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Vol. 6, No. 1, Media Zainul BAHRI


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Indonesian Theosophical Society (1900–40) and the Idea of Religious Pluralism

Media Zainul Bahri*

*Department of Religious Studies, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University of Jakarta, Jl. Ir. H. Juanda No 95, Ciputat-Tangerang Selatan, Banten, Indonesia
e-mail: zainul.bahri[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_139

This article elucidates the idea of religious pluralism within the Indonesian Theosophical Society (ITS) during the pre-independence period (1900–40). ITS is perhaps the “hidden pearl” in the history of Indonesian spiritual movements in the early twentieth century. It seems that many Indonesians themselves do not know about the existence of ITS in the pre-independence era and its role in spreading a peaceful and inclusive religious understanding. The organization of ITS was legally approved by Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar, India, at the end of the nineteenth century. For more than 30 years in the early part of the twentieth century ITS discussed the idea of religious pluralism, spreading the value of harmony among believers in the Indonesian Archipelago and managing “multireligious and cultural education” in order to appreciate the diversity and differences of the Nusantara people. This article also shows that the religious understanding of Theosophical Society members in the archipelago is different from the spiritual views of TS figures at headquarters in Adyar. ITS members’ religious views were influenced by factors such as European and American spiritualism, Indian religion and spirituality, Chinese religion, and the intermixture of Javanese mysticism (kejawen) and Javanese Islam (santri).

Keywords:Indonesian Theosophical Society, priyayi, kejawen, comparative religion, perennialism


This research focuses on how the Indonesian Theosophical Society (ITS) during the pre-independence period (1900–40) spread its ideas on religious pluralism in appreciation of Indonesia’s multireligious and multicultural society. This research is important for the following reasons. First, ITS is possibly the first “society” to have introduced a model of religious studies in Indonesia with an inclusive-pluralist character. This was achieved by emphasizing an esoteric approach and by recognizing and exploring the exoteric and esoteric aspects of religions. As “. . . no statement about a religion is valid unless it can be acknowledged by that religion’s believers” (Smith 1959), ITS tried to learn these aspects directly from scholars or religious leaders of the religions being researched. This model of study was followed by Professor Mukti Ali when establishing the department of Comparative Religion at PTAIN (Perguruan Tinggi Agama Islam, Islamic Higher Education), Yogyakarta, in 1961 (see Bahri 2014).

Second, if one looks at the role of Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton as a figure of the politics of Association and a key figure of ITS or the president of Nederlandsch Indische Theosofische Vereniging (NITV),1) who always called upon Theosophical Society members to “cooperate” with the Dutch colonial authorities, one may assume that ITS was used as a means of “ethical politics” of the Dutch colonial authorities to stifle the resistance of Indonesians (believers). However, one cannot ignore the significant role of ITS at that time in managing “multireligious and cultural education.” ITS members periodically gathered to discuss religious doctrines at lodges (loji). There were lodges in Buitenzorg (Bogor), Batavia, Cirebon, Bandung, Pasuruan, Semarang, Purwokerto, Pekalongan, Wonogiri, Surabaya, and probably in most of the small and big towns on Java. Periodically, they published Theosophical magazines that contained about 85 percent of living religions and beliefs in the archipelago. Apparently, instead of one of the objectives of Theosophy itself, namely, “to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of mankind,” Theosophy members also realize that diversity and differences among the Nusantara people lead to conflicts; that is why they lean toward the ideas of pluralism, harmony, and the “common word” of religions.

Third, in dealing with the awakening of nationalism in conventional Indonesian historiography, historians refer to movements such as Boedi Oetomo (BO), Indische Partij, Jong Islamische Bond, Jong Java, Jong Soematra, Jong Ambon, and similar organizations, but religious organizations are rarely ever mentioned as part of the awakening. However, it may be noted that while Islamic organizations such as Muhammadiyah (1912) and NU (Nahdlatul Ulama, 1926) were involved at the lower level, ITS was involved on an elite level in the propagation of nationalism in the era of revolution. Thus, BO and their fellows are to be seen as participants in this process at the middle level.

Research on the Indonesian Theosophical movement includes First, Mengikis Batas Timur & Barat: Gerakan Theosofi & Nasionalisme Indonesia by Iskandar Nugraha (2001). This work was reprinted in 2011 with the title Teosofi, Nasionalisme & Elite Modern Indonesia. It highlights two important aspects: the history, existence, and development of ITS from 1901 to 1933; and the influence of the Theosophical movement on modern Indonesian nationalism. Nugraha shows how many Indonesian students found their identity, experienced a shared destiny, and felt the urge to find their self-awareness as one nation through TS. The most significant contribution of this work is that the TS movement contributed greatly to the awakening of Indonesian nationalism (Nugraha 2011, 76, 88).

The Politics of Divine Wisdom: Theosophy and Labour, National, and Women’s Movements in Indonesia and South Asia 1857–1947 by Herman Arij Oscar de Tollenaere (1996) is another significant work. This is a dissertation by de Tollenaere at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In addition to discussing the history of the international Theosophical movement from the United States to Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia; the movement’s members; some of the most important teachings of ITS, such as the doctrines of karma and reincarnation, the nonexistence of change, the existence of higher worlds and evolution, this works focuses on TS’s relationship to three tendencies in the labor movement (in Southeast Asia and Indonesia): social democracy, Communism, and anarchism. In theory, Theosophy was for everyone, but for de Tollenaere, attempts of the Theosophical Society to reach workers and peasants were infrequent and unsuccessful. De Tollenaere’s work broadly explains the political struggles of both the labor movement and women and their connections to the Theosophical movement.

A very short article by de Tollenaere on “Indian Thought in the Dutch Indies” (2000) explains TS influence in the Dutch Indies and how much Theosophy actually represented Indian thought. Another article by de Tollenaere, “The Limits of Liberalism and of Theosophy: Colonial Indonesia and the German Weimar Republic 1918–1933” (1999), explores liberalism and liberal politics as well as their relationships to the Indonesian Theosophical movement.

My research explores the religious views of ITS that are pluralists showed that religious understanding of TS members not merely an effort to strengthen the social harmony among people in the archipelago at the moment but also bring a new perspective that religious understanding is embedded within Theosophical members in the archipelago has significant distinctions—as will be discussed later—with the spirituality views of TS figures at its headquarters in Adyar, India. As far as I can tell, such research has not been done before.

This article refers to TS magazines (resembling journals) published from the first decade of the twentieth century to 1940, which are valuable sources on an important episode of the socio-religious life of Indonesians. These magazines are Pewarta Theosophie Boeat Tanah Hindia Nederland (PTHN, Malay language, 21 volumes, 188 numbers, 1911–38), Theosophie In Nederland Indie: Theosophie Di Tanah Hindia Nederland (Dutch and Malay language, 80 numbers, 1918–25), Theosophie in Nederlandsch Indie (TINI, Dutch language, 1912–30), Kumandang Theosofie (KT, Malay language, 6 volumes, 46 numbers, 1932–37), Persatoean Hidoep (PH, Malay language, 11 volumes, 109 numbers, 1930–40), and Pewarta Theosofie Boeat Indonesia (PTBI, Malay language, 1912–30).

The Emergence of Theosophy in Indonesia

The first signs of a Theosophical movement surfaced in 1875 in New York City. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), a Russian aristocrat who supposedly had mystical or supernatural powers, founded the first Theosophical Society (TS) with the assistance of the Americans Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge. Immediately after the establishment of the organization, Olcott was elected as its president. In 1879, the TS headquarters were moved from New York to Adyar by Madame Blavatsky. In 1895, TS entered a new era with the appearance of Annie Besant. It was under her leadership that TS became an influential force not just in India but around the world (Cranston 1993, 143–148; Nugraha 2011, 5–7).

According to Nugraha, there is no adequate evidence about the exact beginnings of the TS movement in Indonesia apart from a few notes that provide only general information. One of these notes suggests that the Theosophy movement in “Hindie” (or Indies, i.e., Indonesia) might have been established initially at Pekalongan, Central Java, as a branch of TS Netherlands, eight years after Theosophy was founded in the United States. The lodge in this small town was led by the European aristocrat Baron van Tengnagel. The founding date, however, is not clear as different sources mention two different years: 1881 and 1883. Rather vaguely, Nugraha puts the initial existence of the TS movement at the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, at least, Theosophy had already attracted many Javanese, especially from Central Java.2) However, the who, what, and how of its establishment are still unclear. The only hard fact is that the Pekalongan Theosophical Society was led by an infantry captain of the Dutch East Indies who had been assigned to the topographic division before his engagement with TS. The organization was legally approved by TS headquarters in Adyar, and its license was signed by Colonel Olcott (Nugraha 2011, 8–9).

However, rumor has it that long before Blavatsky founded Theosophy in New York (1875), she had already visited the Netherlands Indies—more than once. According to the Theosophy magazine Lucifer, Blavatsky’s interest in Indonesia was quite high before she formally founded the Theosophy movement, particularly because of the possible contributions of Javanese values to the teachings of Theosophy. Perhaps with this idea in mind, Blavatsky visited the Mendut and Borobudur temples in 1852–60, visited Pekalongan, and spent a night at Pesanggrahan Limpung at the foot of Mount Dieng. In 1862 she returned and traveled around Java, supposedly visiting many places there. Nugraha assumes that the emergence of a Theosophical movement in Pekalongan might have been related to Blavatsky’s visit to Java; perhaps that its earlier activities in the Netherlands Indies were limited to its esoteric aspects only just like in its headquarters (ibid., 8–9, 38). According to Nugraha, details of the earliest TS activity in the late nineteenth century and the role of Baron van Tengnagel are still unclear. The only certainty is that he died in Bogor in 1893 (ibid., 9).

A new phase in the history of TS began in the early twentieth century. In 1901, TS student groups appeared in Semarang. Propaganda to attract people to become TS members was initiated by Asperen van de Velde, a Dutchman and director of a printing and publishing house. Through his job, he spread pamphlets, inviting people to join the Theosophy movement. Starting with seven members in Semarang, TS began to spread to other regions such as Surabaya (1903), Yogyakarta (1904), and Surakarta (1905). Because of his pioneering work, Asperen was later called the spiritual father of the lodge (ibid.).

To sum up, from the early twentieth century to 1940, the ITS movement progressed steadily. Year by year it gained in influence and increased its membership numbers. Because of its fundamental precepts on progress, mystical philosophy, sciences and brotherhood, ITS attracted many young adults and important figures of the day, whose visions later gave an ideological direction to the Indonesian Republic. Some of them were mere sympathizers, while some became members. Familiar names such as Haji Agus Salim, Radjiman Wedjodiningrat, Achmad Subardjo, Cipto Mangunkusumo, Sutomo, Muhammad Yamin, Raden Sukemi (father of Soekarno), and Datuk St. Maharadja show up in the context of TS. Other prominent figures such as Suwardi Suryaningrat or Ki Hadjar Dewantara, Muhammad Hatta, and Soekarno had close connections to the movement. Many local figures of the Javanese and Sundanese aristocracy were also active members and involved in the founding of ITS branches.

During its golden age, 1910–30, Theosophy established many organizations to realize the spirit of brotherhood and to spread the teachings of Theosophy, particularly aiming at the empowerment of indigenous people through education and by developing the quality of Eastern morality. Some of TS’s most important organizations were: (1) Bintang Timoer (1911), specializing in the teaching and practice of Sufism and esotericism or spirituality; (2) Moeslim Bond (1924), a forum for Muslim members to learn to accept the reality of world changes; (3) Mimpitoe or M 7 (1909), an organization for fighting the seven vices, namely, main (gambling), minoem (drinking alcohol), madon (womanizing), madat (drug addiction), maling (stealing), modo (hate speech), mangani (gluttony); (4) Perhimpunan Toeloeng-Menoeloeng (1909), a mutual help organization; (5) Widija-Poestaka (1909), an organization for collecting all kinds of ancient knowledge that could be found in the Netherlands Indies (Nusantara) to protect it from extinction; (5) NIATWUV (Nederlandsch-Indische Wereld Afdeling Theosofische Wereld Universiteit Vereniging), or World Department of Theosophical World University Association of the Netherlands Indies, which organized schools and supported the establishment of educational institutions in the Dutch East Indies. One of the most popular schools to be established was the Sekolah Arjuna (Ardjoena-scholen, Arjuna School, 1914). This TS school was named after Arjuna, the Mahabharata character who was very much liked by natives and well known through shadow puppet performances (wayang). Wayang also happened to be one of the most favored media for disseminating the teachings of theosophy; (6) the Ati Soetji (Pure Heart) Organization (1914), which aimed to improve the lives of women and pursue other social causes.

In terms of membership, Nugraha’s research shows that the Theosophical movement of the Dutch Indies had Dutch, Bumiputera (natives), Chinese, and Indo-European (Indo) members. However, until the first decade of the twentieth century most Indo, as part of European Dutch Indies society, had a poor and marginal socioeconomic position. This is because they were rejected by their own “father,” the Europeans, and their pleas were never heeded. On the other hand, they also had difficulty adjusting to the Bumiputera, or natives, because their official status was European. Under these circumstances the Indo, who were proponents of the Association Movement, dominated the Theosophy membership. In Theosophy, apparently they found the concept that brought them closer to the Bumiputera and enabled them to fight for equality. As Merle Ricklefs states: “Theosophy was one of the few movements which brought elite Javanese, Indo-Europeans and Dutchmen together in this period . . .” (Ricklefs 2008, 198).

Bumiputera constituted the second-largest group of Theosophy members. Amongst the Bumiputera, the Javanese were the most dominant group. The concept of Theosophy and the approach of Theosophy leaders were the two main reasons the Javanese aristocracy were attracted to this movement. Theosophical teachings, which are esoteric, spiritual, or kebatinan, appealed to Javanese aristocrats, who were very fond of mysticism. They regarded the teachings of Theosophy as similar to the secret teachings of ancestral wisdom in their sacred and ancient books. Although embracing Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity, these aristocrats were in fact pantheists who succeeded in consolidating (or harmonizing) their official religion with their ancestors’ mystical wisdom. Therefore, according to Nugraha, the TS movement’s strongest influence was in Central and East Java (Nugraha 2011, 30–31).

Nugraha assumes that the entry of a Bumiputera as a member of TS would undoubtedly be a matter of prestige. The earliest members of the aristocracy who helped to spread the teachings of Theosophy amongst students were figures with great charisma, either because of their position or education or because of their ideas. It was this that attracted most non-aristocratic Javanese students to join TS. In this period it was most unusual for a common native person to be able to mix as an equal with people from high nobility and Europeans, especially Dutchmen, who had much higher status socially and politically. TS also had adequate intellectual facilities such as libraries. Nugraha cites C. L. M. Penders, the writer of The Life and Times of Soekarno (1974): “Soekarno spent many hours in the Library of the Theosophical Society to which he had access because of his father’s membership. It was there that he debated in his mind with some of the great political figures in history” (ibid.). Apart from libraries containing comprehensive collections of scientific texts, TS also offered possibilities for public discussions, either in studie-klasse or in openbare lezing (public lectures) through its NITV organization (ibid., 44). Whereas colonialism divided society along distinct color lines, the TS’s fundamental principle did not consider differences of skin color, race, religion, and ethnicity. This fact increasingly persuaded Bumiputera students to join the organization.

The dominance of Javanese can be seen in the attendance of the first congress of TS in Yogyakarta. Of the 78 delegates meeting at M. R. T. Sosronegoro’s house, there were 19 priyayi (Javanese aristocrats) titled Raden (R), Raden Mas (RM), and Raden Ngabehi (R.Ng). The other 17 delegates consisted of female priyayi. Apart from these Javanese members, there were other ethnic representatives from Sunda, Minangkabau, Melayu, even Manado and Ambon. Based on the ledenlijst (membership list) of 1914 and 1915, apart from the Javanese priyayi, there were many noble persons from West Sumatera (Minangkabau). This is proven by the titles written after their names: Galar Sutan, Galar Datuk, Galar Marah, Galar Tan, Datuk Rangkayo, and many others (ibid., 34–35). Amongst them were Haji Agus Salim, prominent fighters and national heroes, and Dt. Sutan Maharadja, a well-known figure of the nationalist movement (ibid., 32). Many of the Sundanese members also held the title of Raden (ibid., 35).

De Tollenaere (2000) notes that in 1930 membership had risen to its highest level ever: 2,090 people, 1,006 of whom were European. These Europeans were mainly Dutch, and they made up nearly 0.5 percent of all the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies, the highest proportion of Theosophists anywhere in the world! A total of 876 members were listed as “Native” (Indonesian), while 208 members were “Foreign Oriental,” as most Asians of non-Indonesian ancestry were categorized. Probably about 190 of them were Chinese and approximately 20 Indian. One should not try to credit the few Indian members of the TS living in the Dutch Indies with any significant influence in the local TS lodges, let alone in the politics of the Dutch Indies. It is clear that this was one of the only places where Europeans would fraternize with “natives” and allow themselves to be in a slight minority position, i.e., not fully in control but only a strong presence. Geographically, membership was concentrated on Java. Socially, most Indonesian members were Javanese aristocrats (priyayi) and only a few of the “natives” were West Sumatran and Balinese noblemen. This membership which is very diverse: European, Chinese, Indian, and Bumiputera themselves has given a clear signal that they have mutually influence one each other, especially in the matter of religion and spirituality as well as this article concerns.

Within this organization the priyayi, constituting the Indonesian elite, felt equal to the Dutch, and the Dutch themselves did not humiliate the priyayi. Due to this noble stratification, the Dutch also gave a lot of opportunities to them, for instance enabling them to study in reputable universities in the Netherlands. Consequently, most of the Indonesian nationalist leaders who came from the elite group and who led Indonesia to independence were educated in the Netherlands.

If we look further into Islamic articles in TS journals, another important group can be found, namely, Muslim santri (traditional Javanese Muslims). Within the system of Javanese stratification, the status of santri is higher than that of common people (wong cilik) but lower than that of priyayi. Regarding the Muslim membership, Haji Agus Salim, a Muslim leader and one of the prominent Indonesian founding fathers, describes why he became a member of ITS (in English):

I had joined the Theosophical Society that was because I saw that their call to religion addressed to a good many Muslims especially who got some what estranged from religion because of their western education, but had still a long standing tradition of religious altogether [sic]. (Nugraha 2011, 32)

ITS and the Idea of Religious Pluralism

First and foremost, the idea of religious pluralism within ITS is centered on the concept of God. When defining Theosophy, Blavatsky interpreted Theos as “god” (not “God” or “personal God,” as people understand it today). Therefore, for Blavatsky, Theosophy is not to be translated as “wisdom of God” but rather as that “divine wisdom” which is possessed by gods (Blavatsky 1981, 2). Instead, what is understood as God by ITS is a personal God, in conformity with religions in the Dutch East Indies (Leadbeater 1915a; Wongsodilogo 1921).

In a lot of articles published, because it focuses on the esoteric, the members of ITS believed that God is one, but believers call him by different names: the Dutch call him “God,” Muslims “Allah Taalah,” Hindus “Ishwara,” Tionghoa or Chinese “Kwan-shai-Yin Thian,” Jews “Jehovah,” Confucians “Tao,” Greeks “Theo,” etc. For ITS, although the names may differ, the Almighty is one and only.3) In other words, there are different languages to address God but the meaning is identical.4) This doctrine is a specialty of perennialism. Since the absolute one is impossible to grasp by man’s very limited logical capacity, He may be grasped through His appearances, symbols, or names, which in turn create plural Gods (Hidayat and Nafis 2003, 69–70).

Based upon the doctrine that the one God has many names, ITS members discussed concepts such as the essential unity of religions, the substantial relationship to God’s messengers, and the continuity and unity of the essence of the holy scriptures. For ITS, these concepts are related to one another. Because they come from the same God, the message of the prophets and the scriptures are one and the same, albeit in different languages. In other words, all prophets were sent by God to bring identical teachings, although their doctrines differed on the surface (S. M. 1926, 140; N. 1927a, 203; 1929, 147–148). Accordingly, all scriptures—the Torah, Bible, Vedas, Upanisads, Bhagavadgita, Quran, Tripitaka, and others—are regarded as holy scriptures containing noble teachings from the prophets; the contexts may be different, but they all originate from the same God (Baehler 1917, 52; Si pitjik 1926, 104). All holy scriptures are regarded as equal. Every believer, no matter what religion he professes, should learn about and do a comparative study of at least two or more of these holy scriptures (Si pitjik 1926, 104). In essence, all religions and creeds derive from the same God and have the same objective (Siswosoeparto 1912, 140). Diverse religions, in ITS terms, are actually “tools to worship God, any of them might be chosen” (Djojodiredjo 1912, 45).

There are also some writings about Islam’s view on the topics above, most referring to the teachings of Sufism. Those authors (perhaps Muslims) strongly believed that the teachings of the pearls of Sufism by Ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240), Rumi (1207–73), al-Ghazali (1058–1111), and al-Junaid (d. 910) were apt to the doctrine and mission of TS, which wanted world peace through exploring the teaching of unity within religions and prophetic messages. According to those Muslims, the language of Sufis is the language of the heart that enables people to understand the different names and manifestations of God (J. M. 1920, 87; N. 1927a, 203).

One ITS member even argued that all religions were Islam: neither in identity nor in a historical sense, but in quality, by which he meant that all religions promote safety, security, peace, and love. If all believers were to really practice their religion, and then indeed those notions of Islam indicate that since the beginning their religion meant Islam. As he argued: “If those ancient religions were not Islam, obviously their prophets were liars, because Muhammad asked us to believe all the messengers” (W1 1927, 129).

Therefore, to Muslims, all of God’s messengers brought noble and true teachings that were identical with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Thus, if Prophet Muhammad asked Muslims not only to believe but also to love and respect the teachings of previous prophets, this implied that the followers of those prophets also should be loved and respected by Muslims. The teaching of Prophet Muhammad and other prophets is that if a Muslim loves and respects God, he or she should love all people and all of God’s creatures too (TVTKL 1927, 15).

These ITS doctrines about one God with many names, the essential unity of religions, prophetic messages, and holy scriptures are all part of TS works and efforts to realize universal brotherhood amongst mankind with no prejudices about race, nation, skin color, and religion. For Theosophists, religions take different forms due to their cultural contexts, because they do not exist in a historical vacuum. For example, the religious Shari’a was developed as a response to the situation and condition of the respective era. Hassan Hanafi, a well-known Egyptian Muslim scholar, argues that revelation is not something that exists outside the solid and unchangeable context, which continuously changes in terms of experiencing (Hanafi n.d., 71). Therefore, the diversity of race, nation, and ethnicity in a certain space and time determines its difference in Shari’a law. Consequently, its rules in detail are neither universal nor applicable eternally in every situation and under every condition. This logical argument is exercised also by pluralists such as John Hick, and followers of perennial philosophy such as Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. According to Hick, pluralists believe that there is but one God, who is the maker and lord of all: Adonai and God, Allah and Ekoamkar, Rama and Krishna are actually different names for the same God; and people in the church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, and temple worship the same God. Historical situations are what made the believers of various religious traditions call their God by different names as well as develop different rites. For Hick, the great world religions arose within different streams of human life and have in the past flowed down the centuries within different cultural channels. However, believers experience a spiritual encounter with the same God (Hick 1982, 48–56).

Perennialists have a similar explanation. Schuon, for instance, believes that “religions are alike at heart or in essence while differing in form.” According to this view, distinctions between religions refer to distinctions between essence and form. “Form,” of course, is closely related to the physical or the phenomenal world, which is also linked to historical and cultural aspects. Philosophically, for Schuon, the distinction between essence and accident (form) can be modulated into the distinction between exoteric and esoteric (Capps 1995, 304). In other words, outwardly all religions are different, but inwardly they originate from and shall return to a single truth. Likewise, Hossein Nasr, through theo-anthropological discourse, believes that the plurality of prophets and religions is because of changing conditions of the people to whom revelation is addressed. Each prophet reveals an aspect of the truth and the divine law, so it is necessary to have many prophets—in many different regions—to reveal the different aspects of truth (Nasr 1972, 144).

On Demeaning Other Religions, Conversion, and Harmony

Theosophists do not believe in slandering and demeaning other religions through either word or deed. There are four central principles of Theosophy on the existence of differences in religion and attitudes toward the religions of others. First, there are thousands of religions that are suited to their respective nations due to considerations of cultural uniqueness and compatibility. Therefore, there is no religion that is higher or better than another. Each religion contains the same goodness, sublimity, and goal (Djojodiredjo 1912, 45; Karim 1923, 33). In short, according to Kyai Somo Tjitro, a Muslim Theosophist, all religions are equal (Tjitro 1915, 121–122).

Second, it is not appropriate for people to hate and humiliate others only because of differences in beliefs, more so if they have not studied their own religion thoroughly nor the religions they humiliate because they consider the study of other religions to be haram (unlawful). For A. Karim (1923), a Muslim Theosophist, such people are in fact bigoted (“Si picik”).5) Thus, if a believer is a Muslim, Christian, or Hindu, his religious knowledge is not very deep (Tjantoela 1912, 53).6) Theosophists believe that if someone gains a deep knowledge of the essence of their own religion, it will be impossible for them to degrade other religions or discriminate between religions (Rivai 1927, 23).

Third, God’s compassion and justice is for all and not just for one person or one nation. God’s mercy and grace envelop everything, while man’s knowledge will always be disputable (Tjantoela 1912, 55; Karim 1925, 31).

Fourth, as stated by Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton (1912), a key figure of ITS, a good attitude is to study other religions; the best attitude is to study one’s own religion and practice it in the right way; the worst attitude is to persuade, lure someone into, or even force others to follow one’s religion. The unforgivable attitude is to use one’s religion as a means to make someone else look stupid or like a blinded-zealot.

Theosophy does not advocate religious conversion. On many occasions it is firmly stated that religious believers—particularly ITS members—should not convert to another religion. People should be faithful to their religious teachings or Shari’a. According to Muslim Theosophists, a convert is someone who is neglectful:

It is actually not right for the Boemipoetera [natives] who are already Muslim to convert to Christianity or Buddhism, and vice versa. A person who has done so is called someone who is neglectful. Truly, this is just a hindrance in the journey to God, as each religion is just a way to worship God—(as God is one)—as the Quran says: Inna lillahi wa Inna ilaihi raji’un (“Verily, unto God do we belong, and verily, unto Him we shall return”). (Djojosoediro 1918, 41)7)

Theosophy does not claim to be either an old religion or a new one,8) and it does not want to make people “defect” from their own religion or convert to another one. The Theosophical Society wanted religious believers—as members—to truly believe in their own religion by studying the heart and deepest meaning of their prophet’s teachings, and to live together in harmony even though they had different beliefs and religions (Leadbeater 1915b, 20; Guldenaar 1916, 14). ITS claimed that, in fact, rather than preaching conversion, Theosophy’s teachings would actually strengthen one’s faith to one’s own religion. Its members would still be faithful to their own religion (Shari’a), but with a much deeper mystic-philosophical understanding beyond exoteric understanding. Theosophy would open the hearts of believers to learn more about each religion than they ever knew before, even—in some cases—helping people to become obedient worshippers of their own religions. There was a case involving a member who wanted to convert, but after a Theosophy master explained the truth and reality of his religion, he changed his mind (Labberton 1912, 126; Leadbeater 1915b, 20).

Theosophy believes that religious differences merely mean different ways to reach God. On this matter, ITS members referred to the Bhagavadgita: “Man has come to Me through many paths, and through whatever path a man came to me, I accept him on this path because all the paths are Mine” (Latief 1926a, 30); and to the Quran: “For the followers of every religion: We have set certain rules to follow as good as we can, do not let them argue with you, but invite them to the Lord because you really are on the straight path” (P. A. 1926, 12–13). Therefore, Theosophists believe that differences between paths are not a matter of principle but are, in fact, the ultimate goal. Both Broto (1926), a Muslim Theosophist from Bogor, and Baehler (1916) firmly argue that all paths surely lead to the same God. With this kind of understanding, differences are not supposed to be a seed of conflict and dispute.

According to A. Latief (1926a), a Muslim member of TS, a deep understanding of Islam is in fact in line with the doctrine of Theosophy. So, if someone is willing to do research on the theme of brotherhood in the holy scriptures, they will find verses on the essential unity of religions and the brotherhood of mankind. One will find these two themes only if one is able to penetrate into the deeper aspects of the teachings of the holy scriptures. Conversely, one can expose the differences and contradictions between religions, which will only trigger conflict. As the main goal of TS is universal brotherhood and harmony, its members and all religious believers are encouraged to discover both themes when studying religions.

In order to achieve understanding and respect between religions, Labberton argued, there were only two ways for the people of the Netherlands Indies to progress: first, to study science together with the Dutch until equality with Europeans was achieved; and second, waging war with other nations (presumably the Dutch). The first way would lead to a peaceful and secure life, whereas the second would lead to war and disarray. It was up to the people of the Netherlands Indies to choose between conflict and brotherhood, war and peace, living or dying. According to Labberton, the people of Europe, China (Tionghoa), and Java who chose the second way had become partners or troops of Sang Ijajil (the Dajjal, or Antichrist); whereas if they had chosen the first way, they would have become troops of Sri Tunjung Seto—Sang Guru Dewa (The Divine Master), or King of Harmony.9)

Raden Djojosoediro, an Indonesian Muslim Theosophist, reminded Muslims not to be “jealous” when a Muslim converted. Conversion to another religion often creates conflict in the Muslim community, internally or externally. As Djojosoediro wrote, conflict—whether caused by conversion or something else—usually comes from a group of “uneducated people.” Students of Theosophy, however, were urged to live together in peace and harmony (guyub and rukun), despite all their differences. Djojosoediro advised Muslims to follow the way of Prophet Muhammad, i.e., avoiding jealousy and conflict, and showing compassion (welas asih). Djojosoediro described India as a country with religious harmony where—during that time—people of a diversity of ethnicities and religions were able to live together in harmony, respecting and appreciating each other. Believers of different religions were also free to practice their beliefs. India had proven that differences in religions and beliefs did not necessarily produce conflict and quarrels (Djojosoediro 1918, 42).

Freedom of religion is a parallel concept to Theosophy’s idea about the equality of religions. In fact, Theosophical doctrines of unity and similarities among religions strongly support the rule and practice of religious freedom. The TS deeply agreed with the Dutch government rule on Article X concerning religion that stated:

It is prohibited to apply force on other people in their way of thinking or their religion. All man is free to worship his God. All of the religious holidays are recognized. Humiliating and diminishing the rights of any religion is prohibited . . . and do not make others miserable and their lives difficult. All religious teachers and Islamic scholars (Ulama) do not get salary from the government. (Redaksi 1921, 96)

TS published this law in 1921, claiming that the Dutch government was founded on brotherhood and harmony, which resonated with the core of TS doctrine.

Perennialism, Religious Humanism, and Javanese Mysticism

In appreciating pluralism, multiculturalism, and harmony, ITS has some important implications. First, it interprets religions with a perennialist approach. This approach is adherent to their research. Even TS itself is a form of perennialism. Perennialism is a well-known philosophical system. According to Charles Schmitt, it is believed that the concept of perennial philosophy originated with Leibniz, who used the term in a frequently quoted letter to Remond dated August 26, 1714. But careful research reveals that the term “philosophia perennis” was used much earlier than Leibniz; indeed, it was the title of a treatise published in 1540 by the Italian Augustinian Agostino Steuco (1497–1548). According to Schmitt, although Steuco was perhaps the first to employ this phrase—he was certainly the first to give it a fixed, systematic meaning—he drew upon an already well-developed philosophical tradition, viz., the ancient tradition since thousand years ago. Drawing upon this tradition he formulated his own synthesis of philosophy, religion, and history, which he labeled philosophia perennis (Schmitt 1966, 506).

According to Schmitt, at the very beginning of Steuco’s work he writes that there is “one principle of all things, of which there has always been one and the same knowledge among all peoples.” For Steuco, De perenni philosophia is an ancient tradition of wisdom that can endure eternally (perennis). The enduring quality of this philosophy rests in the supposition that there is a single sapientia knowable by all (ibid., 517). According to Schmitt, from Steuco’s statement a question comes immediately to mind: What was Steuco’s view of history? How did he interpret the process and development of man’s thought so that he could argue there was a constant irreducible core of people agreement of all time? Steuco acknowledges that history brings with it changes, but these are minor when compared to the elements that remain constant. For Schmitt, when Steuco speaks of “progress” it usually means merely “moving forward” or “advance of time.” History flows like time, says Steuco; it does not know “dark ages” and “revivals.” Steuco was convinced that “there is but a single truth that pervades all historical periods.” The truth is perhaps not equally well known in all periods, but it is accessible to those who search for it (ibid., 518).

According to Steuco, the truth and wisdom within De perenni philosophia have always been maintained and preserved via prisca theologia and philosophia. For Schmitt, the word priscus, which often recurs in Steuco, probably best translates as “venerable.” So that the truth and wisdom were always preserved through “the venerable philosophers and theologians.” In the perennial philosophical system, truth flows from a single fountain, as it were, but is manifested in various forms. From this philosophical system comes the doctrine of the One and the many. Moreover, the revelation of truth dates back to the most ancient times (Latin: prisca saecula), and we can find the truth in the writings deriving from this period. The wisdom of earliest times is then transmitted to the later centuries (ibid., 520).

Perennial philosophy teaches that the ultimate reality, the divine (the ontological), is nameless and unattainable, where none of the expressions can be appointed (Thomas 1996, 73). However, this philosophy subscribes to the epistemology that God can also be reached by the mind of man. In other words, the ultimate reality is the godhead, the essence, Tao, Brahman, the energy, the consciousness, or something with a similar name. He has nature qualities as well as rid of them. Regarding to his nature qualities, he is the personal one, material and actually existed in space and time, but he may also called as an impersonal, non-material, and beyond the time and space. “He is within us, around us, and even within ourselves; but he is also at once completely outside of us, and essentially totally not us. Much can be said about him, but none of them can declare his words” (Laibelman 1996, 86). In the context of religious studies (or the comparative study of religions), perennialism considered to have an in-depth explanation of the two sides of religion, namely: (1) esoteric aspects that are eternal and immutable in all religions, and the discovery of the intersection and the unity of religions, (2) exoteric aspects that reveal all the different forms of religion. Perennialism then is used to explain the intersections and differences between religions.

If we look carefully, perennialism and Theosophy discuss a similar philosophical matter: ancient wisdom traditions. Blavatsky and other key figures after her frequently asserted that Theosophy was based on ancient knowledge or wisdom, taken from the early Greek philosophers, followed by subsequent philosophers, generation after generation in different countries, lush with eternal wisdom. The Theosophist glorifies the ultimate reality, the true and eternal, from which diverse manifestations emerge. From the one truth various forms emerged, including diverse religions. Therefore, from the outset, Blavatsky taught that the great religions, schools, and sects were small twigs or shoots growing on the larger branches, that those shoots and branches came from the same tree, the wisdom of religion. This is one of the principal teachings of Theosophy, which is drawn from eternal wisdom (sophia perennis). However, while perennialism discusses limited key themes such as the discourse on a personal and impersonal God and His relationship with creatures, Theosophy in the hands of Blavatsky—and her fellows—later developed into a complex and profound discourse with strong nuances of mysticism and occultism (see Blavatsky’s works such as The Key to Theosophy, The Voice of the Silence, Nighmare Tales, Studies in Occultism, Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, and others).

Another important thing that should be noted is the influence of Indian Hindu spirituality with regard to perennialism’s ideas on ITS members’ religious views. Indian spirituality was rich in religious pluralism, i.e., the appreciation and recognition of the sanctity and salvation of non-Hindu religions. The ITS was generally sympathetic to ideas of Hinduism. De Tollenaere concludes that

the Theosophical Society, which was quite influential in the Dutch Indies, especially among the Dutch colonial administrators as well as the Javanese nobility (priyayi), did disseminate Indian thought to the archipelago, albeit in a highly idiosyncretic [sic], corrupted and “Westernized” form. (de Tollenaere 2000, 3)

Appearing to be Indian, its roots were actually from the West, viz., European-American spiritualism, established by Blavatsky and the early Western Theosophy figures.

However, de Tollenaere forgets to mention the important fact that the archipelago had a long history and relationship with Hinduism, specifically Indian Hinduism. The influence of Hindu religion and spirituality was very strong within the Javanese community, and Javanese Islam still has many elements of Hindu culture. On the one hand, de Tollenaere was correct that Hinduism as discussed by Indian and Indonesian Theosophy members was of a sort that had already been Westernized. However, magazines published by the ITS show that the Hindu authors or sympathizers, when discussing Hinduism, were in fact often talking about Hinduism as understood and practiced in the archipelago. It was the model of pre-Islamic Hinduism that continued to exist long before Theosophy even appeared in the archipelago. Archipelagic Hinduism, particularly in Java, was a hybrid Hinduism, i.e., the acculturation between Indian Hinduism and the indigenous religion of the archipelago.

Likewise, I argue that the ITS in this respect greatly differed from what was espoused by Blavatsky and other Western figures such as Annie Besant. Blavatsky and Besant did not adhere to a religion (Christianity in this case); Theosophy became for them a way of life or “a new life guidelines” that was believed to bring them to the Truth. In fact, TS leaders referred to Theosophy as the Ultimate Truth, and there is no religion higher than the Truth (Sanskrit: Satyan Nasti Paro Dharmah). For Blavatsky, Theosophy is the essence or “the mother” of all religions and of absolute truth (Blavatsky 1981, 32). On the contrary, extensive data show that Indonesian Theosophy is firmly rooted in religions that had long been established in the archipelago. ITS does not adhere to a concept of an impersonal God a la Blavatsky, and it does not make Theosophy into a “new religion” or a “syncretic religion” that must be separated from the formal religions of its members. In other words, ITS members did not leave their formal religion or set up a new religious institution that was considered to be higher than formal religions. Theosophy was used as a tool to understand the deepest dimensions of the formal religions professed by members of Theosophy. They then tried to show the essential unity of religions, which could support the goals of Theosophy in realizing universal brotherhood amongst human beings.

Second, and closely related to the first, the religious views of ITS are colored by religious humanism. Does this humanism in ITS’s spirit and mindset affect its religious complexion or do the teachings of Theosophy and perennialism enrich their humanism spirit? It seems that the two are inextricably linked. The criticism that Theosophists base their humanism on secular humanism and do not strive to build a brotherhood of man based on religion is unfounded, but nevertheless Adian Husaini (2010), a writer and Indonesian Muslim activist, accuses Theosophy as follows (in translation):

The mission of TS that carries interfaith brotherhood is identical with the mission of the Free Masonry movement. Not surprisingly, in addition to leading the TS, Annie Besant had led Freemasonry. . . . By positioning itself outside of the existing religions, Freemasonry emphasizes interfaith humanitarian problems. Religion is not used as the basis for building brotherhood among mankind. Secular humanism became the ideological model. (Husaini 2010, xiii, xvi)

However, such allegations are futile; and as my study shows, ITS’s humanism is firmly rooted in religion, especially the major religions in the Dutch Indies (Nusantara), namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Confucianism. As for Islam, I have already discussed above the theological ideas about relationships and intersections between religions—which will lead to an understanding of the brotherhood of mankind—often referring to the concept of Islamic Sufism, and therefore not based on secular Western humanism. ITS members firmly adhered to the major world religions in Indonesia, primarily emphasizing a Sufi (mystical) dimension, have been rooted deeply in the personalities of ITS members.

Within the context of Western secular and liberal humanism—in the sense of being cynical to religion, Theosophy, and especially ITS, is an exception. Despite embracing humanism, through dreaming about realizing universal human brotherhood and spreading love amongst mankind, ITS members remained rooted in their religion, particularly the formal religion that they professed. For Theosophy, humanism is the key to keeping both culture and religion civilized. Religion without a humanistic perspective or alignment to human values can easily become harsh, ruthless, and cruel, as many cases of terrorism and other forms of violence in the name of religion show. If TS considered adopting humanism, it was a religious humanism, rooted in humanist religious values.

Third, the religious views of ITS are closely linked to Javanese culture and religion (Javanism, kejawen). Kejawen is the Theological insight of Javanese as a result of the accumulation of various ancient traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the traditions of the ancestors). The accumulation is very smooth and thick, thus forming a well-established worldview. The strength of this worldview is the capacity to maintain harmony and peace amongst different beliefs, concepts, and religions (Endraswara 2012, 42).

Theosophy in Indonesia developed mostly on Java. Most of the Theosophical lodges were also located on Java. The time from the emergence and development of Theosophy (early twentieth century) until the independence of Indonesia was a period that was very fertile for the views, attitudes, and practices of kejawen. From around the tenth century to the fifteenth, Hinduism and Buddhism were the religions followed by the majority of Javanese. Together with animism they formed the original religions of Java. Soewarno Imam, professor of Javanese mysticism at State Islamic University Jakarta, has argued that Hinduism and Buddhism in Java, especially after their spread to East Java, continued to show rapprochement and compromise between the two. If in their country of origin, i.e., India, Hinduism and Buddhism were often involved in hostility and conflict, this did not occur in Java. A strong compromise between the two religions occurred during the time of Kertanegara (King of Singosari). Harmonious life amongst various schools of “new religion,” especially the flow of Shiva, Vishnu, and Buddha, continued until the Majapahit era, culminating with the reign of King Hayam Wuruk (Imam 2005, 20).

When Islam entered the archipelago at the end of the thirteenth century, especially on the north coast of Java, it came in a mystical form, aligned with the ethical values of the Hindu-Buddhist religion. The ethical values of mystical Islam could slowly be accepted by Hindu-Buddhist Javanese (ibid., 45–47). However, the reception was not fully achieved, but still holding together most of the ethical-spiritual values of these two old religions. Thus, the term “Javanese Islam” denotes Islam as understood and practiced in conjunction with the pre-Islamic spiritual heritage. Mark Woodward, for example, an expert on Javanese Islam, has an interesting theory about it. According to Woodward, the effect of the interpretation of doctrine, practice, and the myth of Hindu-Javanese toward Javanese Islam still seems significant. One of the great debates amongst Javanese santri10) and abangan11) is about shirk (polytheism). The debate shows the diversity of views on the issue of shirk and difficulties in determining the exact difference between traditional santri and the interpretation of Javanism (Woodward 1989, 215–217).

Another thing that stands out in Javanese Islam is the glorification of the saints (Wali). Great respect for the Wali, whether the legendary Nine Saints (Wali Songo)12) in Java or their predecessors from Arabian lands, such as al-Hallaj, al-Ghazali, and Ibn ‘Arabi, is shown not only by the santri but also by traditional Javanese Muslims despite slightly different interpretations. The abangan, in particular, has great respect for Sheikh Siti Jenar13) and Ahmad Mutamakkin,14) who had an intellectual relationship with al-Hallaj.15) In fact, if explored in depth, figures such as Jenar, Mutamakkin, and Hallaj, besides being considered mystical characters, are also known as scholars who upheld the shari’a, especially in their early sainthood. Javanese Islam, either in the form of the “white” santri or “red” Muslim (abangan or Javanese Muslim), has a uniqueness and complexity that is hard to view in categories of merely black and white. Even the white traditional santri has the attitudes of syncretic Javanese culture and mysticism embedded in his views.

According to Woodward, Javanese Islam can indeed be called syncretic, but what stands out is that the elements of Islam, especially Sufism, dominate. However, Javanese Islamic syncretism was not typical Javanese. The Javanese were not alone in trying to unite the traditions of the past with Islamic monotheism. Islamic figures such as al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi, and Sultan Akbar also attempted to integrate philosophical views from outside into Islam (Woodward 1989, 234–235). Regarding syncretism among the Javanese people, the anthropologist Muhaimin (2001) argues that qualities such as tolerance, accommodation, and flexibility are indeed special to the Javanese. Rather than rejecting a new religion that came in, the Javanese accepted it as an important element in shaping a new synthesis. According to Bekki, as quoted by Muhaimin, the Javanese syncretism of religious life may result from the flexible Javanese attitude toward other religions. Although animistic beliefs were entrenched for a long time, the Javanese successively accepted Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity but then “Javanized” everything (Muhaimin 2001, 1).

According to Soewarno Imam, there are two major groups in the socio-economic structure of the Javanese community: common people (wong cilik), most of whom are farmers by profession; and the priyayi, who work mostly as civil servants or intellectuals. In terms of religious affiliation, the Javanese community is also divided into two groups: abangan and the santri. Previously, most of the wong cilik and the priyayi were abangan who practiced kejawen. The santri, who try to live according to Islamic law (Shari’a), mostly work as traders and entrepreneurs and are therefore considered to be quite wealthy. Thus, from the point of view of the Javanese community, the santri were perceived as higher than wong cilik but lower than the priyayi (Imam 2005, 54). Hence, in this socio-economic structure, we can add a third class: the santri, who are between the wong cilik and priyayi.

The Javanese traditional aristocracy (priyayi) consisted almost entirely of believers of kejawen, although officially many of them claimed to be Muslims. Most of them followed the community-association (including Theosophy) in their efforts to attain a perfect life through meditation and mystical ways. The priyayi constituted the Javanese elite, who were instrumental in carrying forward the influence of traditional pre-Islamic Javanese spiritual culture in the form of dance, gamelan, and shadow puppetry (wayang) (ibid., 55–56). Wayang is a hobby among priyayi and was widely used by Theosophy as a medium for disseminating teachings to its members and the Javanese community in general.

We may discern a close connection between the matters discussed above (kejawen, Javanese Islam, and the struggle between the santri, abangan, and priyayi) and the religious views of Theosophy or the views of Theosophy members, consisting of the santri and the priyayi. Why were the Indonesian Theosophists fond of idealizing issues about the intersection of religions or the essential unity of religions, often referring to mystical figures? That was because kejawen and Javanese Islam are both saturated with mysticism, in their Islamic Sufism as well as Hindu-Buddhist varieties. This mysticism contains many teachings about the intersection between esoteric religions, which is reinforced by Javanese syncretistic culture. Thus, Javanese Theosophy has been influenced by these two forms of cultural wealth from the beginning. Why are Theosophical teachings about universal brotherhood, harmony, and peace welcomed with open arms by Javanese Theosophists? The reason is to do with Javanese lofty ideals of a culture of peace (Endraswara 2012, 38), characterized by tolerance, accommodation, and flexibility.

Inspiring “Multicultural Education”

When dealing with religious views of ITS that are inclusive-pluralist, it is important to look at the features of Theosophy magazines published for half a century. Among PTHN, PTBI, KT, and PH, for instance, almost 85 percent contained religious teachings (including ethics), especially of Indonesian living religions; about 10 percent contained scientific explanations; and 5 percent was news on the socio-political life of the time. The most interesting feature of the magazines was their diversity of religious themes. Every single issue contained articles on three to five religions, with a variety of topics. There was never a magazine that discussed only one or two religious topics. So, from the outset, Theosophical magazines have presented an educational model that appreciates differences of religion and culture, which is currently known as “multicultural education.”

