodia will be granted membership once their national REDD plan has been completed, but there are no guarantees that this will actually happen, despite the Cambodia government having high expectations of being admitted as a UN-REDD country (Tom Clements, pers. comm. July 8, 2010).

9) Some believe that there may have been more deforestation than the government has acknowledged.

10) At the time of this interview, Alastair Fraser was a REDD+ expert for the FCPF in Laos.

11) Tom Clements is a REDD+ expert who worked for UN-REDD at the time of this interview.

12) Amanda Bradley is an expert in community forestry in Cambodia and REDD+. She previously worked on REDD+ and community forestry in Cambodia for Community Forestry International and Pact. More recently, she worked as Senior Manager, Social & Community Benefits for TerraCarbon in the USA, where she has also worked on REDD+. She has recently accepted a position as REDD+ Tenure Specialist for FAO in Rome.

13) Shalmali Guttal is a senior analyst for Focus on the Global South, based in Bangkok. She has worked in mainland Southeast Asia for over 20 years.

14) Fifteen years is not even enough time for a small tree to reach medium size. It is not long enough for one cycle of life to pass for hardwood tree species.

15) The Seima Protected Area was officially declared by the FA in August 2009, and includes parts of Mondulkiri and Kratie provinces (Evans 2009a).

16) Jeremy Ironside is an agriculture, land tenure, and indigenous peoples expert who has been conducting research on these topics in northeastern Cambodia since the mid-1990s. He recently completed a PhD looking at the process of land privatization underway in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia and the communal land ownership alternative.

17) Namura Takayuki is a community forestry expert who previously worked on a community forestry project in Central Laos for the Japanese non-government organization, JVC. He is presently an expert with JICA, and is based in Laos where he is the project advisor for PAREDD.

18) Dr. Tom Evans works for WCS in Cambodia.