When opening a Theosophy magazine, one immediately reads a comparative study of religions. Usually the top middle of the page contains the title (subject) of the article, and then explained through the perspective of religions and their connections with Theosophy. The title of the article is sometimes only one or two words, such as “Buddhism,” “On Islam,” “Hindu,” “Baha’i,” “Christian,” or “Confucianism.” After an article on one religion, the next one (on the next page) is about other religions. Similarly, when there is an article on a theme, the next one is on another theme. When an article is “to be continued,” the next part is not on the next page but interrupted by two to four posts. Indeed, we as readers are not bored by reading about only one religion, belief, or theme. The diversity of features in printing is deeply felt by the readers.

This is different from religious magazines that were published in the New Order era until the 1980s. Some magazines are published lettering “only for personal entertainment,” or “only to a limited circle,” and it usually about an exclusive religious understanding that humiliates other people’s beliefs.


ITS has always advocated that deep religious understanding is closely connected to inclusive-pluralist religious views and attitudes, which is an inspiring reminder of the past harmony between religious communities in the Indonesian Archipelago. ITS’s deep religious understanding and broad horizon resulted from intense struggles and encounters with ideas from various nations—Europe, America, India, China—but also, and perhaps most important, the cultural richness of the Indonesian nation itself, especially Javanese culture, which is always inclined to harmony. Today, Indonesia is characterized by the rise of religious fundamentalism, which tends to be intolerant and exclusive, and it seems that Indonesia is increasingly losing the depth of its own religiousness and its true identity as a country that has been known for centuries for its culture of harmony, tolerance, and peace. It is in this context that ITS’s religious views are still relevant, offering much material for reflection.

The limitations of this research can be an agenda for further research. First, it would be alluring to examine the role of Muslim Theosophists within ITS since there are many writings on Islam in ITS magazines. In addition to the idea of a personal God, the magazines contain many Malay Islamic terms, such as “Allah,” “tawhid,” “syariat,” “hakikat,” “sufi,” etc. Among ITS publications, there are several papers discussing the teachings of Islam, including the following: PTHN (1911), PTHN (1912), PTHN (1915), PTHN (1916), PTHN (1917), PTHN (1918), PTHN (1919), PTHN (1920), PTHN (1921), PTHN (1922), PTHN (1923), PTHN (1925), PTHN (1926), PTHN (1927), PTBI (1928), PTHN (1929), and KT (1929, 1931, and 1932), and perhaps many others. Apparently, the discourse on Islam within ITS quite coloring the existence of Theosophical movement that does not happen anywhere, neither at its headquarters in Adyar nor in Southeast Asia. Second, it would be interesting to study the commonalities between the Theosophical organization and Freemasonry. Indonesians in particular and the people of Southeast Asia in general, do not have an accurate knowledge about the distinction between Theosophy and Freemasonry. What and how was their relationship in Southeast Asia? In Indonesia alone, there are two representative works on Freemasons: Tarekat Mason Bebas dan Masyarakat di Hindia Belanda dan Indonesia 1764–1962 by Th. Stevens (1994; printed in Indonesian in 2004) and Freemasonry Di Indonesia, Jaringan Zionis Tertua yang Mengendalikan Dunia by Paul van der Veur (1976; printed in Indonesian in 2012). The quandaries arise due to the facts that most members of Indonesian Theosophy and Freemasonry are priyayi. Similarly, both Theosophy and Freemasonry have the same goal: “to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of mankind without distinction of race, colour, or creed” (Blavatsky 1981, 22). Academic research on both will probably contribute to academic communities in Southeast Asia.

Accepted: July 19, 2016


I would like to thank Professor Edwin Wieringa, who was my academic host during my Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship at the University of Cologne, Germany, from March 2012 to December 2013. I am grateful to him also for his valuable comments on this article.


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―. 1926b. Faedah Theosofie boeat manoesia [The benefit of Theosophy for men]. PTHN (2): 31.

―. 1925. Faedah Theosofie boeat manoesia [The benefit of Theosophy for men]. PTHN (12): 189–190.

―. 1922. Ada [Exist]. PTHN (5): 67–68.

Leadbeater, C. W. 1915a. Kitab Theosofie [The book of Theosophy]. PTHN: 15.

―. 1915b. Theosofie itoe apa? [What is Theosophy?]. PTHN (2): 20.

Mangoenpoerwoto. 1920. Sikap Theosophie kepada kemadjuan oemoem [Theosophy’s attitude toward public progress]. PTHN (1): 8–10.

Massignon, Louis. 1975. La passion de Husayn Ibn Mansur Hallaj: Martyr mystique de l’Islam execute a Bagdad le 26 Mars 922 [The passion of al-Hallaj: mystic and martyr of Islam], Vol. 3. Paris: Gallimard.

Muhaimin. 2001. Islam dalam bingkai budaya lokal: Potret dari Cirebon [Islam in local culture: A Portrait from Cirebon]. Ciputat: Logos.

Mulkhan, Abdul Munir. 2003. Syekh Siti Jenar: Pergumulan Islam-Jawa [Syekh Siti Jenar: A Struggle of Islam-Java]. Yogyakarta: Bentang Budaya.

N. 1930. Djalannja mentjarik ingsoen [The path of looking for myself]. PTBI (3): 34.

―. 1929. Sekarang datang swara baroe, Apa soedah tahoe? [New voice has come, Don’t you know?]. PTBI (10): 147–148.

―. 1927a. Djagad goeroe [The world of a master]. PTHN (8): 201–203.

―. 1927b. Seng-To! Kow-Li! PTHN: 124.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1972. Sufi Essays. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Nugraha, Iskandar. 2011. Teosofi, nasionalisme & elite modern Indonesia [Theosophy, nationalism, and the Indonesian modern elite]. Depok: Komunitas Bambu.

―. 2001. Mengikis batas Timur & Barat: Gerakan Theosofi & nasionalisme Indonesia [Beyond the limits of East and West: Theosophical movement and nationalism of Indonesia]. Depok: Komunitas Bambu.

P. A. 1926. Takdir [Fate]. PTHN (1): 12–13.

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Ricklefs, Merle Calvin. 2008. A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1200. 4th ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

―. 2006. The Birth of the Abangan. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde, Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Ocenia 162(1): 35–36.

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Schimmel, Annemarie. 1975. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Siswosoeparto. 1916. Jang bekerdja boeat loge dan Theosofische vereeniging [Someone who devoted himself to the lodge and Theosophical works]. PTHN (4): 120.

―. 1912. Kabar dari M 7 [News from M 7]. PTHN: 140.

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1) Theosophical Association of the Netherlands Indies.

2) Unfortunately, there is no evidence showing which strata of society they came from.

3) Van Motman (1912, 123–124). See also J. M. (1922, 21) and Khan (1922, 66).

4) Si pitjik (1926, 104). Confucianist Chinese also called him Goesti, Thian, Monade, Kristus (Christ), and Allah when referring to one and the same God who brings salvation. See N. (1927b, 124).

5) A similar view was mentioned by S. Si pitjik (1926, 104).

6) Another Muslim member wrote, “. . . adanja tjela menjtela dari sesoetoe fihak kepada lain fihak itoe tiada lain tjoema terbawa dari koerang fahamnja masing-masing, atau oleh karena marika itoe beloem menjelidiki maksoednja agama-agama tadi sehingga tertib” [condemnation among people comes from a lack of understanding or because they have not yet investigated the meaning of their religion] (Broto 1926, 125).

7) On the whole, the objective is God. See also Baehler (1917, 52) and Labberton (1917, 161) etc.

8) This statement is reiterated in all ITS publications; here religion is not in its common understanding or as set of system (Tjitro 1915, 121–122; Latief 1925, 189–190). There have been accusations that Theosophy is a new religion that misleads Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and others. However, according to Latief, those accusations are not based on facts. See Latief (1926b, 31).

9) Labberton (1912, 126–127). This statement of Labberton is a hint that ITS during that time, at least from Labberton’s point of view, was used as a means of “ethical politics” by the Dutch colonial regime to stifle the resistance of Indonesians (believers).

10) Santri is an old term that originally meant a student of religion, such as a student at a pesantren (Islamic boarding school, the place of santri). A santri is a devout or pious Muslim/student who practices shari’ah. Normally, santri also called as putihan or kaum putih, the white ones as opposed to abangan, the red/brown sort (Ricklefs 2006, 36).

11) Abangan are nominal or non-practicing Muslims. This term derives from the Low Javanese (ngoko) word abangan, meaning the color red or brown. According to Ricklefs, it was only in about the mid-nineteenth century that there emerged in Javanese society a category of people defined by their failure—in the eyes of the more pious—to behave as proper Muslims. At the time, the usual terms were bangsa abangan (red/brown sort) or wong abangan (red/brown people). Abangan originated as a term of derision employed by the santri or the pious putihan, the “white ones” (Ricklefs 2006, 35).

12) Wali Songo (Javanese, literally “Nine Saints”) are well-known in the spread of Islam in Java in the fifteenth–sixteenth centuries. They were the Islamic leaders at the time of Islam’s arrival in Java. The Nine Saints were revered as Islamic scholars because not only did they possess great knowledge on religious affairs, they also possessed spiritual powers. The Nine Saints were Maulana Malik Ibrahim (Sunan Maulana), Sunan Ampel (Raden Rahmat), Sunan Bonang (Raden Makhdum Ibrahim), Sunan Giri (Raden Paku or Raden Ainul Yaqin), Sunan Drajat (Raden Syarifuddin), Sunan Kalijaga (Raden Mas Syahid), Sunan Kudus (Sayid Ja’far Shadiq), Sunan Muria (Raden Umar Said), and Sunan Gunung Jati (Syarif Hidayatullah).

13) Sheikh Siti Jenar, also known as Sitibrit, Lemahbang, or Lemah Abang, is well known in Java as a mystic who professes the idea of the Arabic hulul or ittihad, or in Javanese Manunggaling Kawulo Gusti (the union of God and man). No one knows the exact time of his birth and death, but the Javanese believe that he lived in the sixteenth century along with Wali Songo. For the Javanese people, according to Munir Mulkhan (2003), the existence of Siti Jenar and his mystical teachings symbolizes the struggle between philosophy, mysticism, and shari’ah (Islamic law) in the transition of political power from Javanese Majapahit to Raden Fatah Islam in Demak, Central Java. Siti Jenar’s doctrines, especially the doctrine about Manunggaling Kawulo Gusti considered against the shari’ah teachings of the Wali Songo. That is why that the Wali Songo as a part of political power of Demak Islam decided to execute Siti Jenar. According to Massignon (1975), Hallaj’s teachings on hulul and his death as a martyr had a significant influence on the process of Islamization in Southeast Asia, especially Java, particularly in the case of Siti Jenar. Jenar is considered to have suffered a similar fate as Hallaj. According to Soebardi (1975), Shaikh Siti Jenar was in fact a Javanese al-Hallaj.

14) Sheikh Ahmad Mutamakkin was well-known in central Java in the eighteenth century as a controversial mystic, both regarding to his existence as historical figures or fictional, and his mystical teachings. The only source that popularized Mutamakkin is Serat Cabolek, a book written by Yasadipura I (1729–1803), the renowned court poet during the reigns of Pakubuwana III (1749–1803) and Pakubuwana IV (1788–1820). Wieringa (1998) points out that in the Serat Cabolek, Mutamakkin is described as a teacher of mysticism who disregarded the shari’ah (Islamic law). He lived in the village of Cabolek, on the northen coast of Java. As he deliberately violated Islamic law, his behavior caused a scandal among pious Muslim. However, according to Milal Bizawie (2002), Serat Cabolek is the only story that has been used to discredit Mutamakkin. In fact, Teks Kajen (Kajen text) and Arsh al-Muwahhidin, the work of Mutamakkin himself, show that Ahmad Mutamakkin was a Muslim mystic who had greatly respected the shari’ah. However, most Javanese Muslims believe that he really existed.

15) Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj was a Persian mystic, revolutionary writer, and teacher of Sufism. He was born in the province of Fars in 858 and grew up in Wasit and Tustar, where cotton was cultivated and where cotton carders (that is the meaning of hallaj) like his father could pursue their occupation. The most prominent mystical teaching of Hallaj is al-hulul: the union of God and man. His renowned utterance dealing with al-hulul is Anā al-Ḥaqq, “I am the Absolute Truth,” which was taken to mean that he was claiming to be God, since al-Ḥaqq, “the Absolute Truth,” is one of the Ninety Nine Names of Allah. In another controversial statement, al-Hallaj claimed, “There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God.” Similarly, he would point to his cloak and say: “There is nothing in my cloak but God.” Such mystical utterances are known as shathahat. Statements like these led to a long trial and al-Hallaj’s subsequent imprisonment for 11 years in a Baghdad prison. He was publicly executed on March 26, 922, at the behest of Abbasid Calif al-Muqtadir. He was the first martyr mystic in Islam (Schimmel 1975, 62–69). According to Massignon, the story of al-Hallaj had a strong influence on the process of Islamization in the Malay and Javanese worlds. In the Malay world, for instance, Hamzah Fansuri (a Malay mystic who lived in the sixteenth century), who was well known as a mystic of wujudiya (or al-hulul), is regarded as the heir of al-Hallaj. In Java, the story of al-Hallaj always clung to the figure of Shaikh Siti Jenar. Mystical teachings of both al-Hallaj and Jenar are believed to have tempted Hindus to convert to Islam (Massignon 1975, 301–305). To examine the influences of such stories of Hallaj on Islamization in Southeast Asia, in particular into figure of Siti Jenar and mystics alike in Java, see Michael Feener, A Re-Examination of the Place of al-Hallaj in the Development of Southeast Asian Islam (Bijdragen, KITLV, 1998).


Vol. 6, No. 1, Kanya WATTANAGUN


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretism in Vernacular Thai Buddhism

Kanya Wattanagun*

* กญั ญา วฒั นกลุ , Thai Studies Center, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Phayathai Road, Patumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
e-mail: swornlake[at]; Kanya.W[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_115

For a number of scholars, syncretism as an analytical approach to a group’s or an individual’s religiosity has several shortcomings. Denoting the mixture of tenets or practices belonging to different traditions, syncretism presupposes a clearly demarcated boundary between the syncretized traditions (McDaniel 2011, 17). It also implies scholarly wrought labels and categories, which are hardly shared by the people whose religiosity becomes the subject of academic scrutiny (Tambiah 1970, 42; T. G. Kirsch 2004, 706). In this paper I demonstrate that despite its shortcomings, syncretism can be employed to expound vernacular Thai Buddhism, whose heterogeneous composition has been argued to be “beyond syncretism” (Pattana 2005, 461). Ethnographic cases presented in this paper reveal that several Thai Buddhists, noting a dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic, differentiate Buddhist from non-Buddhist elements. The rationalization they employ to resolve this dissonance is a syncretistic activity that renders their multifarious religiosity internally consistent and meaningful. These cases challenge the assumption that syncretism is inapplicable to the highly diversified and hybrid ways Thai Buddhists observe their faith since they neither draw the boundary between diverse religious tenets and customs nor adhere to a single orthodox ideal.

Keywords: vernacular Thai Buddhism, syncretism, magic, karma

Syncretism: A Problematic Analytical Model?

Syncretism as an approach to an individual’s or a group’s religiosity has been problematized in many respects. Its descriptive definition, which denotes a process in which “elements of two different ‘traditions’ interact or combine” (Shaw and Stewart 1994, 10), implies a clearly demarcated boundary between the syncretized elements. This boundary, however, presupposes static, universal categories, which hardly exist among diverse ways people interpret and observe their faiths (McDaniel 2011, 17; Pattana 2012, 14). The subjective definition of the term, which means either “illegitimate mixing” in a pejorative sense or “legitimate mixing” in a positive sense, also entails grave pitfalls (Droogers 1989, 8). The negative interpretation evokes the image of a pure, authentic tradition that is debased once it is commingled with foreign elements (Shaw and Stewart 1994, 2). The positive application essentializes etic, scholarly wrought categories that are not necessarily adopted by the people whose hybrid religiosity becomes the subject of academic scrutiny (Tambiah 1970, 42; T. G. Kirsch 2004, 706).

This outlook on the discrepancy between emic and etic perspectives, which renders syncretism a problematic analytical model for some scholars, articulates two allied sentiments. First, religion as observed by people in real, diverse contexts is distinct from religion as defined by elites within the hierarchy of institutional religion or by scholars in academia (Yoder 1974, 7–8). Second, it is biased to refer to the elite’s definition of religion as the norm in relation to which laymen’s religiosity is assessed and analyzed (Tambiah 1970, 41; Primiano 1995, 46–47). However, can we discard syncretism on the grounds that since laypeople do not differentiate tenets and practices belonging to diverse belief traditions, they do not syncretize these elements but rather simultaneously adopt them? Or can we propound that syncretism as an analytical concept is inadequate because it inadvertently asserts scholars’ preconceived categories, and laypeople do not make sense of their religiosity in terms of these preconceptions?

This paper presents ethnographic cases from Thailand that reveal ways in which lay and ordained Thai Buddhists resolve a dissonance within their manifold religiosity. Practicing Theravada Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that gained influence in mainland Southeast Asia beginning in the twelfth century CE (Swearer 2010, ix), Thai Buddhists have an understanding of a religious goal that revolves around the doctrine of karma and its notions of merit (bun), demerit (baab), and rebirth (Piker 1973, 300). Theravada Buddhism, nonetheless, is not the only tradition that informs Thai Buddhists’ religiosity. Elements of non-Theravada origins, such as magico-animistic and Chinese Mahayana1) tenets and practices, constitute Thai Buddhists’ religious repertoires. The ethnographic cases presented in the following section demonstrate that these elements from diverse traditions do not always peacefully coexist within the mindset of the believing individual. In several cases, rationalizations are made to impose a hierarchy on contradictory tenets. This cognitive act resolves the dissonance noted by the believing individual and renders his or her manifold religiosity internally coherent. In light of this undertaking, I suggest that Thai Buddhists’ religiosity is not really “beyond syncretism” (Pattana 2005, 461), because, as illustrated by the cases presented in the following section, syncretization is one of many strategies adopted by Thai Buddhists to configure their inclusive and heterogeneous religious repertoires.

The thought process Thai Buddhists adopt to align their belief in magic with the doctrine of karma, I argue, evinces syncretism, which in this study specifically means the conscious synthesizing of tenets or practices considered to be of different categories and fundamentally incompatible with one another.2) Many studies of Thai Buddhism have shown that the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic exist side by side in the religious life of Thai Buddhists (Wells 1960, 6; Tambiah 1970, 41; Piker 1972; Terwiel 2012, Chapter 9). As Kenneth E. Wells observes, Thai Buddhism provides its adherents the “means for making merit for self and others” and “assurance of safety and good fortune by means of devotion, good conduct, amulets, and verbal mantras” (Wells 1960, 6). Thai Buddhists’ subscription to the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic contains a dissonance, which is expressed and redressed by Thai Buddhists interviewed in this study: if a person’s karma is accountable for the fortunes and miseries, the successes and failures, that he experiences in his present life, his resort to magic seems illogical. The belief in the efficacy of magic clashes head-on with the doctrine of karma since the former holds that a person can secure success and fortunes without having to perform the deeds that warrant these rewards.

Scholars who explore the relationship between Buddhism and indigenous beliefs in South and Southeast Asia express diverse views about this relationship. Some, as Barend J. Terwiel remarks, are baffled by the way in which Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements “become so intermingled that at present it is impossible to draw a distinction between them” (Terwiel 1976, 391).3) Others, privileging scriptures and scholastic traditions over popular aspects of religion, imply that non-Buddhist elements debase “the so-called noble ideals of Buddhism” (Ames 1964a, 75).4) Another group of scholars, sympathetic to lay adherents and their hybrid religious practices, posit that what doctrinalists construe as a meaningless jumble of Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements does not necessarily bother people who practice Buddhism in real, diverse contexts (Tambiah 1970, 41) and that to interpret this intricate combination based on a scholar’s preconceptions of religion is counterproductive (McDaniel 2011, 229).

Despite diverse stances on the problem, I hold that these different approaches fail to recognize the possibility that people who practice “popular” Buddhism can think about their religious practices on a conceptual level. They seem to concur that laypeople do not share concepts and categories held by elites in the institutionalized religion and by scholars who study religion in academia. Therefore, it is quite futile to make sense of their religiosity on the basis of the taxonomy and the idioms formulated within scholastic tradition or academic settings. This connotation, I argue, perpetuates the view that since people who practice popular Buddhism do not adhere to dogmatic categories or the idea of orthodoxy espoused by religious elites and scholars, they incessantly create new combinations of Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements to meet their ever-shifting spiritual needs. And they do so without feeling obligated to justify their hybrid religious practices.5) The ethnographic cases presented in this paper prove otherwise. They show that Thai Buddhists do not unreflectively and indiscriminately adopt all religious tenets and practices regardless of their different origins and implications. Individuals interviewed in this study aptly pointed out a dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic. They also developed a rationalization aimed at resolving this dissonance. This cognitive process indicates that, to a significant extent, informants make a distinction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements. They subordinate the belief in magic to the doctrine of karma to maintain the orthodoxy of the Buddhist tenet.

Apart from this introduction, I segment this study into three parts. The first part—“Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretization”—has two subsections. “Karma versus Magic: A Peculiar Mental Scheme?” discusses a mode of thought that perceives a dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic. I argue here that this mental scheme is not an idiosyncratic trait peculiar to a few doctrinalists but a recurrent view expressed by several Thai Buddhists who are simultaneously engaged with the “philosophical” and “practical” aspects of Buddhism.6) The discussion in this part is aimed to contextualize ethnographic cases presented in the succeeding subsection, “Dissonance and Syncretization.” This section analyzes oral statements given by individual Thai Buddhists who note the dissonance and devise rationalizations to reconcile the belief in magic to the karma postulate. I further argue that by these rationalizations, informants can maintain the authority of the doctrine of karma without giving up their faith in instrumental magic. The second part—“Syncretism or Repertoire?”—delineates how ethnographic cases presented in the preceding section contribute to a well-rounded understanding of vernacular Thai Buddhism. The final part—“Problematizing Anti-syncretism”—discusses the ramifications of this study.

Informants’ accounts were collected through my fieldwork in the northeast of Thailand from May to August 2013. In order to protect informants’ privacy, only their first names are given. All Thai sources, when quoted, were translated to English by me.

Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretization

1. Karma versus Magic: A Peculiar Mental Scheme?
A blog maintained by a lay Buddhist who describes himself as “a college graduate from Chiang Mai who has lived in Bangkok for more than seven years” (Norasath 2011) contains the following remark on the efficacy of amulets:

If we Buddhists grant that the law of karma is the Truth, and that people reap the fruit of their actions, then let’s consider this scenario. A vicious person, wearing a powerful amulet around his neck—let’s say the amulet was consecrated by Somdet To7)—, do you think it would safeguard him from harm? Or would it render him invulnerable or invincible? I have pondered upon this question, trying to use my personal logic to solve the puzzle. If amulets and talismans are always efficacious, regardless of the moral quality of those who carry them, then what good do we get from observing the law of karma? All sinners just need to get hold of sacred amulets, then they can easily dodge the karmic retribution. (ibid.)

The cited excerpt articulates a dissonance that troubles the blogger. He seems to be fully aware of the fundamental incompatibility between the belief in magic and the doctrine of karma, and the fact that both tenets have occupied prominent places in the religious life of Thai Buddhists. Feeling obligated to justify the subscription to conflicting tenets that characterizes his own as well as his fellow Buddhists’ religiosity, the blogger makes the following rationalization:

I do believe that these items [i.e., amulets and talismans] serve virtuous people. Honest bearers can take refuge in their amulets when facing threats, because miracles save only righteous people. (ibid.)

The blogger redresses the dissonance by placing a condition on the efficacy of amulets, and this condition is nothing else but bearers’ good karma. This cognitive process of positioning magic vis-à-vis karma to remark on or tackle their fundamental incongruity is not an idiosyncratic mental scheme. A decree issued by King Rama I on August 1782 lists the names of spirits and deities that Siamese subjects can legally worship. However, the King maintained the supremacy of the law of karma, denouncing the view that supplication rituals addressing spirits and deities could relieve miseries resulting from volitional acts:

Those whose minds were estranged from the Triple Gems, when tormented by the fruit of their bad karma, are ignorant of the real agent behind their ordeals. They thus seek refuge in spirits and deities, holding the false view that the Triple Gems fail to rescue them from adversities and misfortunes. When the retribution is complete, and the ordeal comes to an end, they falsely assume that spirits and deities respond to their requests. These people, having totally forsaken the Triple Gems, are bound for the lower realms of existence. (Rama I 1986, 418–419)

I share Thomas Kirsch’s view that this decree demonstrates the orthodoxy of the doctrine of karma as construed by King Rama I, who holds that “fortune and affliction alike ultimately result from karma, not from the actions of spirits or gods” (A. T. Kirsch 1977, 241; emphasis in original). I elaborate on Kirsch’s observation by further arguing that the decree gives us a glimpse of the dissonance felt by the King, who seems to perceive that the Siamese belief in the power of spirits and deities clashes with the causal paradigm posited by the doctrine of karma. Stanley Tambiah cogently describes this conflict:

. . . if the doctrine of karma gives an explanation of present suffering and squarely puts the burden of release on individual effort, then the doctrine that supernatural agents can cause or relieve sufferings and that relief can come through propitiating them contradicts the karma postulate. (Tambiah 1970, 41; emphasis in original)

The King positioned the doctrine of karma vis-à-vis spirit worship and discerned the contradictory outlooks on cause and effect these two complexes of tenets imply. Had he not noted the dissonance, he might not have reaffirmed the orthodoxy of the karma postulate by decrying spirit worship.

Despite different configurations of their religious ideas conditioned by their different subject positions and time periods, the blogger and the King regard the magical means of achieving desirable effects (by resorting to spirits and deities, by carrying magical items, or by means of magical rituals) as antithetical to the concept of volitional acts and their automatic fruition espoused by the doctrine of karma. Their remarks evince a mode of thought that situates karma and magic in contrast to one another. The juxtaposition results in a recognition that these distinct causal schemes espouse contradictory definitions of consequential actions. I note here that not all Thai Buddhists imagine karma and magic in this particular fashion. However, this mental scheme is not uncommon. It has been reflected in oral and written statements made by Thai Buddhists from diverse backgrounds. The noted conflict between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic presented in this section is neither peculiar to a few Buddhist doctrinalists nor the product of my academic training that indulges in inconsistency on a conceptual level. Instead, it has been discerned by many Thai Buddhists who are not oblivious to underlying meanings of the diverse religious tenets and practices they adopt.

One more example is delineated here to bolster my argument that the felt conflict between karma and magic is not a sentiment peculiar to a few intellectual elites. A book on apotropaic rituals titled Kao wat kao thi phithi sado khro (The nine apotropaic rituals of nine temples) provides a detailed description of the rituals performed by nine famous Buddhist monks from nine temples located in different regions of Thailand. Regardless of their varied ritualistic procedures and the types of merit participants believe they convey, all nine rituals address a twofold objective: warding off evil and attracting boons. Given the popular framing of the book, apparent in its emphasis on the efficacy of apotropaic rituals and the mystical power of Buddhist adepts who perform these rituals, it is not unwarranted to regard the monograph as a manifestation of vernacular Thai Buddhism. The author, however, maintains that apotropaic rituals cannot ward off karmic retribution and that people cannot rely solely on rituals for fortunes and merits because all boons are realized by volitional acts that warrant them:

Those cult leaders who tell people to halt or abate karmic retaliation by means of rituals perpetuate the false belief that humans can change or evade the consequence of their actions. Holders of this false view are definitely destined for hell realms. Humans may take refuge in rituals. They may ward off evil luck or summon good fortune by rituals invented for variable purposes. However, they must have faith in the law of karma. They must first and foremost rely on their actions and efforts, which are the surest means to secure fortunes and merits. (Sira 2016, 23–24)

Sira Arsawadeeros, though granting the efficacy of apotropaic rituals, contends that karma is the supreme causal agent responsible for merits and miseries humans experience in their lives. Karma and magic are positioned in a hierarchical order as the author notices that the granted efficacy of magical rituals contradicts the paramount principle of individual effort upheld by the karma postulate. Similar to the two cases mentioned earlier, this statement reveals the view of its author that karma and magic entail contradictory implications. Therefore, in order to retain them both, Sira feels compelled to resolve the dissonance by subsuming one under the other. The author’s rationalization that apotropaic rituals are efficacious but their efficacy does not override the law of karma reveals a syncretism, by which what the believing individual recognizes as incongruous religious tenets are reconciled and retained within a single mindset. In light of this analysis, suffice it to say that the author of the quoted excerpt possesses a hybrid religious mindset in which syncretism is one of several ordering principles employed to maintain sense and consistency. This argument is reified by ethnographic cases presented in the following subsection, which delineates ways in which Thai Buddhists who note the dissonance between karma and magic redress the conflict.

2. Dissonance and Syncretization
The informants whose accounts are presented in this study noted a conflict between the doctrine of karma and the belief in instrumental magic. They addressed this discrepancy in variable fashions. Mr. Woravit, a Thai Buddhist who practices meditation and studies magic spells, stated that despite his belief in the power of magic and rituals in granting a person’s wish, he harbors no doubt about the supremacy of a karmic force. Mr. Woravit’s justification, which is presented in the following subsection, is indicative of the dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic from his perspective: if instrumental magic and rituals unfailingly bring about desirable effects, the doctrine of karma, which rules that worldly achievements are the fruits of a person’s good karma, cannot be true.

In a similar fashion, Venerable Ko, a Buddhist monk in a rural monastery in Buriram Province, made a justification that redresses a noted inconsistency within his hybrid religious practice. Being well versed in healing spells and rituals, Venerable Ko claimed that the success or failure of a healing rite was determined by a karmic bond between the healer and his patient. The informant made a causal connection between an individual’s karma and the efficacy of healing magic to resolve what he construed as a crucial dissonance: If magic is believed to be invariably successful in producing desirable consequences, then it can be employed to avert the effect of bad karma or to benefit a person despite his vicious deeds. This assumption is problematic as it contradicts the doctrine of karma, which holds that nothing can interfere with the operation of karmic machination. In the following subsections, I present the accounts given by each informant and discuss their implications.


2.1. Mr. Woravit

Mr. Woravit is a lecturer at a vocational college in Sakon Nakhon, a province in the upper part of northeast Thailand. He is a self-professed Buddhist who construes meditation as “the science of the mind,” by which he means the empirically verifiable method to discipline the mind for certain ends, such as a total elimination of mental defilements or an attainment of mystical power. Considering his educational background and socioeconomic status, Mr. Woravit is a member of the middle class in a provincial city, whose career in the field of electrical technology does not hinder his interest in spiritual matters. He wrote and published a monograph on psychic experiences he had while practicing profound meditation.8) He also attested to the reality of past-life recollection, which is a supramundane ability he claimed to have acquired through the vigorous practice of meditation. By the time I interviewed him in July 2013, Mr. Woravit had taken part in an archeological expedition that he and his friend had initiated in search of an ancient Khmer temple Mr. Woravit saw in his psychic vision. In our discussion about the efficacy of instrumental magic, the informant proclaimed the efficacy of charms and spells. However, he argued against the view that magic could yield favorable consequences despite the absence of effort to achieve such effects through natural means. Such belief, he elaborated, exaggerated the power of magic. He said spells and charms do not invoke wealth, luck, or other worldly boons out of thin air. They merely tap into the user’s positive karmic force and make its fruit most favorable to him or her. Within this explanatory scheme, magic is useless without the store of good karma its user has accumulated. This interplay between karma and magic is described by Mr. Woravit:

Magic does not bring about boons and merits. People can obtain them only through their just and persistent effort, that is, through their good karma. Spells are merely means through which a person taps into the store of his good karma. By chanting a spell, the chanter’s mind is calm and receptive of positive karmic force. Metaphorically speaking, when a person does a good deed, he deposits a sum of good karma in his bank account. As he performs more good deeds, his balance accumulates. Spells are passcodes that grant access to this bank account. You chant these spells to withdraw your good karma from your account, and its benevolent force rewards you with success, wealth, love, or other good things you wish for. A person may chant a spell for the success of his new business and it works out as he wishes. Why? Because he has a sufficient sum of good karma in his account. Another person may do the same but experience total failure. This is, likewise, due to the absence of—or a shortfall in—his good karma. (Personal interview, July 19, 2013)

Magic that upholds rather than contradicts the law of karma as described by Mr. Woravit is not an idiosyncratic concept. Tambiah quoted the acting abbot of That Thaung temple in Bangkok who explained that Thai people wear small Buddha images around their necks because they “believe that they will give them body protection, and that they will ensure that good action will yield good returns” (quoted in Tambiah 1984, 199; italics added). Underlying this explanation is the idea that the magical power of amulets complements the benevolent force of an individual’s good karma. A similar sentiment underlies a comment about the efficacy of magic posted on a Thai website that sells amulets and talismans:

Those who do not possess amulets or do not know any useful spells are totally subject to their karma. But people who make good use of these supplementaries can ameliorate the effect of a hostile karmic force. It does not mean, however, that amulets and spells can negate malevolent karmic effect. Yet they can lessen its severity. To elucidate, a vendor suffering from karmic retribution would be unable to sell a single item. But with the help of amulets and spells, he manages to sell a thing or two. (Krunoi Bandoykam 2014)

These comments, like Mr Woravit’s, reiterate the idea that karmic force is the real agent behind the efficacy of instrumental magic. This justification would not be necessary if Thai Buddhists merely observed the doctrine of karma and took part in magic cults while being unaware of the different connotations underlying these practices. Mr. Woravit, like the acting abbot and the webmaster whose comments are quoted above, recognizes a dissonance underlying his hybrid religious practice in which the role of karma as the supreme causal agent clashes with the given efficacy of instrumental magic. Although the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic can coexist within a mindset, one needs to be subsumed under the other in order to resolve the dissonance, since these two outlooks espouse contradictory views of cause and effect. The former holds that intentional actions automatically yield particular consequences and no external force can compromise this automaticity. The latter, on the contrary, proclaims that intended effects can be induced by tapping into mystical power, which can be harnessed and put to use by means of spells and charms. Mr. Woravit resolves this conflict by subordinating the belief in magic to the doctrine of karma, maintaining that magic is efficacious only when it agrees with the user’s karmic build.

The acting abbot’s and the webmaster’s comments reveal a striking divergence from the canonical stance on the inalterability of karma. The Buddha, refuting the fatalistic sentiment inherent in the Jain concept of karma, which holds that a person is inevitably doomed once he commits wicked deeds, expounded in the Sankha Sutta that the effects of past evil deeds could be alleviated by abstaining from evil acts and by developing a meritorious state of mind.9) As evinced in the Sankha Sutta, the idea that there is a method to lessen severe karmic force is not a new concept created by Thai Buddhists. Nonetheless, the role of magic in placating hostile karmic force or enhancing benevolent karmic force is a new component not found anywhere in the canon. This new component, I argue, results from an acute awareness of dissonance experienced by Thai Buddhists as they observe the doctrine of karma and enlist the service of instrumental magic. The noted incongruity induces a rationalization that aligns the belief in magic with the karma postulate.10) This rationalization characterizes a hybrid religious practice in which a person can resort to instrumental magic and still be faithful to his belief in karma.


2.2. Venerable Ko

Venerable Ko, like Mr. Woravit, noted a crucial problem with the belief that magic operates by its own rules and is not subject to the law of karma. Underlying this belief is an implication—as indicated by the informant—that magic can overpower karmic force. Venerable Ko approached this issue from the stance of an ordained Buddhist who also serves as a spiritual healer and exorcist. Venerable Ko grew up in a peasant village in Buriram. Born in the late 1970s to a peasant family, the monk obtained secondary education from a village school then moved to Bangkok, where he worked as a menial worker for a short period of time. The informant then returned to Buriram, entered the monastic order, and served as an abbot for a new temple in Ban Nongbualong village, not far from his native community. In comparison to Mr. Woravit, Venerable Ko may be designated as a member of the working class from a rural area who appears to be more engaged with “folk” than “doctrinal” Buddhism. However, the informant preaches orthodox Buddhist doctrines as often as he redresses problems regarding magic and spirits. Given his versatile role, it is not surprising that the monk recognized a conflict between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic, which he resolved by construing karma as the agent behind the power of magic.

Michael M. Ames, in his study of the relationship between magical-animistic beliefs and Sinhalese Buddhism, contends that karma, magic, and spirits are causal theories that complement rather than contradict one another. An illness, if cured by a counterspell, is attributed to black magic. If it is healed by a supplication or an exorcising rite, the ailment indicates the evil influence of offended spirits. If it is, however, irresponsive to any remedies, it is taken as retribution for the patient’s bad karma (Ames 1964b, 38). Venerable Ko employed a different explanatory scheme to reason why healing spells work in some cases but fail in others. His reasoning reveals his attempt to resolve the dissonance underlying the belief that magic spells always work in spite of healers’ and patients’ bad karma:

It is next to impossible to guarantee the efficacy of healing spells because several factors are accountable for their therapeutic power. The most pivotal factor, though, is the karmic bond between the healer and his patient. A healing ritual works best when the healer’s positive karmic force is attuned to his patient’s. This agreement is not a matter of chance but the result of a meritorious and mutually benevolent relationship the healer and his patient had with one another in their past lives. A person suffering from a supernatural illness may seek help from numerous ordained and lay healers, only to experience one failure after another. This is either because the person is under the influence of his bad karma, because the healer’s positive karmic force is not sufficient to avert the illness, or because there is an unfavorable or no karmic bond between the healer and his patient. Now you know why some healers cure certain persons but fail to heal others. (Personal interview, June 17, 2013)

Venerable Ko’s explanation solves an ethical problem posed by the image of a wicked soul rescued from karmic retaliation by means of healing spells and rituals. He reiterated Mr. Woravit’s opinion that the efficacy of magic requires support from the individual’s positive karmic force. Magic, therefore, does not override the supremacy of karmic machination. It is noteworthy, however, that Venerable Ko focuses on the interpersonal aspect of karma, while Mr. Woravit construes it as a personal asset. The former regards human relationships as a distinct class of karma, which determines the circle of people a person meets in his present life and the relationships he develops with them. In this particular conception of karma, the power of magic lies in the quality of the past life relationship between healer and patient. If the relationship is, to use the informant’s words, “meritorious and mutually benevolent,” healing magic is believed to yield a satisfactory result.11)

The notion of karmic bond is not a new concept invented by an ordained Thai Buddhist. The idea can be traced back to the collection of Jataka stories, which always end with the identification of births or samodhāna (Appleton 2010, 6). The Buddha always concludes a story of his past life by matching people from the past with those in the present. Though circumstances change, the Buddha runs into the same group of people through his countless rebirths. Also, the roles of these people in his different lives are quite static. King Śuddhodana always shows up as the Buddha’s father, while the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta is invariably his archenemy. The samodhāna in Jataka stories articulates the view that the relationships a person formed in the past generate a karmic force that binds him to a certain circle of people. This force also prescribes the nature of his present relationships with those people and the way in which these relationships contribute to merits and miseries the person experiences in his life. Venerable Ko seems to draw on this notion of karmic bond as he attributes the efficacy of healing magic to the agreement between healers’ and patients’ positive karmic forces.

What does Venerable Ko’s testimony tell us about the relationship between Buddhist doctrines and indigenous belief traditions? On the one hand, Venerable Ko’s account seems to reaffirm the notion that Buddhist doctrines, once transplanted to Thai culture, override indigenous beliefs and become normative postulates in relation to which indigenous beliefs are interpreted and assessed.12) Venerable Ko legitimizes his belief in magic by expounding its efficacy in terms of the karma postulate, which, in this case, holds epistemic authority. On the other hand, the way Venerable Ko aligns the belief in magic with the doctrine of karma shows that he makes a distinction between these separate, distinct sets of beliefs. He, like Mr. Woravit and other Thai Buddhists whose rationalizations were presented in the previous subsection, makes a justification that results in a syncretization of an orthodox Buddhist doctrine with local belief in magic. They do not merely adopt tenets and practices belonging to Thai magic cults without thinking about their proper place vis-à-vis the doctrine of karma. I discuss the ramifications of this observation in the next section.

Syncretism or Repertoire?

In the final chapter of The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk, Justin McDaniel (2011) proposes the concept of repertoire, which, he argues, is an analytical scheme devoid of prescribed classification that underlies the theory of syncretism. Syncretism, denoting the amalgamation of ideas or practices belonging to different traditions, implies preconceived, clearly demarcated categories. These preconceptions are counterproductive rather than illuminating when applied to the highly diversified and heterogeneous religious repertoires of Thai Buddhists (McDaniel 2011, 227–229). Scholars go into the field with prescribed labels and categories in their heads, only to discover that the people whose religious experiences they study do not perceive their religiosity on the basis of these labels and categories. Such is the case of Thai Buddhists, who do not seem to make a conceptual or value distinction between diverse religious tenets or practices that they adopt. McDaniel’s description of his experience in Thailand clearly articulates this opinion:

In my experience and interviews, monks or laypeople prostrating in front of a shrine with statues of General Taksin, Kuan Im, Shakyamuni Buddha, Somdet To, Phra Sangkhacchai do not see the shrine as a syncretistic stage or themselves as multireligious. They do not process the images separately, with some being local, some translocal, some Buddhist, and some non-Buddhist. If they did, there would be a more tactical attempt to arrange the objects or justify practices. (ibid., 228)

This seems to be the problem with syncretism as an analytical perspective from McDaniel’s viewpoint: Since syncretism presupposes division and classification, which for Thai Buddhists do not exist, it fails to do justice to the heterogeneous, open, and indiscriminate nature of their religiosity. To do away with this shortfall, McDaniel advocates the concept of repertoire,13) which does not invoke the image of “an integrated and prescribed system” (ibid., 230) and thus recognizes the possibility that “a person’s repertoire, religious or otherwise, can be internally inconsistent and contradictory” (ibid., 225). McDaniel further expounds that Thai Buddhists’ religious repertoires are spheres where the scholarly defined incongruity does not hinder the amalgamation of diverse sets of values and axioms. An individual may uphold worldly values such as security and abundance as much as soteriological principles such as nonattachment and impermanence. Given this propensity to encompass anything an individual devotee considers relevant, a personal religious repertoire as McDaniel experienced in Thailand

. . . usually takes the form of accretion. Thai religieux seem to add to their individual repertoires but rarely subtract. Individual memories are expressed in their accumulations. A monastery is valued for its history and the display of that history through its collection of things and recorded events. A monastery accumulates images from many different traditions and many different patrons. Abundance is valued. The accumulated materials can seem like mere bricolage, and sometimes it is, but often it is valuable for its connection to a powerful person, event, or patron. (ibid., 226)

It seems that new items, ideas, or practices can be infinitely added to this inherently inclusive religious repertoire in which abundance is a governing principle. Things that bear some sort of connection to the pre-existing sacral components or entities, when such connection is discerned by the individual devotee, tend to be accepted into his or her personal repertoire. Given this principle of inclusion, an amulet consecrated by a disciple of a renowned monk who produced powerful amulets will be valued for its protective potency as well (ibid.). This outlook on Thai Buddhists’ religious repertoires seems to suggest that as long as a link between pre-existing and new elements is perceived, an individual repertoire can be incessantly embellished.

I contend that McDaniel’s analytical orientation is based on two notions about Thai Buddhism and its adherents that are not always true. First, Thai Buddhists ascribe equal value to Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements; therefore, they combine Buddhist with non-Buddhist practices without feeling obligated to justify their hybrid religiosity. Second, there is no baseline or threshold to restrict diverse elements that Thai Buddhists add to their personal repertoires. Relevance and connection perceived by each individual devotee lead to an infinite accretion of elements within the repertoire, which results in the limitless possibilities of variable, hybrid ways Thai Buddhists observe their faith.14) Inconsistency and dissonance, therefore, are scholarly wrought problems. On the basis of the ethnographic cases presented in the foregoing section, I argue against these two notions.

The two informants are cognizant of the conflict between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic. They are aware that the uncurbed efficacy of instrumental magic defies the karma postulate. If a person can ward off unfortunate events or achieve his heart’s desire by merely using magic, then there is no reason to fear karmic retribution or to accumulate good karma. This noted discrepancy compels informants to justify their simultaneous belief in contradicting tenets. Based on the justifications made by my informants, I make two observations about Thai Buddhism and the people who observe it. First, even though there are several circumstances in which Thai Buddhists do not make a value distinction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements, there are also cases in which a hierarchical ordering is made. Mr. Woravit and Venerable Ko feel the need to resolve the dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic precisely because they perceive them as two separate sets of tenets that espouse distinct views of the acceptable way to secure favorable consequences. By attributing the efficacy of instrumental magic to its user’s or a client’s favorable karma, they subordinate a non-Buddhist tenet to a prominent Buddhist doctrine. This “hierarchical ordering” (Tambiah 1970, 41) evinces the notion of orthodoxy held by the informants. For them, the doctrine of karma holds epistemic authority; thus, the belief in magic, espousing the view that mystical power can reward or punish a person regardless of his karmic accumulation, needs to be curtailed in order to maintain the supremacy of the karma postulate. Considering that a distinction and a hierarchical arrangement were made in this case, the concept of repertoire as suggested by McDaniel, which highlights accretion and indiscriminate inclusivity, seems unfit to convey such a process. Even though the informants claim their simultaneous belief in magic and karma, they feel obligated to subordinate the former to the latter. In this light, they seem to syncretize contradicting tenets rather than indiscriminately accept them into their religious repertoires.

This initial observation leads us to the second point. Mr. Woravit’s and Venerable Ko’s conceptions of magic, which venerate the doctrine of karma, reveal that even though diverse tenets are accepted into informants’ religious repertoires, there is a restriction that dictates acceptable and sensible relations between these tenets. Based on my informants’ testimonies, I propose that at the core of this restriction lies the orthodoxy of the karma postulate, which rules that non-Buddhist elements can be adopted as long as they do not contradict or compromise the authority of the doctrine of karma. If they do, these elements need to be aligned with this orthodox dogma. As McDaniel lucidly describes in his study, Thai Buddhists worship and supplicate deities of different traditions. They call themselves Buddhists but carry amulets from Tibet and express the desire to possess a crucifix (McDaniel 2011, 226–228). I suggest that these non-Buddhist elements are adopted not because Thai Buddhists, not adhering to a single orthodox ideal, accept anything from anywhere. Rather, these hybrid religious practices are possible in the context of vernacular Thai Buddhism largely because Thai Buddhists believe that deities or magical objects, regardless of the tradition of their origin, do not wield power over the law of karma. Whenever the supplication to deities and the resort to magic are considered noncompliant with the doctrine of karma, as evinced in the ethnographic data presented earlier, Thai Buddhists tend to make a justification that subsumes the non-Buddhist element under the karma postulate.

Toward the end of his monograph, McDaniel problematizes the analytical perspective that focuses on detecting and pathologizing inconsistencies within a supposedly unified and coherent repertoire of individuals’ religious beliefs. He construes this indulgence in consistency as scholars’ adherence to the dichotomy between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, which is inadequate to explain the intricacy of and the dynamic within religious repertoires of real people in diverse contexts of practice:

Why can’t we expect that a person will hold and act upon simultaneous, multiple ideals? Why don’t we see this as an advantage? Why is consistency or orthodoxy seen as the ideal? . . . Perhaps it would be more accurate to abandon the dichotomy of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, to abandon the very notion that these values are inconsistent in favor of a close study of individual events, agents, and objects. (ibid., 228)

McDaniel’s argument is cogent since it is based on the ethnographic data he meticulously presents in his study. It is, however, inapplicable to the cases I demonstrate in this study, which convey two salient points. First, consistency and orthodoxy matter to several Thai Buddhists. My informants apparently strived for consistency as they proclaimed that instrumental magic merely tapped into its user’s store of karma. They would not have made such a justification had they not deciphered the dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic and seen it as problematic. This justification also reflects their attempt to keep their hybrid religious practice in line with the orthodox Buddhist doctrine, precisely the karma postulate.15) Second, it is true that Thai Buddhists, to use McDaniel’s words, “act upon simultaneous, multiple ideals” (ibid., 227). Nonetheless, these multiple ideals do not carry the same weight for all Thai Buddhists. My informants believe that magic can empirically induce intended consequences. Yet they refute the idea that instrumental magic can save wicked souls from their bad karma or condemn the righteous despite their noble deeds. For them, the power of magic and the operation of karmic force are both real. Still, the veracity of the law of karma overrides that of magic.

These two observations lead to the final argument of this section, which proposes that two analytical concepts—syncretism and repertoire—can be combined to make sense of hybrid religious practices adopted by Thai Buddhists. The notion of repertoire, in my opinion, needs a slight modification in order to encompass diverse forms of relationships between Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements in vernacular Thai Buddhism. I espouse Tambiah’s view that Thai Buddhism is “a total field” (Tambiah 1970, 41) that expresses various relations between Buddhist and non-Buddhist components. In some cases, as McDaniel’s study delineates, these two components exist side by side. They are indiscriminately received by Thai Buddhists who seem not to make a conceptual or a value distinction between them. In other cases, as my study shows, a distinction is made, a conflict is noted, and a hierarchical ordering is made to resolve the dissonance and to maintain the orthodoxy of Buddhist tenets. These different scenarios express the variety of possible relations between Buddhist and non-Buddhist components within a total field of religious beliefs and practices. These possible relations include, but are not limited to, “Distinctions, oppositions, complementarities, linkages, and hierarchy” (ibid., 42). The concept of repertoire, when applied to expound the totality of religious beliefs and practices Thai Buddhists hold onto, should be sensitive to these various forms of possible relations, which certainly do not exclude syncretism.

Problematizing Anti-syncretism

In his study of spirit-medium cults in contemporary Thailand, Pattana Kitiarsa draws on the term “parade of supernaturals” coined by Tambiah to describe the diversified, heterogeneous composition of religious beliefs and practices in modern Thailand.16) Pattana highlights the hybridization that characterizes contemporary Thai religiosity by describing the assorted components of a Thai spirit altar:

The statue of Buddha is always positioned at the top, since he is regarded as the supreme deity in Thai religious cosmology and since Buddhism is the country’s state-sponsored religion and has traditionally formed its sociocultural foundations. Below the statue of Buddha are those of Buddhist saints, male Indian and Chinese deities and royal spirits; these male deities are positioned higher than female deities like Guanyin, Uma or Kali. The bottom of the altar is the usual place for tutelary local spirits and other minor spirits, while flowers, incense, candles and offerings are placed in vases or other proper containers on the floor. Spirit altars in their symbolic and physical sense bring together deities from diverse backgrounds and origins; the altar is the sacred site where the religious hybridization of popular beliefs actually takes its concrete, collective form. (Pattana 2005, 484)

Pattana contends that since syncretism “implies something contentious, unauthenticated, and impure” (ibid.), it fails, as an analytical concept, to account for this hybridization that permeates spirit altars in Thailand. If Thai Buddhists perceived Buddhist elements as emblems of the orthodox faith vis-à-vis heretical, non-Buddhist components, they would never admit non-Buddhist deities or local spirits to the site of worship. For Pattana, syncretism, denoting the subordination of non-Buddhist elements to Buddhist tenets and practices, is problematic because it overstates the paramount position of Buddhism in the Thai religious landscape (ibid., 464). It also downplays the commodification of religious beliefs that has incessantly produced new hybrids to meet the spiritual needs of Thai people in the particular context of contemporary Thailand (ibid., 466). I suggest that the overemphasis on hybrid, diversified components that constitute religious repertoires of Thai Buddhists entails two problematic ramifications. First, it implies that Thai Buddhists, not adhering to any principle or orthodox ideal, indiscriminately adopt everything that they consider relevant to their needs and desires. Second, it reiterates the problematic assumption that people who practice religion at ground level do not share concepts and categories held by elites and intellectuals who study religion in an official, institutional setting. This assumption ultimately perpetuates the dichotomy between popular and elite interpretations of religion.

To deny syncretism is to deny the possibility that the believing individual may make a conceptual or a value distinction between diverse tenets that they hold. In a similar fashion, to say that Thai Buddhists’ religiosity is “beyond syncretism” (ibid., 461) is to downplay the fact that several Thai Buddhists strive to keep their heterogeneous religious repertoires internally coherent and meaningful. As Mr. Woravit’s and Venerable Ko’s accounts show, such notions are misleading. The informants syncretized the doctrine of karma with a local belief in magic, fully aware of different sentiments that grounded these two sets of tenets. Their syncretizing activity, precisely their act of subsuming the belief in magic under the doctrine of karma, reveals that some forms of hybrid religious practice are acceptable only after they are attuned to the authoritative Buddhist doctrine. In fact, the excerpt from Pattana’s study cited above also displays this hierarchical ordering. The fact that the Buddha image is always placed at the top of the altar denotes the supremacy of Buddhism vis-à-vis other belief traditions adopted by Thai Buddhists.

To deny syncretism is to deny the possibility that people who practice popular religion may adopt a taxonomy or a categorization of religious concepts used by elites within institutional religion and by scholars in academia. Tambiah comments on this ill-founded dichotomy between the doctrinal, official religion of the elites and the practical, popular religion of the folk as follows:

. . . it has for some curious reason not been seen that contemporary live religion, even that observed in the village, incorporates a great deal of the literary tradition. Brahman priests, Buddhist monks, ritual experts and scribes in some measure deal with literary and oral knowledge transmitted from the past and which they themselves systematically transmitted to their successors. And for the common people at large such texts and knowledge have a referential and legitimating function, even if they themselves have no direct access to them. (Tambiah 1970, 4)

Mr. Woravit’s and Venerable Ko’s attempts at syncretization reify Tambiah’s observation. Had the informants been insensitive to the orthodoxy of the karma postulate articulated by several sutras included in the Pali canon, they would not have felt the need to maintain its authority vis-à-vis the belief in magic. Also, had they not recognized the belief in magic and the doctrine of karma as two distinct sentiments that contradict one another, they would not have made an attempt to syncretize them. Mr. Woravit and Venerable Ko seem to adopt the canonical sentiment that neither magic nor deities overrides the law of karma,17) therefore they posit that a person’s resort to magic is futile without the support of his good karma. The informants’ rationalizations highlight the continuity, rather than the incongruity, between the doctrinal and the practical aspects of contemporary Thai Buddhism.

All observations and arguments that I have made in this paper build to this final point: Despite the highly heterogeneous constitution of their religious beliefs and practices, Thai Buddhists do not indiscriminately accept anything from anywhere that suits their whims. At the very least, they consider the orthodoxy of the doctrine of karma, the authority of which they feel obligated to maintain at all cost. Considering the scenario I have presented in this paper, it seems that when it comes to Thai Buddhists’ religiosity, we cannot yet do away with syncretism and its connotations of differentiation and categorization. Reconciling magic with karma, my informants and other Thai Buddhists whose accounts are reported in this study syncretized differentiated, contradictory sentiments regarding the legitimate means of producing the intended consequences. They made patent an underrated fact that a mindset comprising disparate components does not only indicate the hybrid constitution of that mindset. It also reflects cognitive processes, among which are creative interpretation and adaptation, which render these conflicting sentiments coherently meaningful for the believing individual.

Accepted: January 6, 2017


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1) A Chinese Mahayana component whose significance in Thailand’s religious landscape has become most notable in the twentieth century is the worship of the Bodhisattva Guanyin (or Kuan Im in Thai). For more on this practice in contemporary Thailand, see Nithi (1994), Jackson (1999), Pattana (2005), Cohen (2008).

2) The word “syncretism” has been used to denote different things by various agents in diverse contexts of usage. In Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a group of Protestant theologians called for the reconciliation of diverse Protestant denominations. Their opponents, however, contended that the reconciliation would lead to syncretism, which means the confusing jumble of religious ideas and practices in this context. In the Renaissance period, the term denoted a continuity between Christian theology and classical philosophy, which the Renaissance philosophers and scholars enthusiastically embraced (Shaw and Stewart 1994, 3). For variable ways in which the word has been used and defined, see Droogers (1989, 7–25) and Shaw and Stewart (1994, 2–9).

3) Some scholars who express this view are John E. deYoung (1963, 110), Michael A. Wright (1968, 1), and Anuman Rajadhon (2009, 35).

4) In a footnote, Ames lists the studies that propound such a view. The list includes Copleston (1908, 272–290), Elliot (1921, 42), Stephen (1953), and Ariyapala (1956). I note here, however, that this view, espoused by some scholars of Buddhism several decades ago, seems to greatly diminish in the present-day scholarship of Buddhism. In the case of Thai Buddhism, the pejorative view of popular Buddhism has been expressed primarily by ordained Buddhists and lay social critics who communicate their comments via mass media. See Taylor (1999, 163–165) and Pattana (2006, 265–267).

5) McDaniel (2011, 228) directly expresses this view. Pattana (2005, 464–466) and Jackson (1999, 311) imply the same, noting the decline of the orthodoxy of state-sponsored Theravada Buddhism vis-à-vis the proliferation of newly minted supernatural cults in contemporary, capitalist Thailand.

6) E. R. Leach suggests two strata of a religion: philosophical religion and practical religion. The former is prevalent among the intellectuals, to whom religion is an intricate system of ethical principles and doctrines. The latter is religion as observed by “an ordinary churchgoer” (Leach 1968, 1) whose religious practices are relatively more oriented toward practical, worldly concerns.

7) Somdet To is a casual abbreviation of Somdet Phra Phutthachan (To Phrommarangsi), the author of the renowned Jinapanjara Gatha. Somdet To has been much revered by Thai Buddhists for his exemplary religious conduct as well as for his reputed spiritual power. He was the originator of the prestigious Somdet Wat Rakang amulets, whose exalted monetary value is well known among Thai amulet collectors.

8) Mr. Woravit’s conception of profound meditation and psychic power seems to have a basis in the doctrine of six supranormal knowledges (abhiññā) included in the the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka. The doctrine construes mystical power as a quality achieved by a concentrated mind while dwelling in an advanced stage of profound meditation (jhāna). On the relationship between meditation and superhuman power in the Pali canon and Buddhist scholastic traditions, see Clough (2011) and Fiordalis (2008, 134–140). For ways in which this tenet informs lay Buddhists’ conceptions of superhuman power and types of individual who possess this power, see Pranke (2011) on contemporary Burma, and Scott (2011) on modern Thailand.

9) The Sankha Sutta or “The Conch Trumpet” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu 1999b) is included in the Saṃyutta Nikāya of the Sutta Pitaka.

10) Steven Piker, in his study of inconsistency in Thai Buddhists’ religious beliefs, presents ethnographic cases that manifest variable ways in which Thai Buddhists justify their belief in the power of amulets that contradict the doctrine of karma—“the master explanatory principle” (Piker 1972, 217) that Piker’s informants hold onto. Most of his informants proclaimed the supremacy of the karma postulate, maintaining that amulets could not completely negate the effect of one’s karma (ibid., 220). Piker’s study shows that the noted dissonance between the doctrine of karma and the belief in magic, and the felt obligation to resolve it, are not uncommon among Thai Buddhists.

11) A paperback titled The Best Magical Spells of 129 Masters (Sutyot mon khatha 129 khanajarn) reveals the four secrets behind the efficacy of a magic spell. Last on the list is the karmic build of the practitioner and the karmic bond he/she has with his/her mentor. The following statement, similar to Venerable Ko’s rationalization, articulates the idea that a meritorious karmic tie between pupil and master contributes to the power of instrumental magic:

Some practitioners master magical spells in the initial phase of their training because of their supporting positive karma, or because they were pupils of the masters who invented those spells in their past lives. (Kongka Himalai 2016, 30)

12) Bernard Formoso’s studies (1996; 1998) on the influence of Theravada Buddhism on the religious ideas and values of the Tai delineate this interplay.

13) McDaniel defines the word “repertoire” as follows: “A repertoire is a constantly shifting collection of gestures, objects, texts, plots, tropes, ethical maxims, precepts, ritual movements, and expectations that any individual agent employs and draws upon when acting and explaining action” (McDaniel 2011, 225).

14) This view is expressed in Peter A. Jackson’s study on the excessive desire for wealth that configured religious practices of Thai Buddhists during Thailand’s economic boom. Jackson argues that this phenomenon characterizes what he calls “the ‘anything goes’ days of the boom” (Jackson 1999, 314), by which he means the 1990s—the decade when Thailand experienced rapid economic growth and a limitless proliferation of religious symbols and practices. Jackson argues that the peculiar combinations of religious beliefs and practices in this time period “proliferate beyond the power of any individual or institutional authority to limit or define” (ibid., 311), and that they manifest “a Thai instance of postmodern condition in which faith in the unity of knowledge, power, and being is abandoned” (ibid.). It seems that for Jackson, Thai people during the economic boom did not adhere to any orthodox religious concepts nor share any common ideals. Therefore, all new inventions of religious tenets and activities are viable for them.

15) Julia Cassaniti cogently delineates the orthodoxy of the law of karma and its function as the master explanatory scheme Thai Buddhists employ to account for merits and miseries a person experiences in his present life (see Cassaniti 2015, 149–173).

16) The phrase “parade of supernaturals” is the title of Chapter 10 of Tambiah’s Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (1970).

17) Some canonical sutras that convey this view are the Paccha-bhumika Sutta, the Devadaha Sutta, and the Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya and the Majjhima Nikāya of the Sutta Pitaka. In the Paccha-bhumika Sutta, the Buddha maintains that prayers and supplication rituals cannot alter the consequence of volitional actions. The Devadaha Sutta refutes a Jain theory positing that bad karma can be burned up by ascetic practice. The Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta portrays karma as the supreme causal agent accountable for humans’ fortunes and miseries.


Vol. 6, No. 1, NGUYEN Thi Thanh Binh


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Multiple Reactions to Land Confiscations in a Hanoi Peri-urban Village

Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh*

* Institute of Anthropology, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, 10th Floor, No 1, Lieu Giai Street, Ba Dinh district, Hanoi, Vietnam
e-mail: nguyenttbinh[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_953

This article examines the impact of urban expansion on a peri-urban village of Hanoi. It seeks to understand how villagers reacted to the decision by Hanoi city to take their agricultural land for urban projects. By exploring the forms of land protest adopted in this community and the diverse factors that shaped reactions in this particular case, the article contributes to the literature on responses to land confiscation in Vietnam and elsewhere. The paper shows a community divided over recent land confiscations and the complexity of the politics of resistance in land disputes in modern-day Vietnam.

Keywords: urbanization, rural transformation, land appropriation, land protest, Vietnam

In the decades since the economic reforms of the 1980s, Vietnam’s urban and rural landscapes have changed dramatically as the country experiences a rapid rise of industrialization and modernization. For many years, an invisible urbanization had been taking place in rural areas based on intensified agriculture, expansion and development of handicrafts, and migration for employment by farming households (DiGregorio 2011). With the urban development strategy launched in the 1990s of “infilling and expansion,” urbanization by “administrative integration,” and the expansion of industrial parks, many new urban areas and industrial zones have been established in what once were primarily wet-rice-growing peripheries of major cities such as Hanoi. By applying the state’s right to allocate and appropriate land for the purpose of “national defense, security, national interest, public interest, and economic development,” local governments have reallocated agricultural land to developers. The government has negotiated with farming households in project areas and compensated the households for the reallocated land on a fixed-rate basis. From 2001 to 2005 the state appropriated 366,400 hectares of agricultural land; by 2010 the total rose to roughly 745,000 hectares, affecting some nine million farming people, or about 10 percent of the country’s population (Kerkvliet 2014, 20). In Hanoi alone, from 2000 to 2004 the city converted 5,496 hectares of land for 957 projects; this had critical consequences for the living and working conditions of 138,291 households, among them 41,000 classified as agricultural households (Hồng Minh 2005). In that context, rural communities, especially peri-urban villages, have been facing both opportunities and challenges to develop and better themselves.

Research on urbanization in Vietnam has highlighted a set of problems that have become manifest as the urbanization process extends into the peri-urban landscape. These problems include land degradation, chaotic land use practices, growing income inequalities, dispossessed farmers unable to find jobs in the urban economy, and land disputes (Nguyen Duy Thang 2004; Tran Duc Vien et al. 2005; Vu Hong Phong 2006; Trần Thị Hồng Yến 2013; Labbé 2014; Nguyễn Văn Sửu 2014). Inspired by violent standoffs between farmers and the local government during land disputes in 2012,1) some studies on land protests in Vietnam have explored disputes in rural settings by focusing on factors that instigate conflict, and the modes and contexts in which it occurs (Gillespie 2014; Kerkvliet 2014; Taylor 2014). While those works identify patterns in how and why recent land-related protests arose and analyze the discourses that guide and control disputes, they do not capture all the complexities of land disputes. The main reason is these studies focus more on the political implications of land conflicts than on land protests in a social context. In these studies, land protests are shown as dispossessed farmers’ responses to land expropriations, which do not reflect the complexity of rural communities’ reactions; nor do the studies examine all the processes by which the disputes have been formed and transformed.

To date, little attention has focused on the important issue of internal village conflicts over land confiscations for urbanization. In her case study in a Hanoi peri-urban village named Hoa Muc, Danielle Labbé (2011) describes the reaction of people in that village during several periods of land grabs. The case study examines the role of elderly people in opposing the local government’s project to build a cultural house in front of the village communal house. The study gives some indication of the social division among villagers and suggests the complication of the politics of resistance in contemporary Vietnam. Nevertheless, more can be said about the complexity of local reactions to land expropriation in the current era.

This article shows how both urbanization and land conflict bring to light differences among villagers’ reactions to land confiscation in a peri-urban village of Hanoi. Drawing upon recent fieldwork, the study seeks to understand how villagers of different ages, genders, and occupations have reacted to the decision of Hanoi city authorities to take their agricultural land for urban projects. It provides an in-depth anthropological study of the dynamics of the land appropriation process and the responses of farmers faced by great changes in land use and livelihoods. The study shows how and why the community has been divided over land confiscations, which has been exacerbated by villagers’ protests. It demonstrates that despite most farming households not wanting to lose their agricultural land or accept low compensation, not all of them participated in the land protest. Illustrating the contestatory nature of land conflicts in contemporary Vietnam, this paper aims to bring more evidence to the complexity of the politics of resistance in land disputes in today’s Vietnam. Like Labbé (2011) and Benedict Kerkvliet (2014), I try to contribute to the literature on responses to land confiscation in Vietnam and elsewhere by investigating forms of land protest in this community besides the “rightful resistance” (O’Brìen 1996) approach and uncovering the diverse factors that shaped those reactions in this particular case.

Rightful Resistance Theory and Land Protests in Vietnam

Over the last three decades, Southeast Asian countries have experienced a dramatic change in land use and social relations around land. Economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization have led to the conversion of large amounts of agricultural land to urban use as well as various commercial and industrial purposes (Hall et al. 2011, 1). In India, during the last decade Special Economic Zones have become centers of “land wars” as farmers across the country have resisted the state’s use of eminent domain to transfer their land. In the case of China, between 1987 and 2003 urban expansion transformed 10 million to 12 million hectares, about one-tenth of the country’s total area, from agricultural to non-agricultural uses. Together, between 1990 and 2007, farmland conversion and inner-city redevelopment displaced between 60 million and 75 million people in both urban and rural areas (Hsing 2010, 2). Throughout the region, this urban expansion seemed to be based on the logic of dispossession (Hsing 2010; Levien 2012) or the “powers of exclusion” (Hall et al. 2011), which triggered increasingly explosive and widespread social unrest.

While reactions to land grabs have occurred in various countries in the region, significant explorations and discussions on the nature of this phenomenon concentrate mostly on China, where the number of land protests has been increasing since the late 1990s. In that context, the theory of rightful resistance, which was first explained by Kevin O’Brien (1996) and later elaborated by Kevin J. O’Brien and Li Lianjiang (2006), has been influential. According to this theory, rightful resistance is a form of popular contention against the state in which groups of weak peasants use nonviolent methods, make use of institutionalized channels to press their claims locally, and then entreat higher-level officials to help. The nature of rightful resistance is peaceful; however, rightful resisters actively seek the attention of the elites, and their protests are public and open. People make use of the state’s own laws, policies, or rhetoric in framing their protests.

Vietnam for a long time has been a fertile land for studies on peasant resistance in which theories of moral economy, the rational peasant, or the power of the weak2) are introduced or elaborated. Against a background of increasing land disputes in recent times, scholarly works on protests over land in rural Vietnam undergoing urban expansion “have moved beyond the everyday resistance model, which used to be fruitful to study politics in rural Vietnam, to focus on a contestatory mode of politics” (Taylor 2014, 4). Labbé applied a rightful resistance approach to examine resistance to land redevelopment projects and found that “groups of villagers relied on a strategy of ‘rightful resistance’ embedded in the official discourse of deference, inasmuch as they based their claims on official policies and ethical pronouncements by the Vietnamese party-state itself” (Labbé 2011, 453). The core of resisters’ discourse of rightful resistance to preserve their village communal house is “a sense of place and of social justice drawn from history, geography and tradition. People claim for their right to safeguard values they hold in common” (ibid.). In another recent investigation drawing upon more than 60 case studies of land dispute in Vietnam, Kerkvliet (2014) found that the predominant pattern for how Vietnamese today protest about land issues resonates with rightful resistance theory. In this form of resistance, “people in the same community peacefully demand that national officials make local authorities abide by the law” (Kerkvliet 2014, 26). However, some Vietnamese villagers’ demonstrations do not fit this pattern and theory, such as when “angry villagers have collaborated with land protesters in other parts of the nation, and their protests, despite usually being non-violent, have not always been so” (ibid., 40). According to the author, in most cases the reason why people’s protest exceeds rightful resistance theory is that “Vietnamese people frequently challenge existing laws pertinent to their grievances and assert rights that go beyond those officially recognized” (ibid., 21). For instance, some people refuse to surrender their land-use rights based on the notion that it is unjust to take land against the will of families who have served the Vietnamese nation (Kerkvliet 2014).

In this study, I also apply rightful resistance theory to analyze why and how Lụa villagers protest. Like Kerkvliet (2014), I find that the reasons Lụa people reacted and did not accept land appropriation at the beginning go beyond the explanation provided by rightful resistance theory. Since the collective village protest ended, some villagers have been continuing their own protest, which sometimes has involved violence, as they have tried to resist the local government’s decisions. By examining the protest in process, I found that activists in the village community used some tactics that commonly have been associated with Vietnam’s tradition of peasant revolutionary politics to mobilize their co-villagers to join their protest activities or to exert more pressure on local authorities to support their claim or meet their demands. Like Labbé (2011), I found that the village community was divided during the protest; but I will elaborate in more detail how the land confiscation impacted on the cohesiveness of this community. The paper aims to make a deeper contribution to what is already known about the reaction of local Vietnamese to land appropriation in a context of rapid urbanization.

Research Method and Research Site

This paper is drawn from field research conducted in Lụa3) village in 2014. The research was carried out using both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. For the quantitative component, 200 household questionnaires were surveyed to determine the socioeconomic situations of households. Information was collected on landownership and transfer, other personal and productive assets, income, and consumption expenditure. In this article, the quantitative survey results are not presented and are used only to understand the social context of the village. For the qualitative component, which represents the core of this paper, 60 semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals in the village. Half of these individuals were identified from the quantitative questionnaires, while the remainder were selected to ensure a broad representation of the village by age, gender, educational background, occupation, marital status, and economic status. The interview included open-ended questions on informants’ personal information and their families’ socioeconomic situation. Villagers were free to share their opinions, feelings, and thoughts on urbanization and land appropriation. In order to gain an understanding of the villagers’ reaction to land appropriation, we posed questions on this topic to some villagers who we believed played an important role or were directly involved in the protest, including both ordinary villagers and local authorities. Based on information provided by respondents, we tried to meet and interview other villagers who were involved in the incidents. Questions were raised on the responses of people and their participation in the village protest.

Located to the west of Hanoi, Lụa village is well known for its craft tradition. Despite experiencing various administrative changes in the late colonial and revolutionary periods, prior to 2006 Lụa village belonged to one of the lowest administrative units (a commune) of Hoài Ðức District, Hà Tây Province.4) Rice cultivation and silk weaving were the two main livelihoods of villagers for as long as can be remembered. After the August revolution of 1945, traditional weaving died out.

Immediately after the decollectivization of local agriculture in the late 1980s, Lụa people diversified their economic activities, aided by their close geographical position to Hanoi. Prior to 2009, approximately 70 percent of over 2,000 households in the village were agricultural households that also engaged in petty trade, hired labor, food processing, or small service industries. Thirty percent of households were non-agricultural. The majority of these were traders at markets in the city as well as entrepreneurs who owned weaving and cloth dying workshops in the village. The remainder ran a variety of businesses ranging from wood workshops to garment workshops, tobacco trade, food shops, and the like. The dynamics of Lụa village trade can be seen as a continuation of the craft village tradition. It is possible to say that the 30 percent trading and craft households were also ranked as wealthy people in the village. The other 70 percent of households had a relatively stable livelihood created by intensifying their cash crops, peach tree flowers, and petty trade. Compared to other surrounding villages, Lụa was considered one of the well-off villages in the region and one that had the internal capability to develop itself.

Under the urban growth policy in the region, on March 1, 2006 the commune to which Lụa village belonged was assigned to Hà Ðông town (Hà Tây Province). In June 2009, soon after Hà Tây merged with Hanoi city, Lụa village became an urban administrative unit belonging to Hà Ðông District. Given its convenient location, Hà Ðông District urbanized rapidly: between 2005 and 2010, new roads and housing projects were quickly implemented. Two major roads were opened and cut through Lụa village in 2006 and 2007.

In 2008, the local government developed a plan to take most of the village land for new urban projects. Accordingly, more than 300 hectares of agricultural land in Lụa and another village in the same ward (more than 90 percent of the total agricultural land of Lụa) were appropriated for 13 projects. The biggest project was Ha Dong New Urban Centre5) (Khu Ðô thị mới), which has an area of 197 hectares. It consists of a service complex, a shopping center, hotels, offices, high-end housing, and a hospital. Besides these, there are several other housing projects and one international school.

The Village Protest

Although Lụa villagers had realized for some years that urbanization of their communities was inevitable, many of them were quite shocked when it actually happened. In 2006, when a major road opened and cut Lụa village in two, some households lost their cultivated land to the road expansion, but nobody protested. People accepted the compensation even though it was lower than that paid to villagers later for other mega projects,6) because they understood it as a public works project that served the needs of the state for building infrastructure.

In early 2008, there was a rumor that most of the village land would be appropriated for road construction and housing projects with a compensation of about VND86 million per sào (about USD4,000 for 360 m2) plus 10 percent of the reclassified land, referred to as “service land.”7) An old farmer in the village recalled his feeling at that time:

“I felt dizzy at the rumor. I myself had 13.7 thước8) [314 m2]. My children had their own portions. If I lost all the land, I would receive about VND80 million plus about 18 m2 service land. But to have that 18 m2 I would have to pay almost VND40 million for infrastructure fees. If I had no more land to grow peach trees, how would I earn a living? Each year, on average, I need over VND10 million for my own expenditure. With VND40 million left, I could live for three years. After that I might have to sell the 18 m2 service land to live on. As I am old, who would give me work? I was really dizzy.” (Mr. Ngọ, 60 years old)

Hiền, a 40-year-old man in the village, recalled a similar sentiment: “When I heard about the land appropriation, I could not sleep for several nights. I was lying here, thinking and worrying about what I would do after losing the land.”

In this atmosphere of apprehension, villagers grouped together to discuss the rumor. At first people thought that their land was going to be taken for state projects, so they mostly discussed compensation. Later, they discovered that it was to be taken by private companies and corporations. People discussed the state’s compensation policies (Kim 2011) at length: the government would give back 10 percent of service land plus VND201,600 per square meter and financial compensation for lost income from crops.9) Compensation was also to be offered for job training services. Villagers received VND86 million (more than USD4,000 in 2008) per sào (360 m2) in compensation. They began comparing Lụa to their neighboring village of Ngòi,10) where for the same project VND97 million per sào was paid. Ngòi village was already a ward of Hà Ðông town, while Lụa village, being part of a larger commune, was still a rural village commune in a peri-urban environment. The land values of urban and rural areas were thus considered different.

In the eyes of the state authorities, standard levels of compensation, based on location and land area, are calculated on the principle that farmers have only usage rights, not property rights, over land (Asia Foundation et al. 2014). However, Lụa villagers wanted a higher amount of compensation—not only because their land was adjacent to Ngòi village, but, as they pointed out, Ngòi’s rice land was less valuable than the land that Lụa villagers were using to produce cash crops. The village is known as the “peach tree village” for its peach trees and flowers (đào), which generate high incomes (SGGP Special Report 2008), especially during the Tết season. This comparison of land value is common in other rural communities where farmers intensify some high-value crops, such as Van Giang (Kerkvliet 2014, 35).

Another bone of contention was that in Lụa village just 6.2 percent of land was offered as compensation in the form of service land (đất dịch vụ) instead of the 10 percent that was given elsewhere.11) For reasons that remain unclear, the road construction was counted as urban infrastructure and its 3.8 percent was deducted from the promised 10 percent. Concrete offers to provide jobs as replacement for the loss of land remained vague. From March 2008 onward, many villagers gathered at different places in the village to discuss matters. They decided not to cede agricultural land to the project in return for compensation.

Like the predominant pattern of land protest in Vietnam, Lụa people started their protest by collectively complaining to local authorities in the pattern of rightful resistance (ibid., 26). Meetings were held in each hamlet, in which most representatives of households expressed their disagreement on land appropriation. Reports of these meetings were sent to the local government. In these events, the community was already divided. Most villagers wanted to retain the land so as to maintain their livelihood, while some agreed to leave but only in exchange for fair compensation. Local authorities, Communist Party members, and people from families benefiting from the preferential treatment policy12) (gia đình chính sách)—who accepted the land appropriation—often remained loyal to state policies.

Besides holding official meetings and submitting petitions, villagers sometimes publicly reacted to sudden events relating to land appropriation. Whilst their actions were usually non-violent, on some occasions angry people crossed the threshold. For instance, on March 14, 2008, many people came to the rice fields to drive away district committee staff who were mapping the village’s land area. Villagers even destroyed some machines belonging to the Nam Cường company that were being used to build the project manager’s house. On March 17, 2008, a thousand villagers came to the People’s Committee office after an announcement regarding land appropriation was made on the commune’s public broadcast system. Deliberations took place between the local authorities and a delegation of three villagers who were assigned as representatives. The answers provided by the local authorities did not satisfy the villagers, so they kept returning to the offices to protest. Villagers accused local cadres of receiving money from the estate developing company, which was investing in the area, to sell their land. Some villagers even said local cadres had “sold people” (bán đứng dân) for the enterprise. There was widespread mistrust among the protesters about the involvement of local party cadres in the affair. Rumors that commune leaders had been promised better land—and offered gifts and even outright bribes—became the talk of the day. Protesters threw bricks, stones, and even feces at the houses of key leaders of the commune, such as the secretary of the Party, two vice chairmen, and the head of the land administration department. As the chairman was seriously ill at the time, one of the vice chairmen was believed to have had the most important role in the land-taking decision. Protesters burned incense and established a kind of altar table in front of his home’s gate (this meant that in their eyes, he had died).

Behind rightful resistance methods to press their claims, such as sending petitions and questioning local cadres, Lụa resisters understood that their protest could be successful only if they could prevent local cadres and opponents in the village from receiving compensation. It is interesting that in this situation, some tactics that protesters used and the atmosphere of protesting that villagers recalled are often depicted in Vietnamese peasant revolutions of the old days. Drums were used widely in this period of protest as a sign to call for participation of villagers in significant events. Sometimes the protesters organized drum beating to protest. A delegation of about a hundred people marched around the village with a big drum, then stopped at the house of one key leader and beat the drum constantly from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. From March to May 2008, almost every day, from morning till night, many villagers—especially elderly and disabled people—were mobilized to surround the office building in protest, to question and criticize local cadres. People criticized and scolded local cadres behind their backs but also to their faces, both inside and outside the meetings. With the exception of key leaders who attended the office daily, most of the personnel of the social organizations in the commune were unable to work for several months. If any social organization held a meeting to implement any activity higher-level authorities requested of them, villagers took over the meeting to focus on the land compensation question. Local government was paralyzed through the entire year of 2008. Whilst resisters did not break the law by removing and taking over the power of local government, their actions disturbed and caused difficulties for local authorities.

People were very interested in the details of the protests (phong trào đấu tranh) (even if they did not call them by that name). In the evening, groups met at some points of the village road or at villagers’ houses. Each month, every hamlet had several meetings held by the head of the hamlet or by people themselves. Active protesters from other hamlets were able to participate in these meetings to get an update on the situation or raise their questions. On normal days, people continued to surround the People’s Committee building. On days the commune had a meeting or received a visit from high-level authorities, villagers informed each other and called for the participation of the crowd. People used slogans such as “No taking land when people have not agreed,” “Long live the Vietnamese Communist Party,” and “Long live Ho Chi Minh.” These are still the most popular mobilizational slogans used by the Vietnamese Communist Party and the state. People used these aspects of the state’s rhetoric to show that they still believed in and followed the Party while claiming their rights.

The most significant event occurred when a high-ranking leader of Hà Tây Province came to work at the village on April 30, 2008. Thousands of Lụa villagers surrounded the office of the People’s Committee to question the provincial authority. After being detained for over a day, the leader in question could leave the village only after promising that the project would commence if the majority of villagers agreed, and that jobs would be provided for people after their land was taken. The impetus of the villagers in land protests was so great that sometimes people actually felt that they could succeed in keeping their land.

After the local government had been questioned for some months, the protest extended to the provincial capital, Ha Dong, and even to Hanoi. Hundreds of villagers went several times to Hà Ðông town and Hanoi to submit petitions. Every week, on the day the city received people’s petitions, a group of villagers consisting of several dozen people went to question and argue about their affairs. On special occasions, when it was necessary to mobilize the crowd, the delegation would phone people at the village to come to town to join them. On June 11, 2008, hundreds of villagers went to the office of the Provincial Party in Hà Ðông town to protest. As protesters clashed with police, five people were arrested. Two of them were later jailed for two years. From June 2008 to the end of 2009, the protest of Lụa villagers was described as “some days quiet, some days effervescent” in both the village and the city.

One of the main reasons Lụa villagers could keep the protest going for over a year was the situation of being “caught in between” local cadres (Pham 2004). In early 2009 a new chairman was sent to the village from Hà Ðông town to replace the previous chairman, who had died due to cancer. With the more direct and stronger leadership from the district level, local government in the village was reinforced. All leaders and Party members at the village came to a consensus to give up land, even though some of them did not agree or sympathize with the villagers. Therefore, in the first half of 2009, local cadres were the first to give up their land and receive compensation. However, since villagers were still protesting, most of them did it discreetly or even in secret.

Meanwhile, the estate company also applied tactics to divide villagers and induce them to accept compensation. From October to December 2009 some strangers, posing as brokers, came to the village to buy service land despite villagers having not yet been given any such land as compensation, and the decision of the city on service land for local people having not yet been issued. Thus, people called this transaction of buying and selling service land “steam” (dịch vụ hơi). Later on, Lụa villagers thought that those strangers were being sent by the Nam Cường company to induce them to accept compensation. They first came to poor families, especially those whose offspring were involved in gambling and had debts. They paid a high price, ranging from VND500 million to 600 million for a portion of service land (about 18 m2). This large amount of money caused some villagers to give land, receive compensation, and sell their service land. As the local government saw the change in a number of villagers, local authorities asked for permission from the city to implement the service land policy in the village. By the end of 2009, some villagers had sporadically opted to receive money. This caused tension in certain families because some wives did not want to receive money but their husbands, under pressure or due to advice, decided to do it. In some cases, the father did not want to accept money but his son went to receive it.

By the end of 2009, there was an announcement that the government would pay only during a one-week period, and if people did not present themselves the money would be transferred to the state’s treasury, where it eventually could be claimed. This was not an exceptional event, because the same strategy was used in other villages around Hà Ðông (e.g., in Ðồng Mai commune). There were also suggestions that anyone who accepted compensation would receive the allocated service land in a good location. All these factors caused villagers to join a crowd to demand money from the hamlet’s chief. The village collective protest ended. Many villagers recalled the situation as a “broken battle” (vỡ trận).

It apparently worked, because by 2010 only 36 households had not yet accepted money. These people, mostly women, continued their protest together with over 200 households in their neighboring village. However, the 36 protesting households were divided into two groups. One group consisted of 30 households in Lụa village who called themselves the “red T-shirt group” (phe áo đỏ). They reduced their demands to 10 percent service land (instead of the 6.2 percent that their co-villagers had accepted). Meanwhile, six other households joined with protesters in the neighboring village, named the “white T-shirt group” (phe áo trắng), and maintained their demand to not lose their land at all. As at the time of writing, these protesters are still sending petitions to different government offices, and visiting offices in Hanoi once a week. They have even established blogs on the Internet and call themselves the “Lụa land lost peasants.” In addition, they are always prepared to fight with the local government whenever the ward organizes a coercive land takeover of one among those households. Their fights sometimes are recorded and posted on the Internet, shown as “social dramas” to outsiders.

A Divided Community

According to many interviewees, right from beginning, around 50 percent of villagers were very concerned about their livelihood if they lost their land. This group of people did not want their land to be taken away. About 25 percent of people wanted their land to be appropriated. These were mainly old people and people no longer practicing agriculture. Most of them wanted the compensation for savings, paying debts, or investing in non-farm work. The remaining 25 percent of people were unsure. Many of them were already engaged in trading or other non-agricultural activities. For them, it was not a matter of accepting land compensation or continuing to cultivate crops. Their interest in the compensation scheme was minimal. Some of them were farmers. They also wanted to keep the land but were not interested in protesting or any collective activity. From this group’s point of view, they let local government and the majority in the village make whatever decision they wanted regarding the land. They kept quiet when most of the villagers expressed their uneasiness over the compensation scheme.

Villagers who had participated in the protest referred to what happened as a “struggle movement to preserve land” (phong trào đấu tranh giữ đất). Meanwhile, other villagers called it a “protesting faction.” According to villagers who considered themselves in between, right after the land-taking decision was announced, the “protesting faction” (phe đấu tranh) was formed. It went against the local government faction (phe chính quyền), which comprised local authorities and people who supported the land appropriation. As the impetus of the first faction was stronger at the beginning, about 60 percent of households looked favorably on the protest. It is significant that this number included both villagers who participated directly in the protest activities and those who supported the protest but did not show up. Interview results also reveal that some villagers had no land to keep but also participated in the land protest. Several respondents believed that some of their co-villagers just responded to the land protest for their own aims, such as to show their discontent to the local cadres. In reality, only about 10 percent of households in the village were active protesters. They were enthusiastic about all activities of the movement. The 36 households that are still protesting belong to this number. Some of them were enthusiastic and referred to as “people prepared for the fight” in the first days. Some small enterprises in the village that were built on agricultural land that might have been cleared for the project also supported financing the protest.

The movement in each hamlet13) was different. People in Quang Minh, Hoàng Văn Thụ, and Hòa Bình hamlets were more enthusiastic about the protest than people in Vinh Quang, Quyết Tâm, and Ðoàn Kết hamlets. Villagers explained that the main reason for this difference was that people in Quang Minh, Hoàng Văn Thụ, and Hòa Bình had intensified their cash crops long before. Those villagers’ land was worth more to them in value and sources of livelihood than it would have been had the land been used mainly for rice crops. At the time of land appropriation, most of the peach tree area of the village was cultivated by those hamlets, while the other hamlets grew mainly rice, which produced less income than cash crops. Also, people in Vinh Quang, Quyết Tâm, and Ðoàn Kết preferred to practice petty trade or other economic activities rather than engage in intensive cash crop farming. In the case of Vinh Quang hamlet, many households had already sold their use rights to other villagers or outsiders in order to obtain spending money or to build new houses. As a result, almost no reaction occurred in this hamlet. People in this hamlet were the first to receive compensation.

During the protests, women and old people were the most active participants. This was similar to other land disputes in Vietnam, given that women are the most concerned about their families’ interests while men are more hesitant to confront the police or government (Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh 2010; Nguyễn Thị Tình 2013). Young people were not interested in land appropriation since they did not have to worry about their families’ livelihood, and agriculture is no longer an occupational choice for many.

When recalling their participation in the protest, many villagers said that with the exception of the 10 percent households enthusiastic about the protest (including the 36 households that are still protesting), most of them just participated in meetings and big events at the village and several times went to town to submit petitions and protest. They were hesitant to protest in town. One reason was it took up time; the other was that some of them felt embarrassed to protest there.

“I felt embarrassed when sitting in the park in Hanoi to protest, as people around looked at us curiously. Someone even criticized us for making trouble.” (Mrs. Giang, 50 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

“Whenever people called each other and me to go to town, I just said ‘Yes, yes’. But I just stood at my house’s gate, waited for everyone to pass, and then went back into the house and went to work. Once, I went to Ha Dong with people, but I just stood far away. I felt hesitant to be a protester.” (Mr. Hiền, 40 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

However, many people did respond to the protest by contributing money for the delegation’s lunch or helping families who had protesters in jail (on several occasions, each time about 100 or several hundred thousand đồng). Understanding that the movement aimed to represent the common interest, many households tried to contribute something toward it.

“I have two brothers and one sister all living in this hamlet. I myself and my two brothers no longer do agriculture. We are busy with business outside the village. My parents are retired cadres, so they could not join the protest [state officials are not allowed to go against the state and Party’s policies]. Only my eldest sister is staying at home to do agriculture. Therefore, she had to be the representative of the family to join the movement.” (Mr. Hải, 39 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

Sometimes people decided to join the protest because they had empathy (nể nang) for other villagers. Someone commented that women in the village called each other to join the protest, like in other group events. This means that relatives or friends often called each other to join them. Thus, some women joined in the protest due to their respect for friends or relatives.

“Those who stood up often had relatives, friends enticing each other to become part of a faction. If I did not join, I felt sorry for that (ngại).” (Mrs. Hồng, 42 years old, Hòa Bình hamlet)

In fact, enthusiastic protesters were often sharp-tongued and critical. They tended to criticize and complain about those who did not go to meetings or submit petitions. In some hamlets, enthusiastic protesters even issued a resolution (nghị quyết)14) of the hamlet to those villagers who would not join the protest or accept compensation, saying that they could no longer count on support when their families encountered difficulties due to funerals. That was the reason why many villagers, with the exception of cadre members’ families or people working for the government, tried to show their participation.

“When someone at the hamlet came back from the meeting or protest, passed my house, and saw me at home, she would say: How can you always stay at home while people go to the meeting? You cannot receive land that people claim back from the project. My husband also told me sometimes: ‘You should go, otherwise my ears will get hurt because of people complaining about our family’s absence’. We just followed the crowd.” (Mrs. Giang, 50 years old, Quang Minh hamlet)

During times of protest, villagers were divided and rifts developed in relationships between villagers and cadres as well as among villagers themselves. When attending weddings, funerals, or formal meetings, or socially in tea shops, people often argued with each other over land appropriation. As the protest faction gained the upper hand, anyone expressing their opinion by saying things such as “Land belongs to the state; people should take the money; it is better not doing agriculture anymore” would readily be criticized by others.

In the village market or at wedding parties, people in the hamlet enthusiastic over land protest would publicly criticize people from other hamlets who had not joined the protest. Relatives of local cadres also criticized or even questioned them about corruption relating to their support for land taking, either openly or behind their backs. There was a story circulating in the village at that time: The chairman of the commune who signed the agreement for land appropriation attended a wedding party. When he had just sat down at a table, people at that table stood up and left, openly embarrassing him. The mother-in-law of a village authority cadre also suspected her son-in-law of accepting bribes from some companies involved in the taking of land. One active female protester even criticized and scolded her brother-in-law who was deputy secretary of the Commune Communist Party. This broke their relationship. One elderly man in Lụa village commented:

“The protesters only scold local authorities, but the relationship among villagers was no longer like before. This can be referred to as ‘stories of society’, ‘quarrel outside society’, or ‘a difference of opinion’, but the consequence was that people in the village kept a distance from each other, became isolated from each other.” (Mr. Du, 78 years old)

Nowadays, some years after the protest, relationships among villagers have mostly returned to normal—but in some cases the rift has not healed. Especially for those 36 households who continue their protest, the relationship with local authorities is not harmonious. In spite of threatening these households with social exclusion, most of the other Lụa villagers have accepted their right to protest. They still maintain social exchanges with them during weddings or funerals. However, the protesters themselves feel they are different, and they are frustrated. It is clear that most of the protesting households are living in old, small houses, as they have not accepted compensation. For some families, their economic situation has worsened, since they spend more time and money on attempting to claim their rights. The critical attitude of local authorities and some villagers to these protesters makes them hesitant to join communal activities, especially those organized by the local government. This feeling of alienation in the village community has pushed them to seek support and cooperation from outside. No one knows exactly who supports them, but their knowledge on law has improved. On their Internet blog, it is easy to see their meetings and cooperation with land protesters in other communities.


What happened in Lụa village was a spontaneous response to the government’s land appropriation policy. About half the villagers tried to hold the line by declaring they were determined to keep the land. Once a few people in the early days said they were “prepared for the fight,” others joined the struggle. There was no leader. The protesters relied on their own resources. They did not seek assistance from intellectuals, lawyers, or others who knew the law better than they did. Their strength was in their numbers and their ability to argue and quarrel with local authorities and anyone who opposed them. They were strong enough to give pause to local cadres and some opponents. In the end, however, they could not prevail.

However, the protest dynamics were more complicated than outsiders can imagine. Their reason for protesting was not only rooted in the fear of losing land (and consequently their livelihood) but also a principle of fairness in compensation. The compensation in their village, the residents insisted, should be consistent with the amount paid to people in surrounding villages and with the real value of the land being taken from them. Second, it was not a clear or comprehensive policy. The project took over 90 percent of people’s land. Some people have not lost one square meter of land, but they suffered from changes in the land situation in the area affected by the irrigation system. Meanwhile, they have no money from compensation, like other villagers, to improve their lives.

Although about half the Lụa villagers shared these arguments and concerns, others did not or had other doubts about the protest efforts. Like most villages in Vietnam, Lụa was not homogeneous on this land issue or other matters (Kleinen 1999). The government’s land confiscation efforts brought about different reactions among residents, depending in large part on their occupations and social groups. Residents who depended on agriculture and petty trade were the most vulnerable in that process. However, farmers in hamlets with a tradition of agricultural intensification reacted more strongly than others—not only because they wanted to maintain their livelihood but also because of their stronger character. Therefore, it is significant to emphasize that it was not a protest by the Lụa village community. Urbanization and land appropriation were not a tragedy for all villagers (Labbé 2015).

We can see many similarities in the pattern of the Lụa village protest and recent land protests elsewhere in Vietnam. During the first two years, people just complained to local authorities and then sent petitions to higher levels. They claimed local officials abused their authority and were corrupt. They also claimed that local government and enterprises took land without consulting their views and without considering the impact on their livelihoods. Such actions, villagers contended, went against state regulations governing land use reallocation. The protests in Lụa were also largely peaceful. Like the predominant pattern of many contemporary land disputes in Vietnam, these reasons and grounds for collective protest in Lụa village resonate with rightful resistance theory (Kerkvliet 2014). Yet, like other land protests in Vietnam in recent years, Lụa villagers went further by rejecting the state’s authority to unilaterally claim their cultivated land. They did it by showing their disagreement on land appropriation, demanding to retain the land to maintain their livelihood, or not allowing the taking of land when most people had not agreed. Their appeals to retain their farmland or get better compensation were based mostly on moral sentiments and unwritten norms about justice and fairness, and sometimes on the contribution and services that local villagers had provided to the country (Taylor 2014, 4).

Moreover, going beyond what we know about rightful resistance methods, in the case of Lụa village we can see the application of traditional Vietnamese patterns of rural protest. The beating of the drum, a symbol of traditional community strength, was done by enthusiastic protesters to mobilize people and send an intimidating message to local authorities. Many villagers recalled what happened as a “movement,” recalling the rhetoric of revolutionary mobilization campaigns. Other tactics and slogans reminiscent of village-based resistance during the revolutionary period, such as referring to the protests as a “struggle” or a “battle” or the issuing of village “resolutions,” were applied in the protest. As factions formed in the village, several villagers even disrespectfully referred to local authorities as a “faction.” Some protesters, especially in the 36 households who continue to oppose the government project, violently confronted the police. When villagers’ emotions were running high, people dared to criticize, abuse, and even terrorize local cadres. Although protesters had no aim to take over the local authority, their demonstrations paralyzed local government for a short period. Together the findings from Lua village illustrate the internal dynamics of a village protest and the complexity of the politics of resistance in contemporary Vietnam.

Accepted: January 6, 2017


This article is drawn from my individual research project on urbanization and sustainable development in Hanoi peri-urban communities, funded by the International Foundation for Science. I would like to express my gratitude to the foundation for financially supporting my research, and to colleagues at the Institute of Anthropology, VASS, for supporting my fieldwork, especially Nguyen Thu Quynh and Le Thi Mui. Prof. Ben Kerkvliet, Dr. Philip Taylor, and three anonymous referees gave useful comments on this article. I would especially like to thank Alasdair Paterson and Michael Palmer for their kind help in editing this paper.


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1) In 2012 the fish farmer Ðoàn Văn Vươn and his brothers in Hải Phòng city laid homemade mines and discharged shotguns against the police who came to confiscate their farmland. The same year, hundreds of farmers in Văn Giang District, Hưng Yên Province, faced security agents and police in a violent confrontation to keep their land from appropriation for urban expansion.

2) See Scott (1976); Popkin (1979); Kerkvliet (2005).

3) This is a pseudonym to protect my informants.

4) In 2008 Hà Tây was merged into Hanoi city after 17 years of being a province.

5) This is a pseudonym. However, the main developer of this project is the Nam Cường group.

6) At that time the compensation was VND47 million per sào, around half the amount people received from mega projects later.

7) In addition to financial compensation, the province also allows farmers to retain 10 percent of the reclassified land, referred to as service land, for use or sale.

8) One thước equals 24 m2.

9) At that time the compensation for Agricultural Land Use Rights in the village of Phú Ðiền in 2007 was as follows (Nguyen Van Suu 2009). A total of VND171,000 could be obtained per square meter: agricultural land use rights, VND108,000; vegetables and other annual fruit on the land, VND35,000; compensation for changing jobs, VND25,000; reward for acting quickly, VND3,000.

10) This is a pseudonym.

11) According to Nguyen Van Suu (2009), the compensation increased as farmers felt that prior to the negotiations they could show that cash crops and perennial trees were already planted. The expression is ăn đền (eat the compensation). Suu gives the example of villagers who doubled their compensation by changing from vegetables and other annual fruit such as rice and morning glory (rau muống), to annual crops such as willows (liễu) and guava (ổi).

12) These are families that benefited from government policies. Families that contributed to the 1945 revolution and the several wars that Vietnam engaged in (martyrs and wounded soldiers as well as other contributors) receive preferential treatment from state policies (in the form of a monthly salary, gifts during special occasions, etc.). During the land appropriation, these families were the first to follow the land-taking policy of the local government given their status and relationship with the government.

13) Traditionally, Vietnamese villages were divided into subdivisions or hamlets (Kleinen 1999, 14). These were neighborhood organizations. Men aged over 18 had to join them to fulfill their obligation to the community as well as enjoy communal activities. In the old days, Lụa village had 20 hamlets. The (Sino-Vietnamese) names of the hamlets were taken from directions as seen within the village. Each hamlet had a head of hamlet. After the 1945 revolution the village was divided into 10 hamlets with new names that have revolutionary meanings.

14) This is a revolutionary term as decisions of the Communist Party were often made through collective meetings and thus needed to be implemented.


Vol. 6, No. 1, SUKARYANTO


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Conflict over Landownership in the Postcolonial Era:
The Case of Eigendom Land in Surabaya*


* Part of this paper was originally included in the author’s dissertation, “Konflik Pertanahan di Surabaya: Kasus Tanah Bersurat Hijau 1966–2012” (Land disputes in Surabaya: The case of
Green Certificate land 1966–2012).

** Humanities Program, the Faculty of Cultural Sciences, Gadjah Mada University, Bulaksumur Yogyakarta 55281, Indonesia; History Department of the Faculty of Humanities, Airlangga University, Campus B, Jl. Airlangga No. 4–6 Surabaya, Indonesia
e-mail: skyt_unair[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_63

This article attempts to explore the controversy surrounding eigendom land (land owned under colonial state management rights) in Surabaya and its relations with the enforcement of the Basic Principles of Agrarian Law (BAL), in an effort to realize the ideals of the Republic of Indonesia—justice and prosperity for all people. The enactment of the BAL, which independently regulated land tenure and ownership, was a milestone in the autonomy of postcolonial Indonesia. One of the effects of the law was agrarian reform, which led to most eigendom land becoming tanah negara, or state-controlled land. This eigendom land has been used for public housing, though some consider such usage to deviate from the BAL. In recent years, the issue has led to conflict between settlers of eigendom land and the municipal government of Surabaya. This article concludes that the existence of eigendom land in the postcolonial era is a reality and its impact can be seen in the form of residents being driven to oppose the government. If the law were consistent with the BAL, there would be no land with eigendom status in Indonesia. The best hope for achieving justice and welfare for the people of Indonesia, in accordance with the goals of agrarian reform, is to convert the status of all eigendom land to the types of land rights determined by BAL.

Keywords: eigendom, ownership rights, conflict, Surat Ijo, land rights conversion,


Law No. 5 of 1960 Concerning the Basic Principles of Agrarian Law (Undang-Undang No. 5 Tahun 1960 tentang Peraturan Dasar Pokok-pokok Agraria, hereafter BAL) is the basis of land management policy in Indonesia. Since this law was enacted, there has been a reform in the control, ownership, and use of land in Indonesia. This has included the conversion of a colonial model of land rights (land titles) to a national one. Land rights that were in effect during the colonial period, which were based on the Agrarische Wet (Agrarian Law, hereafter AW) of 1870 and the Burgerlijk Wetboek (Civil Code, hereafter BW) of 1847, including eigendom (ownership rights), opstal (rights over buildings erected on land), erfpacht (lease rights), gebruik (use rights), and servituut (servitude rights), have been required to be converted to the types of land rights determined by the BAL, including hak milik (ownership/freehold rights, hereafter HM), hak guna bangunan (building rights, hereafter HGB), hak guna usaha (cultivation rights, hereafter HGU), hak pakai (usage rights, hereafter HP), and hak pengelolaan (management rights, hereafter HPL). The same requirement for conversion has applied to land with attached adat rights such as yasan, gogolan, pekulen, and bengkok (Parlindungan 1990, 1).

The requirement for conversion has had a number of effects, one of them being that foreign nationals who previously held colonial land rights have lost those rights; their land has fallen under the control of the state. The BAL stipulates that citizens of foreign countries are not permitted to have HM rights over land in Indonesia; they may only receive HP rights. The complicated administrative procedures involved in the conversion of colonial rights over land to HP rights has meant that most citizens of foreign countries who held eigendom rights over land decided to leave Indonesia, allowing their lands to fall under the control of the Indonesian state.

The national government has delegated authority to the regional governments to manage state-controlled land as part of the latter’s agrarian reform programs. In Surabaya the majority of state-controlled land (8,275,970.28 m2 [827.6 hectares], representing approximately 55.31 percent of the total state-controlled land in the municipality [14,963,717.29 m2/1,496.372 hectares]) is presently used for residential settlement. This includes land under HPL rights as well as land under eigendom rights. Upon this state-controlled land there are 48,200 residential plots, measuring on average 200 m2 in size. Residents of these plots are legally considered renters, holding Permission to Use Land (Ijin Pemakaian Tanah, hereafter IPT; also known as Surat Ijo [Green Certificate]) certificates for the land they occupy. They have been, to date, unable to convert this land into HM in their names, even though such conversion is allowed by law.

Since 2001, three years after the beginning of the Reformasi period, the issue of agrarian reform has again been an important theme in national discourse. This followed the enactment of the Decree of the People’s Consultative Assembly No. IX/MPR/2001 Concerning Agrarian Reform and the Management of Natural Resources (Ketetapan Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat No. IX/MPR/2001 tentang Pembaharuan Agraria dan Pengelolaan Sumber Daya Alam), Article 2 of which stated:

The agrarian reform involves a continuous process in which the control, ownership, and use of agrarian resources is reorganized to better ensure legal protection and certainty, as well as justice and prosperity, for all of the people of Indonesia (Pembaharuan agraria mencakup suatu proses yang berkesinambungan berkenaan dengan penataan kembali penguasaan, pemilikan, penggunaan, dan pemanfaatan sumber daya agraria, dilaksanakan dalam rangka tercapainya kepastian dan perlindungan hukum serta keadilan dan kemakmuran bagi seluruh rakyat Indonesia).

Subsequently, the National Land Bureau (Badan Pertanahan Nasional, BPN) established two formulas for agrarian reform: first, the reorganization of the legal and political land systems, based on the Pancasila, 1945 Constitution, and BAL; and second, the implementation of Land Reform Plus, the reorganization of the people’s land assets and access to economic and political resources that allow them to best use their land (Kementerian Agraria dan Tata Ruang 2014).

The first formula is directed and intended to realign the control and ownership of land in accordance with the Indonesian constitution, particularly Article 33, Subsection 3: “The land, the waters and the natural resources within shall be under the powers of the State and shall be used to the greatest benefit of the people (Bumi, air, dan kekayaan alam yang terkandung di dalamnya dikuasai oleh negara dan dipergunakan sebesar-besarnya untuk kemakmuran rakyat).” The second formula is directed and intended to alleviate poverty by providing land for distribution, as well as access to economic resources to the populace—particularly the landless, homeless, and jobless. Other goals and principles of agrarian reform are reorganizing land control and ownership policies, reducing conflict, ensuring legal certainty, respecting the rule of law, and unifying land laws (ibid.).

Based on this agrarian reform program, the municipal government of Surabaya is in the process of converting state-controlled land, both eigendom and former eigendom land, through Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014 Regarding the Release of Land Assets Held by the Municipality of Surabaya (Peraturan Daerah Kota Surabaya No. 16 Tahun 2014 tentang Pelepasan Tanah Aset Pemerintah Kota Surabaya). This municipal bylaw states that state-controlled land that is occupied by civilians can be converted, with HM rights, into their name. However, when it comes to implementation this law has not met expectations. Though it was hoped that the bylaw would ensure justice and prosperity for the settlers of state-controlled land, in accordance with the goals of agrarian reform, this has remained but a pipe dream. As of 2016, not a single settler of eigendom land had filed a request for HM rights over the land he or she presently occupied. Why is this so? This article attempts to, objectively and without promoting any agenda whatsoever, understand and explain the historical context of eigendom land in the post-independence era. Hypothesis: The continued existence of eigendom land in the postcolonial era due to inconsistencies in the implementation of the BAL has impacted social justice and prosperity by giving rise to conflict between residents of eigendom land and the municipal government of Surabaya.

Previous Studies

Civilian settlement of state-controlled land was researched by a team from the School of Land Studies, Yogyakarta. Written by Binsar Simbolon et al., the study titled “Surat Hijau di Kota Surabaya, Provinsi Jawa Timur” (Green Certificates in the municipality of Surabaya, province of East Java) uses two approaches (legal and social) to discuss the issue of Green Certificates. In its legal analysis, the study concludes that the use of the IPT system for state-controlled land settled by civilians is akin to retaining the colonial paradigm of land control and ownership, a paradigm that is not tenable in an independent Indonesia.

The research project’s social analysis concludes that the IPT system has imposed greater financial burdens on settlers, which has in turn become a source of dissatisfaction for and triggered resistance from the settlers. It also concludes that the conflict between Green Certificate-holding settlers and the municipal government of Surabaya has occurred because both sides have different understandings of the Green Certificates. At the end of its report, the research team recommends that in order to achieve better social harmony, a national land policy must be formulated that is truly free of colonial legal products. For this purpose, then, the writers urge that settlers be given HGB rights over the land they have settled, so that HM rights over this land may subsequently be granted.

An interesting finding of this report is, as mentioned above, that conflict over Green Certificate land has emerged because of different perceptions regarding the position of the land. This appears to be an oversimplification of the issue. If, as argued by the research team, the conflict is caused simply by a difference of opinion, it should be simple to resolve, as both sides need only to reach a shared understanding. The reality, however, is that both sides want to control or own the state-controlled land upon which civilians have taken residence. Thus, this conflict is a more substantial one. In this perspective, conflict over Green Certificate land is perceived as a conflict over control of land, with the settlers involved in a struggle of community. This means that the source of the conflict is the land itself and not simply different perceptions. Owing to their interest in the land, both sides develop their own different (and often opposing) perceptions.

This article, thus, attempts to understand one aspect of Green Certificate land, namely eigendom land, land that still maintains its colonial rights and has yet to be converted to rights allowed by the BAL. Eigendom land can be considered “status quo” land, which, we argue, is easier to release to civilian settlers than Green Certificate land under HP and HPL rights. Once this land has been transferred to its settlers, the latter will no longer require legal aid or protection, as noted by Agus Sekarnaji (2005). Furthermore, if the land is used as collateral at a bank, its value will increase and the calculation of its value will be simplified. As noted by Njo Anastasia (2006), if this land is converted then banks will no longer have to separately calculate the value of the land and the buildings upon it.

The Continued Existence of Eigendom Land

One interesting phenomenon in postcolonial Surabaya, a city in the province of East Java, is the continued existence of eigendom land rights. Even 55 years after the BAL was enacted, some of the land under the control of the municipal government of Surabaya remains under these colonial rights, having not been formally converted to HP or HPL rights. This has created considerable controversy and negative perceptions.

During the colonial period land laws were based on the principle of domeinverklaring, an assumption that land with no proof of ownership was owned by the state. As the ultimate owner of land, the colonial government of the Netherlands East Indies maintained the right to manage land in accordance with its own interests; this included—during the period of Governor-General H. W. Daendels (1808–11), for example—selling land and granting eigendom rights to the purchasers, who were generally capital holders or investors. These investors, the purchasers of land, were known as tuan tanah (landlords).

As holders of eigendom rights, tuan tanah were given the authority to manage their land and all who settled on it. Generally, people who lived on privately owned eigendom land had a variety of obligations, including forced labor (rodi), guarding the area at night (ronda), and crop taxes. These obligations were considered a form of service toward the tuan tanah, who acted in their own self-interest when determining obligations and ensuring that the obligations were met by the residents of the land. This determination of the types and varieties of obligations by tuan tanah is referred to as hak pertuanan (landlord rights).

The types of obligations for people living on one plot of tanah partikelir (privately owned land) differed from those of people living on another one. However, they all had the same ultimate result: difficulty for settlers, which led to a sense of dissatisfaction in society. Dissatisfaction over these injustices, which were faced over an extended period of time, often led to resistance against the tuan tanah. This could be seen in a number of cases from the period of Daendels to the beginning of the twentieth century, including the Ratu Adil, machinist, indigene, and nativist movements (Sartono 1973; 1984). In short, the existence of tanah partikelir during the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth was synonymous with entrenched injustice and served as a strong mobilizer for social resistance; this general fact held true in Surabaya as well (Diesel 1878, 237–238).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, at the dawn of the decentralization era (1903), a number of autonomous regional governments were formed, one of them being the gemeente (municipality) of Surabaya in 1906. As an autonomous regional government, it had to be able to financially support itself, and thus the gemeente promoted efforts to exploit its regional potential. One such effort was the repurchasing of the tanah partikelir within its administrative jurisdiction, such as in Keputran, Ketabang, Kupang, Pakis, and Darmo. These tanah partikelir became eigendom lands in the name of the gemeente of Surabaya (Purnawan 2011). Much of the land was then rented to the general populace, particularly sharecroppers, but some was also allocated for the construction of housing for the municipality’s residents, particularly those of European descent (Colombijn 2010). These efforts increased the income of the gemeente of Surabaya.

After Indonesian sovereignty was recognized by the Dutch in 1949—or, more specifically, after the establishment of the municipal government of Surabaya (Pemerintah Daerah Swatantra Kota Besar Surabaya) in 1950—lands owned under eigendom rights were inherited by the gemeente, which took over their management. The land’s status as eigendom land was maintained, though this is understandable as the newly independent Indonesia did not yet have its own land laws. Part of the eigendom land was settled by residents and used for housing; settlers included fighters from the National Revolution and returning refugees (Dick 2002). In 1960 the BAL was enacted. It included a requirement to convert all land rights so that they would be in accordance with the BAL. However, the reality is that there are still eigendom lands that have yet to be converted.

The BAL of 1960 forms the basis of postcolonial Indonesian land management, and its passage gave Indonesians hope that citizens—especially the homeless, landless, and unemployed—would attain prosperity and justice, for instance through the recognition of individual rights to own land (Article 21 [1]). When the BAL was passed, the AW was repealed. The BAL specifies that the state is not a landowner and thus may not hold land with HM rights. According to Article 2, Paragraph 1, of the BAL, the state is the highest organization in society. As such, it serves only to provide land, grant rights over land, and manage legislation and law relating to land (Article 2, Paragraph 2).

In theory, eigendom rights over land should have already expired and thus are void. All such land rights should have already been converted to rights recognized by the BAL (Decree of the Minister of Agrarian Affairs No. 9 of 1965 Concerning the Conversion of Usage Rights and Management Rights, or Peraturan Menteri Agraria No. 9 Tahun 1965 tentang Konversi Hak Pakai dan Hak Pengelolaan). Eigendom rights over land should have been converted to HPL or HP rights. However, there are still plots of land with eigendom rights, be they in the name of the gemeente or tuan tanah; such land has not yet been registered or its rights converted in accordance with the BAL at the regional office of the BPN (see Tables 3 and 4 in the next section).

This conversion process, if permitted, can be considered to be the nationalization or Indonesianization of land rights. Such a process should be completed entirely, without exception; in other words, all remaining colonial land rights must be converted into Indonesian rights in accordance with the BAL. This position has been taken also by legislation issued after the BAL. For instance, the Decision of the Minister of Agrarian No. 12/KaJ1963 Concerning the Conversion of Land Rights (Keputusan Menteri Agraria No. 12/KaJ1963 tentang Konversi Hak Atas Tanah) mandates that all opstal and erfpacht rights over municipally owned eigendom land must be converted to HGB or HGU rights.

Despite such provisions, the conversion process was neither absolute nor immutable. It could be modified depending on the use of the land. Land with opstal rights for buildings, for instance, could be converted to HGU rights if there was a change in its purposing in accordance with the municipal master plan; such land could then be used for agriculture. Erfpacht rights could be converted to HGB rights if there was a change in purposing, such as for housing. The lenient nature of this conversion also allowed the continued existence of eigendom land rights, the highest land rights possible under the colonial system; these rights appear to have been maintained by the municipal government of Surabaya as the holder of HPL rights over the land.

Subsequently, the Decree of the Minister of Agrarian Affairs No. 9 of 1965 was enacted; it mandated that controlling rights (beheer rechts) over land be converted to HPL rights. Before then, beheer rights had been converted to controlling rights (hak menguasai). Since 1965 regional governments have been managing rights (HPL). The changing terminology was considered more specific and operational. Meanwhile, cities’ erfpacht, opstal, and eigendom rights were to be converted to HGB rights for the buildings situated upon land with HPL rights (Ali 2004).

Eigendom Land under the Control of Surabaya Municipality

The total area of state-controlled land in the municipality of Surabaya is 14,963,717.29 m2 (1,496.37 ha), approximately 4.58 percent of the city’s total area (326.81 km2/32,681 ha). On top of this state-controlled land lie approximately 48,200 parcels of land occupied by civilians. To date, land with eigendom rights represents the second-most common type of state-controlled land, after land with HPL rights. The division of land by area is as shown in Table 1.


Table 1 Area of State-Controlled Land Based on Category of Land Rights



As time has passed, the amount of eigendom land has decreased as a result of continued land conversion to and registration of rights provided by the BAL. The total amount of eigendom land, which was 6,870,000 m2 (687 ha) in 1956, decreased to 4,297,274 m2 (429.73 ha) by 1996 and 4,171,741 m2 (417.17 ha) by 2008 (Pemerintah Kota Surabaya 1996; 2008). This indicates that the conversion of eigendom land to land under HP and HPL rights has occurred, albeit slowly: in the 12 years between 1996 and 2008, only 125,533 m2, or 12.55 ha, was converted.

Conversely, the total amount of land with HPL rights has increased, from 176 ha of land with beheer rights in 1956 to 768.78 ha of land with HPL rights by 2008 (see Table 1). This indicates that the land conversion and nationalization process continues, though older land rights continue to exist (see Appendix 1). This has led several elements of Surabaya society to question the reason for the delay in the conversion of eigendom land.

Generally, eigendom land is divided into relatively large plots. Most of the plots are more than 10,000 m2 (1 ha) in area, though some are smaller. There are even plots of former eigendom land covering more than 100 ha. Most of the former eigendom land is located in the center of the municipality of Surabaya, a very densely populated region (the average population density for Surabaya was 10,047 in 1980; 10,126 in 1990; 7,966 in 2000; and 8,463 in 2010). The highest population density, reaching up to 20,000 people/km2, is in the center of the city, such as in the districts of Bubutan, Simokerto, Kenjeran, Tambaksari, and Sawahan. The division of eigendom land can be seen in Table 2.


Table 2 Division of Eigendom Land Based on Region



The eigendom land in Surabaya consists of 49 plots, covering an area of 429.73 ha (see Table 2). The greatest amount of former eigendom land, consisting of 280.18 ha or more than 65 percent of the total eigendom land in Surabaya, is located in Wonokromo District. The smallest amount of eigendom land—0.88 ha—is located in Pabean Cantikan District, North Surabaya. The division of former eigendom land by district is presented in Table 3.


Table 3 Division of Eigendom Land by District (Kecamatan)



At the subdistrict level, the greatest amount of former eigendom land, consisting of 127.2 ha, or approximately 30 percent of the total eigendom land in Surabaya, is found in Ngagelrejo Subdistrict, Wonokromo District. It is followed by Jagir, Darmo, and Ngagel Subdistricts, all of which are administratively part of Wonokromo District. The smallest amount of eigendom land, 0.04 ha, is found in Simolawang Subdistrict, Simokerta District, North Surabaya. Thus, the greatest amount of eigendom land is located in South Surabaya. The total division of former eigendom land by subdistrict is presented in Table 4.


Table 4 Division of Eigendom Land by Subdistrict (Kelurahan)



Some of the land that was controlled, owned, or managed in colonial times by the gemeente of Surabaya includes Goebeng (East and West), Ngagel (East and West), Boeboetan, Ketabang (East and West), Darmo III, Boejoekan, Westerbuitenweg, Assemdjadjar, Tembok Doekoeh, Plosogede, Sidotopo, and Darmo II (Fuchter 1941, 218–220).

For example, the land in Ngagel East (the portion of Ngagel to the east of the railroad tracks) was rented out (grondhuur) for several purposes, including for indigene agricultural activities (Inhemsche Landbouw), oil drilling (grondboringen) by the BPM (Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij, Batavian Petroleum Company), N. V. Melk Centrale, and for use by ethnic Dutch and Chinese entrepreneurs (ibid., see Appendix 2). Ngagel East has become a densely populated residential area, as evidenced by such areas as Ngagelrejo, Bratanggede, Ngagelmulyo, Bratang, Bratang Binangun, Ngagel Jaya, Ngagel Tama, Krukah, Ngagel Dadi, Baratajaya, and Pucangsewu. According to residents of this district, they settled the land after purchasing it from farmers, with a zegel certificate (see Appendix 4) as proof (Interview with Supadi H.S., March 17, 2016, Surabaya).

Why did the farmers (as holders of HGU rights, converted from Western rights, in Ngagel East) sell the land they were supposed to cultivate? The master plan of the municipality of Surabaya was intended to develop Surabaya into an “INDAMARDI” (INdustri, perDAgangan, MARitim, dan penDIdikan [Industry, trade, maritime, and education]) municipality (Soekotjo 1968, 4–5), and as a result it prioritized industrial development. This was in accordance with the perceived conditions and potential of the time—namely, the numerous factories and other industries that remained from the colonial period. The development of the industrial sector required much labor, which led to an uncontrolled surge of would-be laborers migrating from rural areas into urban Surabaya. This migration, in turn, led to a sudden increase in the municipality’s population, population density, and housing requirements (see Table 5). Efforts were made to resolve the issue by converting rice fields into residential areas and factories. Importantly, the residential area of Ngagel East is located between the old industrial district of Ngagel West and the new industrial district of Rungkut, one of the largest industrial districts in Surabaya and East Java.


Table 5 Area, Population, and Population Density (per km2) of the Municipality of Surabaya, 1960–2012



Birth of IPT System

The continued existence of eigendom land has led to a number of issues, both manifest and latent. The once-spacious eigendom land, which predominantly originated as tanah partikelir, has since been developed into densely populated residential areas.

After the 30 September Movement coup (1965), residents living on land under pre-BAL titles received legal recognition as renters of eigendom land. Based on the Decree of the Minister of Agrarian Affairs No. 1 of 1966 Concerning the Registration of Usage Rights and Management Rights, in Surabaya the use of eigendom land has been granted to third parties, particularly those who were previously homeless. Before 1966 these homeless persons tended to unlawfully occupy land, but settlers of eigendom land were given legal recognition as renters by the Decision of the Regional Representatives’ Council for Mutual Assistance of Surabaya No. 03E/DPRD-GR KEP/1971, Dated 6 May 1971, Concerning Land Rental (Keputusan DPRD Gotong Royong Kotamadya Surabaya Nomor 03E/DPRD-GR KEP/1971 tertanggal 6 Mei 1971 tentang Sewa Tanah). It is possible that the municipal government of Surabaya at the time was so preoccupied with the issue of land rental that it neglected to register or convert eigendom land with the Land Bureau. The government may have likewise forgotten that according to the BAL, regional governments were not permitted to own land with eigendom rights and could not continue to rent out land as had been done during the colonial era.

Subsequently, in 1977 the municipal government of Surabaya enacted the Permission to Use Land system. With this new system, the settlers of eigendom land were given a legal document, the IPT certificate, granting further recognition. However, this system also positioned the settlers as renters of state-controlled lands, requiring all settlers of state-controlled land—including land with eigendom rights—to pay retribution. The legal basis for this system was the Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 22 of 1977 Concerning the Use and Retributions for Land Managed by the Municipality of Surabaya (Peraturan Daerah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya No. 22 Tahun 1977 tentang Pemakaian dan Retribusi Tanah yang Dikelola oleh Pemerintah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya).

The legal recognition of settlement on eigendom land may be considered part of a 1975 program to clarify the status of municipal land. According to several settlers, all the settlers were initially told to gather their proofs of sale for the land that they occupied, so that the documents could be given to the municipal government of Surabaya. At the time, rumors spread that these proofs of sale would be replaced with HM certificates. Whoever refused to surrender the documents would be branded a former member of the forbidden Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), a possibility that terrified residents. As such, not a single resident refused to surrender the proof of purchase for the land that he or she occupied. A few years later, IPT certificates (Green Certificates)—essentially, renters’ certificates—were issued. Effectively, this government program was a means for the municipal government of Surabaya to take control of the eigendom land.

This IPT system has allowed eigendom rights to endure, though administratively such land is listed as land under the management of the state. The IPT system used in Surabaya is not based in the BAL (Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 12 of 1994) and can thus be considered not based in law, or even illegal. The creation of such a land system is controversial, as it appears symptomatic of a “State within a State” (Ratna and Indriayati 2011).

Effects of the Continued Existence of Eigendom Land

The continued existence of eigendom land has created several negative effects. First, from a legal perspective, the continued existence of eigendom land deviates from the BAL. The deviancy is exacerbated by the enactment of the IPT system; eigendom rights over such land cannot be converted to HM rights by the land’s settlers. According to the Government Regulation No. 24 of 1997 Concerning Land Registration (Peraturan Pemerintah No. 24 Tahun 1997 tentang Pendaftaran Tanah), eigendom land settled by private citizens can be converted to HM by its settlers. More specifically, eigendom land with an area of no more than 600 m2 that has been continuously settled by the same individual for a minimum of 20 years can be converted to HGB; the settler may then apply for the land to be certified HM.

Most of the settlers of eigendom land who were interviewed for this study expressed their disappointment that when applying for an HM certificate at the BPN they were required to present a letter of recommendation from the municipal government of Surabaya, which has authority over and manages the eigendom land. This requirement is non-negotiable, yet in practice the municipal government of Surabaya has never issued a letter of recommendation; instead, it offers a plethora of reasons for not doing so: for instance, the government may state that as the holder of HPL rights, it must carefully maintain the land and ensure that it is not accused of losing state-controlled land. As a result, the settlers never meet the administrative requirements of the BPN, and thus the bureau never processes their applications. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that some settlers’ groups have received HM rights over their land with a special disposition (explained further below). As a result, the (considerably more numerous) settlers who have been unsuccessful in obtaining an HM certificate feel discriminated against. This, thus, is a form of injustice experienced by settlers, who have begun expressing the belief that the municipal government of Surabaya is deliberately ensuring that eigendom land remains within its control.

Second, from a political perspective, the settlers of eigendom land become political objects every five years. In the lead-up to the general and mayoral elections in Surabaya, the settlers are consistently targeted by legislative and mayoral candidates. Their campaign promise is the same: the release of eigendom land under HM rights to the settlers. In such situations, the settlers are deceived by the promises and vote for the candidates. However, the election promises are never kept, and the promised land releases have never been carried out. Numerous excuses have been given, such as legislative obstacles, fear of being accused of losing state property, and fear of being accused of corruption. This has occurred regularly on a five-year cycle. In turn, it has led to a decrease in the amount of retributions received by the municipal government of Surabaya, as shown in Table 6.


Table 6 Total Income, Retributions from Land Held under Green Certificates, 2004–13



Third, from an economic perspective, settlements on eigendom land have little value in comparison to land with HM rights. As a consequence, it is difficult to use eigendom land as collateral for capital loans at a bank; only certain banks will accept it, and even then the land is valued only for the buildings on it. Thus, banks value eigendom land at an unfair or substandard level.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, the continued existence of eigendom land is a financial burden on its settlers, who must pay land and building taxes on top of municipal retributions. The total retribution and land and building taxes owed are based on the area of land held and its location; settlers of parcels located near main roads must pay more than those in the kampung or alleys. The total retribution and land and building taxes owed on parcels located near main roads can reach Rp.1 million to 5 million a year, whereas the retribution and taxes on parcels located in the kampung or alleys average Rp.300,000 to 1 million a year. The total amount of retributions paid to the municipal government of Surabaya varies. It is usually equal to the land and building taxes that are paid to the state, but it may be higher.

Table 7 shows the different financial burdens borne between settlers of eigendom land and residents with HM rights over their land, assuming that both parcels are located along a Class I road that is 15 meters in width and are the site of buildings of equal value. If a settler opens a shop, the total amount of retributions increases because the land is then categorized as commercial. Calculated at 0.5% × 200 m2 × Rp.3,000,000 = Rp.3,000,000 (see Table 8), this means that the total amount of land and building taxes and municipal retributions paid is Rp.3,580,000. This has thus led the people of Surabaya to believe that it is more expensive to live or do business on eigendom land than on land with HM rights. Consequently, the market value of eigendom land is lower than (sometimes half of) land with HM rights, even when the Tax Object Sales Value is the same.


Table 7 NJOP, PBB, and Retributions for Lands with Eigendom and HM Rights*



Table 8 Percentage Used to Calculate Retributions for IPT



As such, residents living alongside Class I roads (width > 15 meters) prefer to open their businesses elsewhere, either renting another location or finding eigendom land located on a Class V road (width ≤ 5 meters), where retribution rates are lower (0.1 percent). The businesses may include small shops, laundry services, motorcycle and tire repair shops, cheap boarding houses, and other businesses that do not require a business permit from the municipal government. Residential districts that have been developed as business districts by their residents have been designated districts for commercial public facilities by the municipal government of Surabaya. Land designated for public facilities is firmly prohibited from being converted to HM status in the name of private citizens, and as such the difficult economic situation has only reinforced the municipal government of Surabaya’s status as the manager of eigendom land. However, it can be stated objectively that the continued existence of eigendom land has quashed the spirit of entrepreneurship among the settlers.

Fourth, from a social perspective, the existence of eigendom land has created new social groups within society, namely, groups or communities of residents of land with Green Certificates. The social position of such groups is lower than that of groups of residents living on land with HM rights. Settlers of eigendom land are considered second-class citizens, residents of the city lacking recognition, or even stepchildren with greater obligations than biological children.

Fifth, from a cultural-psychological perspective, settlers of eigendom land suffer from poor self-esteem as a result of being considered second-class citizens. This is evident when they are faced with city residents who live on land with HM rights, who may be called “true” residents of the city. The settlers feel as though they are sleeping in a rented room or house, one that does not belong to them. At any time they can be evicted by the government in the name of public interest without compensation. As such, we must ask: Can the settlers be considered prosperous? It is important to note that the majority of residents of eigendom land with IPT certificates are elderly, older than 70 years of age, and mostly received low wages while they were working—either equal to or lower than the regional minimum wage (approximately Rp.3.5 million a month). It would thus be beneficial to them if they received a measure of certainty over the remainder of their lives with HM rights over their land, as long as it was realized with a simple procedure, affordable compensation, and effective legal protection.

Based on the above discussion, it can be stated that eigendom land rights, a remnant of the colonial government, have affected all aspects of the lives of certain segments of Surabaya society. In other words, the continued existence of eigendom land is synonymous with the continued existence of social injustice and a lack of prosperity. Preserving eigendom land rights means preserving injustice and tending to the seeds of future land disputes.

It should be noted that the word “injustice” is used here to mean injustice in one’s rights and obligations to the land upon which one lives. As explained above, settlers of eigendom land must pay two forms of taxation for the land (see Table 7). These two financial obligations are considered unjust by the settlers; if they were renters on land with HM rights they would only need to pay their rent, whereas if they were holders of HM rights over land they would only be required to pay the Land and Building Tax. Their current financial situation is exacerbated by their inability to convert the land, and as such they may feel abused.

The concept of prosperity here, meanwhile, is to be understood in the sociocultural context of Java, in which ownership of land and a home is the basis for one’s existence in the community. For Javanese people, someone who does not own any land or a house cannot be considered a true member of the community, or even a person at all. The landless are often ignored by people with HM rights over their land; frequently, they are not invited to neighbors’ celebrations, asked to participate in village discussions, required to participate in gotong royong/mutual aid work, pay neighborhood dues, etc. The landless can be termed, using George Simmel’s categorization, as “the stranger” (Mead 1934) in the community. Thus, in the Javanese sociocultural context, settlers of eigendom land struggle to obtain HM rights over the land they occupy so that they may be recognized and respected by the community. Prosperity, thus, should be understood as a certain satisfaction obtained from fulfilling the community’s demands; owning land with HM rights gives settlers greater respect than occupying land owned by another party.

Furthermore, the people of Java abide by the following motto regarding landownership: “sadumuk bathuk sanyari bumi, tak belani nganti pecahe dhadha lan wutahing ludiro [Though it is but a narrow strip of land, I will defend it until my chest bursts and blood seeps out (i.e., until I die)].” This Javanese cultural norm has, to some extent, influenced the settlers in their struggle to gain HM rights over eigendom land.

The struggle is influenced also by the BAL’s assurance that HM rights are “rights to land which are inherited, the strongest and fullest [rights] that one can hold over land (sebagai hak atas tanah yang turun-temurun, terkuat dan terpenuh yang dapat dipunyai orang atas tanah)” (Article 20). In other words, HM rights are not of limited duration, and land may be freely used or purposed by its owner so long as the usage/purposing does not conflict with the public interest (Boedi 1968).

Based on the above factors and supported by the increasingly open/democratic socio-political situation after the beginning of Reformasi, settlers of eigendom land have begun to fight for the land they occupy. It began with some settlers refusing to pay their IPT retributions. This act of protest was soon followed by other settlers. Despite avoiding their retributions, all settlers of eigendom land continued paying their Land and Building Taxes. This was followed by the establishment of organizations such as GPHSIS (Gerakan Pejuang Hapus Surat Ijo Surabaya, Fighters for the Elimination of Green Certificates in Surabaya Movement), later renamed PMPMHMT (Perhimpunan Masyarakat Peserta Meraih Hak Milik Tanah, Association of People Seeking Ownership Rights over Land), which held several open meetings and shows of force and provocation, including a mass action in front of City Hall demanding the conversion of eigendom land. This organization has been supported by legal thinkers and academics as well as legal practitioners, retired soldiers, retired civil servants, and others with an interest in eigendom land. Among the organizers are retired staff of the municipal government of Surabaya and the East Java branch of the BPN who before retirement worked to maintain the status of eigendom land.

In 2007 groups of settlers of eigendom land in the Jagir, Ngagelrejo, Baratajaya, and Perak Barat Subdistricts filed a legal challenge against the municipal government of Surabaya over the eigendom land at the state court of Surabaya. All of their demands were rejected by the court, including their appeal to the provincial court of East Java. The residents took their legal battle to the Supreme Court of Indonesia in Jakarta, but their demands were again rejected. Notably, the residents of Baratajaya were successful in a Supreme Court claim in 2010, but this victory was short-lived as in 2012 the decision was reversed after the municipal government of Surabaya demanded a reexamination (Peninjauan Kembali, PK).

The settlers’ struggle for rights over eigendom land has impacted the performance of the municipal government of Surabaya, both as a disturbance and as an inspiration. In 2014, the government enacted the Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014. This was followed by the Surabaya Mayoral Decree No. 51 of 2015 Regarding the Process for Releasing Land Assets Held by the Municipality of Surabaya (Peraturan Walikota Surabaya No. 51 Tahun 2015 tentang Tata Cara Pelepasan Tanah Aset Pemerintah Kota Surabaya) in 2015. Though these regulations have yet to be implemented, they may be considered a response to settlers’ hopes for eigendom land.

Halfhearted Nationalization of Land Rights

The conversion of Western land rights into rights recognized by the BAL has been a consequence of, or rather a legal obligation established by, the BAL. As explained above, all rights that applied during the colonial period and were based on the AW and BW were required by law to be converted into one of the new nationalized land rights. Land for which these criteria were not met was converted, on September 24, 1980, into state-controlled land.

In such cases the conversion of eigendom land depended on the future use of the land, in accordance with the municipal master plan. Eigendom land belonging to the regional government was likewise registered under the name of a government institution, either national or regional. As explained above, the BAL only provides the government with the authority to decide the use of land and to grant rights over the land.

Where such rights could still be found, the land’s status was simply “maintaining the status quo,” and thus the conversion of rights depended on the purposing of the land: be it for the public interest, the former holder of eigendom rights, or private citizens who had occupied or cultivated it. If land is to be used for the public interest, it must be registered with HPL rights; and the former eigendom rights holder and/or present settlers may not attempt to register for rights over it. If the land is not needed for the public interest, the former holder of eigendom rights over the land may apply to regain rights over it. If the state and former holder of eigendom rights over the land do not require it, the land’s settlers may request HM rights at the municipal/regency BPN office.

Furthermore, eigendom land can be used to increase regional own-source revenue. Since the enactment of the IPT certificates, the highest retributions were received in 2010—Rp.85 billion. Since the majority of settlers began refusing to pay retributions in 2012, the amount received by the municipal government averages Rp.30 billion to 35 billion rupiah annually (see Table 6). However, the continued existence of eigendom rights over land also reflects a concern for possible loss of landownership. After conversion, eigendom land may not be granted HM status in the name of the municipal government of Surabaya; it may only be granted HP and/or HPL status, both of which are lower in degree than HM.

A baffling development is the existence of HM landownership certificates for homes located on eigendom plots of land. This can be found, for instance, in the housing development of Jagir Sidomukti IX (150 homes), and at Ngagel Jaya Tengah (16 homes) and Wonorejo III Streets (1 home) (Observations and direct reports with settlers, April 14, 2015). In the case of Jagir Sidomukti IX, residents of the housing development received their HM certificates following a long and complicated process that lasted from 1987 until 1999. Before jointly filing their request for HM status over the land at the Surabaya branch of the BPN, the residents jointly paid retribution to the original landowner, an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent. The total amount paid by each family to obtain HM status was only Rp.575,000. Meanwhile, the HM certificates for Ngagel Jaya Tengah and Wonorejo III Streets were obtained owing to the special status of the settlers, who were all former bureaucrats in the municipal government of Surabaya. This phenomenon indicates the existence of exceptions for—or special treatment of—certain parties, resulting in inequality and injustice in the management of eigendom land.

The phenomenon of continued existence of eigendom land can also be understood as an inconsistency in the management of eigendom land within the framework of Indonesia as a sovereign state with its own land law, or as a violation of the most fundamental land law in Indonesia, the BAL. Whether it is accepted or not, profitable or not, all management of eigendom land must be based on the BAL, particularly since the role and position of the government in managing eigendom land, as a form of state-controlled land, is already clearly defined: the government handles the provision of land, grants rights over land, determines the relationship between society and land, and arranges the legal framework for land issues. This is explicitly stated in Article 2, Paragraphs 2–7, of the BAL. Owing to its position, the state—in this case, the central and municipal governments—should serve as a role model for legislative obeisance.

Legislative obeisance in the management of land is necessary to ensure justice and prosperity for the people of Indonesia. In the management of land, according to the BAL, no parties should be granted special privileges, be they individuals, groups, or institutions. The continued existence of eigendom land has led to a social jealousy of sorts, or even a legal jealousy, among certain groups, particularly among settlers of eigendom land who are unable to convert their land. In accordance with Presidential Decree No. 32 of 1979 Concerning Policy Fundamentals in Granting New Land Rights by Converting Western Rights (Keputusan Presiden No. 32 Tahun 1979 tentang Pokok-pokok Kebijaksanaan dalam Rangka Pemberian Hak Baru atas Tanah Asal Konversi Hak-hak Barat), settlers of former eigendom land may be granted HM rights. There are at least two articles in the decree that could be the basis for such conversion:

In the case of land under Western rights that was converted to state land with HGU status and was appropriate for agriculture or residential purposes, new rights would be given to the occupants of the land (Tanah-tanah Hak Guna Usaha asal konversi hak Barat yang sudah diduduki oleh rakyat dan ditinjau dari sudut tata guna tanah dan keselamatan lingkungan hidup lebih tepat diperuntukkan pemukiman atau kegiatan usaha pertanian, akan diberikan hak baru kepada rakyat yang mendudukinya). (Article 4)

Where residential land is under HGB and HP rights that were converted from Western rights and has since become housing for the general populace, priority will be given to those people who have already occupied it after certain criteria are fulfilled, as related to the interests of the land rights holder (Tanah-tanah perkampungan bekas Hak Guna Bangunan dan Hak Pakai asal konversi hak Barat yang telah menjadi perkampungan atau diduduki rakyat, akan diprioritaskan kepada rakyat yang mendudukinya setelah dipenuhinya persyaratan-persyaratan yang menyangkut kepentingan bekas pemegang hak tanah). (Article 5)

If land formerly under Western rights can be converted into HGU, HGB, and HP rights in the name of the former rights holder, but the land is presently occupied/cultivated by others, according to this presidential decree new rights are to be granted to the land’s settlers and/or cultivators. Former rights holders should be understood as the holders of Western rights over land, be they Indonesian citizens, foreign citizens, legal bodies, or the local government (gemeente).

This decree was followed by the Decree of Minister of Domestic Affairs No. 3 of 1979 Regarding the Stipulations for the Request for and Granting of Land Rights over Land Formerly under Western Land Rights (Peraturan Menteri Dalam Negeri No. 3 Tahun 1979 tentang Ketentuan-Ketentuan Mengenai Permohonan dan Pemberian Hak Atas Tanah Asal Konversi Hak Barat). Article 10, Paragraph 1, states:

Where land formerly under HGU rights is cultivated/occupied by another party, as meant in Law No. 51/Prp/1960, and is, according to technical considerations regarding the utilization of the land and the regional development plan, appropriate for residential or agricultural use, new rights will be given to those who meet the criteria of the applicable agrarian law, so long as the land involved is not needed for projects promoting the public interest (Tanah-tanah bekas Hak Guna Usaha yang digarap/diduduki pihak lain sebagai yang dimaksud dalam Undang-Undang Nomor 51/Prp/1960 dan yang menurut pertimbangan-pertimbangan teknis tata guna tanah serta rencana pembangunan di daerah yang bersangkutan dapat dijadikan tempat permukiman penduduk atau usaha pertanian, akan diberikan dengan sesuatu hak baru kepada mereka yang memenuhi syarat menurut peraturan perundangan agraria yang berlaku, sepanjang tanah yang bersangkutan tidak diperlukan untuk proyek-proyek bagi penyelenggaraan kepentingan umum).

These presidential and ministerial decrees are sufficient legal basis for the conversion of rights over eigendom land in Surabaya, as well as land under other Western rights that is presently settled by civilians.

For social justice and prosperity to be ensured for the people of Indonesia, the conversion and registration of land should be done without differentiating between individuals, groups, and organizations. For this to be achieved, the BAL, as the basis for the management of land in Indonesia, must be upheld entirely, not halfheartedly. The Indonesianization or nationalization of land should be a wholehearted endeavor. If this is not realized, then the agrarian reform will continue as it has before—halfheartedly.

Transfer of Land Rights Holdings

Since the enactment of the BAL, eigendom land in areas such as Jakarta, Bandung, Bogor, Cirebon/Indramayu, Semarang, and Malang has been fully converted. The conversion of eigendom land in the municipality of Malang, for instance, was completed in 2012. A total of 4,230 parcels of land, each measuring approximately 200 m2 in area, were transferred to their settlers and converted to HM rights in their settlers’ names. During the conversion process, settlers were required to pay retribution to the state totaling 10 percent of the value of the land or the Tax Object Sales Value. As such, the land was released through exchange, what may be termed ruislag in the Indonesian legal system. This transfer process was completed in accordance with the Decree of the Minister of Agrarian Affairs/Head of the National Land Bureau No. 9 of 1999 Concerning the Procedure for Granting and Annulling Rights over State-Controlled Land and Managing Rights (Peraturan Menteri Negara Agraria/Kepala BPN No. 9 Tahun 1999 tentang Tatacara Pemberian dan Pembatalan Hak Atas Tanah Negara dan Hak Pengelolaan), Article 9 of which clearly states that it is possible for private citizens to request ownership rights over eigendom land.

The municipality of Malang’s successful experience with the release of eigendom land in its jurisdiction could serve as a model or inspiration for efforts to release eigendom land in Surabaya; in other words, the municipal government of Surabaya could use as examples other municipalities that have previously transferred eigendom land to their residents.

After 15 years (1999–2014) of fighting for the right of settlers of eigendom land in Surabaya to legally own the land upon which they live, there appear to have been results. Presently a municipal bylaw, Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014 Regarding the Release of Land Assets Held by the Municipality of Surabaya, is being discussed and drafted. It deals with the issue of the transfer of state-controlled land and has received the approval of the governor of East Java (Tribun News 2015). Some of the provisions for land to be transferred, according to this bylaw, are:


a. The maximum land area is 250 m2
b. The land must have been continuously occupied/settled for more than 20 years
c. The IPT certificate must still be valid, and retributions must be actively paid
d. If two plots of land are held, only one may be converted
e. Only residential land may be converted
f. Citizens are required to pay retribution in the amount of 100 percent of the Tax Object Sales Tax to the Municipal Government of Surabaya.


For settlers of eigendom land, points (a) through (e) are not an issue since most of the plots of land that they inhabit measure approximately 200 m2 in area and have been occupied continuously for at least 20 years. Their problem is with the provision in point (f): all settlers have stated their objection to the amount of restitution they are being required to pay to the state. Observations of the market price of land in Surabaya conducted in 2015 show that land is very expensive, between Rp.3 million and 25 million per square meter, or approximately Rp.600 million to 5 billion for a plot of land measuring 200 m2. Though the Tax Object Sales Value is generally lower than the market price (see Table 7), the majority of settlers feel incapable of paying it in full, even if they are helped by being allowed to, for instance, pay in installments over a given period of time (Interview with Bambang Sudibyo, 2015).

The provision regarding the total amount of retributions to be paid as compensation to the state was decided entirely by the municipal government of Surabaya without any prior discussion with the settlers of the eigendom lands. From a judicial-factual perspective, the municipal government of Surabaya cannot be blamed for this decision, as it is the holder of HPL rights over the eigendom land. However, this provision was not expected by the settlers and, unsurprisingly, has become an obstacle to the transfer of land rights to private citizens. Many of the settlers stated that they would rather buy new land elsewhere, at a cheaper price, than pay such expensive compensation; this opinion was held even by settlers capable of paying the demanded retribution (Interviews with residents of settlements such as Sunari, Soebandi, and Suradi, March 2015). The current deadlock indicates that there is a flaw in the conversion process: namely, a provision considered unacceptable by the general populace. Now the general populace can only hope that the Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014, which has already received the approval of the governor of East Java, can be reexamined or revised.

Defect of Municipal Bylaw and Deadlock

The manner through which eigendom rights over land controlled by the state can be transferred is prescribed by Subchapter XII.1 of the Decree of Minister of Domestic Affairs No. 17 of 2007 Regarding the Technical Guidelines for the Management of Regional-Owned Assets (Peraturan Menteri Dalam Negeri No. 17 Tahun 2007 tentang Pedoman Teknis Pengelolaan Barang Milik Daerah). The transfer of rights can take several forms: (i) sale, (ii) exchange, (iii) grant, and (iv) equity capital. Meanwhile, Subchapter XII.3 states that the release of regional governments’ lands and buildings can be done in two manners: through (i) release, involving compensation (purchase); and (ii) exchange. Of these, the Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014 prescribes release with compensation, which may also be considered the sale of state assets, as during the transfer process residents are required to pay 100 percent of the Tax Object Sales Value.

The Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning/National Land Bureau (new titles of the Ministry of Agrarian Affairs/National Land Bureau) cannot be ignored or excluded from this release process. Likewise, the Ministry of Domestic Affairs must actively involve itself and is forbidden from not doing so; as such, there must be coordination between the two ministries during the land release process.

According to the Decree of the Minister of Agrarian Affairs/Head of the National Land Bureau No. 9 of 1999 Concerning the Procedure for Granting and Annulling Rights over State-Controlled Land and Managing Rights, the granting and/or annulling of rights over state-controlled lands is the responsibility of the minister (Article 3, Paragraph 1). Meanwhile, Paragraph 2 states, “In granting and/or annulling rights, as in Paragraph (1), the Minister may delegate authority to Regional Office Heads, Land Office Heads, and/or designated Officials.”

It should be recognized that the resolution of disputes involving land with eigendom rights involves, at the minimum, the two above-mentioned ministries. In the transfer of land rights, authority lies with the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning/National Land Bureau via the local municipal/regency Land Office. However, in cases where eigendom land is controlled by the state through its HPL rights, the authority for management lies with the Ministry of Domestic Affairs via the local municipal/regency government. In the framework of resolving the current disputes involving land with eigendom rights that is in the process of being released or transferred, both ministries must coordinate.

Based on the bylaw’s contents and lack of favor for the general populace, it is likely that the drafting of the Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014 was conducted unilaterally by the Government/Regional Peoples’ Representatives Council of Surabaya, serving as a state institution under the Ministry of Domestic Affairs, without any coordination or consultation with related parties such as the Surabaya Municipal Land Office or the National Land Bureau’s Regional Office for East Java. The latter are institutions under the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning/National Land Bureau that are competent in land issues. The drafting likewise has not involved social figures in Surabaya competent in the issue of eigendom land, such as former fighters from the National Revolution, veterans, retired soldiers, and retired civil servants. Such a drafting process means that the municipal bylaw cannot be considered to be in accordance with legal requirements, and thus it is nothing but a proposal for land transfer. It is important to remember that legislation can become legislation only if it meets several conditions, including being drafted in the legislature, being able to be implemented, and being able to be supervised by all involved parties. The Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014 does not appear to meet these conditions, and it is thus not implementable. As explained above, none of the settlers on eigendom land are willing to implement this bylaw because they are incapable of paying the above-mentioned compensation.


The continued existence of eigendom land in Surabaya has created serious and wide-reaching issues in the form of conflict between settlers and the municipal government of Surabaya. The continued existence of eigendom land stems from the incomplete conversion of land rights, which can be attributed to a lack of consistency in the implementation of the BAL. Behind this inconsistency there is a hidden meaning: The municipal government of Surabaya does not want to lose its eigendom land.

Besides that, this phenomenon, which appears to be a “reemergence” of the domeinverklaring principle (especially when combined with the rental of this land), is an indicator that the unification of land law under the BAL has yet to be fully completed. It also means that delays in agrarian reform have already led to problems in various aspects of social life, including law, economics, politics, and culture.

Though still problematic, the conflict over eigendom land in Surabaya and the commitment to convert such land can be understood as a form of social change and a sign that the agrarian reform process is again being implemented in Indonesia.

The implementation of laws to achieve social justice and welfare, such as in land reform, must be done in accordance with existing legal mechanisms. Furthermore, all parties (especially the municipal government of Surabaya, the Ministry of Domestic Affairs, and the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning/National Land Bureau) should share a single understanding of the points of the law, allowing them to minimize the emergence of new issues in society.

Accepted: December 20, 2016


I would like to express my thanks to two anonymous referees for their comments, suggestions, and criticisms and the meticulous editing by Sunandini Lal who helped make this article fit to publish. I am also grateful to Prof. Dr. Djoko Suryo (promoter) and Nur Aini Setiawati, Ph.D. (co-promoter) at the Postgraduate Program of Humanities Sciences, Faculty of Cultural Sciences, University of Gadjah Mada. Also, thanks to Prof. Dr. Bambang Purwanto, Dr. Agus Suwignyo, and Dr. Farabi Fakih who had been helping to train how to write for an international journal. Also, thanks to all the settlers of the eigendom land, especially Bambang Sudibyo and Supadi H.S. who has provided a detailed description of the data and documents of eigendom land in Surabaya. Lastly, funds from the Ministry of Research and Technology of the Republic of Indonesia through the Doctoral Dissertation Research Program have helped the process of research and the writing of this article.


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Panitya Buku Kenang-kenangan Kota Besar Surabaja [Committee for the Book Commemorating the City of Surabaja]. 1956. Kenang-kenangan 5 Tahun Kota Besar Surabaja 1950–1956 [Memories of five years of the large city of Surabaya]. Surabaya: Committee for the Book Commemorating the City of Surabaya.

Parlindungan, A. P. 1990. Konversi hak-hak atas tanah [Conversion of land rights]. Bandung: Mandar Maju.

Peacock, James L. 1968. Rites of Modernization: Symbolic and Social Aspects of Indonesian Proletarian Drama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

―. 1967. Comedy and Centralization in Java: The Ludruk Plays. Journal of American Folklore 80(318) (October–December): 345–356.

Pemerintah Kotamadya Surabaya [Municipal Government of Surabaya]. 1968. Gapura, Madjalah Bulanan Gema Kehidupan Kota [Gapura, the monthly magazine of city life]. No. 8 (December).

Pemerintah Kota Surabaya [Municipal Government of Surabaya]. 2013. Transparansi pengelolaan anggaran [Transparency in budget management]., accessed November 30, 2013

―. 2010. Peraturan daerah kota Surabaya No. 13 Tahun 2010 tentang retribusi pemakaian kekayaan daerah [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 13 of 2010 regarding Retribution for the use of regional-owned assets]. Surabaya: Municipality of Surabaya.

―. 2008. Rekapitulasi tanah aset pemerintah kota Surabaya yang dikelola oleh Badan Pengelolaan Tanah dan Bangunan [Recapitulation of Surabaya government’s land assets that managed by the Office for Land and Building Management]. Surabaya: Office for Land and Building Management.

―. 1996. Daftar inventarisasi tanah yang dikelola oleh Dinas Pengelolaan Tanah Daerah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya [Inventory list of land administered by the Office for Regional Land Management]. Surabaya: Office for Land and Building Management.

―. 1969. Buku himpunan peraturan-peraturan daerah kotamadya Surabaya [Collection of municipal bylaws of the municipality of Surabaya]. Surabaya: Municipal Government of Surabaya.

―. 1960, 1971, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, 2012. Surabaya dalam angka [Surabaya in figures]. Surabaya: Surabaya Municipality Statistical Office.

Peters, Robbie. 2013. Surabaya 1945–2010: Neighbourhood State and Economy in Indonesia’s City of Struggle. ASAA Southeast Asia Publication Series. Singapore: NUS Press.

Purnawan Basundoro. 2011. Rakyat miskin dan perebutan ruang kota di Surabaya 1900–1960-an [The poor populace and the struggle for city space in Surabaya 1900–1960s]. Doctoral dissertation, Humanities Program, Faculty of Cultural Sciences, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.

Ratna Djuita; and Indriayati. 2011. Eksistensi dan konflik penguasaan tanah masyarakat hukum adat [Existence and conflict over land control among adat law communities]. Jurnal Pertanahan, Menggagas RUU Pertanahan [Journal of Land: Discussions of the Planned Land Law] 1 (1 November): 32–68. Center for Research and Development, National Land Bureau of the Republic of Indonesia.

Ricklefs, M. C. 2001. A History of Modern Indonesia since c.1200. 3rd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sartono Kartodirdjo. 1984. Ratu adil [The just king]. Jakarta: Sinar Harapan.

―. 1973. Protest Movement in Rural Java: A Study of Agrarian Unrest in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, London, New York, and Melbourne: Oxford University Press/Indira.

Sediono M. P. Tjondronegoro. 1999. Sosiologi agrarian: Kumpulan tulisan terpilih [Sociology of agraria: A collection of selected writings]. Bandung: Laboratory of Sociology, Anthropology, and Population Studies, Faculty of Agriculture, Bogor Agricultural Institute, and Akatiga Foundation.

Soekotjo, R. 1968. Master plan, Suatu kelengkapan jang mutlak bagi tiap-tiap kota [Master plan, a must for every city]. 1968. Gapura, Madjalah Bulanan Gema Kehidupan Kota [Gapura, the Monthly Magazine of City Life] No. 8 (December): 4–5.

Soetojo, M. 1961. Undang-undang pokok agraria dan pelaksanaan landreform [Basic agrarian law and the implementation of land reform]. Jakarta: Staff of the Highest War Commander.

Sudargo Gautama. 1990. Tafsiran undang undang pokok agraria [An interpretation of the basic agrarian law]. Bandung: Citra Aditya Bakti.

Tribun News. 2015. Gubernur setujui perda pelepasan tanah Surat Ijo: Berlakunya tunggu perwali [Governor approves planned law for the release of Green Certificate land: Implementation awaits mayoral decree]. January 6., accessed March 22, 2015.

Urip Santoso. 2012. Hukum agraria, Kajian komprehensif [Agrarian law: A comprehensive study]. Jakarta: Kencana Prenada Media Group.

Winahyu Erwiningsih. 2009. Hak menguasai negara atas tanah [State rights to control over land]. Yogyakarta: Faculty of Law, Islamic University of Indonesia, and Total Media.

Related Registrations

Keputusan DPRD Gotong Royong Kotamadya Surabaya Nomor 03E/DPRD-GR KEP/1971 tertanggal 6 Mei 1971 tentang Sewa Tanah [Decision of the Regional Representatives’ Council for Mutual Assistance of Surabaya No. 03E/DPRD-GR KEP/1971, Dated 6 May 1971, Concerning Land Rental].

Keputusan Presiden No. 34 Tahun 2003 tentang Pelimpahan Kewenangan Pemerintah Pusat ke Pemerintah Daerah (Kabupaten/Kota) tentang Pertanahan [Presidential Decree No. 34 of 2003 Concerning the Delegation of Central Government Authority to Regional (Regency/City) Governments on Land Issues].

Ketetapan Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat No. IX/MPR/2001 tentang Pembaharuan Agraria dan Pengelolaan Sumber Daya Alam [Decree of the People’s Consultative Assembly No. IX/MPR/2001 Concerning Agrarian Reform and the Management of Natural Resources].

Keputusan Menteri Agraria No. 12/KaJ1963 tentang Konversi Hak Atas Tanah [Decision of the Minister of Agrarian No. 12/KaJ1963 Concerning the Conversion of Land Rights].

Keputusan Presiden No. 32 Tahun 1979 tentang Pokok-pokok Kebijaksanaan dalam Rangka Pemberian Hak Baru atas Tanah Asal Konversi Hak-hak Barat [Presidential Decree No. 32 of 1979 Concerning Policy Fundamentals in Granting New Land Rights by Converting Western Rights].

Keputusan Walikota Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya No. 1 Tahun 1998 tentang Tatacara Penyelesaian IPT [Decree of the Mayor of the City of Surabaya No. 1 of 1998 Concerning the Procedure for Resolving Permission to Use Land].

Peraturan Daerah Kota Besar Surabaja No. 53 Tahun 1955 tentang Pemberian Hak Erfpacht Kota Besar Surabaya [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 53 of 1955 Concerning the Granting of Erfpacht Rights in the Municipality of Surabaya].

Peraturan Daerah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya No. 1 Tahun 1997 tentang Ijin Pemakaian Tanah [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 1 of 1997 Concerning Permission to Use Land].

Peraturan Daerah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya No. 22 Tahun 1977 tentang Pemakaian dan Retribusi Tanah yang Dikelola oleh Pemerintah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 22 of 1977 Concerning the Use and Retributions for Land Managed by the Municipality of Surabaya].

Peraturan Daerah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya No. 3 Tahun 1987 tentang Ijin Pemakaian Tanah [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 3 of 1987 Concerning Permission to Use Land].

Peraturan Daerah Kota Surabaya No. 16 Tahun 2014 tentang Pelepasan Tanah Aset Pemerintah Kota Surabaya [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 16 of 2014 Regarding the Release of Land Assets Held by the Municipality of Surabaya].

Peraturan Daerah Kota Surabaya No. 14 Tahun 2012 tentang Pengelolaan Barang Milik Daerah [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 14 of 2012 Regarding the Management of Regional-Owned Assets].

Peraturan Daerah Kota Surabaya No. 2 Tahun 2013 tentang Retribusi Pemakaian Kekayaan Daerah [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 2 of 2013 Regarding Retribution for the Use of Regional Assets].

Peraturan Daerah No. 12 Tahun 1994 tentang Ijin Pemakaian Tanah yang Dikuasai oleh Pemerintah Kotamadya Daerah Tingkat II Surabaya [Surabaya Municipal Bylaw No. 12 of 1994 Concerning Permission to Use Land Controlled by the Municipal Government of Surabaya].

Peraturan Menteri Agraria No. 1 Tahun 1966 tentang Pendaftaran Hak Pakai dan Hak Pengelolaan [Decree of the Minister of Agrarian Affairs No. 1 of 1965 Concerning the Registration of Usage Rights and Management Rights].

Peraturan Menteri Agraria No. 9 Tahun 1965 tentang Konversi Hak Pakai dan Hak Pengelolaan [Decree of the Minister of Agrarian Affairs No. 9 of 1965 Concerning the Conversion of Usage Rights and Management Rights].

Peraturan Menteri Dalam Negeri No. 17 Tahun 2007 tentang Pedoman Teknis Pengelolaan Barang Milik Daerah [Decree of Minister of Domestic Affairs No. 17 of 2007 Regarding the Technical Guidelines for the Management of Regional-Owned Assets].

Peraturan Menteri Dalam Negeri No. 3 Tahun 1979 tentang Ketentuan-Ketentuan Mengenai Permohonan dan Pemberian Hak Atas Tanah Asal Konversi Hak Barat [Decree of Minister of Domestic Affairs No. 3 of 1979 Regarding the Stipulations for the Request for and Granting of Land Rights over Land Formerly under Western Land Rights].

Peraturan Menteri Dalam Negeri No. 2 Tahun 1970 tentang Penyelesaian Konversi Hak-Hak Barat menjadi Hak Guna Bangunan dan Hak Guna Usaha [Decree of Minister of Domestic Affairs No. 2 of 1970 Regarding the Conclusion of Western Land Rights into Building Rights and Cultivation Rights].

Peraturan Menteri Negara Agraria/Kepala BPN No. 9 Tahun 1999 tentang Tatacara Pemberian dan Pembatalan Hak Atas Tanah Negara dan Hak Pengelolaan [Decree of the Minister of Agriculture/Head of the National Land Bureau No. 9 of 1999 Concerning the Procedure for Granting and Annulling Rights over State-Controlled land and Managing Rights].

Peraturan Pemerintah No. 24 Tahun 1997 tentang Pendaftaran Tanah [Government Regulation No. 24 of 1997 Concerning Land Registration].

Peraturan Pemerintah No. 224 Tahun 1961 tentang Pembagian Tanah dan Pemberian Ganti Rugi dan Pernyataan Penguasaan oleh Pemerintah atas Bagian-Bagian Tanah yang Merupakan Kelebihan dari Luas Maksimum [Government Regulation No. 224 of 1961 Regarding the Division of Land and Granting of Recompensation and Statement of Governmental Control over Parcels of Land Exceeding the Maximum Area].

Peraturan Pemerintah No. 8 Tahun 1953 tentang Penguasaan Atas Tanah-tanah Negara [Government Regulation No. 8 of 1953 Concerning Control of State-Controlled Land].

Peraturan Walikota Surabaya No. 51 Tahun 2015 tentang Tata Cara Pelepasan Tanah Aset Pemerintah Kota Surabaya [Surabaya Mayoral Decree No. 51 of 2015 Regarding the Process for Releasing Land Assets Held by the Municipality of Surabaya].

Undang-Undang No. 1 Tahun 2004 tentang Perbendaharaan Negara [Law No. 1 of 2004 Concerning the State Treasury].

Undang-Undang No. 30 Tahun 1999 tentang Arbitrase dan Alternatif Penyelesaian Sengketa [Law No. 30 of 1999 Regarding Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution].

Undang-Undang No. 2 Tahun 1965 tentang Perluasan Wilayah Kota Surabaya [Law No. 2 of 1965 Regarding the Territorial Expansion of the Municipality of Surabaya].

Undang-Undang No. 5 Tahun 1960 tentang Peraturan Dasar Pokok-pokok Agraria [Law No. 5 of 1960 Concerning the Basic Principles of Agrarian Law].

Undang-Undang No. 1 Tahun 1958 tentang Penghapusan Tanah Partikelir [Law No. 1 of 1958 Concerning the Elimination of Tanah Partikelir Rights].




Appendix 1 Area of Eigendom Land per Work Region (Wilayah Kerja)

Source: Compiled from various sources including Info Surabaya. February 16, 2014., accessed on March 6, 2015.



Appendix 2 Map of Ngagel

Source: Quoted/compiled from the daily Pembela Rakjat No. 31 Th. Ke-1, December 1939.



Appendix 3 Archives of Besluit Land

Source: Derived from the Archives of the Department of Land Planning, Surabaya.



Appendix 4 Example of Zegel Certificate, Proof of Purchase of Land, June 1, 1970

Source: The surat zegel owned by Supadi H.S., settler of eigendom land.


Vol. 6, No. 1, Cornelis LAY


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Volunteers from the Periphery (Case Studies of Survivors of the Lapindo Mudflow and Stren Kali, Surabaya, Forced Eviction)

Cornelis Lay*

* Department of Politics and Government, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Gadjah Mada University, BA Building Fourth Floor, Room 410, Sosio Yustisia Street, Bulaksumur, Yogyakarta, 55281, Indonesia

e-mail: cornelislay[at]; conny[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_31

This article discusses volunteer movements active during the Indonesian presidential election of 2014, with a focus on volunteers in two troubled regions. The first group of volunteers consists of survivors of the Lapindo mudflow disaster in Sidoarjo, East Java, who are united in Korban Lapindo Menggugat (KLM, Victims of Lapindo Accuse); while the second consists of residents of Stren Kali, Surabaya, who were forcibly evicted and later united through Paguyuban Warga Stren Kali Surabaya (PWSS, Association of Residents of Stren Kali Surabaya). This article attempts to answer two questions: first, how did KLM and PWSS transform themselves into volunteer movements in support of Jokowi? And, second, what actions were taken by KLM and PWSS in support of Jokowi?

The transformation of KLM and PWSS into volunteer movements was intended to resolve issues that the groups had already faced for several years. Their acts were self-serving ones, albeit not based in individual economic interests but rather collective political ones. They were instrumentalist, negotiating an exchange of their support for Jokowi’s assistance in resolving their groups’ issues. Jokowi was supported because he offered a victory through which the groups’ issues could be resolved. Furthermore, these groups’ actions were to meet concrete short-term goals.

Keywords: volunteers, volunteerism in the 2014 Indonesian election, Korban Lapindo Menggugat, Paguyuban Warga Stren Kali Surabaya, rapping, Coins for Change, political contracts

I Introduction

One of the most prominent phenomena during the 2014 Indonesian presidential election was the massive role of volunteers—both individuals and groups—in organizing and consolidating support for the presidential candidate Joko Widodo, better known by the nickname Jokowi. Such volunteerism is not unprecedented in Indonesia.1) The rise of this phenomenon in Indonesia cannot be separated from the Reformasi (Reform) movement of 1998, which opened political space for mass public participation. The explosive growth of public participation in the early phases of Reformasi was followed by a dramatic increase in the number of civil society organizations (CSOs),2) spread of CSO coverage (PLOD 2006),3) and CSO influence and political leverage (Cornelis 2010).

Nevertheless, this phenomenon still raises important questions, particularly considering the following two factors. First, it occurred during a period of increased public dissatisfaction with politics, in which various democratic institutions—particularly political parties and parliament—were perceived as having performed poorly.4) Second, compared to previous volunteer movements in Indonesia, a greater depth and breadth of spectrum was covered by the movements supporting Jokowi. These volunteer movements were spread throughout Indonesia, in both urban and rural areas. They crossed class boundaries as well as religious and political-ideological lines. They knew no age boundaries and included persons of all fields, from cultural critics to farmers. Furthermore, these movements were gender-blind.5)

This article is not intended to discuss all of the phenomena mentioned above. It is, instead, limited to two volunteer movements that emerged in regions facing social turmoil. The first is Korban Lapindo Menggugat (KLM, Victims of Lapindo Accuse), which consists of survivors of the Lapindo mudflow in Sidoarjo, East Java. The second is Paguyuban Warga Stren Kali Surabaya (PWSS, Association of Residents of Stren Kali Surabaya), which consists of survivors of the forced eviction of riverbank settlements in Stren Kali, Surabaya, East Java.

This article stems from research commenced by the writer in November 2014, shortly after the inauguration of the elected president, Jokowi. This research was conducted in two regions in East Java: the area affected by the Sidoarjo mudflow, in Sidoarjo District, East Java; and in Stren Kali, an enclave of Surabaya’s poor residents along the banks of the Jagir River, which has faced forced eviction. Research was conducted over a period of four months, from November 2014 to February 2015; this included four weeks of field research.

The article explores the backgrounds of KLM and PWSS, how they transformed themselves into support movements for Jokowi, and their activities as volunteers for Jokowi. This article is divided into six sections. The first section is introduction. The second section gives a short overview of the concept of volunteer movements at a practical and theoretical level. The third section provides a summary of the history of the Lapindo mudflow disaster and the fourth section discusses the land issues in Stren Kali—the issues behind the formation of KLM and PWSS, respectively. The fifth section discusses the transformation of KLM and PWSS from advocacy movements to pro-Jokowi volunteer movements, as well as their activities in their respective regions. The sixth section is conclusion.

II Volunteer Movements: An Overview

Volunteering is a freely chosen action done to promote the public interest. Motives for volunteering tend to be romantic, idealistic, and altruistic (Mowen and Sujan 2005). The presence of volunteers in politics is related to an abstract idea of volunteerism that Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman, and Henry Brady (1995) classify as a civic participation model of public involvement. They draw on the classic book by Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (2000), which connects successful democratic practice with a high level of voluntary participation, defined as “public association in civil life.”

The transformation of volunteerism from a general act to a political one, particularly individual campaigns for public office, is a recent development. Volunteer support for Barack Obama in his campaign for the 2008 presidential election in the United States—which was repeated in the 2012 election and drew more than 2.2 million people (Han and McKinna 2015)—spearheaded the rise of planned, mass-scale volunteerism in politics. Obama’s success transformed the way in which volunteers were viewed: people who had previously been considered burdens came to be viewed as assets. In subsequent years, political volunteerism continued to develop and spread worldwide. In the 2014 South African election, all parties involved volunteers. Volunteers for the Democratic Alliance, for instance, conducted intensive door-to-door campaigns and remained involved during voting (Brand South Africa 2014). During the final weeks of the Canadian federal election in May 2015, 3,500 volunteers from the Liberal Party conducted door-to-door campaigning and reached no fewer than 200,000 potential voters. These were pioneers of a modern campaigning style that combined traditional face-to-face communications with recent data. Volunteers equipped themselves with smartphones or tablets on which they had installed the MiniVAN application, which provided information on potential voters (Bryden 2015). Significant volunteerism was recorded also in the Ukrainian election of 2015, albeit with a different motive: in Odessa, for instance, many volunteers were paid (Holmov 2015).6) Some, however, remained unpaid, including such professionals as lawyers, accountants, and IT experts.

III The Roots of Volunteerism in Sidoarjo: Advocacy for the Mudflow Disaster

On May 29, 2006, hot mud began to spew from the Banjar Panji-1 Well, owned by PT Lapindo Brantas, an oil and gas exploration company formed as a joint venture of PT Energi Mega Persada (50 percent), PT Medco Energi (32 percent), and Santos Australia (18 percent); the Bakrie family7) maintains control over the company (Liauw 2012). Hot mud from the well, which was located in Renokenongo Village, Porong District, Sidoarjo Regency, East Java, soon covered several regions; it continues to flow today. This disaster led to debate over its characteristics. One view was that the mudflow was man-made (Davies 2007).8) Some holders of this perspective argued that it was an industrial disaster (Bosman 2009; 2012; 2013; Bosman and Paring 2010),9) while others described it as an “ecological and social disaster” (Drake 2008; 2012; 2013; 2015).10) Some held that this was a complex issue that required comprehensive and detailed disaster management. Others, however, held that the mudflow was natural (Mazzini et al. 2007),11) and as such understanding and management of the disaster was simpler and resolvable at a technocratic level. As can be expected, it was difficult to find a middle ground between these views, each of which was supported by subjective interests.

The government came up with an ambiguous compromise for policymaking purposes: the disaster was both man-made and natural, having been caused by human actions and natural phenomena. This compromise influenced the ambivalent policies taken by the government several months later. Lapindo Brantas was required to provide compensation to the direct victims of the mudflow, with the government responsible for regions subsequently affected by the disaster. This ambivalence was reflected also in the government institution that was tasked with managing the disaster: the names of the team and agency established indicated that the disaster was natural, but there were also strong indications that Lapindo Brantas was responsible.

The government’s immediate response to the mudflow was to establish a team—the Tim Nasional Penanggulangan Semburan Lumpur di Sidoarjo (National Team for the Management of the Sidoarjo Mudflow)—through Presidential Decree Number 13 of 2006, dated September 8, 2006. This team was given a mandate for six months, which was later extended through Presidential Decree Number 5 of 2007. By the end of 2006 the mudflow was spewing 148,000 cubic meters of mud per day, and due to the continued and spreading impact in the first three months of 2007, the government converted the team’s status into a stronger formal institution, an “agency,” through Presidential Regulation 14 of 2007 regarding the Badan Penanggulangan Lumpur Sidoarjo (BPLS, Sidoarjo Mudflow Management Agency), dated April 8, 2007. This agency was given a broader mandate: it was to, among other things, take steps to coordinate the management of the mud’s eruption and flow, to rescue the area’s residents, to handle societal issues, and to maintain the infrastructure affected by the mudflow, while ensuring that Lapindo Brantas took responsibility for the management of social and community issues in the areas included in the Map of Affected Areas (MAA).

The initial MAA indicated that in 2007 residents of at least 12 villages spread through three districts and covering an area of 640 hectares were affected. In 2011, the MAA was extended with the addition of nine new rukun tetangga (RT)—sub-village governance units. It was again extended in early 2012, with the addition of a further 65 RTs. By 2012, a total of 11,881 families had become victims of the Lapindo mudflow (Kompas 2012a).

Two different schemes were used for compensation. Residents whose land and buildings had been covered by mud and were included on the MAA of March 22, 2007 were the responsibility of Lapindo Brantas, and as such the company was to pay compensation to them. Victims whose land was not included on the MAA of March 22, 2007 but was affected by the mudflow were compensated by the government through the national budget.12) According to Article 15, Paragraphs 1 and 2, of Presidential Regulation 14 of 2007, victims whose land was covered by the first MAA were to be offered an incremental compensation plan upon proof of landownership in the form of a land sale certificate validated by the government. Twenty percent of compensation was to be paid up front, with the remainder to be paid within two years. Victims outside the first MAA, meanwhile, were to be paid in installments over a period of five years.13) By 2014, all victims of the mudflow whose land was not located on the MAA of March 22, 2007 (covering 555 hectares) had received compensation totaling more than Rp.4 trillion (Detik 2014). A very different fate, however, was faced by the victims whose land was included on the map of March 22, 2007, whose compensation was the responsibility of Lapindo Brantas. The company had to pay Rp.3,830,547,222,220 in compensation, divided among 13,100 victims. However, in 2014 there were still 3,100 victims who had yet to receive full compensation, representing a total monetary figure of Rp.786 billion (Diananta 2014).14)

This situation led to the birth of several organizations, supported by local and national CSOs, to fight for victims’ rights.15) One of these was Korban Lapindo Menggugat (KLM), an object of this research, which was established in 2010. During the 2014 presidential election, KLM transformed itself into a volunteer group supporting Jokowi.

III-1 The Dynamics of KLM’s Struggle

Korban Lapindo Menggugat, as a movement, has united victims of the Lapindo mudflow who are demanding compensation for the destruction and damage they faced following a 100-meter dam breach at points 79 and 80, located in Gempolsari Village, on December 23, 2010. Long before KLM, various other groups were established by victims of the mudflow (Paring 2009; Rusdi 2012; Drake 2013; Anis 2014). These included Pagar Rekontrak (Paguyuban Rakyat Renokenongo Menolak Kontrak, Association of Renokenongo Residents Against Rentals),16) Pagar Rekorlap (Paguyuban Warga Renokenongo Korban Lapindo, Association of Renokenongo Lapindo Victims), Lasbon Kapur (Laskar Bonek Korban Lumpur, Bonek Troop of Mud Victims),17) and Gabungan Korban Lumpur Lapindo (GKLL, Lapindo Mudflow Victims Group)—which subsequently split into two groups in response to the compensation scheme18)—Tim 7 Desa Renokenongo (Seven Team of Renokenongo Village) and Forkom Mindi (Forum Komunikasi Mindi, Mindi Communications Forum).19)

The dam breach of December 23, 2010 allowed mud to flow through the dam and toward the village of Glagah Arum. Mud soon spread over 30 hectares of housing and rice fields, ultimately affecting eight villages: Glagah Arum and Plumbon in Porong District; Permisan and Bangunsari in Jabon District; and Kalidawir, Gempolsari, Sentul, and Penatarsewu in Tanggulangin District (Ugo 2011).20) As a result, residents of these villages had to evacuate, and their harvests failed. This led them to conduct demonstrations outside the Sidoarjo Parliament in January 2011 and demand compensation for their destroyed land, homes, rice fields, and fish farms as well as polluted rivers and air. The people of Gempolsari also demanded clean water. Residents of four villages—Sentul, Glagah Arum, Gempolsari, and Penatarsewu—blocked the alternative route between Surabaya and Malang for two days (October 24–25, 2011) to pressure BPLS to quickly pay compensation (Idha Saraswati 2011).

The January 2011 demonstrations were facilitated by a local parliament member from the PDI-P (Partai Demokrat Indonesia–Perjuangan; Democratic Party of Indonesia–Struggle) named Mundir Dwi Ilmiawan. He was a legislative member from the Sidoarjo 2 electoral district, which included several districts affected by the mudflow: Jabon, Krembung, Porong, and Prambon. Ilmiawan then asked Wardah Hafidz renowned CSO activist, to help residents organize their demands. Hafidz was the coordinator of the Urban Poor Consortium (UPC), an organization with extensive experience in defending the interests of Indonesia’s urban poor. After meeting with the UPC, KLM received guidance and organized its demands. It also received strategic training on how to voice its demands, as well as an invitation to join UPLINK (Urban Poor Linkage), a network of urban poor organizations and their supporters.21)

KLM has not limited its demands to compensation. The group has also argued against further drilling at the site. In total, Lapindo Brantas owns 30 wells in Sidoarjo, spread through Porong and Tanggulangin Districts. In Kali Dawir, for instance, it owns two wells; both were drilled before the eruption of the Banjar Panji-1 Well in Renokenongo. Since the disaster, residents have consistently rejected further drilling. On April 22, 2012, approximately 150 residents from five villages—Glagah Arum, Penatarsewu, Kalidawir, Sentul, and Gempolsari—held a vigil against Lapindo Brantas’s gas drilling and called for the company to leave Sidoarjo. KLM has also protested BPLS’s decision to divert mud to the Ketapang River (Melki 2013) owing to the serious pollution and damage to irrigation systems this has caused. To this end, on November 29, 2013 KLM went to the Sidoarjo Parliament to demand that BPLS stop diverting mud to the Ketapang River. Because the northern dams were in increasingly critical condition, KLM also called for BPLS to reinforce existing dams. Both demands were unsuccessful (Abdul 2013); in 2014, mud was still being diverted into the Ketapang River and no reinforcement efforts had been undertaken.22) This failure was related to victims’ refusal to allow BPLS to redirect mud into the Porong River and reinforce the dams until they had received compensation from Lapindo Brantas.

Furthermore, KLM, working with UPC, demanded that persons who applied for birth certificates more than a year after birth being reported be able to do so without going to court or paying any fees.23) After data collection and document verification, it was found that some 400 members of KLM did not have a birth certificate. These certificates were fought for at the Civil Registry, local parliament, State Court, and Regent’s Office beginning in June 2013. KLM even sent birth certificate applicants’ data to the Komisi Perlindungan Anak Indonesia (KPAI, Indonesian Child Protection Commission) in Jakarta to prepare for a case in the Constitutional Court. This struggle was ultimately successful. The Regent and State Court for Sidoarjo promised that 400 birth certificate applications from KLM members would be handled without cost and could be filed collectively. This was an important symbolic victory for the residents, as birth certificates are crucial as basic administrative proof for residents to claim their rights, including compensation.

Every year KLM, in collaboration with UPC, holds a ceremony commemorating the Lapindo mudflow tragedy. This is intended to maintain morale and ensure that the issue remains alive in the public’s memory—not only among affected individuals but also among outsiders, especially policy makers. Nevertheless, these efforts have not completely succeeded. KLM members have been afflicted by a sense of hopelessness, as shown by the group’s declining membership. One member of KLM indicated that most members had become worn out because their demands had had very few results.24) In 2013, field data indicate, there were only 480 active KLM members, from four villages.25) Residents of the other four villages were no longer active in KLM activities.

IV Roots of the Volunteer Movement in Surabaya: Forced Evictions in Stren Kali

IV-1 Land Issues in Stren Kali, Surabaya

The Jagir River is a man-made tributary of the Mas River that was first excavated during the Dutch colonial period. It runs along Jagir Wonokromo Street. During the Dutch colonial period, the clear waters of the Jagir carried the boats of fishmongers and bamboo sellers and served nearby residents’ bathing and washing needs. Before the 1950s, the banks of the Jagir River were uninhabited land filled with weeds. Slowly, however, as the city of Surabaya developed, this empty land became occupied by informal-sector workers such as pedicab drivers, beggars, vagrants, and sex workers. Aside from constructing their own dwellings, the people living in Stren Kali established businesses such as corner stores and repair shops (LKHI 2009).

The banks of the Jagir River became more crowded in 1964, when the Wonokromo Market was expanded and approximately 50 merchants—mostly ironmongers—were relocated. The Surabaya municipal government offered these merchants two alternatives: to be relocated to an empty shop in the market measuring approximately 2.5 × 4 meters, or to be relocated to the Jagir–Wonokromo area along the riverbanks. Most merchants took the second option. In this new area, they built places to live and do business. When the Social Department of Surabaya relocated more residents in 1970, Stren Kali was the location of choice. With funds from the PONSORIA WAWE (a sort of lottery), in 1970 the government built Jagir Avenue. Public transportation such as DAMRI buses and minibuses began to operate in the area. Electricity became available in 1983 (ibid.). The area, though populated by the city’s lower-class residents, thus had ready access to lighting and transportation. Stren Kali became increasingly crowded as Surabaya grew as a trade and service city and as the provincial capital of East Java. This area quickly developed into an enclave for Surabaya’s poor.

Stren Kali’s strategic location has been a main consideration with residents in choosing a place to live. Data released by Arkom Indonesia in 2012 indicate that 51.6 percent of Stren Kali residents live less than a kilometer from their place of work, with a further 15 percent living 1–3 kilometers from their place of work. Many residents (42.5 percent) have a monthly income of less than Rp.500,000; 33.1 percent earn between Rp.500,000 and Rp.1,000,000; 10.7 percent earn between Rp.1,000,000 and Rp.1,500,000; and 13.7 percent earn more than Rp.1,500,000. This further indicates that the residents of Stren Kali are predominantly the city’s poor. Many homes are located directly on the banks of the Jagir River. When this researcher went with Gatot, an informant from PWSS, to the local meeting hall one night, he passed a row of narrow “houses” made of sheet metal and measuring only 3 × 3 meters. These were used either as family housing or as a place for sex workers to do business. According to Gatot, after the Doli prostitution district was closed, Stren Kali became the location of choice for former Doli sex workers, who joined the sex workers already living in the area. When this researcher passed the area in daylight, Stren Kali was relatively empty.

Most of Stren Kali’s residents have lived there for 30 years. Said, an informant from the kampung (kampong) of Bratanggede, explained that he was the second generation of his family to live there, his parents having relocated to Stren Kali in 1957.26) Residents of Stren Kali who were not born there often migrated to join family (37.5 percent) or friends (17.1 percent) originally from the area. Covering an area of 6.76 hectares, Stren Kali is the location of 926 buildings (59.3 percent permanent, 30.9 percent semi-permanent, and 9.8 percent non-permanent). These are predominantly (57.8 percent) used for housing, though some (33.6 percent) are used as places of business (ArkomIndonesia 2012). The 926 buildings in Stren Kali are occupied by 817 families, 109 of whom rent their homes. Although most residents own their homes, proof of ownership is non-standard. Some have building construction permits, but most only have permission in the form of a letter from the water company, a business registration, or a statement of land/home ownership based on a receipt. This reflects the various ways in which residents came to occupy their land: through purchase, inheritance, direct settlement, relocation (after eviction), permission from the water company, and rental. As such, each kampung has a different history to its settlement (Totok and Ita 2009).

IV-2 Creation of the Advocacy Group Geser Bukan Gusur (Squeeze Past Not Evict)

Beginning in 2002, the people of Stren Kali began to face threats of eviction, as they were said to cause the pollution and shallowing of the Jagir River. On May 31, 2002, the Surabaya municipal government surprised the residents of Stren Kali with a warrant for demolition. This warrant was issued because the government felt that garbage and waste from the settlements in Stren Kali had led to the Jagir River becoming shallower and polluted (LKHI 2009). In response, residents, many of whom were street vendors, sex workers, and street children, organized themselves by establishing the umbrella group Jerit (Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas, Network of Oppressed Peoples). Three years later, in February 2005, six kampungs that had originally been part of Jerit (Bratang, Jagir, Gunungsari, Jambangan, Kebonsari, and Pagesangan) broke off and established their own group, PWSS (Laurens 2012). As time passed, membership expanded to include 11 kampungs: Bratang, Jagir, Gunungsari 1 and 2 (Gunungsari PKL), Jambangan, Kebonsari, Pagesangan, Semampir, Kampung Baru, Kebraon, and Karangpilang.

After PWSS was established, UPC and a network of academics, architects, sociologists, and legal experts guided residents in formulating an alternative concept to kampung management that integrated residents’ needs with the river’s. This concept, referred to as JOGOKALI, was conveyed through lobbying and dialog to the provincial government of East Java and the Surabaya municipal government as well as the Ministry of Public Works, Housing, and Regional Infrastructure. This led to several agreements being reached, including the formation of a joint team involving the conflicting parties. This team, however, proved incapable of reaching a satisfactory compromise.

The situation worsened in January 2005, when the provincial government sent a warning to residents of Medokan Semampir (part of the Stren Kali settlement) that they would be forcibly evicted so that the river could be broadened. After extensive negotiations, PWSS and the provincial government agreed to establish a joint team to formulate a new policy for Stren Kali. At the same time, PWSS—working with Ecoton, Friends of the Earth Indonesia, and Gadjah Mada University—conducted a study that found 60 percent of the river’s pollution originated from factories; only 15 percent originated from riverbank residents. The results of this study, however, did little to discourage the government’s decision to expand and deepen the river. This would require the demolition of 3,400 homes; residents would be relocated to a subsidized housing complex some 5 kilometers distant. Negotiations continued, and ultimately a compromise was reached. This compromise was given legal basis with Regional Bylaw No. 9 of 2007 regarding the Management of Riparian Zones for the Surabaya River and Wonokromo River, dated October 5, 2007. This bylaw was based on a principle of movement, not eviction, and its Article 13 fixed the width of the riparian zones to 3–5 meters, as proposed by PSWW (Wawan et al. 2009).

On January 30, 2009 the Jagir River overflowed, and as a result the Surabaya municipal government decided to build a new dyke and evict residents. To this end, it prepared 300 subsidized housing units for the residents of Stren Kali (Kompas 2009). On April 28, 2009, residents received written instructions, citing violations of Municipal Bylaw No. 7 of 2002 regarding Building Construction Permits, that they were to demolish their buildings by April 30, 2009. In response, PWSS held demonstrations in front of Parliament and the Municipal Government building (Warta Jatim 2009). This, however, had no influence on the government. On May 4, 2009, 1,900 government security forces—consisting of police, soldiers, and Civil Service Police Unit officers—came to Stren Kali armed with a water cannon, a bulldozer, three backhoes, and trained dogs. They forced the eviction of residents living on the south side of the Jagir River (East Java Province Information Office 2009). Residents unsuccessfully resisted through prayers, blockades, and roadblocks. Some 380 buildings were demolished, and 425 families lost their homes and livelihoods (Detik 2009). Several years later, in May 2012, the provincial government, with the support of the municipal government, planned to evict residents from the river’s northern banks. PWSS, however, refused, referring to Article 13 of Bylaw No. 9 of 2007 (Kompas 2012b).

Recognizing that environmental issues had been behind the government’s actions, between 2002 and 2006 residents of Stren Kali began to reinforce their position by implementing the JOGOKALI principle, in which they worked together to keep the kampung healthy and the river pollution-free while still maintaining social and cultural ties in the kampung. Capital for these efforts came from the selling of paper and plastic waste, both from residents’ own homes and from the river. Residents established systems of household waste management, constructed communal septic tanks, and sorted and managed their own garbage (Yuli 2009). These activities were done jointly, indicating PWSS’s strong internal cohesion.

V From Advocacy to Volunteerism: The Metamorphosis of the KLM and PWSS Movements

The momentum of the 2014 presidential election brought new hope for KLM and PWSS. Together with the Jaringan Rakyat Miskin Kota (JRMK, Network of the Urban Poor), which had joined with UPLINK and Jaringan Rakyat Miskin Indonesia (Jerami, Network of Indonesian Poor),27) KLM and PWSS made a political contract with the Indonesian presidential candidate Jokowi. This political contract was signed by Jokowi during a ceremony marking the eighth year of the Lapindo mudflow, held on May 29, 2014, in Siring, Porong, Sidoarjo. This political contract emphasized Jokowi’s commitment to five basic issues: health care through the Indonesia Sehat (Healthy Indonesia) program,28) education through the Indonesia Pintar (Smart Indonesia) program,29) poverty eradication through resettlement programs based in an approach of “Move Don’t Evict”; the resolution of the Lapindo problem through a bailout scheme for the victims; and a job security program.

This political contract was not the first for these parties. During the 2012 gubernatorial elections in Jakarta, Jokowi had signed a similar contract with JRMK and UPC on September 15, 2012. This contract included Jokowi’s agreement to present a new, pro-poor, concept of Jakarta that was based in service and civil participation and called for, among other things, community participation in zoning planning; budgeting; and the planning, implementation, and supervision of urban development programs. It also promoted the fulfillment and protection of urban residents’ rights through the legalization of illegal kampungs; use of discussion and non-eviction approaches to relocating slums; management of the informal economy to better support street vendors, pedicab drivers, traditional fishermen, housemaids, small merchants, and traditional markets; and transparency and openness in the dissemination of information to urban residents (Anggriawan 2012). When Jokowi was elected, he fulfilled the terms of this contract. The relocation of residents from the banks of the Pluit Reservoir and Muara Baru River to subsidized housing, for instance, was conducted through dialog with local residents and involving JRMK and UPC (Irawaty 2013).

The signing of their political contract with Jokowi on May 29, 2014 marked the beginning of KLM and PWSS’s formal support for Jokowi’s candidacy (see Fig. 1). It was the beginning of the groups’ metamorphosis from advocacy organizations to volunteer organizations. Their reason for providing this support can be derived from the writer’s interview with Warsito, a member of PWSS30) who related this support to the groups’ hopes that their long struggles could finally bear fruit. The use of a political contract to achieve political goals was not new in Indonesia.31) PWSS had twice previously made political contracts with candidates, during Surabaya’s mayoral elections in 2010 and the East Java gubernatorial elections in 2013. However, the results of these contracts had been disappointing, as the PWSS-backed candidates were not elected.32) For PWSS, the political contract was understood as a concrete manifestation of its political participation, as stated by Gatot:33)


Fig. 1 Jokowi at Lapindo, Sidoarjo

Source:, accessed November 29, 2014


This political contract is a pillar of sorts, regarding how to participate in politics. Participating in politics means that we need to be involved in political issues. We are not just a source of votes. If we are just a source of votes, yeah, then we’re only a target of money politics. Because we’re involved, then automatically we need to put something forth to the candidate: a contract.34)

The joint decision of KLM, PWSS, and the other movements in UPLINK to support Jokowi was reached long after he was formally proposed as a presidential candidate35) and after a lengthy process in which the group considered possible benefits and costs, as well as the ideal criteria for their candidate.36) Before the year-end meeting in Jakarta, UPLINK and UPC met in Stren Kali exclusively to discuss the political contract; this meeting was predominantly to consolidate the steps they would take, as they had already made numerous efforts to gain political support from various parts of society. In the context of Sidoarjo and Surabaya, the decision had particular weight as PDI-P had a strong voter base in Surabaya and the two parties that promoted Jokowi’s candidacy—PDI-P and the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB, National Awakening Party)—had an absolute majority.37)

Following the year-end meeting, UPC worked to arrange a meeting with Jokowi so that it could convey the aspirations of Indonesia’s urban poor. On April 30, 2014, some 50 UPLINK activists came to Jokowi’s official home (where he lived while serving as governor of Jakarta) at 7 Taman Suropati Street, Menteng, Central Jakarta. In this meeting, PWSS (represented by Said and Warsito) and KLM (represented by Manarif) negotiated a plan, which was then conveyed by Said.38) This audience resulted in Jokowi promising that he would initiate economic equalization programs, particularly for the poor. Although no concrete details or activities regarding such measures were discussed, the meeting was sufficient for UPLINK and UPC to agree to support Jokowi. Members would go door-to-door to collect coins and voice support in seven cities (Lampung, Bratasena, Jakarta, Surabaya, Porong, Makassar, and Kendari) and thus help ensure Jokowi’s victory. It was during this meeting that UPLINK and UPC invited Jokowi to attend the ceremony commemorating the Lapindo mudflow’s eighth anniversary. On May 29, 2014, Jokowi attended the ceremony and signed the political contract (UPLINK and UPC 2014).

KLM’s political support was granted to the running mates of Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla (JK) for a simple but clear reason: Jokowi’s faction had no political elite, nor did it have any political forces connected to the Lapindo disaster. Conversely, Jokowi’s opponent Prabowo was supported by many people and groups with ties to the Lapindo disaster, including Golkar—a key figure of which was Aburizal Bakrie,39) the majority shareholder of Lapindo Brantas. Jokowi was thus believed to be capable of resolving the situation because he had no conflict of interest.40) Following through on the agreement reached during the audience with Jokowi, KLM and PWSS began to take action as volunteers for Jokowi–JK. The groups used three types of activities to gather support and votes for Jokowi: Coins for Change, painting the roofs of their homes with Jokowi’s name, and rapping. UPC served as the initiator and driving force behind these campaigns and also provided logistical support such as shirts, flyers, stickers, and tabloids.


Volunteer Method 1: Coins for Change

Koin Perubahan (Coins for Change) was held in every city in the UPLINK network to promote a Jokowi victory. Coins for Change was a symbolic act against money politics. Gatot stated:

Coins for Change was an effort to deflect rumors or charges that the poor could have their votes bought. Through these Coins for Change, we attempted to deflect such political games. What people needed was for their aspirations to be heard by their representatives. What the poor people wanted was change.41)

The total amount of funds collected was limited. The entire national UPLINK network was capable of collecting coins only to the value of Rp.27 million; on its own, KLM collected Rp.1.5 million. The entire sum was donated to the Jokowi campaign via funds transfer. PWSS initially planned on collecting funds by panhandling at traffic lights, in the markets, and in the kampung outside of Stren Kali. However, owing to the limited time available volunteers focused exclusively on traffic intersections.42) While collecting coins, they also distributed stickers and flyers regarding the political contract with Jokowi.


Volunteer Method 2: Painting Jokowi’s Name on Roofs

Painting the roof of each resident’s home with Jokowi’s name in capital letters was—according to Gatot—Wardah Hafidz’s idea (see Fig. 2). He was inspired to do so by his experiences in numerous villages, where each government office had the letters PKK (short for Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga, Guidance for Family Prosperity) painted on its roof. At first it was agreed that roof painting would be done in every part of the UPC network, with the intent to set a record that would be recognized by the Museum for Indonesian and World Records. However, only PWSS successfully realized this goal. Painting was carried out simultaneously in 11 kampungs, from Kebraon to Semampir. Residents used chalk paint mixed with glue in the hope that the paint would not easily run. Said termed this an “air campaign,” as persons photographing the kampung from the sky would clearly see the word “Jokowi.”43)


Fig. 2 Jokowi’s Name Painted at Kampung Baru, Stren Kali (November 26, 2014)


The movement’s success depended on several factors, including a leader figure capable of mobilizing residents,44) a high degree of participation from residents—as evidenced by their willingness to pay for their own materials—the relatively solid organizational structure of PWSS, and residents’ views regarding their actions. For PWSS, this painting was important, particularly as proof of its dedication. Warsito explained,

This painting was proof that the people of Stren Kali weren’t fooling around. Whatever happened, even if our opponents badgered us, our choice was Jokowi. Yeah, Jokowi. Imagine what would have happened if Jokowi lost. What would happen to us? Surely Prabowo’s volunteers would have attacked us. This was dangerous. Praise God, we won.45)

The courage to openly state political affiliations represented the widespread transformation in Indonesian democracy since 1998, which supported increased openness. Such a hypothesis must, however, be tested through further research.

Members of KLM also intended to paint the roofs of their homes with Jokowi’s name, as done by the volunteers in Stren Kali, but this did not happen because KLM had insufficient funds.46) A significant contribution to this failure to mobilize members was the fact that KLM required funds for emergencies. However, this was only a partial cause. Another was that the environment in which KLM was active tended to be very permissive of money politics. According to information collected from a variety of sources, after elections (be they legislative or executive), an incredible amount of money circulated among residents. This was unlike the environment in which PWSS worked, where residents were mobilized in part as symbolic resistance to money politics. Another contributing factor was that, as the organization had only gained exposure with the entry of UPC, KLM lacked the internal cohesion of PWSS.


Volunteer Method 3: Rapping

Rapping is a voter organization method involving door-to-door campaigning. It was introduced to Indonesia through the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which taught the method to UPC and UPLINK in 2007. The name “rap” was inspired by the musical genre, which involves quick and repetitive lyrics. This method of campaigning is likewise done quickly, generally consisting of five steps taking approximately 20 minutes (unlike conventional campaign models, which require a longer period of time). Rapping as an organizational model involves an organizer (the “rapper”) approaching individuals to convince them to vote and become involved in resolving problems by making demands of or negotiating with persons capable of making or changing policies on a social issue (Ari 2012). This method was widely used to collect votes for Barack Obama during his presidential campaign in the United States.

The informant Gatot Subroto described the operational methods in the 2014 presidential election:

The rapping method, basically, it’s like singing rap. People throw questions at each other, come up with arguments, like they are marketing something. What they’re going to say, they’ve already got their points made. Their goals are to convince potential voters to help support our candidate. We did this over and over, so that people would join us. It was like cause and effect. Like, A: Why are you voting for Jokowi? B: Because I don’t like Prabowo. A: Why don’t you like Prabowo? So, when it got to be like that, of course we’d give them the materials, the political contract. If we didn’t have any materials, we couldn’t possibly sell it. We always brought along our political contract as a negotiating tool. If we’d achieved our targets, we’d say “Sorry, we’ll come again tomorrow.” Then we’d schedule a large meeting. We’d call people together. At the time, we did it as we broke the fast together.47)

KLM went door-to-door to visit residents and ask them to support Jokowi, to understand the issues that they were facing, and to become involved in the political contract with Jokowi so that the issues could be resolved once his campaign was successful. Rapping was done over a period of one month and involved approximately 60 rappers, members of both KLM and the UPLINK network. Rapping was done in kampungs that had been affected by the Lapindo mudflow. While rapping, KLM volunteers also distributed flyers that included the political contract that Jokowi had signed with the Lapindo victims. They also placed posters and banners in several strategic points around the dams.

The KLM rappers faced numerous challenges in the field. The goal of each rapper reaching 60 people every day went unrealized. In the face of the community’s increasingly transactional attitude, rappers were capable of reaching only their family and close friends. Every time they met with someone to campaign for Jokowi, they were asked for money (Aspinall and Mada 2014). Money politics was thus the greatest enemy of these volunteer activists. Furthermore, this was the first time that most KLM members had rapped, and as a result implementation was difficult. This was exacerbated by rappers’ limited operational budget. To relieve the financial burden and fund rapping, UPC helped residents establish a cooperative business and trained them in, for example, preparing food to be sold. Unfortunately, with KLM this did not go according to plan. However, with PWSS the fund-raising programs went relatively smoothly, particularly those involving the management and sale of compost and household waste.

Volunteers were faced with the dilemma of supporting themselves and their families while still fulfilling their political duties as volunteers. Because volunteers originated from the lower class, they had difficulty balancing these two issues, and the most logical choice for them was to focus on the former. Their volunteer activities were secondary to their need to financially support themselves and their families. For them, mobilizing financial resources was not a central issue. This case indicates that lower-class volunteers had greater difficulty collecting financial support.

Aside from going door-to-door, volunteers from KLM were also active in supporting Jokowi at the polling stations. They served as witnesses and members of the Kelompok Penyelenggaraan Pemungutan Suara (KPPS, Committee for Election Operations). Witnesses from KLM were not from political parties, but rather present at the polling stations to see and record votes for Jokowi. Members of KLM who were also members of village-level election committees supervised the counting and escorting of votes at the village level. In Kalidawir Village, this was handled by Manarif, who served as a member of the KPPS. All of Manarif’s campaigning was done outside of the village, as legally he was required to act neutrally.48)

In Stren Kali, meanwhile, rapping was not a new experience. In 2009, UPC had taught PWSS how Obama’s volunteers had used this method to campaign for their candidate. Gatot, together with other representatives of his movement, went to Jakarta for training. PWSS first used this method during the 2010 mayoral elections in Surabaya as part of its campaign for the independent running mates Fitradjaja Purnama and Naen Soeyono. In this election, five pairs of candidates ran, with Tri Rismahani and Bambang DH of PDI-P winning with 358,187 (38.53 percent) votes. Fitradjaja came last, with only 53,110 votes (5.71 percent) (Elin 2010). Although Fitradjaja won in Stren Kali, a subsequent evaluation by UPC found that he had benefited from a strong “follow the leader” system that had led Stren Kali residents to vote for him. Rapping, thus, had been unable to develop residents’ political awareness (UPC 2010). During the presidential election, PWSS asked for the General Elections Committee’s registered voters list to determine appropriate targets. Each person rapped to 50 potential voters, and each RT had its own coordinator. The number of rappers assigned to an RT depended on its population and total area; some RTs had three or four rappers.

From the results of the presidential election, it is difficult to determine whether PWSS and KLM’s involvement played a role in Jokowi’s victory. Of the 31 districts in Surabaya, only 1 was won by Prabowo–Hatta, where the pair received 36,829 votes to Jokowi–JK’s 35,563. Jokowi–JK won all 30 other districts. The 11 kampungs joined in PWSS were won by Jokowi. Monitoring efforts by the Kawal Pemilu Web site confirm this Jokowi victory. In Jagir, Prabowo–Hatta received 4,352 votes (43.31 percent), whereas Jokowi–JK received 5,697 (56.69 percent) (Agita 2014; Kawal Pemilu 2014b).

A different pattern was found in Sidoarjo. In this regency, Jokowi–JK received 550,729 votes (54.22 percent), slightly above the national average of 53.15 percent, while Prabowo–Hatta received 464,990 votes (45.78 percent). In Tanggulangin District, Jokowi–JK were victorious with 23,698 votes (50.71 percent), below the national average; Prabowo–Hatta received 23,031 votes (49.29 percent). In Porong District, Jokowi–JK were victorious with 21,316 votes (57.53 percent), whereas Prabowo–Hatta received 15,734 votes (42.47 percent). The data indicate, however, that Jokowi–JK were not victorious in all areas united by KLM. In Kalidawir, for instance, where three of the informants lived, Jokowi–JK suffered a rather significant loss: they received 919 votes (42.76 percent), while Prabowo–Hatta claimed victory with 1,230 votes (57.24 percent) (Kawal Pemilu 2014a).

VI Conclusion

This article has discussed volunteer movements in the 2014 Indonesian presidential election as practiced by communities facing concrete problems requiring concrete solutions. Several points from the above discussion should be emphasized. First, the transformation of KLM and PWSS into volunteer movements in support of Jokowi was intended to resolve issues that the groups had already faced for several years. Belying the general view of volunteers as actors without personal considerations or hope for remunerations, but rather romantic, idealistic, and altruistic intentions, both cases show the opposite to be true: volunteer actions here were considered and self-serving. Unlike in Ukraine, where individual-based financial considerations were the motor that mobilized volunteers, KLM and PWSS used collective-based political considerations as their mobilizing motor. Likewise, belying the general view of volunteerism as promoting an abstract goal with personal satisfaction as the central explanatory factor, both cases show that volunteer movements can be formed to realize concrete, short-term goals.

Second, both cases indicate the instrumental nature of volunteer movements. These movements were used as tools to realize groups’ subjective interests, namely, compensation and not being evicted. They were negotiation tools offered in exchange for Jokowi’s willingness to resolve the issues the groups faced. This indicates a further, self-centered, dimension of the volunteer movements. Contrary to the argument promoted by Marcus Mietzner (2015) that Jokowi’s magnetism and leadership style—described as “technocratic populism”—was sufficient to explain the extraordinary number of volunteers backing him in the 2014 presidential election, these two cases indicate that movements were more self-centered—focused on groups’ own self-interests. Though not explicitly stated during research, it is apparent that these volunteer movements emerged from a rational calculation by KLM and PWSS regarding the potential of a Jokowi victory. In short, Jokowi was supported because he promised victory, and through his election these groups’ own issues could be addressed.

Third, KLM and PWSS had some similar characteristics: both were movements of marginalized groups specifically targeted at resolving the issues they faced. Both used similar approaches and received support from the same national networks of CSOs. In terms of achievement, however, they differed significantly: PWSS was much more successful than KLM. This can be attributed to PWSS’s higher level of internal cohesion as well as its greater capacity. In both cohesion and capacity, PWSS greatly outpaced KLM in its mobilization.

Finally, both cases showed that a lack of finances, spare time, and civic skills—all important elements of volunteering—was a serious problem for volunteer groups of marginalized peoples. The idea that spare time was (hypothetically) available to lower-class volunteers was shown to be incorrect; spare time remained a rare commodity. Volunteers had to use their time for one of two non-overlapping activities: activities that satisfied their own individual, corporeal hunger, or activities of a political nature that could help them realize their collective goals.

Accepted: December 9, 2016


I would like to express my gratitude to Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Gadjah Mada University and to Power Welfare Democracy Project, Department of Politics and Government, Gadjah Mada University in providing financial support for field research. I would like to thank my colleagues Dr. Amalinda Savirani and Dr. Haryanto for their valuable comments, and Iqbal Basyari and Umi Lestari for their assistance during field research.


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1) Volunteer movements are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. In the lead-up to the 1999 general election, supporters of the PDI-P collaborated to erect gardu (meeting places) and communications posts for the PDI-P alongside strategic roads throughout Indonesia, from the cities to the villages (Abidin 2007, 16).

Volunteerism has emerged also in movements against the weakening of the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK, Commission for the Eradication of Corruption). These include the Cicak Lawan Buaya (Geckos against Crocodiles) support movement for Bibit Samat Riyanto and Chandra Hamzah (two KPK leaders who were detained by the police in 2009) and Save KPK in 2012. In 2009, Koin Keadilan untuk Prita (Coins of Justice for Prita), which provided support to Prita Mulyasari in her court case against Omni International Hospital, was established. This movement, an initiative of the Langsat Network, mobilized volunteers from a variety of backgrounds and parts of Indonesia to establish communications posts and collect coins (Ventura 2010).

In a local electoral context, volunteer movements—particularly those supporting Jokowi and Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok)—were prominent during Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial elections. The work of these volunteers was not limited to campaigning for Jokowi–Ahok; it also included funding the campaign through the sale of plaid shirts and souvenirs, such as Jokowi–Ahok key chains.

2) Since Reformasi, an increasing number of CSOs have emerged in Indonesia. Data from the Institute for Applied Economic and Social Research and Education (LP3ES) indicate that in 2001 there were only 426 CSOs. Six years later that number had increased to 2,646, according to data from the SMERU Research Institute. In July 2013, the Ministry of Domestic Affairs recorded 139,957 CSOs in Indonesia; these were under the purview of the Ministry of Domestic Affairs (65,577), Ministry of Social Affairs (25,406), Ministry of Law and Human Rights (48,866), and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (108). This number does not, however, include the numerous local-level CSOs (Adam and Yulika 2013).

3) During the New Order, CSOs were concentrated in Jakarta and other major cities (Eldridge 1988; 1989). Since 2001, they have become more widespread. A number can be found in border regions such as Papua and Aceh, as well as East and West Nusa Tenggara. Data from SMERU indicate that these four regions were home to 130, 223, 124, and 136 CSOs respectively in the first six years of Reformasi, compared to the 292, 224, and 209 for Jakarta, West Java, and East Java. This indicates that CSOs have become national in scope, rather than limited to Java.

4) A survey conducted by the Lembaga Survey Indonesia (LSI, Indonesian Survey Institute) between September 9 and 15, 2009 indicated that public trust in political parties had reached a low of 36.3 percent, compared to trust in the bureaucracy (40.3 percent), parliament (45 percent), and mass media (55.5 percent). Three years later, the level of public trust in political parties had yet to increase. LSI’s 2012 survey indicated that political parties were considered the most likely to commit corruption, as compared to institutions such as parliament, the state attorney’s office, the police, the president, the KPK, and the Badan Pemeriksa Keuangan (BPK, Audit Board of the Republic of Indonesia). The 2013 Global Corruption Barometer for Indonesia found parliament and political parties to be perceived by the general populace as corrupt institutions. Parliament was considered the second-most corrupt, whereas political parties were ranked fourth (Transparency Indonesia, December 3, 2013). A survey conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in February 2012 indicated that societal support for political parties had decreased because voters were disappointed by parties’ performance. Informants considered the parties to be tools used by the political elites to attain power and control over available resources (CSIS Survey 2012).

The lack of trust in governmental institutions was clearly recorded also in social media. One common joke went that a bus carrying all of Indonesia’s members of parliament fell off a cliff. When the police came, all of the passengers had already been buried. When local residents explained what had happened, the police asked “Are you sure that they were all dead? To the point you buried them?” The residents immediately replied, “Well, some screamed that they were still alive. But as you know, we can’t trust anything they say.”

5) Gultom, the coordinating secretary of the Tim Koordinasi Relawan Nasional Jokowi–JK (National Volunteer Coordination Team for Jokowi–JK), claimed that there were approximately 1,289 volunteer groups throughout Indonesia, consisting of an estimated 1–1.5 million people. This figure is based on the declarations of volunteer status released by the team’s office. Many, however, did not register, and thus this is estimated to be only a third of all of the volunteers.

Among the organizations established to support Jokowi were the Seknas Jokowi (National Secretariat for Jokowi), found in 30 provinces and including in its network subgroups such as Seknas Perempuan (National Secretariat for Women) covering women volunteers, Seknas Muda (National Secretariat for Youths) covering youth and student volunteers, Seknas Tani (National Secretariat for Farmers), and Serikat Petani Indonesia (Indonesian Farmers Alliance). Other volunteer groups included the Barisan Relawan Jokowi Presiden (Volunteer Brigade for President Jokowi), Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (Alliance of Archipelagic Adat Societies), KSP Prodjo (Prodjo Savings and Loan), Rumah Koalisi Indonesia Hebat (Coalition Home for a Great Indonesia), Kawan Jokowi (Friends of Jokowi), Koalisi Anak Muda dan Relawan Jokowi (Coalition of Youths and Jokowi Volunteers, including such groups of volunteers as HAMI [Indonesian Association of Young Lawyers], JASMEV [Jokowi Advance Social Media Voluntary], JKW4P [Jokowi 4 Pembangunan, Jokowi for Development], Jokowi Centre Indonesia, Jokowi4ME, REMAJA [Relawan Masyarakat Jakarta, Jakartan Social Volunteers]), and GEN A), ALMISBAT (Aliansi Masyarakat Sipil untuk Indonesia Hebat, Alliance of Civil Society for a Great Indonesia), Aliansi Rakyat Merdeka (Alliance of Independent Society), Relawan Buruh Sahabat Jokowi (Labor Volunteers Friends of Jokowi), Laskar Rakyat Jokowi (People’s Troops for Jokowi), Komunitas Sahabat Jokowi (Friends of Jokowi Community), Gema Jokowi (Societal Aspirations Movement for Jokowi), POSPERA (Posko Perjuangan Rakyat, Communications Posts for the People’s Struggle), BRPJ4P (Barisan Rakyat Pendukung Jokowi For President, Brigade of Supporters for Jokowi for President), Jaringan Masyarakat Urban (JAMU, Network of Urban Society), Ayo Majukan Indonesia (Let’s Develop Indonesia), Forum Rakyat Nasional (National People’s Forum), Barisan Jokowi untuk RI (Jokowi for Indonesia Brigade), GEMA JKW4P-7 (Gema Masyarakat Jokowi For President Ke-7, People’s Movement for Jokowi as the 7th President), Komunitas Kasih Matraman Raya (Caring Community of Matraman Raya), Eksponen 96–98 Pro Mega Perjuangan (Exponents 96–98 for Pro Mega Struggles), Alumni ITB Pendukung Jokowi (Alumni of the Bandung Institute of Technology for Jokowi), Alumni Trisakti Pendukung Jokowi (Alumni of Trisakti University for Jokowi), Blusukan Jokowi (Meeting the Grassroots with Jokowi), Komunitas Artis Sinetron Laga (Community of Soap Opera Performers), Pondok Jokowi Presidenku (Lodge for Jokowi, My President), Gerakan Masyarakat Bangkep (Bangkep Social Movement), Keroncong JK4P (Keroncong for Jokowi, for President), FORPERTA, Barisan Relawan Nasional, Gerakan Relawan Jokowi Cimanggin 14 (GRJWC14, Cimanggin 14 Volunteer Movement for Jokowi), and Barisan Pendukung Jokowi (Brigade of Jokowi Supporters). Interview with Gultom, August 14, 2014.

6) Volunteers who distributed flyers were given UAH150 ($6.04 per day), the lowest rate available. Those propagandizing in the streets also received little remuneration, UAH200–250 ($8.06–$10.07) per month. Door-knocker volunteers received UAH3,500–4,000 a month ($140.99–$161.13 per day). They were employed during certain periods of time and were maintained despite being very aggressive in completing their tasks. The gangs managed a small number of door knockers and were paid UAH5,500–7,000 per month ($221.55–$281.97 per day). Above them were the people tasked with supervising and auditing the effectiveness of the work structure below them; they received UAH6,000–8,000 per month ($241.69–$322.26 per day).

7) Aburizal Bakrie served as the chairman of Golkar from October 9, 2009 to December 31, 2015. When the Lapindo mudflow began, he was serving as the coordinating minister for social prosperity (December 7, 2005 to October 21, 2009).

The Banjar Panji-1 Well is a gas exploration well owned by Lapindo Brantas. The owner of this company is the Bakrie Group, a conglomerate established by Achmad Bakrie in 1942. Aburizal Bakrie, the son of Achmad Bakrie, led the Bakrie Group from 1992 to 2004.

8) This view holds that the Lapindo mudflow is man-made and was created by the activities of Lapindo Brantas, which had conducted drilling in Renokenongo Village, Sidoarjo. Owing to a technical error during drilling—a casing was used that was too short for the drill—materials from within the earth began to spew to the surface. The technical term, which has since become popular, is “underground blowout.” Davies, for instance, concludes that the hot mud began spewing to the surface as a result of the drilling activities at Banjar Panji-1 Well.

9) Bosman (2013) views the Sidoarjo mudflow as an industrial disaster and argues that it cannot be categorized as a natural disaster. This disaster, he argues, occurred because Lapindo decided to deliberately not follow industry security procedures. He considers the issue to involve collusion, conflict of interest, and politicization, particularly given Aburizal Bakrie’s ministerial position.

10) Philip Drake understands the Sidoarjo mudflow from a socio-ecological perspective. The mudflow’s handling indicates human failure in the management of ecological needs and in mitigating social and environmental losses. It also positions humans as being the ones to bear risks. He argues that there is an urgent need to develop a new conceptual understanding, which he terms “ecological criticism.” This perspective, he says, is necessary for the interrogation of power (capital structures, capitalist ideology, and relations between humans and nature) as well as the construction of complex and intricate networks through ecological interactions.

11) This group holds that the earthquake that struck the city of Yogyakarta, in central Java, on May 27, 2006 (two days before the Lapindo mudflow first erupted) either led to the creation of a new fracture or reactivated an old fracture, thus allowing the hot mud to flow to the surface.

12) Presidential Regulation 14 of 2007 limits Lapindo’s liability to the area recorded by the MAA of March 22, 2007. The remainder is the responsibility of the government (Article 15, Paragraph 5). As the mudflow has spread, the government has revised this decree to expand its area of responsibility. These revisions have been done through Presidential Regulations 48 of 2008, 40 of 2009, 68 of 2011, 37 of 2012, and 33 of 2013.

13) Payment was divided as follows: 20 percent in the 2008 fiscal year, 30 percent in the 2009 fiscal year, 20 percent in the 2010 fiscal year, 20 percent in the 2011 fiscal year, and 10 percent in the 2012 fiscal year.

14) On April 30, 2015, a few months after being inaugurated, Jokowi passed Presidential Decree 11 of 2015 regarding the Establishment of the Team for the Speedy Resolution of Land and Building Sales for the Victims of the Sidoarjo Mudflow in the Area Recorded in the MAA of March 22, 2007. This was followed on June 26, 2015 by Presidential Regulation 76 of 2015 regarding the Giving of Anticipatory Funds for the Sale of Land and Buildings owned by the Victims of the Sidoarjo Mudflow in the Area Recorded in the MAA of March 22, 2007. Mechanics for the payment of Lapindo’s obligations were set through the publication of the Project Content Form for the 999.99 Budget of the BPLS Work Unit on June 26, 2015 (Velix 2015).

15) Organizations that have advocated for victims of the mudflow include Jaringan Advokasi Tambang (Network for Mining Advocacy), Komisi untuk Orang Hilang dan Korban Tindak Kekerasan (Commission for Disappeared Persons and Victims of Violence), Koalisi Rakyat untuk Hak Atas Air (People’s Coalition for Rights to Water), Koalisi Rakyat untuk Keadilan Perikanan (People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice), Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Indonesian Environmental Forum), Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (Consortium for Agrarian Reform), the Indonesia Human Rights Committee for Social Justice, Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation), Lembaga Studi dan Kajian Advokasi HAM (ELSAM, Institute for the Study and Research of Human Rights Advocacy), and Perkumpulan untuk Pembaharuan Hukum Berbasis Masyarakat dan Ekologis (HuMa, Association for Legal Renewal Based in Society and Ecology).

16) Pagar Rekontrak was the first organization to organize the victims of the mudflow, many of whom were residents of Renokenongo Village. It was relatively easy for these residents to work together because they were gathered in the same refugee camp, in Pasar Baru. Pagar Rekontrak rejected the repayment scheme outlined in the presidential regulation because it felt that by receiving money for renting homes, residents would be separated; this, it argued, would make it more difficult for residents to consolidate themselves in future fights for their rights. Furthermore, they felt that the initial payment of 20 percent was insufficient to help residents start new lives, particularly since the remaining 80 percent would only be paid 23 months later. Pagar Rekontrak demanded sale of their land, rather than the 20%/80% system offered, and for Lapindo to prepare 30 hectares of land for residents to build together in unity rather than be divided. These demands were reduced over time, to 50 percent down payment and 30 hectares of land. These reduced demands led to the formation of a splinter group, Pagar Rekorlap. Ultimately, owing to their weak bargaining position, both Pagar Rekontrak and Pagar Rekorlap agreed to a 20 percent down payment with a cash and resettlement scheme.

17) Lasbon Kapur consisted of victims who joined the 80 percent payment scheme offered by Minarak Lapindo Jaya (MLJ), a company established by Lapindo to handle compensation payments. This scheme involved resettlement in the Kahuripan Nirwana Villages Complex. MLJ offered several types of homes, and interested residents needed only to compare the value of 80 percent of their assets with the price of the home chosen. If they had greater assets, then the residents could receive the difference in cash. Most of this program’s participants were residents of the Tanggulangin Anggun Sejahtera Housing Complex.

18) Another 80 percent payment scheme offered by MLJ was cash and resettlement. This scheme was used for GKLL. Through this scheme, MLJ paid cash for the buildings that had been swallowed by mud. Compensation for land, meanwhile, was given through resettlement. The GKLL administration’s agreement with this scheme led to the group splitting into two factions, the 16 Perumtas Team, covering RW 16 in the Tanggulangin Anggun Sejahtera Housing Complex, and Gerakan Pendukung Perpres 14/2007 (Geppres, Movement in Support of Presidential Resolution 14/2007), which demanded cash and carry compensation.

19) The Mindi Communications Forum was established by residents of Mindi village to disseminate information and organize demonstrations. It was active between 2009 and 2011, before Mindi was included in the MAA by Presidential Regulation 68 of 2011.

20) These villages were not included in the MAA as specified by Presidential Regulation 14 of 2007 or Presidential Regulation 48 of 2008.

21) UPC involvement began in the early phases of the disaster. On December 26, 2006, seven months after the mudflow began (and long before KLM was established), UPC sent two members from its Makassar and Surabaya secretariats to “observe the situation and learn about the social and environmental problem created by the mud volcano” (Mutjaba et al. 2009, 8). Observations indicate that UPC established UPLINK Porong as part of its UPLINK Indonesia network to organize communities and create a sense of unity among victims. UPLINK’s first focus was the evacuees living in the market, most of whom came from Renokenongo. The organization provided cloth to serve as partitions between families, assisted in the public kitchen, and worked with victim communities. These market residents later established Pagar Rekontrak. UPLINK had no office but mingled with residents. It pushed for victims to organize demonstrations, introduced them to other concerned organizations, and taught them how to interact with the government. UPLINK did not limit its activities to the local level. In December 2007 it demonstrated together with mudflow victims in front of the National Parliament Building and Presidential Palace, as well as the offices of the Social Ministry, UN Habitat, and the National Commission for Human Rights (Mutjaba et al. 2009).

22) Interview with Manarif, a member of KLM, Sidoarjo, November 29, 2014.

23) Law No. 24 of 2013 regarding the Amendment of Law No. 23 of 2006 regarding Civic Administration stipulates that birth certificates may be received automatically only within a year. To report a birth after this, residents must go through a legal process and pay a fine.

24) Interview with Manarif, a member of KLM, Sidoarjo, November 29, 2014.

25) The four villages that are still active members of KLM are Penatarsewu, Kalidawir, Sentul, and Gempolsari.

26) Interview with Said, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 8, 2014.

27) Included in this network were the Jaringan Rakyat Miskin Jakarta (JRMK Jakarta, Network of Poor Peoples, Jakarta), Jaringan Rakyat Miskin Kota Lampung (JRMK Lampung, Network of Poor Peoples, Lampung), Gerakan Rakyat Miskin Bersatu Kendari (Gerimis Kendari, Movement of United Poor Peoples, Kendari), Komite Perjuangan Rakyat Miskin Makasar (KPRM Makasar, Committee for the Struggle of the Impoverished, Makassar), Aceh, Pare-Pare, and the Urban Poor Consortium (UPC).

28) The Indonesia Sehat Program, first, guarantees poor residents healthcare services through the BPJS Kesehatan National Health Insurance program; second, it expands the scope of financial assistance programs to persons suffering from social prosperity issues and the children of financial aid recipients; and, third, it gives the extra benefits of preventative treatment and early detection.

29) The Indonesia Pintar program is intended to increase citizens’ participation in primary and secondary education, increase the rate of continued education (as marked by a decrease in dropout rates), reduce the gap in education between poor and rich residents as well as men and women, and increase secondary students’ preparedness to enter the workforce or continue their studies.

30) Warsito stated, “At the beginning, the ones who asked us to support Jokowi were UPC. We supported Jokowi for our own purposes. Because we’ve always been threatened by forced evictions, we had to have the nerve to make a political contract with Jokowi. The stakes, the guarantee, was that we would give our voices to support Jokowi” (Pada awalnya yang mengajak kita mendukung Jokowi itu UPC. Kita mendukung Jokowi karena ada pamrih. Karena kita itu selalu terancam penggusuran, kita harus berani kontrak politik dengan Jokowi. Taruhannya, jaminannya, kita memberi suara untuk mendukung Jokowi). Interview with Warsito, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 12, 2014.

31) Shortly before they formally became candidates in the 2004 presidential election, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Jusuf Kalla signed a political contract with the coalition of political parties backing them.

32) During the Surabaya mayoral elections in 2010, PWSS declared its support for the running mates it considered to be pro-people. The presidium of PWSS, Hadiono, stated that this declaration showed that the people of Stren Kali maintained the right to determine their own fate through the mayoral elections in Surabaya. The political contract presented by the people of Stren Kali stated that the new mayor had to renovate the kampung in a participatory manner, such as through land certification; create jobs for and protect the employment of the poor populace, including street vendors, pedicab drivers, day laborers, housekeepers, scavengers, beggars, and street children; develop the city without any forced evictions and keeping in mind the area and its local wisdom; and guarantee and provide residents with basic rights such as 12 years of education, free and quality health care, and clean water. PWSS offered 200,000 votes if the mayoral candidate would sign the political contract. Each resident of Stren Kali was believed to be capable of drawing 60–100 votes a day to support this movement. In the election, PWSS signed its political contract with the independent running mates Fitradjaja Purnama and Naen Soeyono. During the gubernatorial election, PWSS made a political contract with Khofifah Indar Parawangsa, who ultimately lost to Soekarwo. Interview with Said, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 6, 2014.

33) Interview with Gatot Subroto, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 17, 2014.

34) Original: Kontrak politik ini semacam pilar, bagaimana berpartisipasi dalam politik. Berpartisipasi dalam politik artinya kita harus terlibat dalam urusan-urusan politik. Kita tidak hanya menjadi kantong suara. Kalau menjadi kantong suara saja ya itu hanya jadi sasaran politik uang. Karena kita terlibat, otomatis kita harus mengajukan sesuatu ke calon, yaitu berupa kontrak.

35) Jokowi was formally presented as a candidate in the 2014 presidential election by the PDI-P on March 14, 2014.

36) Gatot Subroto, an informant, stated, “At the year-end meeting of UPLINK, 11–15 December 2013 in Jakarta, there was a deal that if we wanted to participate in politics, to play a role as residents and citizens in politics, we had to put forth the name of a presidential candidate. A lot of names were put forth then. Some supported Prabowo, others supported a figure from the PKS [Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, Prosperous Justice Party]. There was debate. If we were suggesting candidates, then of course there’d be prerequisites for would-be presidential candidates. So we tried to clarify what those prerequisites were. We agreed that the criteria would be they didn’t violate human rights, the party was nationalistic, and it wasn’t anyone from the military. At the year-end meeting we invited Eva Sundari, who happened to be a member of parliament and the funding coordinator for the UPC. She was the first to put forth Jokowi’s name. At the time, in PDI-P, there was internal debate over Jokowi’s candidacy” (Pada waktu Pertemuan Akhir Tahun [PAT] UPLINK, 11-15 December 2013 di Jakarta, ada kesepakatan kalau kita ingin berpartisipasi dalam politik, memainkan peran warga masyarakat dan warga negara dalam politik, kita harus mengusulkan nama calon Presiden. Banyak nama muncul waktu itu, ada yang mendukung Prabowo, ada yang mendukung tokoh dari PKS, sempat ada perdebatan. Kalau kita mengusulkan nama, otomoatis ada kriteria persyaratan calon presiden. Lalu kita mencoba mengklarifikasi persyaratan calon presiden, waktu itu disepakati persyaratannya, tidak melanggar Hak Asasi Manusia, partainya yang nasionalis, tidak memilih calon dari militer. Pada waktu PAT itu kita mendatangkan Eva Sundari, kebetulan dia ini orang DPR dan koordinator funding UPC, dia yang pertama kali mengusulkan Jokowi. Waktu itu di PDI Perjuangan, di internalnya terjadi pro kontra pencalonan Jokowi). Interview, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 17, 2014.

37) Data from the General Elections Commission for the parliamentary election in Sidoarjo indicate that of the 975,814 valid votes, Nasdem received 3.89 percent (38,036); PKB received the most, at 27.01 percent (263,630); PKS received 6.2 percent (60,539); PDI-P received the second-most, at 15.56 percent (151,863); Golkar received 6.98 percent (68,117); Gerindra received the third-most, at 14.09 percent (137,495); the Democrats received 7.41 percent (72,345); PAN received 12.22 percent (119,338); PPP received 1.74 percent (16,993); Hanura received 2.68 percent (26,208); PBB received 1.51 percent (14,795); and PKPI received 0.66 percent (6,455). In the Surabaya municipal parliamentary election, of the 1,152,098 valid votes, Nasdem received 4.64 percent (53,496); PKB received 10.39 percent (119,741); PKS received 5.98 percent (68,936); PDI-P received the most, at 30.05 percent (346,320); Golkar received 5.46 percent (62,943); Gerindra received the second-most, at 12.4 percent (142,879); the Democrats received 12.17 percent (140,267); PAN received 6.38 percent (73,543); PPP received 5.8 percent (66,928); Hanura received 5.53 percent (63,807); PBB received 0.63 percent (7,272); and PKPI received 0.51 percent (5,966).

38) “We went to Jokowi’s official home and handed him our political contract. Would he sign a political contract with us? After he said he would, we worked. At the time we invited Jokowi too: ‘Please come on 29 May to commemorate eight years of the Lapindo mudflow’” (Kita ke rumah dinas Jokowi itu menyodorkan kontrak politik ke Jokowi, mau nggak dia kontrak politik dengan kita? Setelah dia mengatakan mau, ya kita kerja. Kita pada waktu itu juga mengundang Jokowi, mohon datang 29 Mei memperingati delapan tahun lumpur Lapindo). Interview with Warsito, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 15, 2014.

39) In 2012, Aburizal Bakrie declared himself a presidential candidate for the 2014 election. This decision led to heated polemics within Golkar, the party that he led. The continued eruption of the Sidoarjo mudflow was the most prominent issue raised by opponents, and this affected Aburizal Bakrie’s electability (Tika 2013; Wayan 2013; Akuntono 2014). A survey conducted between June 20 and 30, 2012 by the Saiful Mujani Research Centre, which reached 1,230 respondents from throughout Indonesia, found that 80 percent of respondents knew of the Lapindo disaster, 65.9 percent knew that drilling was the cause of the disaster, 43.7 percent said that the owner of Lapindo was the Bakrie family, and 89.4 percent felt that the family should take responsibility. Bakrie’s popularity reached 70.1 percent, but only 4.4 percent of respondents said that they would vote for him (Liauw 2012).

40) Interview with Abdul Jabar, Member of KLM, November 27, 2014.

41) Interview with Gatot Subroto. (Original: Koin perubahan merupakan upaya untuk menangkis isu atau anggapan bahwa seolah-olah rakyat miskin itu bisa dibeli suaranya. Lewat koin perubahan kita berusaha menangkis permainan politik yang seperti itu, yang rakyat butuhkan itu aspirasinya didengar oleh wakilnya. Yang diinginkan rakyat miskin itu perubahan.)

42) Interview with Komang, treasurer of PWSS, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 13, 2014.

43) Interview with Komang, treasurer of PWSS, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 17, 2014.

44) Interview with Gatot Subroto, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 15, 2014.

45) Interview with Warsito, Kampung Baru, Stren Kali, December 15, 2014. (Original: Pengecatan ini merupakan pembuktian, bahwa warga Stren Kali tidak main-main, apapun yang terjadi meskipun diusik lawan, pilihan kita Jokowi, ya Jokowi. Bayangkan kalau sampai Jokowi kalah, apa yang akan terjadi dengan kita, relawan Prabowo pasti nyerang kita, ini kan bahaya sebenarnya. Alhamdulillah menang.)

46) Interview with Manarif, member of KLM, Sidoarjo, November 26, 2014.

47) Original: Metode ngerap itu dasarnya seperti orang nyanyi rap, orang saling melempar pertanyaan, mengemukakan argumen, seperti sedang memasarkan sesuatu, apa yang akan diomongkan itu poinnya sudah ada, tujuannya untuk meyakinkan calon pemilih agar ikut mendukung calon kita, ini dilakukan berulang-ulang sampai orang itu ikut kita. Ini seperti sebab akibat, misal, A: Kenapa memilih Jokowi? B: Karena saya nggak suka Prabowo. A: Kenapa ibu nggak suka Prabowo? Nah kalau sudah kena begitu otomatis kita kasih bahannya, kontrak politik ini. Kalau nggak ada bahannya kan nggak mungkin kita mau jual. Kontrak politik ini selalu kita bawa saat ngerap sebagai alat penawarannya. Kalau sudah kena, kita bilang ke beliau, “Mohon maaf Ibu kita besok mau datang kesini lagi.” Lalu kita agendakan untuk membuat pertemuan besar, kita kumpulkan. Waktu itu kita lakukan sewaktu buka bersama.

48) Interview with Manarif, member of KLM, Sidoarjo, November 28, 2014.




Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Living under the State and Storms: The History of Blood Cockle Aquaculture in Bandon Bay, Thailand

Nipaporn Ratchatapattanakul,* Watanabe Kazuya,** Okamoto Yuki,***
and Kono Yasuyuki

* นิภาพร รัชตพฒั นากลุ , Department of History, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University, 2 Prachan Road, Phra Nakorn, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Corresponding author’s e-mail: ratchatapat[at]

** 渡邉一哉, Department of Food, Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Agriculture, Yamagata University, 1-4-12 Kojirakawa-machi, Yamagata 990-8560, Japan

*** 岡本侑樹, Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Yoshida-Honmachi, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8501, Japan

河野泰之, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_3

Bandon Bay, on the east coast of peninsular Thailand, has seen rapid development of coastal aquaculture since the 1970s. It has also seen the emergence of conflict between fishermen and aquaculture farmers over competing claims on marine resources. This article examines the roles of state initiatives, environmental changes, and natural disasters in the development of these conflicts.

Blood cockle aquaculture was introduced to Bandon Bay through state policies that incentivized in-migration and the establishment of “cooperative communities.”

After significant damage due to natural disasters in the late 1980s, large-scale government-sponsored rehabilitation projects and an associated influx of capital gave aquaculture a “great leap forward.” Environmental changes and government policies triggered adaptations by farmers that led to an expansion of cultivation into new—and illegal—areas, and a transformation of cultivation from small-scale to large-scale farms.

The expansion of the aquaculture area brought about conflicts over the use of coastal resources between aquaculture farmers and coastal fishermen. Yet these two communities that had developed from agricultural settlement in the early 1980s had no traditional means of negotiation and bargaining to resolve the conflicts and therefore relied on deep connections to the bureaucratic system rather than relations with each other.

Keywords: coastal aquaculture, Bandon Bay, natural disaster, blood cockle, pollution, climate change


Coastal aquaculture around Bandon Bay, in Surat Thani Province of Southern Thailand, developed in the context of state development projects implemented as part of the government’s anti-Communism policies. The government further promoted intensive aquaculture when neighboring countries declared a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone off their coasts at the end of the 1970s.1) Since then, the Bay has become the main aquaculture area of Thailand and, according to 2000–04 aquaculture production statistics, one of the most concentrated aquaculture areas in Southeast Asia (Campbell 2011, 31). The main products of the Bay can be divided into two groups according to the method and area of cultivation. The first is intensive cultivation of marine shrimp, or prawns, in ponds constructed on land along the riversides and coast. Production depends on these controlled and artificial settings in order to ensure a stable supply for the export market. The second is extensive aquaculture in natural marine settings that relies not only on the local climate and water quality but also on natural food organisms (ibid., 6). In Bandon Bay, this extensive aquaculture includes the cultivation of blood cockles (hoi kraeng, Anadara nodifera, Anadara granosa), oysters (hoi takrom, hoi nangrom), and green mussels (hoi maeng phu).

Pond cultivation of shrimp accounted for more than half of the total aquaculture area in Bandon Bay during 2000–10 (Fig. 1). Blood cockle production was ranked second after shrimp.2) Unlike shrimp cultivation, which is an export-oriented industry, blood cockles are produced mainly for the domestic market. Although Surat Thani has a significant share of the domestic market, blood cockles are not a major product for the province,3) and the government does not consider it significant because it is not an export product. As cockle cultivation relies heavily on local climate and water quality, cockle farmers have to adapt farm management to minimize the risks from climate variability and pollution. They have expanded their farms 3 kilometers out from the shore into areas outside the zone legally approved by the government. This expansion has challenged the marine usage rights of poor local fishermen, as rich local fishermen are able to illegally convert common marine areas into their own private assets thanks to their political influence. As a result, conflicts between artisanal fishermen and blood cockle farmers over the use of resources have repeatedly erupted in recent years, not only in Bandon Bay but also in the Bay of Pattani and Phetchaburi Province.



Fig. 1 Cultivation Area by Species in Bandon Bay, 2000–10

Sources: Computed from annual statistics from the Department of Fisheries.


Studies on the development of coastal aquaculture in Thailand focus primarily on conflicts over coastal resource management. Thai academicians pay attention to the ways in which sociocultural norms of local communities can enhance the roles of local actors in dealing with resource conflicts. This analysis framework gained popularity as a tool in case studies of water and forest resource management in Northern Thailand. As for studies on coastal resources, most emphasize case studies of local fishery communities in the lower southern parts of Thailand, including the east (Gulf of Thailand) and west (Andaman Sea) sides. Such communities are found in Songkhla, Pattani, and Phagnga (Anan 2000; Chalita 2000; Watthana 2001; Lertchai et al. 2003; Lertchai and Narit 2009).

Among studies on coastal aquaculture, studies on coastal shrimp farming are extraordinarily ubiquitous. That is because shrimp is the most commonly farmed seafood in coastal Thailand, and shrimp has been the export item that triggered the most widespread attention on the standardization of food safety when compared with other kinds of coastal aquaculture. Notably, most studies on coastal shrimp farming emphasize sustainability. Since the origination of shrimp farming in the early 1970s and throughout the next four decades, shrimp farmers have employed various cultivation strategies and technical innovations to expand farms and products. However, these methods have not been able to cope with problems such as water pollution and land-use conflicts. As a result, current studies tend to focus on ways to manage structural problems within the Thai natural resource management system, such as aquaculture zoning and water resource management (Szuster 2006). Likewise, this analytical approach has been applied to the study of shellfish resources in Ban Don Bay, as can be seen from the study by A. Jarernpornnipat et al. (2004).

This study focuses on sociopolitical aspects of the conflicts over coastal resource management, based on the case study of blood cockle cultivation, which is highly dependent on natural factors. Due to its dependence on natural factors, blood cockle cultivation is vulnerable to environmental change. Understanding this vulnerability will help us ascertain ways to make blood cockle cultivation sustainable. Moreover, most aquaculture communities in the Bay are relatively new, having been established via state policies initiated in the 1970s. As a consequence, the sociopolitical organization of this particular area is dissimilar to that of long-established communities in Northern and lower Southern Thailand.

The few studies on resource conflict in the Bay argue that traditional economic activities and community culture have been destroyed by capitalism.4) However, this argument oversimplifies the issue and does not sufficiently examine the political and economic conditions and historical context during the 1970s and 1980s, specifically the impact of state development projects on local communities. Through these projects, coastal lands were distributed to non-local and landless farmers, creating new aquaculture communities. This ignited new conflicts between established fishing communities and the newcomers.

A mixed-method approach was employed to examine the main object of this study. The main methodology of this study is the historical approach, which can help us understand the sociopolitical aspects of resource management through a local economic and environmental history. Thai national archives and official documents were perused to study state policies and environmental statistics. Natural science research reports on the environment of the Bay were reviewed to gauge environmental changes during four decades beginning in the 1970s. Basic field face-to-face interviews were conducted with 10 farmers in the Bay from 2011 to 2015 to find out their personal aquaculture experiences, farm operations, and strategies to reduce the effects of pollution and natural disasters.

This study examines the dynamics of blood cockle cultivation in the Bay from 1979, the first year that the government assigned “cultivable areas” in the Bay, focusing on three factors: the state’s aquaculture projects, environmental changes, and the adaptations by blood cockle farmers. The article is divided into four parts. The first traces the background of cockle production in the Bay. Historical statistics of the size of cultivated areas and yields are analyzed to ascertain trends in production. The second part examines government programs that have played a key role in triggering the production of cockles in the Bay and their results. The third section focuses on the construction of cockle seedbeds, as a result of government intervention, which sparked new conflicts in the Bay. The last part examines the adaptations of farmers to state regulations and environmental changes.

I Background of Blood Cockle Production in the Bay


According to the Cabinet minutes of March 1953, General Phibun Songkhram, the prime minister of Thailand at the time, ordered the minister of agriculture to start a project to promote intensive cultivation of crabs, shellfish, blood cockles, and oysters. Four coastal areas on the west and east sides of the peninsula were chosen as the pioneer sites (NA [3] SR 0201.31/56). Until the early 1970s, however, blood cockle cultivation was confined mostly to Phetchaburi and Samut Songkhram Provinces, where natural blood cockle seedbeds had formed around the mouth of the Mae Klong and Phetchaburi Rivers.

In the first half of the 1970s, the release of waste from sugar factories into these rivers made the natural cockle seedbeds unsuitable for production (Siri 1983). Due to the resulting decline in blood cockle production, a group of farmers in Satun Province, with the cooperation of Malaysian farmers, took the opportunity to introduce a Malaysian style of capital-intensive cockle farming by sowing cockle spat5) in the Tam Malang Bay in Mueang District, Satun Province. This type of cockle farming was conducted on a large scale (farms of 80–350 acres) and was costly because of the need to purchase the spat and transport it from Perak, Malaysia. Despite the costs, the method expanded to other provinces in Southern Thailand, including Trang, Ranong, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and Surat Thani, on both sides of the peninsula (ibid.). The 1967 Thailand Marine Fishery Census records one household in Bandon Bay cultivating blood cockles on 2.37 acres (Krom Pramong 1968, 150), indicating that the transfer of techniques did take place at the individual level even before 1970.


Although some farmers had experimented with the intensive method of blood cockle cultivation, only in 1979 did the Department of Fisheries (DOF) declare 7,779 acres of coastal waters in Kanchanadit and Thachang Districts as cultivable areas for aquaculture.6) By 2007, the DOF had declared 17,857 acres in the Bay as cultivable areas for aquaculture (Fig. 2).



Fig. 2 Areas Declared as Cultivable in Bandon Bay

Source: Samnakngan Pramong Changwat Surat Thani (2010).


According to a 2010 survey by the Surat Thani Provincial Fisheries Office, however, a total of 31,685 acres of fish and shellfish were actually cultivated in the Bay, meaning that 21,037 acres were cultivated outside the legally allowed area of 17,857 acres (Fig. 3) (Samnakngan Pramong Changwat Surat Thani 2010).



Fig. 3 Coastal Aquaculture in Bandon Bay, 2010

Source: Adapted from the Map of Samnakngan Pramong Changwat Surat Thani (2010).


The dark gray, light gray, and dot marine cultivated areas in Fig. 3 show bivalve mollusk cultivation. The dot area in Mueang District became a cultivated area after 2006, when artificial blood cockle seedbeds were successfully constructed. Figure 4 shows that blood cockle has had the major share of bivalve mollusk production in the Bay in terms of cultivated area since 1991 and in terms of yield since 1998. Figure 5 shows that over the period 1991–2010, blood cockle production increased more sharply in Surat Thani (Bandon Bay) than in the three other provinces. The figure also shows the year-to-year fluctuation in production.



Fig. 4 Production Yields and Cultivated Areas by Species in the Bay, 1991–2010

Sources: Computed from annual statistics from the Department of Fisheries.



Fig. 5 Blood Cockle Production in Four Major Provinces in Thailand, 1991–2010

Source: Computed from annual statistics from the Department of Fisheries.


Most cockle cultivation in the Bay is capital-intensive. According to interviews with farmers, they usually purchase the cockle seed from two main producing areas depending on the species (Anadara nodifera from Phetchaburi Province and Anadara granosa from northern Malaysia, especially Perak). Malaysia has occasionally prohibited cockle seed exports for local reasons, but Bay farmers are still able to purchase illegally imported seed from Malaysia through connections with local merchants.

Production Cycle

One cycle of cockle farming in the Bay lasts 18–24 months (Fig. 6). The beginning of the cycle depends on several conditions, such as the origin of the spat and the size of the sowing seed. Farmers decide on the seed size depending on their farm location, budget, cockle market prices, local climate, and so on. Seed sizes are measured by the number of seeds per kilogram. For example, a count of 10,000/kg means there are 10,000 cockle seeds per kilogram. A farmer can harvest 125 kilograms of market-size cockles (80 cockles per kilogram) from a farm sown with 10,000/kg seed and can harvest 3.75 kilograms of market-size cockles from 300/kg seed. Therefore, the large seed sizes are more economical. To cultivate the 10,000/kg seed, a farmer needs more capital and must have a nursery farm about 1–2 kilometers away from shore. A mortality rate of 30 percent is normal for cockle cultivation in the Bay.



Fig. 6 Cycle of Blood Cockle Farming in Bandon Bay

Sources: Interviews with various people engaged in blood cockle farming in Bandon, August 2011, August 2012, September 2013, February 2014, September 2014, and August 2015.


What factors contributed to the sharp fluctuation in yield and cultivated area in Bandon Bay? The next section examines the impact of government policies.

II Coastal Aquaculture Projects and the Settlement of Aquaculture Communities

The government’s projects in the Bay result from two different yet interrelated policies. The first includes projects aimed to promote cockle cultivation through the organization of pilot farms, local coastal aquaculture cooperatives, and local aquaculture communities. The second, which will be discussed in the next section, includes projects designed to overcome production constraints such as the lack of cockle seed in the Bay, the lack of investment funds, and the resistance of local artisanal fishermen to cockle cultivation.

According to DOF reports, the promotion of blood cockle cultivation was originally a project of import substitution. In 1970, the DOF applied for a loan from the Asian Development Bank for fisheries development projects, including the development of brackish water aquaculture (NA. K/P 6/2513/20). In 1971 a shrimp experimental unit, today’s Coastal Fisheries Research and Development Center, was established in Kanchanadit District, Surat Thani Province. In 1976, this center was promoted to the Brackish Water Fishery Station of Surat Thani. However, projects promoting blood cockle cultivation could not be launched immediately due to fear of local resistance. According to the 1947 Fisheries Act, artisanal fishermen had no rights to fish in areas that the DOF declared as cultivable for aquaculture, and hence fishermen often mounted opposition (Government Gazette 3, 64, 81–114). In practice, a person who wanted to apply for a cultivation permit needed to first negotiate with local residents. The final decision on the proclamation of cultivable areas was made by the DOF at the central government level (Siri 1983, 15). To avoid local resistance, in July 1976 a Land Settlement Cooperative was organized in Kanchanadit and Thachang Districts. The tenure of public lands, including the mangrove forest of these cooperatives, was transferred to the Cooperative Promotion Department (Krom Pramong 1980, 2). Under anti-Communism policies, numerous rural economic development projects were implemented in Southern Thailand at the same time.

Surat Thani in particular was a target area for development projects under the Fourth National Economic and Social Development Plan (1977–81). In an attempt to reduce local resistance, in 1976 cooperative communities (nikhom sahakon) were established in Thachang and Kanchanadit Districts and cooperative community lands were distributed both to local landless farmers and to newcomers (NA [8] MT Coastal areas around the Bay were developed for aquaculture beginning in 1980, when shrimp farm projects were promoted jointly by the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, and the Fourth Army. This was the first time that shrimp cultivation was promoted to farmers through the Cooperative Communities Office in Kanchanadit District (ibid.).

The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives started aquaculture development projects in the Bay with finance from a US$14 million loan agreement signed between the Asian Development Bank and the Ministry of Finance (Government Gazette 33, 96, 1067–1068). In February 1979, 7,779 acres of coastal land under land settlement cooperatives in Kanchanadit and Thachang Districts were declared as aquaculture cultivable areas. Any farmer who wanted to cultivate bivalve mollusks had to apply for a permit and pay a yearly cultivation tax of 80 baht per 0.4 acre. The permit gave the rights to cultivate and receive compensation for damages. However, because there was no natural seed supply in the locality, spat had to be purchased and transported from Phetchaburi and Malaysia at some expense. Although the mudflats of the Bay were suitable for blood cockle cultivation, the costs were high for local villagers because of the need to import spat. In late 1981, the DOF made available 958 acres of cultivable area for private investors to organize blood cockle pilot farms in Thachang District (Krom Pramong 1982, 9). A similar farm was set up in Chaiya District in 1982 after 791 acres were declared as cultivable for aquaculture (Thanasit 1994, 42). According to statistics from 1980 to 1987, between 958 and 1,085 acres of the cultivable areas were held by these pilot farms, which were used to study soil properties and ideal methods of cultivation (Chat et al. 1986). Almost all blood cockle cultivation in the Bay up until 1987 resulted from these DOF policies combined with funds from private investors.

Despite the promotion of blood cockle cultivation through the pilot farms, in 1987 only approximately 1,800 acres (oyster culture included) of the 8,567 acres of the declared areas were actually cultivated. In 1988, a Blood Cockle Cultivating Group Project was formed in 1988 through cooperation between the DOF, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), and local community leaders such as a village headman and an imam in Mueang District. The official objective of the project was to encourage artisanal fishermen to gain income from cultivating blood cockles. Because there were no natural seedbeds, blood cockle cultivation was not considered a natural fishery in the Bay at that time. According to the 1979 reports of the Community Development Department, the main income of villagers around the Bay came from agriculture. Villagers from seven subdistricts earned seasonal income from artisanal fishing. Only farmers in Thathong Subdistrict reported receiving income from oyster farming. In Phun Pin Subdistrict and Patthana Tambon Lilet District, located at the mouth of the Tapi River, more people were primarily engaged in fisheries between February and July when they were free from rice cultivation and there was no monsoon (NA [8] MT, 54).

In 1988, 70 artisanal fishermen joined the blood cockle project and obtained a loan from BAAC to purchase spat from Phetchaburi. The DOF allocated 395 acres of cultivable land in Kanchanadit District to implement the project. As the culture areas in the Bay were expanded, the number of farms rose to 37 in 1989. The project was opposed by some groups of local artisanal fishermen, especially from Li Let Subdistrict at the mouth of the Tapi River. Bamboo fences around the cockle farms blocked the fishermen from fishing in the cultivated areas (Thai Post, October 9, 1997, 12). Conflict between the artisanal fishermen and the blood cockle cultivators in the Bay emerged in the late 1980s.

In June 1993, a group of fishermen was organized as the Surat Thani Province Coastal Aquaculture Cooperative in order to promote “eco-coastal” aquaculture and reduce illegal fisheries (Sahakon Phulieng Satnam Chaifang Surat Thani c.2012, 1). The cooperative operated under the Coastal Fisheries Research and Development Center, which provided guidance on cultivation techniques and the purchase of spat. New aquaculture cultivable areas were declared in the Bay in 1987, 1989, and 1990. A decade after the first declaration, the legally declared cultivable areas had increased from 10,152 to 16,075 acres. Perhaps due to the founding of the cooperative, in 1993 the area actually cultivated increased from 1,800 to 2,862 acres and the number of farms increased three times from the previous year to 302.

Disaster Response

Between 1997 and 2010 the area and yield of blood cockle production fluctuated sharply (see Fig. 7). Due to severe monsoon flooding in October and November 1996, the cultivated areas declined dramatically—from 2,861 acres the previous year to 110 acres—and the yield decreased from 4,421 tons to 339 tons. Consequently, in 1997 the government provided a 195-million-baht low-interest loan fund to organize a Blood Cockle and Oyster Sustainable Cultivation Career Development Project in order to rehabilitate cultivation in the Bay. This five-year project, which was implemented by the Surat Thani Provincial Fisheries Office and the Surat Thani Coastal Fisheries Research and Development Center, provided loans and training for cockle cultivation and arranged the purchase of spat. Because members of the cooperative could apply for loans of up to 300,000 baht, the number of members jumped from 641 in 1997 to 1,372 in 1999 (ibid., 13). Most of the 35 cultivator groups were located in Kanchanadit District, with a few in Thachang and Chaiya Districts. The cultivated area increased from 3,070 acres in 2000 to 5,633 acres in 2001. The group expanded cultivation into public land outside the proclaimed cultivable areas. Local villagers objected and accused cultivators near the Research Center’s farms of colluding with investors to encroach onto public land defined as natural reserves (Khao Sot, February 13, 2002, 29).



Fig. 7 Blood Cockle Production and Cultivation Areas in Bandon Bay, 1980–2010

Source: Computed from annual statistics from the Department of Fisheries.


The expansion of cultivated areas continued, reaching 10,723 acres in 2003 and peaking at 13,068 acres in 2004. In 2004 the DOF launched a Seafood Bank Project in conjunction with several government organizations, including the BAAC and the new Assets Capitalization Bureau founded in 2003. Under this project, cockle farmers could apply for a loan using the cultivable land they held under permit as collateral. The project therefore added value to the permitted cultivable areas and transformed the rights of cultivation into an unofficial tenure of an asset that could be bought and sold.

From the official data, it is difficult to assess the impact of this project on the dynamics of aquaculture in the Bay. However, local NGOs and media argue that the project sparked the uncontrolled expansion of aquaculture beyond the proclaimed cultivable areas, which in turn affected the local management of natural resources in the Bay. Small-scale blood cockle farmers, such as ex-members of the cooperative, sold their cultivated areas to large-scale farmers who had a greater capacity to handle risk. Thus, ultimately large-scale farmers benefited from the government projects.

As noted above, the establishment of cooperative communities led to the settlement of newcomers along the coastal areas of Kanchanadit and Thachang districts. Initially they cultivated shrimp, but later they switched to blood cockles under the state-initiated Blood Cockle Cultivating Group Project. These farmers subsequently established the Surat Thani Province Coastal Aquaculture Cooperative. Thus, the social make-up and economic activity of these settler communities was significantly molded by government policies to promote aquaculture in the Bay.

III Man-made Seedbeds: Overcoming Constraints and the Birth of New Conflicts

Apart from the establishment of pilot farms and coastal aquaculture cooperatives, the government launched projects to overcome the constraints of cockle production in the Bay. The production of cockles decreased in 1984 and did not increase again until 1988, the first year that blood cockle cultivation was promoted to the local villagers (see Fig. 7). The decrease was related to the lack of cockle seed supply. To overcome this constraint, the DOF requested technical assistance from the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management. On December 14, 1980, a project named Technical Assistance for Applied Research for Coastal Aquaculture was initiated with an agreement between the center and DOF, and finance was arranged by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (McCoy and Tanittha 1988, ix). Researchers examined the growth and mortality of cockle seed transplanted from Phetchaburi (Anadara nodifera) and Malaysia (Anadara granosa) to sites in Nakhon Si Thammarat and Chumphon Provinces (ibid.). Experimental sites were also created in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phangnga, and Surat Thani Provinces for the study of cockle seed settlement and the farming of breeder cockles. The objective of the project was to create artificial seedbeds by sowing larvae in an area suitable for seed settlement and growth.

Similar projects supported by various funding sources continued from 1980 to 1987 (Samnakngan Setthakit Kankaset 1990, 53–69). As the experiments at the Surat Thani site proved successful, the DOF acquired funds from the Farmer’s Aid Fund to pursue this project in 1987 (ibid., 59). Funding from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Agriculture Technology Transfer project was used to implement projects such as cockle seed production at the Prachuap Khiri Khan Provincial Fisheries Station and the Surat Thani Brackish Water Fisheries Station (Songchai et al. 1987, 1).

A DOF survey of cockle seedbeds between April 1991 and March 1992 concluded that Kanchanadit and Thachang Districts were suitable areas for cockle cultivation but unsuitable for breeding cockle spat (Wichien and Thawisak 1992), hence cockle spat would still have to be purchased from Phetchaburi and Malaysia. On the basis of information from artisanal fishermen, the survey also identified a settling ground for natural cockle seed at Kungmo Cape on the east side of the Tapi River (ibid.). During January–December 2000, the Surat Thani Coastal Aquaculture Research and Development Center conducted a study on environmental factors and the spatfall7) season of cockles (Anadara granosa) at two cultivation sites, one at Kungmo Cape and the other on the east side of the Tapi River’s navigable channel (the center’s site located inside the light gray area of Fig. 3) (Teeraya et al. 2004). The study found that the spatfall season in both locations occurred in December, contradicting a 1992 technical paper finding that cockles developed to the mature gonad stage all year round and spawned in July and November, but never developed into spat (Wichien and Thawisak 1992; Teeraya et al. 2004, 16–18).

During 2002–06, the center published some related papers on the diversity and distribution of plankton along the shoreline of the Bay. In October 2006, two Thai newspaper articles reported that a seedbed had been found on the west side of the Tapi navigable channel and that its economic value was equivalent to approximately US$1.4 million (Delinew, October 10, 2006, 10). In mid-2006, according to a survey conducted by the Coastal Habitats and Resource Management Project (CHARM), cockles were cultivated in Kanchanadit, Thachang, and Chaiya Districts but not at the mouth of the Tapi River. By 2010, according to the DOF survey of Surat Thani (see Fig. 3), new cockle cultivation areas had appeared on the west side of the Tapi River navigable channel. However, economically valuable seedbeds did not develop every year; according to newspaper interviews they were found only in May 2006, 2011, and 2012.

The DOF conducted studies in an attempt to understand what environmental changes had resulted in the Tapi River becoming a suitable natural site for cockle seedbeds. Several factors may have been in play. For two decades from the 1980s, cockle farms had expanded beyond the legally allowed cultivable areas, in particular moving away from the shore and closer to the Tapi navigable channel. In addition, due to severe flooding in Surat Thani at the end of 1988, the government had drawn up a master development plan to minimize the impact of natural disasters in the province. Under the Surat Thani Urban Land Use Plan of December 1991, areas on the west side of the Tapi River (dark gray in Fig. 8) were designated as agricultural areas. In 1994 the government introduced the Marine and Coastal Water Quality Standard of Thailand in order to control marine food safety (Government Gazette 16 ngo, 111, 64–72). Shellfish aquaculture in the Bay was now controlled by these food safety, environment, and land use measures. As a result of the changes in the landscape of the Tapi Delta and the surface layer of the sea over three decades, the west side of the Tapi navigable channel had somehow become a suitable area for the occurrence of seedbeds.



Fig. 8 Urban Land Use Plan for Surat Thani Province, 1991

Source: Adapted from the Map of Government Gazette 220m, 108 (December 14, 1991, 1–10).


Even so, the DOF had temporarily overcome the constraints on seedbed cultivation. However, the discovery of the natural seedbeds resulted in conflict between cockle farmers and artisanal fishermen over usage rights. Since cockle cultivation was not traditionally practiced in the Bay, there was no local custom for communities along the coast to manage the seedbeds, unlike in Phetchaburi Province, where such customs were well established. In the absence of such customs, the conflict between communities on the west and east sides of the Tapi River over the tenure and usage rights of the seedbeds was difficult to resolve.

According to the land use plan, residential areas (light gray areas in Fig. 8) and a special industrial area (grid) were planned for the east side of the river. These land use changes affected the quality of marine water in the legally allowed aquaculture areas in Kanchanadit District located 3 kilometers from the coastline. How the farmers handled these environmental changes is discussed in the next section.

IV Farmers’ Survival Strategies: Adjusting to Pollution and Environment Changes

Blood cockle cultivation in the Bay can be categorized into two types according to the size of the cultivated area and the capital required. Large-scale capital-intensive farms are operated by individuals, households, or companies. Small-scale farms are operated by small households, mainly comprising artisanal fisherfolk who cultivate blood cockles as a means to diversify their income. Both groups cultivate under the same environmental conditions and must rely on the local climate and quality of marine water. However, each group adapts to state policies and environmental conditions in a unique way determined by its assets. This section examines the strategies employed by farmers to reduce the effects of pollution and natural disasters. Interviews were conducted with three large-scale capital-intensive farmers in Kanchanadit and Chaiya Districts and seven small-scale farmers in Kanchanadit, Mueang, and Chaiya Districts.8) All of the interviewed farmers had experienced damage from long-term pollution and short-term climate variation, such as heavy rains outside the monsoon season, drought and strong waves and winds, and heavy rains in the monsoon season.

Pollution and Environmental Changes

Polluted water from the wastes of the residential and industrial areas on the east side of the Tapi River flows into the Bay and affects the water quality of the legally allowed cultivable areas in Kanchanadit District. The effects of pollution on marine water fluctuate according to the season. In the rainy season, the large volume of water flowing from the rivers and canals brings more pollution into the Bay. A 1999–2001 marine water quality survey conducted by the center found that some areas one kilometer away from the coast became unsuitable for aquaculture, especially for the cultivation of oysters to be consumed raw. In this near-shore area, because land was more expensive, a large-scale, more capital-intensive operation was more economical. As a result of this economic factor and the pollution, some oyster farmers in the area sold the official rights of their farms to large-scale cockle farmers who had the capital to finance a 10,000/kg size cockle spat nursery. Then, to combat the impact of the pollution, the large-scale farmers expanded their farms beyond the legally cultivable areas. Some of the large-scale farmers were newcomers who were attracted by the profits and had the strong economic-socio-political assets to override the legal restrictions on the cultivable area. Some artisanal fishermen who lost their fishing areas due to the expansion of aquaculture farms decided to adopt cockle cultivation to compensate for their lost income. Now it has become difficult to clearly distinguish between artisanal fisherman and aquaculture cultivators. Many farmers run an aquaculture farm for their main income yet also fish to obtain supplementary cash for daily expenses.

Cockle farmers worry about climate variability more than water pollution, because damage from the former is more costly. The monsoons bring heavy rains in November and December (Fig. 9). Farmers understand this season well and protect their assets from the monsoon rains.



Fig. 9 Daily Rainfall in Surat Thani Province, 1951–2012

Source: Computed from daily statistics from the Thai Meteorological Department, Surat Thani Provincial Meteorological Station.


Damage to cockle cultivation from natural disasters was not recorded until the end of the 1980s, when the government’s Blood Cockle Cultivating Group Project began to promote cockle cultivation. According to interviews and personal and official records, the natural disasters that affected blood cockle cultivation in the Bay until 2011 can be categorized into three types. The first type is the heavy rain that fell in Surat Thani in November 1988 and December 1996. In 1988 the DOF had just begun to promote cockle cultivation among villagers. The Cultivating Group Project distributed cockle spat to the member groups according to the government’s fiscal calendar, so the farmers sowed the spat in September, the last month of the fiscal year and the middle of the monsoon season. Heavy rainfall at the end of November (Fig. 9) destroyed the spat and reduced the salinity of the marine water in cultivated areas. As a result, member farmers became indebted and had to take out more loans from the BAAC (Samnakngan Setthakit Kankaset 1990). However, the cockle cultivation groups continued the project.

The economic loss in bivalve mollusk cultivation in the Bay due to the heavy rainfall of December 1996 was valued by DOF at US$10 million (Sahakon Phulieng Satnam Chaifang Surat Thani c.2012, 20–29). The rainfall was less than that in 1988 and 1993, but the loss was greater because the areas under cockle cultivation had increased—from 3,070 acres in 2000 to 5,633 acres in 2001, largely due to the Sustainable Cultivation Career Development Project and the provision of US$5.04 million worth of low-interest loans (Sahakon Phulieng Satnam Chaifang Surat Thani c.2012). In December 2008, as can be seen from the comparison of daily rainfall in Surat Thani Province in Fig. 9, heavy rain again resulted in a loss, this time estimated at US$170 million.9)

The second type of disaster is a result of drought or strong waves and winds, and it is not as severe as heavy rainfall. This type of disaster slows the growth rate of shellfish and increases mortality, decreasing farmers’ profits but not causing bankruptcy. According to a report of the Surat Thani Coastal Aquaculture Cooperative, a drought linked to El Nino occurred in 1999. In the same year, there were strong waves and winds in December. Some farmers who had cultivated within the officially allowed areas decided to sell their permits to other farmers. This happened during the time the Assets Capitalization Bureau implemented its projects.

The third type of disaster is heavy rain in the dry season. Figure 9 shows that the daily rainfall on March 29, 2011 was equivalent to the level during the monsoon. Nothing like this had occurred since the first year that meteorological records were kept in the Bay. The 2011 disaster caused significant damage because the storm hit during spat-sowing time. In order to reduce the effects of fresh water from the Tapi River, the spat needed to be moved from the nursery farm to other farms far from the coast, but both groups were unable to do this in time. The massive amount of water flowing in from the river and canals reduced the salinity level of all cultivated areas, making it impossible for the cockles to survive. Both types of farmers were affected by the disaster.

Despite the frequency of natural disasters and their impact on cockle production, the DOF’s rules for disaster compensation have not been adjusted. For disaster relief in the form of finance or equipment, the DOF categorizes fisheries into three types: (1) all species of fish; (2) shellfish (shrimp, crabs, and bivalve mollusks); and (3) ponds and fish cages. Since cockle farms are included in the same group as shrimp farms (the main target of the assistance), in the 2011 disaster they were provided with dolomitic limestone, which is used to improve the water quality of shrimp and fishpond farms but is unsuitable for cockle farms in the sea. The outdated rules clearly illustrate the low status of bivalve mollusk cultivation compared to the export-oriented shrimp industry.

Farmers’ Survival Strategies

As the three types of natural disasters caused unprecedented damage to blood cockle cultivation in the Bay, the DOF’s regulations for disaster compensation were not adequate; they were neither timely nor efficient in responding to the environmental changes. Both small-scale and large-scale farmers had little confidence in the official rules or local climate. Thus, they tried to create individual solutions appropriate for their situation.

Small-scale farmers in particular have some common risk management strategies. First, most of them prefer a short period of cultivation due to their worry about unprecedented disasters and shortage of financial assets. They therefore harvest and sell their cockles to large-scale farmers before they reach market size. They gain less profit, but they do not have to worry about any disaster occurring during the extra months before the cockles reach market size. Some farmers reduce the area of cockles in favor of green mussels, which fetch less profit than cockles but can be harvested within six months. Some have also tried to cultivate clams from wild spat gathered in the Bay.

G and A were small-scale farm owners in the Bay. G lived in the Muslim coastal community in the special industrial area of Mueang District (grid area in Fig. 8). G’s father had moved from a Muslim community along the Saen Saep canal in Bangkok to the Bay in the 1950s. He was one of three pioneer families who settled the Muslim community in this area. Most of the inhabitants in this community had moved from the Muslim community along Saen Saep canal in Bangkok and Chachoengsao Province. Most of them identified themselves as relatives of one another. G had worked as a fisherman all his life. Due to the expansion of cockle farming at the end of the 1990s, fishing areas shrank; and this made G decide to try cockle farming to generate a new source of income after 2003 to replace the income that he used to get from working on a fishing trawler.

During the heavy rains in March 2011, G decided to do nothing because he could not afford to hire a boat. Because his farm was located outside the cultivable area, he did not receive disaster compensation from the DOF. This disaster deprived him of the ability to repay the loans that he had taken from BAAC as capital for cockle farming. He sold his land in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province to settle his debts. He started to accumulate capital by not only offering services to build and repair small fishing boats but also catching fish along the coastal areas. In addition, he invested in cockle farming by purchasing cockle babies from Malaysia for US$5,672. In 2013, he reaped a good profit from the cockle farm. Currently, G has changed his farming strategy by reducing areas of cockle farming and turning to green mussel farming.

The situation is similar with A, a small-scale farmer in Kanchanadit District. According to her memory, heavy rains occurred in November 1993 and considerably affected the business of oyster farmers. Consequently, many of them quit cockle farming and sold their farms. A purchased 16-acre oyster farm located in the cultivable area from her relative who was affected by the 1993 rains. Her father was an oyster farmer and had a small oyster stall near her home. As cockle farming was more lucrative, she decided to cultivate blood cockles instead. Because of the disaster in 2011, her blood cockle farms were completely destroyed. She received US$5,600 in compensation from the government, which she used as capital for the next cultivation. After that, she decided to operate her farm using a new strategy applied by many farmers. A purchased 1,600/kg seed for the equivalent of US$5,672 and sowed it in the farm in June 2011. The cockles would reach marketable size in 8–10 months, so she planned to harvest and sell them the following April during the long Songkran Festival vacation. She also purchased 20,000/kg seed for US$2,828 to sow in her nursery farm. These reached marketable size in the next two years. Since there were no disasters, she reaped a handsome profit.

Large-scale farmers have different strategies for managing risks. Some purchase 100–300/kg size spat from small farmers to shorten the cultivation period. They cultivate the 100–300/kg size spat in farms located away from the shore, outside the legal cultivable area, in order to reduce the effects of fresh water flowing from the river and canals. In this way they can fulfill their contracts and maintain their long-term relationships with seafood wholesalers in Samut Sakhon Province, even though their profit is reduced.

K and S were owners of large-scale capital-intensive farms that covered an area of 790 acres. They started operating their farms in the early period of blood cockle cultivation in the Bay. They knew each other and learned the way of cultivation at the same time in the late 1980s. Their cockle farms were located in Kanchanadit District, both inside and outside the legal cultivation zones. K was a member of a shrimp-farming family in a province in the Upper Gulf of Thailand. He had moved to Surat Thani in the mid-1980s to work as a manager of a shrimp farm. He started blood cockle cultivation in 1987–88. In 1997, he worked as a secretary of the Surat Thani Province Coastal Aquaculture Cooperative and as a key person of the Blood Cockle and Oyster Sustainable Cultivation Career Development Project.

S was an operator of his family’s fishery and aquaculture business. He assisted his parents on an oyster farm from 1979. His family switched from oysters to blood cockles in 1987 due to the declining price of oysters. Fishermen who used to do oyster farming in the legal zones began selling their cultivation rights to others. S’s family had other business lines, including owning a large fishing boat with 50 crew members. They bought coastal areas that became nursery farms for cockle seed.

K and S shared a similar experience of cockle farming. The most important capital in this business was cockle seed from Malaysia. After years passed and seedbeds became available in the Bandon Gulf, they started to purchase cockle babies born in the gulf instead. They sold the cockles to seafood wholesalers in Samut Sakhon Province. A wholesaler offered them a loan and asked them to use it for cockle farming and send the products to her. However, they both declined her offer as they were worried about environmental factors, which they could not control. For instance, because of heavy rains in the dry season in March 2011, K and S said, they could not move the spat since the continuous heavy rainfall made it too dangerous to sail. Besides, S had denied a contract offer from an international hypermarket chain in Thailand. S emphasized that he could not predict environmental changes. Unlike the wholesaler in Samut Prakan Province, with whom he had the personal relationship to negotiate in case he could not fulfill their contract, he could not do the same with the international hypermarket chain.

V Conclusion

State development projects were the driving force behind the growth of cockle cultivation in Bandon Bay from 1980 onward. The declaration of cultivable areas, promotion of pilot farms, and establishment of cooperatives led to new settlements of aquaculture farmers in the Bay. After major natural disasters caused significant destruction in the late 1980s, the government approved large budgets for rehabilitating affected areas. After that, the influx of capital supported by the state increased the area under aquaculture in a great leap forward.

Cockle cultivation in the Bay is a costly form of aquaculture that is vulnerable to climate variability and pollution. Some farmers are attracted to the high potential returns in comparison to green mussel and oyster farming. The state’s readiness to provide relief in case of natural disasters is limited because cockles are not an export product, and the costs of compensating for disasters may exceed the benefits accruing to the state. Farmers must develop their own survival strategies in response to natural disasters. These strategies differ according to the scale of cultivation, location of the farm, and personal situation of the farm owner. Medium and large-scale farms have a higher ability to handle the risks from climate variability. Small-scale farmers have switched to safer crops that involve fewer risks but deliver lower profits. Many have abandoned cockle cultivation and sold their farms to large-scale farmers.

In 1979 the Department of Fishery promulgated a law, succeeding the Fishery Act 1947, which enabled local people to temporarily utilize some offshore areas for private aquaculture. Although the state’s proclamation in 1979 legally allowed the use of common marine resources for private farms, conflicts between artisanal fishermen and cultivators did not emerge until the late 1980s, when cockle cultivation expanded outside the officially allowed areas and common marine resources on the west side of the Tapi River channel were illegally converted to private farms. Artisanal fishermen whose usage rights are being challenged have opposed cockle cultivators since that time. Fishery communities regard the aquaculture farmers as proxies of the state.

The conflict is more complex than a confrontation between fisheries and aquaculture, between customary practice and innovation. Some fishermen are primarily agriculturists who fish to earn extra income during periods when they cannot practice rice cultivation. Among the artisanal fishery communities, some local people have adopted aquaculture as a secondary means of income.

The aquaculture communities in Kanchanadit were settled by the cooperative communities projects in the second half of the 1970s (NA [8] MT Some in the community are newcomers from outside the locality, while some are former local agriculturists who have switched to artisanal fishing or aquaculture. There is no sociocultural foundation for negotiation and bargaining.

Due to their harsh geography and tropical monsoon climate, some areas of Southern Thailand were sparsely populated prior to 1950. However, these areas were a potential frontier for making a living by farming. As a result of the nationwide population boom from the 1940s to 1970s, outsiders began to move into these areas. This settlement was supported by the state through policies to establish cooperative communities and develop new forms of production such as aquaculture. The society of coastal Southern Thailand is not only made up of villagers who have long subsisted on fishery—before 1970—but has a large admixture of new communities constructed within the framework of state-led development. Vulnerability to natural disasters has added to tensions over conflicting claims on marine resources. Different segments of local society share a common connection to the bureaucratic systems of the state, yet they lack the ability to negotiate and bargain with each other.

Accepted: August 5, 2016


This paper is derived from my (the corresponding author’s) research titled “History of Economy and Environment of Bandon Bay: Case Study of the Coastal Aquaculture during 1940s–2000s.” This research was supported by the Thailand Research Fund and Thammasat University from April 2012 to August 2015. I am very grateful to Dr. Pasuk Phongpaichit, my mentor, for her valuable comments. Any errors remain my own. I would like to especially thank Dr. Chris Baker for his editing and helpful comments. Finally, the successful completion of this research was delivered during the quality time I had in Kyoto from October to December 2015 under the CSEAS Fellowship for Visiting Research Scholars 2015. I am grateful to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, which granted me the scholarship.

This research was also supported by KAKENHI Grant Number 25360004 and the research project of “Coastal Area Capability Enhancement in Southeast Asia,” Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN, Project No. 14200061).


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Samnakngan Pramong Changwat Surat Thani สำนักงานประมงจังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี [Surat Thani Provincial Fisheries Office (STPFO)]. 2010. Sarup kan chattham phaenthi plaeng pholieng satnam chaifang lae maenam samruat muea pho. so. 2553 สรุปการจัดทำแผนที่แปลงเพาะเลี้ยงสัตว์น้ำชายฝั่งและแม่น้ำ สำรวจเมื่อ พ.ศ.2553 [2010 survey of the mapping of coastal aquaculture areas and rivers]., accessed January 17, 2014.

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Selth, Andrew. 2001. Burma: A Strategic Perspective. Working Paper, Asia Foundation., accessed July 18, 2016.

Siri Tukvinas สิริ ทุกข์วินาศ. 1983. Kan lieng hoi khraeng baep thurakit nai pak tai khong prathet Thai การเลี้ยงหอยแครงแบบธุรกิจในภาคใต้ของประเทศไทย [Cockle farming in the southern part of Thailand on a commercial scale]. Satul: Satul Brackishwater Fisheries Station.

Songchai Sahavacharin ทรงชัย สหวัชรินทร์; Kom Silapajarn คมน์ ศิลปาจารย์; Jintana Nugranad จินตนา นักระนาด; Sutthino Limsuratana สุทธิโณ ลิ้มสุรัตน์; and Sompong Klangnarong สมพงษ์ กลางณรงค์. 1987. Khrongkan rengrat phalit phan hoi khraeng โครงการเร่งรัดผลิตพันธุ์หอยแครง [Hatchery research on cockles]. Bangkok: Prachuampkhirikhan Fisheries Station.

Szuster, B. 2006. Coastal Shrimp Farming in Thailand: Searching for Sustainability. In Environment and Livelihoods in Tropical Coastal Zones: Managing Agriculture-Fishery-Aquaculture Conflicts, edited by Chu Thai Hoanh et al., pp. 86–98. Norfolk: CABI International.

Teeraya Chouysurin ธีรยา ช่วยสุรินทร์; Nattapong Tonsalee ณัฐพงษ์ ต้นสาลี; and Chaoum Sookchuay ชะอุ่ม สุขช่วย. 2004. Saphap waetlom lae rudukan koet khong lukphan hoi khraeng boriwen Ao Bandon Changwat Surat Thani สภาพแวดล้อมและฤดูกาลเกิดของลูกพันธุ์หอยแครง บริเวณอ่าวบ้านดอน จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี [Environmental factors and spatfall season cockles (Anadara granosa, Linnaeus) in Bandon Bay, Surat Thani Province]. Bangkok: Surat Thani Coastal Fisheries Research and Development Center.

Thanasit ธนสิทธิ์. 1994. Pracha Wariwanit khon liang hoi khraeng hang Phumliang ประชา วารีวนิช คนเลี้ยงหอยแครงแห่งพุมเรียง [Pracha Wariwanit: A cockle farmer in Phumliang]. Thechnoloyi Chaoban เทคโนโลยี ชาวบ้าน 7(107): 42.

United States, Department of State. 1983. Limits in the Seas No. 99 Straight Baselines: Vietnam. US Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Watthana Sukansin วัฒนา สุกัณศีล. 2001. Saphap setthakit sangkhom lae watthanatham khong chumchon pramong rop Ao Pattani kanplienplaeng panha lae kanpraptua สภาพเศรษฐกิจ สังคมและวัฒนธรรมของชุมชนประมงรอบอ่าวปัตตานี การเปลี่ยนแปลงปัญหาและการปรับตัว [The economy, society and culture of fishing communities in the Pattani Bay: Problem transformation and adaptation]. Pattani: Prince of Songkla University.

Wichien Worasayan วิเชียร วรสายัณห์; and Thawisak Yongwanitset ทวีศักดิ์ ยังวนิชเศรษฐ์. 1992. Kan samruat laeng koet hoi khraeng nai Changwat Surat Thani การสำรวจแหล่งเกิดหอยแครงในจังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี [Cockle spat distribution in Surat Thani Province]. Bangkok: Coastal Aquaculture Division, Department of Fisheries.

Thai National Archives
NA. K/2/2522/25 Kanprakat nannam khetsetthakit champho 200 mai (20 Mesayon-2 Phusachikayon 2522) การประกาศเขตน่านน้ำเศรษฐกิจจำเพาะ 200 ไมล์ [Newspaper clipping on the declaration of a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone].

NA. K/P 6/2513/20 Kanpramong (1 Minakhom 2513–18 Phusachikayon 2513) การประมง (1 มีนาคม 2513-18 พฤศจิกายน 2513) [Newspaper clipping on fisheries].

NA (8) MT Phaeng phatthana changwat pracham pi 2523 changwat Surat Thani แผนพัฒนาจังหวัดประจำปี 2523 จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี [1980 Surat Thani provincial development plan].

NA (8) MT Rai ngan kan samruat khomun phatthana Tambon Thathong Mai Ampoe Kanchanadit Changwat Surat Thani (Mokarakhom-Minakhom 2522) รายงานการสำรวจข้อมูลเขตพัฒนาตำบลท่าทองใหม่ อำเภอกาญจนดิษฐ์ จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี (มกราคม-มีนาคม 2522) [1979 survey report on Thathong Mai Subdistrict, Kanchanadit District, Surat Thani Province].

NA (8) MT Raingan kan samruat khomun phatthana Tambon Thachang Ampoe Thachang Changwat Surat Thani (Kumphaphan 2522) รายงานการสำรวจข้อมูลเขตพัฒนาตำบลท่าฉาง อำเภอท่าฉาง จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี (กุมภาพันธ์ 2522) [1979 survey report on Thachang Subdistrict, Thachang District, Surat Thani Province].

NA (8) MT Raingan kan samruat khomun phatthana Tambon Tha U-the Ampoe Kanchanadit Changwat Surat Thani (Kumphaphan-Phutsaphakhom 2522) รายงานการสำรวจข้อมูลเขตพัฒนาตำบลท่าอุแท อำเภอกาญจนดิษฐ์ จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี (กุมภาพันธ์-พฤษภาคม 2522) [1979 survey report on Tha U-the Subdistrict, Kanchanadit District, Surat Thani Province].

NA (8) MT Raingan kan samruat khomun phatthana Tambon Lilet Ampoe Phunphin Changwat Surat Thani (Minakhom 2522) รายงานการสำรวจข้อมูลเขตพัฒนาตำบลลีเล็ด อำเภอพุนพิน จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี (มีนาคม 2522) [1979 Survey report on Lilet Subdistrict, Phunphin District, Surat Thani Province].

NA (8) MT Raingan kan samruat khomun phatthana Tambon Thathong Ampoe Kanchanadit Changwat Surat Thani (Minakhom 2522) รายงานการสำรวจข้อมูลเขตพัฒนาตำบลท่าทอง อำเภอกาญจนดิษฐ์ จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี (มีนาคม 2522) [1979 Survey report on Thathong Subdistrict, Kanchanadit District, Surat Thani Province].

NA [3] SR 0201.31/56 Borisat Pramong Thale Chamkat (18 Mesayon 2496-8 Kumphaphan 2501) บริษัทประมงทะเล จำกัด (18 เมษายน 2496-8 กุมภาพันธ์ 2501) [Thai Fisheries Company Ltd.].

Delinew เดลินิวส์. 2006. Ao Bandon: Khwam phayayam nai kan sang fam thale baep yangyuen อ่าวบ้านดอน: ความพยายามในการสร้างฟาร์มทะเลแบบยั่งยืน [Bandon Bay: Sustainable aquaculture]. October 10.

Khao Sot ข่าวสด. 2002. Chao ban chae nai tun bukruk Ao Thongpuk ชาวบ้านแฉนายทุนบุกรุกอ่าวท้องปึก [Capitalist encroachment into the common maritime zone of Thongpuk Bay]. February 13.

Thai Post ไทยโพสต์. 1997. Pramong chaifang khaen hue pit thanon ประมงชายฝั่งแค้นฮือปิดถนน [Artisanal fishermen protesters block public road]. October 9.

Legal Acts in Government Gazettes

Kot krasuang chabap thi 105 (pho. so. 2534) Ok tam khwam phraratchabanyat phang mueng 2518 กฎกระทรวง ฉบับที่ 105 (พ.ศ.2534) ออกตามความพระราชบัญญัติผังเมือง 2518 [Ministerial Regulation No. 105 according to the Act of City Planning 1975]. Government Gazette 220m (108) (December 14, 1991): 1–10.

Phraratchabanyat Pramong phutthasakkarat 2490 พระราชบัญญัติการประมงพุทธศักราช 2490 [1947 Fisheries Act]. Government Gazette 3(64) (January 14, 1947): 81–114.

Prakat khana kammakan singwaetlom haeng chat chabap thi 7 (pho. so. 2537) ok tam khwam nai phraratchabanyat songserm lae raksa khunnaphap singwaetlom haeng chat pho. so. 2535 rueang kamnot mattrathan khunnaphap nam thale chai fang ประกาศคณะกรรมการสิ่งแวดล้อมแห่งชาติ ฉบับที่ 7 (พ.ศ.2537) ออกตามความในพระราชบัญญัติส่งเสริมและรักษาคุณภาพสิ่งแวดล้อมแห่งชาติ พ.ศ.2535 เรื่อง กำหนดมาตรฐานคุณภาพน้ำทะเลชายฝั่ง [Announcement of Office of National Environment Board 7 regarding marine water standards for coastal area]. Government Gazette 16 ngo (111) (February 24, 1994): 64–72.

Prakat khana kammakan singwaetlom haeng chat chabap thi 8 (pho. so. 2537) rueang kamnot mattrathan khunnaphap nam phio din ประกาศคณะกรรมการสิ่งแวดล้อมแห่งชาติ ฉบับที่ 8 (พ.ศ. 2537) เรื่อง กำหนดมาตรฐานคุณภาพน้ำในแหล่งน้ำผิวดิน [Announcement of Office of National Environment Board 8 regarding water quality standards for surface water sources]. Government Gazette 16 ngo (111) (February 24, 1994): 73–81.

Prakat krasuang kan khrang rueang ngoen ku chak thanakhan phattana esia tam khrongkan phattana kan pho lieng satnam nai prathet Thai ประกาศกระทรวงการคลัง เรื่อง การกู้เงินจากธนาคารพัฒนาเอเซียตามโครงการพัฒนาการเพาะเลี้ยงสัตว์น้ำในประเทศไทย [Announcement of Ministry of Finance regarding Asian Development Bank loan for Thailand aquaculture development projects]. Government Gazette 33(96) (March 13, 1979): 1067–1068.


1) The exclusive economic zone of India was declared in 1977 (James 2014, 100). The Socialist Republic of Vietnam issued a declaration on its territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf in May 1977 (US Department of State 1983, 3). The Burmese government declared its territorial sea of 12 nautical miles and a zone of 24 nautical miles in 1977. Burma has also claimed an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles since 1977 (Selth 2001, 5).

2) These official statistics were collected only in the areas legally defined as cultivable and only among registered cultivators, and hence do not reflect the exact situation. In 2009, for example, bivalve mollusk cultivation occupied 11,988 acres in the Bay according to official statistics but 31,685 acres (mostly blood cockle) according to a GIS survey by the Surat Thani Fisheries Office.

3) According to the Surat Thani Province Governor’s Office Plan, agricultural products accounted for 30 percent of the province’s total production. There are five categories of agricultural products: rubber, 71 percent; oil palm, 17 percent; coastal fisheries, 8 percent; and livestock and fruit, 2 percent (Samnakngan Changwat Surat Thani 2013).

4) Such as Mahawitthayalai Walailak (2006).

5) Spat are young, immature bivalves.

6) According to the 1947 Fisheries Act, the government may proclaim stretches of sea as cultivable areas for aquaculture. Prospective farmers must register and apply for a two-year cultivation permit. By law, cultivable areas may be reassigned; but in practice the first permit-holders apply for new permits to keep their rights and may rent out the farm to others.

7) The setting and attachment of young bivalves to the substrate.

8) Fieldwork was conducted in August 2011, August 2012, September 2013, February 2014, September 2014, and August 2015.

9) Unpublished dataset of Special Projects and Alleviation Sub-Division, Department of Fisheries, Thailand.


Vol.5, No.3, LE Jiem Tsan et al.


Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 3 

Highland Chiefs and Regional Networks in Mainland Southeast Asia: Mien Perspectives

Le Jiem Tsan, Richard D. Cushman, and Hjorleifur Jonsson*

* School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2402, USA

Corresponding author’s e-mail: hjonsson[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.3_491

This article is centered on the life story of a Mien upland leader in Laos and later in the kingdom of Nan that subsequently was made a province of Thailand. The story was recorded in 1972 but primarily describes events during 1870–1930. The aim of this article is to call attention to long-standing networks of highland-lowland relations where social life was unstable but always and persistently inclusive and multi-ethnic. The centrality of interethnic hill-valley networks in this Mien case has numerous parallels in studies of Rmeet, Phunoy, Karen, Khmu, Ta’ang, and others in mainland Southeast Asia and adjacent southern China. The implications of the Mien case support an analytical shift from ethnography to ethnology—from the study of singular ethnic groups that are viewed as somehow separate from one another and from lowland polities, and toward a study of patterns and variations in social networks that transcend ethnic labels and are of considerable historical and analytical importance. The shift toward ethnology brings questions regarding the state/non-state binary that was largely taken for granted in studies of tribal peoples as inherently stateless.

Keywords: Mien (Yao), history, chiefs, highland peoples, interethnic networks, Thailand, Laos


In the studies of highland societies of mainland Southeast Asia, it is somewhat rare to get a glimpse of chiefs as a significant component of regional networks of relations. When anthropologists studied Thailand’s hill tribes since the 1965 founding of the Tribal Research Center, their mandate was to examine the socio-economic characteristics of the six main tribes: Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, and Mien (Geddes 1967; 1983). The resulting works described for the most part egalitarian village societies that had no links to lowland national society (Walker 1975; McKinnon and Wanat 1983; McKinnon and Vienne 1989). It was primarily the research of Ronald D. Renard (1980; 1986; 2002) with the Karen, independent of the Tribal Research Center since he was a historian and they were all ethnographers, that has insisted on the importance of long-standing connections between upland and lowland regions, and on the positive role of chiefs.

But recent work on upland-lowland relations in Laos, Burma, and southern China flows in a similar direction to Renard’s research and suggests that interethnic upland-lowland networks may have been historically the predominant form of political organization in this region (Badenoch and Tomita 2013; Bouté 2011; 2015; Chen 2015; Evrard 2006; 2007; Hayami 2004; 2011; Ikeda 2012; Jonsson 2005; 2014a; Kojima and Badenoch 2013; Sprenger 2006; 2010). Other recent work suggests that the attribution of statelessness to highland peoples may express recent dynamics of dispossession, rather than any intrinsic feature of highland societies over the last millennia (Scott 2009; Kataoka 2013). Both issues encourage a move away from the ethnographic focus on ethnic groups as distinct from one another and toward an ethnological focus on patterns and variations that transcend ethnic labels and leave questions with the state/non-state binary.

The main text of this article is a Mien history that was recorded in 1972 and centers on the life of a particular Mien chief (Le and Cushman 1972). His name was Tang Tsan Khwoen, and he later received the Thai title Phaya Khiri (“mountain chief”) from the king of Nan, and the family name Srisombat which many of his descendants still carry. The story was told by Le Jiem Tsan to researcher Richard D. Cushman in the village of Khun Haeng, Ngao District of Lampang Province, on June 1, 1972. Most of Cushman’s recordings with Le Jiem Tsan and others are in the Mien ritual language, but the chief’s life-story and a few other recordings are in the everyday language. Le Jiem Tsan died before 1980 and Richard Cushman in 1991. Because I (HJ) was somewhat familiar with the individual chief from ethnographic research among his descendants (Jonsson 1999; 2001; 2005) I am able to check some of the information against other sources. The Mien story shows the ease and normalcy with which relations between hill peoples and lowland rulers were established, and I situate the story against the general trend in northern Thailand at the time of cutting relations with highland peoples and depriving them of rights to settlement and livelihood.

While the evidence for highland people’s dispossession in the early twentieth century is published and has long been available, it seems that anthropologists of Thailand were not particularly curious about the separation of highlanders from their lowland neighbors, but instead expected ethnic divides to be important. Ethnographic traditions encouraged the search for ethnic groups as distinct and separate from others, and anthropological theory expected clear differences between state populations and stateless peoples. The peculiarity of twentieth century Thai history and of research traditions regarding highland peoples were perhaps less apparent because neighboring countries were inaccessible for research due to wars and other political turbulence for a good part of the last century. The idea that tribal culture and social organization were endangered traditions from the past appears to have discouraged areal comparisons and critical historical scrutiny of highland people’s isolation and dispossession in Thailand.

German anthropologist Hugo Adolf von Bernatzik did research in Thailand during 1936–37. In his book Akha and Miao (1970, German original 1947) he noted that many minority groups had migrated into northern Thailand in previous decades, had settled in the mountains and that their farming endangered forests and watersheds. He also noted that in 1915 the governor of Chiangrai Province had issued a ban on making fields in the mountains:

Duplicate decrees were published by the governors of all those provinces into which the mountain peoples had immigrated. Other decrees prohibited the cutting down of bamboo groves, which likewise are important water reservoirs. The punishments that were threatened, for example, for cutting down one of the larger trees, amount to more than a year’s imprisonment. An attempt to get at the smuggling of opium was also made by means of a prohibition against the cultivation of poppies. The fields of a village whose inhabitants paid no attention to the prohibition were to be destroyed; the owners, if they could be caught, were punished with imprisonment. (Bernatzik 1970, 699)

Bernatzik mentioned that as a consequence, anyone who knew the law would go into hiding once there was word of a group of police approaching a highland village. Further, highland peoples were not adjusted to illnesses that pertain to lowland areas, and the punitive policies significantly enhanced distrust across the ethnic frontier:

In various villages of the Lahu, Akha, and Meau I have met natives who had been sentenced to short prison terms for trivial and even unsuspectingly committed offenses, such as the forbidden carrying of weapons, violating market regulations, and the like. Without exception all these people were wasting away from malaria, and many of them later died from it, so their relatives told me. Precisely such circumstances have also frequently given rise to the belief of the mountain peoples that the valley dwellers could bewitch and kill them. [As Bernatzik viewed the situation]; the annihilation or emigration of the mountain peoples from Thailand can only be a matter of time. (ibid., 702–703)

Because the lack of positive engagements with highland peoples (that is, any alternatives to fines and imprisonment) was rather general across northern Thailand, it is important to point out that there were exceptions to this trend. By the late 1880s at least, the king of Nan had made a deal with the leader of Mien and Hmong highlanders that he could legally settle with his followers in the mountains of his domain, he would collect tax among the highlanders, serve as a back-up military force for Nan, and the leader was awarded a Phaya title (Jonsson 1999; 2001; 2005). Whether initially or later, the Mien were also allowed to grow and sell opium within the folds of the Royal Opium Monopoly, and this arrangement lasted until 1958 when the ban on opium cultivation was finally enforced in Thailand.

The Mien population was not uniformly allowed to grow and trade opium. This only applied to big households in five villages under the Phaya, and it was declared illegal for all other highlanders to cultivate poppy; they were thus continually at risk of being fined and imprisoned. It is not clear if the highlanders generally were poppy growers before settling in northern Thailand. Rather, it is possible that the political isolation of highland peoples—a product of national integration—led to their symbiotic relationship with itinerant Chinese traders who encouraged the cultivation of poppy. Again, the work of Bernatzik is informative on this front:

[Chinese traders] regularly visit the mountain villages, pay the taxes for the natives or lend them money, and for all these services buy the opium for a small fraction of its value. Thus the mountain peoples receive only a small equivalent for the craved drug, but the traders operated with a profit of often thousands of percent for the turnover. The business proved to be so lucrative for the traders that they persuaded the inhabitants of whole villages, especially the Lisu but sometimes also the Akha to apply themselves exclusively to the cultivation of poppies and to exchange opium for food supplies from their neighbors. (Bernatzik 1970, 697–698)

Thus it seems that the social and political isolation of highland peoples resulted directly from policies against highland farming, and further that it played to the interests of the itinerant Chinese traders who had connections to the underground opium trade. The traders cultivated relations with the highland villagers, and this economic and social alternative—that made highland peoples independent of lowland Thai stores and traders—furthered highland people’s isolation from Thai society. One part of this history is that for the most part, Thailand’s national integration was a manifestation of the hegemony of Bangkok over the regions that were incorporated, many of which had been independent kingdoms each with their own regional society of multi-ethnic networks.

When these various kingdoms became national provinces of Thailand during the reign of kings Rama V and VI (Chulalongkorn and Vajiravudh; 1865–1910, 1910–25), the old elites were for the most part replaced by officials who came from Bangkok, assumed the superiority of Bangkok civilization and language, and generally made no attempts to cultivate local society or to learn local languages (Vella 1978; Moerman 1967; 1988, 70–86, 162–172). The kingdom and later province of Nan is an exception—there the king was not replaced but was allowed to stay in power though with reduced ability to rule. He could no longer demand tribute from lowland peasants, but was dependent on taxes that went through Bangkok. It is thus perhaps not surprising that he made a contract with a highland leader who enabled him to gain from highland taxation and from the legal opium monopoly. I had learned of some of that history from the descendants of Tsan Khwoen, the Mien chief (Jonsson 2005, 74–85).

One unexpected example of inclusive and diverse identities in the Thai hinterland concerns the Mlabri, or Phi Tong Leuang, who were studied as an exotic, ancient, and isolated people by a team connected to the Siam Society, and reported on in a special volume in 1963 (Boeles 1963). Most of the reporting concerned the Mlabri as a separate race, thus blood samples, nostril comparisons, and head measurements were employed in order to arrive at a scientific sense of who the people were. The Thai and Western research team to the Mlabri in the early 1960s only had success in finding them because the Mlabri were in a labor and social relationship with some Hmong people; the Thai had no connection of their own.

The documentary film that was made of the expedition (Siam Society 1963) suggests instead that the Mlabri were a regional (Southeast Asian) people and not some isolated Stone Age holdover. That is, the film’s narrative relates the Mlabri as isolated primitives, but the footage shows that many of the men had tattoos, in line with what was practiced among lowlanders. Further, the film shows that the Mlabri men did a variation on a sword dance to entertain the visitors—something which perhaps all peoples in the region knew how to do when needing to entertain some strangers.

Writing in the 1930s, Bernatzik reported the following about the Mlabri and their regional context without any additional comment:

In Nan a Buddhist priest told us that there was a document in his monastery in which it was recorded that the Phi Tong Leuang were subjects of the king of Nan, to whom they paid annual tribute in honey, rattan, and wax. At the time they appear to have been very numerous. (Bernatzik 2005, 43)

The Mien (Yao) people have a long history in southern China and in Southeast Asia of negotiations and entanglements in regional networks of continually shifting social lines where no one position is guaranteed or necessarily stable (Cushman 1970; Alberts 2006; 2016; Chen 2015; 2016). I suggest that this situation was common across the region and that it continually availed the possibility to negotiate identities, positions, relations, borders, and basic rights between particular partners (Renard 1987), such as that shown by the unexpected case of Mlabri and the kingdom of Nan. Borders and identities were not fixed or objective. These were always dependent on particular relations, but this flexibility and specificity has (mis-) led many modern scholars to assume that neither pre-twentieth century states nor the highlanders were territorial (see Thongchai 1994). For the most part such interethnic relations were not recorded and are not easily (if at all) found in the archives. I address potential reasons for this archival absence at the end of the article, and now turn to the story of the interconnected lives of some Mien leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Le Jiem Tsan’s Story of the Life of Phia Long Tang Tsan Khwoen Waa

Let me tell you the story of the Phia Long. In earlier times the Phia Long was very important among the people and all of us knelt down before him. The Phia Long, originally, lived in Laotian territory. He was a member of the Tang lineage, and his given name was Tsan Khwoen, or, as he was often called, Tsan Khwoen Lu-Phia. His descendants are among the people who now live in Phulangka Village, and one of them is the kamnan there.

Tsan Khwoen’s father was Tsoi Waa and hence the Phia Long’s full name was Tsan Khwoen Waa. His son was Wuen Lin Lu-Phia who later ruled as Lu-Phia at Phulangka. When Wuen Lin died, his son Fu-Tsan succeeded him and is now the kamnan at Phulangka. Fu-Tsan was the third son in the family, and the fourth son now lives in Chiangkham where he runs a store [this man was Tang Fu Jiem who later also established himself in Bangkok within Chinese society and took a second wife there. He had subsequently two homes and two lives, HJ].

In those early times Tsan Khwoen was a courageous man; indeed, his whole family consisted of courageous men. They lived over in Luang Prabang territory. His father’s younger brother held the title Phan Nya Djun. This title of Phan Nya Djun, or Phu Djun, was Laotian. The full title was Phan Nya Djun Lak Nii (พระยาจุลลักหนี), which means “Duke Djun who thieved and fled.”

After Tsoi Tso was appointed Phan Nya Djun Lak Nii, nothing he said was as wise as his nephew’s counsels. All of the people preferred his nephew. When the Laotians learned of this situation, they went to that village of the people to appoint Tsan Khwoen to the rank of Lu-Phia in place of his uncle. Tsan Khwoen could not be prevailed upon, however, no matter what the Laotians said, since his uncle already held the position. When further persuasion proved useless the Laotians finally asserted that they would have to “weigh the fate” (dziaang kau maeng)1) of the two men to see who should be the lu-phia.

Now, Tsoi Tso had an enormous amount of hair on his head; Tsan Khwoen, in contrast, had only a tiny bit of very fine hair on the sides of his head, his pate being totally bald. One of the Laotians took out a razor and shaved off a little of Tsan Khwoen’s hair. From Tsoi Tso, on the other hand, quite a lot of hair was obtained. A pair of scales for weighing opium was then brought forth and assembled. A little of Tsan Khwoen’s hair was put on one of the scales and a one-gram weight on the other. When the weight was put on the other scale, the scale with the hair immediately tipped downwards. The same thing happened when a second weight was added to the first. Well, let me tell you, nobody had seen anything like that before! When Tsoi Tso’s hair was put on the scale it balanced out even with more weight, but it took three weights to balance Tsan Khwoen’s hair in spite of the fact that there was 10 times of the uncle’s hair being weighed as there was of the nephew’s.

The Laotians were amazed by this demonstration and interpreted the results as indicating that Tsan Khwoen’s power (maeng hlo hai) was much greater than his uncle’s. So, again, the Laotians tried to appoint him Lu-Phia but he wouldn’t accept regardless. The Laotians, however, kept up their persuasion and tried to make him Sien Long [lower ranking than Phia/Phaya] but he wouldn’t accept that position either. Finally, when their entreaties had no effect, the Laotians had no other recourse than to force him to become Sien Long. In making the appointment they proclaimed that, in the future, if the Sien Long did anything wrong, the Lu-Phia was not empowered to fine him. Such transgressions were to be outside the Lu-Phia’s jurisdiction to decide/settle. On the other hand, if the Lu-Phia committed a crime, the Sien Long was empowered to judge the case and fine him.

In a while thereafter, the Lu-Phia and the Sien-Long went on living in the same village, but finally a division was made with each residing in their own village. After the division had been carried out, Tsoi Tso, having turned into a good-for-nothing (mwoen tsoeu hu), conceived the desire to become king. When it was known that someone had shot a wild animal, that person had to give him a share of the meat to eat. Whoever shot a deer, a diem dzei, or anything else for that matter, was required to present him with a portion to eat.2)

At the time there were a lot of Hmong in the area and he ruled over both the Hmong and the Mien. Quite a few Mien grew displeased with him and getting together with the Hmong they hit on a plan to deceive/trick him. Several Mien went to him and told him; “One of the Hmong shot a deer but he hasn’t given you any of the meat, has he?” He answered; “I haven’t seen him, is it true?” They answered him it was true and so he called a number of Mien together to go with him to apprehend the Hmong. After discussing how they were to go about the matter of seizing the Hmong they set out for the Hmong village. Having been thus tricked, Tsoi Tso reached the Hmong’s house, entered, and lay down on the guest platform.

The Hmong asked him his business. Tsoi Tso answered; “It is said that you’ve shot a deer. Now, you can’t get away with not giving me my share, so I have come to fine you.” The Hmong answered; “I’m afraid we’ve eaten the deer up. There isn’t any left and I haven’t been able to bag another one. The venison’s just all gone.” “How come you ate it all up without giving me my share?” “Well, there are an awful lot of people around, and if I had divided it up there wouldn’t have been any left.” “What do you mean? Giving me my share doesn’t mean you have to give everybody else shares too!” The discussion continued in this vein for a bit until the Mien and the Hmong pounced on Tsoi Tso and tied him up so there was no way for him to escape.

Their plan was to take him down to be incarcerated in the capital (mung long). Tsoi Tso could see that there was no way for him to escape since it was true that he had previously treated his people harshly and they had, as a result, hardened their hearts (ngong nin) against him and would refuse to obey his orders. So, tied up as he was, he sent a letter to ask Tsan Khwoen Lu-Phia to release him. Tsan Khwoen Lu-Phia brought three men with him, each carrying an axe or two on his shoulder. He himself did not carry any weapon with him, but led a horse along (on a rope).

When they arrived (at the house where Tsoi Tso was being kept prisoner) Tsan Khwoen tied the horse up just outside the door. Entering the house he demanded; “Untie him! Why don’t you untie him? What’s he done wrong? Even if he is guilty he should be untied, and if he is not guilty he certainly should be untied. When he’s been released we’ll talk about the matter slowly according to the proper etiquette. Untie him!” Tsoi Tso, however, had harmed a great number of people and his captors, having managed this time to tie him up, were not about to let him go. “You won’t untie him?” “No we won’t.” So Tsan Khwoen put down one of the axes he was carrying on the ground, placed the chain (binding Tsoi Tso) on it, and gave it a blow with the other ax. Then, walking over to Tsoi Tso and calling to him; “Get up, uncle!” he took hold of the ax and with one yank burst the chain asunder.

The chain, mind you, was as big around as one’s thumb! Well! That terrified all those present. “How powerful is he,” they wondered, “that he can break a chain with one jerk?” Again Tsan Khwoen called out; “Get up!” As soon as Tsoi Tso got up they ran out the door, lifted it back in place and Tsoi Tso got on the horse and rode off with Tsan Khwoen bringing up the rear. Everyone in the house snatched up their guns and ran off in pursuit, but they called to each other, “Don’t do it, Don’t do it,” since they were all afraid to shoot. And so Tsan Khwoen got Tsoi Tso safely back home and then returned to his own village.

The conspirators, however, were not satisfied and decided to make another attempt. So the Hmong and Mien again got together and sent a file of soldiers to capture Tsoi Tso at his house. This time they did not manage to catch him although they did capture his younger brother. They then took the incense pot from Tsoi Tso’s ancestral altar and tried to smash it but were unsuccessful. Although they finally managed to break off the ears of the pot they were unable to find any way to destroy the main body. Even hurling it on the ground and beating on it had little effect. They next turned their attention to Tsoi Tso’s portraits of the gods. Taking the [spirit] pictures down from their storage basket hanging over the altar they spread the pictures out on the guest platform for the Hmong to lie on while they smoked opium. Afterwards, the Hmong who had done this went insane, of course, and didn’t recover until the ritual heads of their households killed a pig and held an atonement ritual.

The younger brother was taken and tied to the platform of the cattle shed and left there. He managed to escape by dragging the shed along with him. Just imagine how strong he must have been!

Tsoi Tso, meanwhile, had had time to think the situation over and had realized that he wasn’t going to be able to go on living there, so he fled to Tsan Khwoen’s village. Tsan Khwoen, unfortunately, lived quite close by and Tsoi Tso decided he should move up to the border area near China, where he had some relatives. Everyone knew, however, that he planned to flee and as he was then extremely rich they were very anxious to capture him. As he did not have any horses at the time he carried his money, amounting to 11 or 12 pack saddles of silver, away on oxen.3) He himself, dressed in women’s clothing, put on large earrings (but since his ears weren’t pierced he just hung them over his ears), put on a woman’s turban and departed. His pursuers, meanwhile, had taken up positions along the trail where they could shoot him. But having taken up their positions they didn’t see any Phaya-Jun-Lak-Ni. All they caught a glimpse of was a bit of woman’s clothing further down on the trail. So they shifted over to the other trail out of the village, but again they saw no one although they could have shot him on sight.

Meanwhile, Tsoi Tso’s followers, who were to take the silver-laden oxen with them, brought out the ox-saddles and got them ready. They then obtained some hooks which, after being tied to ropes attached to the saddles, were hooked onto the saddle frame. The group then set out and when they reached the part of the trail where the pursuing Mien and Hmong were lying in wait, they stopped. Slipping the saddles loaded with silver off the oxen, they drove the hooks deep into the ground. By this time their armed attackers were almost upon them, and so they grabbed their guns and fled into the forest. The attacking Mien and Hmong tried to help each other carry off the silver loaded saddles, but, no matter how much muscle they put into the task, they couldn’t budge the saddles because of the hooks embedded in the ground.

The oxen drivers, in the meantime, started firing on their attackers and killed one man. In a moment another man who was trying to lift a saddle and failing was hit and fell. Indeed, that day a lot of men were shot and killed. When the attackers finally realized that the saddles were so firmly embedded in the ground that they could not be moved they fled to a man. And that’s how Phraya-Jun-Lak-Ni got his name which Mien bestowed on him in praise of this exploit whereby he stole his own belongings and fled.

In this way Tsoi Tso managed to flee the area but Tsan Khwoen didn’t get to go along with him. Tsoi Tso eventually fled all the way up to China. Tsan Khwoen stayed on and when he moved to the territory of Dong Ngon4) he was appointed Phraya. Later Tsan Khwoen fled to Phu Wae.5) That is, he entered Thai territory and settled at Phu Wae in Nan Province where he was again later to receive a government appointment.

When Tsan Khwoen first came to Thailand the authorities adamantly refused to grant him and his fellow villagers permission to stay and they were not even allowed to cut down any part of the forest. He therefore got out his copy of the Charter for Crossing Mountains6) and invited a Cantonese to translate it for the king of Nan and for the officials at the Nan court. Now, in the Charter it says that in ancient times the Emperor Pien Kou, who opened the heavens and established the earth, gave the charter to the Mien and therein ordered that, wherever the Mien went, no one was to deny them access to, or the right to live in, any part of the mountains. Nor was anyone allowed to collect tolls from them at fords or ferries, or charge them for riding on any kind of conveyance vehicle. As for the collection of taxes in any area, such could be levied on all other peoples but not on the Mien, and this restriction was to apply equally to corvée labor, to surcharges on goods, and to all other kinds of taxes. After the Charter had been read to the King of Nan, he decided that he could not forbid the Mien to settle in his territory.

In this way Tsan Khwoen and his followers received permission to settle at Phu Wae, and Tsan Khwoen was further appointed Phaya Khiri. At the time Tsan Khwoen was made Phaya Khiri, Thai rule extended all the way up as far as Muang Singh. As soon as Tsan Khwoen had shaved his head, he was put in charge of all the hill peoples—Mien, Hmong, Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Kuei-Tsong, Tsan-tsei/Mun—in the Nan Kingdom and was empowered to collect taxes from everyone of them. His jurisdiction extended all the way up to the Chinese border and included the areas controlled by Nan in both Laos and Thailand. This place was a really bustling place then, as big as a province, and people had an awful lot of fun there. Although he, himself, collected the taxes from all the hill people therein, everyone looked up to him in the same way as, though obviously on a lesser scale than, people today love and respect the Thai King.

Tsan Khwoen ruled uneventfully until the business concerning a man of the Le surname group [Sae Lii], named Wuen Tso Lu-Phia, who lived at Doi Chang. The whole affair began with an incident which occurred at Doi Chang when a Thai tax collector went to extract money from the people and was shot to death. The whole village apprehended Wuen Tso and sent a message down to Tsan Khwoen Lu-Phia. Tsan Khwoen sent an escort up to bring him back safely out of the area and the Thai never did manage to apprehend him.

Phia Tso came from a very poor family belonging to the Le surname group. His father’s name was Yao Ei so his name was Wuen Tso Ei. Phia Tso had two older brothers, Kao Ei and In Nai Ei, who, being so poor, became thieves. They were caught, tied up, and fined. To pay their fines, Yao Ei had to sell his son, Wuen Tso. After a few years, when he had grown up a bit, Wuen Tso began to think of his father. So he begged the people who had bought him to let him go home and raise the money to buy himself back. They agreed, but after three years had passed he still hadn’t been able to save enough money and was forced to go back and live as son in the house of his foster parents. Later his father came to visit and said that he didn’t have any rice to eat or clothes to wear.

About 20 kilometers from the village where Wuen Tso was living there was a very good place to grow opium. A lot of people had settled there and they frequently hired people to harvest their opium for them. So Wuen Tso went there at harvest time, to see if he could earn enough money to buy himself back. But everywhere he asked for work people refused him saying that his father, Yao Ei, was a clever thief and they were afraid that his son would likewise steal their opium. Over a week passed and he still couldn’t find anyone who would hire him. Finally he went to visit some of his relatives, his maternal grandfather’s younger sister, whose husband had planted some opium in the area.

When he arrived, his relatives were clearing the undergrowth off for fields for early corn, but they needed someone to chop down the trees. “Well,” his great aunt’s husband said, “I thought you’d come to hire out as an opium harvester but I haven’t seen you working at all. Aren’t you going to look for work?” “I haven’t been able to find any work,” Wuen Tso answered, “because nobody will hire me.” “If you can’t find any work harvesting opium, why don’t you work for me and cut down the trees in my fields. If you help me I’ll pay you three lung of opium.7) How about it?” “Any work I can get,” Wuen Tso answered, “I’ll take.” So he helped his mother’s father’s younger sister’s husband cut down the trees in his corn fields and when the work was finished Wuen Tso received three lung of opium.

Wuen Tso took his three lung of opium back to his village, a day’s journey away, and sold them, receiving banknotes in return. At the time one lung of opium was selling in the area of the opium fields for four banknotes. In his village, however, where opium wasn’t being grown, one tiu of opium was selling for 2 banknotes, and one lung cost 20 banknotes. By selling his three lung of opium in his own village, Wuen Tso obtained 60 banknotes. He then went back to the fields where his money enabled him to purchase 15 lung of opium. Wuen Tso, himself, told me this story and how, by traveling and trading back and forth between the fields and his village for a year he was able to make a profit of 120 bars of silver.8) In addition, he was able to buy one large knife to carry on his shoulder, one thick blanket, one pot for cooking rice, and two bowls to eat out of, one for his father and one for himself.

With the 120 bars of silver, Wuen Tso was able to reimburse the people who had bought him and with what was left over he bought cotton and learned how to deseed it. In those days there wasn’t anyone who knew how to deseed cotton, and cotton wool was very expensive. By buying unseeded cotton, deseeding it, and selling the cotton wool, he managed, over a number of years, to become a respected, responsible member of society, and ended up being appointed Lu-Phia.

Only after he had received the appointment of Lu-Phia did Wuen Tso look for a wife. But, having married, the couple did not have any children, so he left his wife with his father. He figured that the reason they couldn’t have children was because he didn’t have any merit.

So he went looking for horned poultry, particularly roosters, and whenever he could find one with a long comb, he bought it up. Taking the roosters home he used their combs in preparing “mustard-green horns.” These are made by sealing a piece of the comb tightly inside an “old lady rice cake,” and tying the skin of a rat firmly around the cake and soaking the whole bundle in the blood of a freshly killed chicken, after which the bundle was put out to dry in the sun until it rustled in the wind. Wuen Tso took the “mustard-green horns” around to various places in Laos to sell for 80 Burmese rupees apiece. Since he had prepared about 15 he made over 1,000 Burmese rupees. And in those days money was really worth something! Anyone who accumulated money was considered really respectable. The remaining mustard-green horns, which he couldn’t sell, he threw away in a river—it was really only a glorified rice cake, after all!

After he returned home, Wuen Tso was afraid to go back to the places where he had sold the mustard green horns, so he bought some opium and set out in the fifth month to sell it in Mung Thswon, Mung Hiem, Mung Long, Mung Thsiaang, and other areas in Jau-tsei (today called Vietnam). He took along some servants and three of his paternal cousins, Wuen Fin, Wuen Yen, and Wuen Seng, to help him carry the opium. One day they discovered that they weren’t going to reach a Mien village before dark so they stopped to spend the night at a temple in a small village at the foot of some hills in which there was a Mien village.

Now, at the time they were carrying quite a lot of gunpowder stored, as was practice in those days, in water-buffalo horns and ox horns. That evening it started to rain and, fearing that the gunpowder was getting damp, they poured it out over paper on one side of the room so it would dry. Then they sat down to supper. When the meal was finished somebody lit a match to smoke and, without thinking, threw the match away right into the middle of the paper. The gunpowder instantly caught fire and exploded with a bang, knocking over everyone in the room. Two monks were very seriously hurt, their torsos and limbs being badly burned. Everyone else had also been scorched, but none so badly that they couldn’t get up and move around. The two monks, however, couldn’t even manage to feed themselves.

When everyone had sorted themselves out it was discovered that nobody present knew any curing spells—none of the Mien there even knew any! One of the Mien, I think it was Wuen Seng, did remember the name of his gya-fin-tsio [“the leader of his ancestors”]; Le Kwe Faam Long. Another fellow, Wuen Yen, was able to do one of the minor kinds of divination but he only asked a question after he got an answer. Well! There wasn’t much any of them could do since they did not know any curing spells. They managed to carry a pail of water up to the room where the two monks were and hold a sort of slapdash curing ceremony as best they could.

Taking up a knife, Wuen Seng invoked his gya-fin-tsio; “Oh, Lei Kwe Faam Long and all the ancestors. Whoever among you, when they were alive, could cool water, could make frost appear, could cause snow to fall, please descend. We are on a business trip and not in much shape to invoke your help properly. We’ve had an explosion and people are hurt, etcetera, etcetera.” And so Wuen Seng improvised a ceremony, and instead of putting proper spells on the water he just talked on in the same vein. When he finished the ceremony he took some water from the bucket and spewed it over each person in turn. In a moment everyone was shivering with cold.

As a result of the ceremony, those who weren’t so badly wounded didn’t even blister. The two monks, however, did break out in blisters. From the 20th day of the fifth month on they stayed at the temple and looked after the injured with what medicines they could get hold of. During this time they stored their opium there in the temple and only after almost a month had passed were they well enough to leave, reaching the nearby Mien village in time for the jie-tsiep-fei rites.

When Wuen Tso arrived at the village he found that his fame as a prosperous person had preceded him. And there he met the woman, Nai, who was to be his second wife and who was later mauled by a tiger. He engaged a go-between to arrange the marriage and an agreement was almost reached when Nai’s mother insisted that they drink the wine. “I won’t allow an itinerant trader to buy her and beat her,” she said. “If he is willing to stay and drink the wine, I’ll consent, but not otherwise.” Wuen Tso, not having any choice in the matter, settled down to prepare the wine and a house for the ceremony. His companions, however, he allowed to return home ahead of him.

Some of the local villagers helped him build a house and he settled in for a short while in whatever the area was called. Vietnam has a lot of Mung located there, Mung Long, Mung Thsiang, Mung Thswon, Mung Hiem, Mung Phon, Mung Mwon, Mung Maa, Mung Paw, Mung Thaeng, Mung U—but I think this all took place in Mung Hiem. When the winter months arrived, Wuen Tso bought pigs and other things needed and the full wedding ceremonies were carried out.

When he and his wife finally set out for his home village they found it lying deserted and abandoned. Every last person had moved away, including his first wife. Here he had returned home and the whole village was absolutely quiet; he hadn’t the slightest idea where everyone had gone. The weeds were already thick in his front yard. As the nearest village lay two nights away they had no choice but to sleep in his old, deserted house.

The next morning they set out for the nearest village to ask where all his villagers had moved to, and learned that they had gone across the river. They had gone up to Pha Mun on the Laotian side and some had settled there, whereas others had moved on down and across the [Mekong] river into the areas of Mung [Thoeng] and [Chiang] Khong. Taking his bride with him he finally managed to track down his first wife on the Thai side of the river and there they all lived for a number of years. Later they moved into the Doi Chang area and there Wuen Tso Ei finally succeeded in establishing his reputation as an important person.

For a number of years Wuen Tso lived peacefully on Doi Chang and slowly built up a fortune based on the opium trade, while Tsan Khwoen ruled uneventfully at Phu Wae. The string of circumstances which were to bring these two men into competition did not begin until the incident over the shooting of a Thai tax collector. There was a Chinese of the Liow surname group also living in the Doi Chang area and he and Wuen Tso were close associates. In those days only the Thai tax collector could arrest Mien, not like today when the Thai are all confused. One day a tax collector went up with some men into the Doi Chang area, arrested Mr. Liow and a number of Mien, confiscated many saddles of opium, and started back down the mountain. Wuen Tso called on a Hmong named Ku Taa Nyouw, who was exceptionally skillful at hunting wild cattle, to waylay the Thai. Ku Taa Nyouw set up his ambush and shot the tax collector dead with one bullet through the heart. One of the ambushers, who had gone to sleep on a pile of wooden partitions, was shot in turn when the Thai saw the sun reflected off the silver on his gun. As a result of this affair Wuen Tso couldn’t continue to live on Doi Chang and so he sent a message down to Tsan Khwoen Lu-Phia to request his help. Tsan Khwoen deputied an escort to bring him safely out of the area, and the Thai never did manage to apprehend him.

When Wuen Tso reached Tsan Khwoen’s territory he discovered that it was a really bustling place, and that Tsan Khwoen, with an appointment as a high official, controlled people all over the place and collected taxes amounting into the thousands and ten thousands from them. When Wuen Tso learned how much money was being collected in taxes he grew jealous, and through jealousy began to covet Tsan Khwoen’s position. So he went down to the Nan court to advise the king. After discussing a number of matters, he asked the king, “what arrangements did you make with Phaya Khiri when you gave him the right to collect taxes (from the hill peoples)?” “Let’s see,” the king answered, “once he really shaved his head, we only asked 500 tsin a year. Regardless of how much he collects in a year we only take 500.”

“Well,” exclaimed Wuen Tso, “then he is only giving you a hundredth part of what he collects! Isn’t it stupid for a king to receive only a hundredth? Why not require that whenever a man wants to move to another village he first obtain a [four Baht] permit (a baai si baat, as they were called in those days) for which he would have to pay four tsin? Then, however many permits were issued times four would be quite something, wouldn’t it? Furthermore, whenever a couple gets married a license could be issued at a charge of four tsin per couple. If you don’t do something like this, aren’t you just letting Phaya Khiri keep all the money for himself? Why should you, as king, receive nothing and he keep it all?”

When Wuen Tso had finished talking the king had to admit that such a procedure would be quite profitable, and so the system of permits was instituted. Phaya Khiri was required to collect the fees for the permits but he himself did not get to enjoy any of the profits since all the money so collected had to be handed over to the king. Phaya Khiri, needless to say, was quite dissatisfied with this arrangement.

About the same time Wuen Tso had also promised to help the king of Nan feed his soldiers. In those days there weren’t any paddy fields in the territory of Nan and the King of Nan kept a large army of soldiers. Since there wasn’t anyone else to take care of them Wuen Tso had promised to collect upland rice from the hill tribes to give the king to feed his soldiers. A huge granary was built at the Nan capital to receive the rice sent down to supply the army. After Wuen Tso had carefully kept his promise for a number of years the king began to think very highly of him and appointed him Phaya Intha. The king simultaneously began to regard Phaya Khiri as a good-for-nothing and decided to bestow his position as ruler over the hill tribes on Phaya Intha.

When the king confided these thoughts to Phaya Intha, Phaya Intha stated that, if the king turned Phaya Khiri out of office and appointed Phaya Intha as ruler over all the tribes people, he would let the king decide how much of the yearly tax revenue was to go to the king and how much he could keep himself. The king, when he understood Phaya Intha’s offer, then took counsel with him on how best to handle the situation, and then ordered Phaya Intha to return home while a command to appear at court was sent to Phaya Khiri.

When Phaya Khiri arrived at court, he and the king discussed the matter for quite a while but the king could not get the better of him. Finally the king, in exasperation, ordered him to go home without yet having deprived him of his position. And so Phaya Khiri went home. Phia Tso, meanwhile, waited in vain for word that the Thai had bestowed overlordship of the hill tribes to him. When he heard that Phaya Khiri had been to Nan and returned home already, he went back to court taking another saddle of silver with him. In those days Phia Tso was extremely rich and only became poor later because of all the problems he got into. When he got to Nan he presented the saddle of silver to the king and begged that the king, regardless of the difficulties, obtain the position for him. The king assured him that he would speak forcefully and not listen to Phaya Khiri’s objections.

Again, Phaya Khiri was called to court for an audience and again the king couldn’t get the better of him. So once more the king declared that he was impossible to deal with and ordered him to go home, still without having obtained his resignation. Phia Tso waited and waited but didn’t receive any news concerning his appointment as overlord. So once again he went to Nan and took more money to present to the king. During the audience he told the king, “You are the highest person in the kingdom. Even if he isn’t willing to step down there is nothing he can do about it. Why should you, the king, listen to him? There are proper procedures for dealing with cases like this.” The king stated, “All right! This time I won’t listen to him. As soon as he gets here I’ll remove him from office and I won’t stand on ceremony to do it either.”

Yet again Phaya Khiri was called to court for an audience. As soon as he arrived the king called out, “I am not going to let you be Lu-Phia any longer!” “That’s all very well and good,” answered Phaya Khiri, drawing forth his official letter of appointment, “but just what did you have in mind when you drew up this document? If you, in your capacity as an official, hadn’t used a written proclamation to appoint me, you could then remove me like this. But as it is you do use writing for all kinds of documents—passes, permits, certificates, and the like—which have to be honored. Now, only, if you can take this official appointment of mine and return the paper to me in its original condition, without the ink used to write on it, will I step down.”

The king could find no answer to this and so Phaya Khiri went home. When Phia Tso reappeared the king told him, “There just isn’t any way to get the better of him. Besides, he’s old and about ready to die, so wait and when he’s dead I’ll appoint you in his place.”

Phia Tso, being left in the unenviable position of having to wait for Phia Khwoen to die before taking over his office, decided upon a plan to hasten his death. This plan, however, was not successful. What he did was to send some men to ambush him, one evening at the village bathing area. While Phia Khwoen was bathing they shot at him, but their gunpowder only sputtered and failed to explode. Phia Khwoen, hearing the noise, shouted out, “Has someone come to shoot me, or what?” and thereby frightened them into running away.

Now, Phia Khwoen had a very powerful riding horse. Everyone recognized this horse and knew that no one could get near it. Anyone who approached close enough to put a hand on it got bitten. Phia Khwoen himself was the only person who could touch it. So Phia Tso again sent some men to Phia Khwoen’s village with the idea of releasing the animal and then shooting Phia Khwoen while he was looking for the horse in the woods. They managed to sneak up to the stable without being seen, open the gates and let the horse out. Phia Khwoen, however, suspected that this might be some kind of ploy to shoot him and so he, himself, did not go and look for the horse. The only problem was that no one knew just where the creature had gone.

After everyone had bustled about looking for the horse for some time without success, Phia Khwoen decided he would just have to go and search himself, plot or no plot. But as soon as he stepped out of the door he met the horse returning on its own accord. As his horse did not make a sound and as there wasn’t any electricity or anything like that in those days, Phia Khwoen took the horse back to its stable, tied its rope firmly to a post, and firmly sealed up the stable door. The ambushers spent a fruitless night in the forest and Phia Khwoen was now convinced that someone was out to kill him.

Now the trail which led to the city of Nan had broad expanses lying on each side of it which were perfect for fields. Every year Phia Khwoen sent out an announcement to all groups in the area that they shouldn’t start clearing these expanses before the 15th of the third month when he took the tax monies he had collected down to give the king. The reason for the announcement was that Phia Khwoen was afraid that, if the forest were cut down and people started burning off their fields, he wouldn’t be able to deliver the taxes on time because the trail would be blocked by fire. When Phia Tso heard about the interdiction he called together a bunch of Mien and Hmong under him and took them off to cut down the trees along the both sides of the entire length of the trail. On the 15th of the third month he and his followers planned to set fire to the area and burn Phia Khwoen to death.

When Phia Khwoen had gotten about a third of the way down the trail the cut timber on both sides was fired. Seeing the flames, Phia Khwoen realized something was afoot and beat his horse into retreat. Fortunately, a wind blew up at that point and while the fire on one side caught quickly, the wind blew the fire on the other side the wrong way. Only after Phia Khwoen had managed to escape did the fire on the second side finally catch. Phia Khwoen was certainly a man of power. Not only did his hair vastly outweigh that of his uncle’s, but he managed to escape the fire as well.

Matters proceeded in this fashion for some time, but no matter what Phia Tso resorted to, he couldn’t do away with Phia Khwoen. The reason for the ambushes could not remain hidden forever and in the end, Phia Khwoen learned who was trying to do him in. Once he knew who was behind the attacks, Phia Khwoen sent for Phia Tso to come and give a personal accounting for his actions, or to come and be judged. On those days such judgements were arrived at in a general council. Phia Khwoen’s council was very large, consisting of 40 or 50, maybe even 60 men, all of them were very sharp indeed.

These men filled a multitude of lower offices, as kae ban, sien long, and tong kun under Phia Khwoen.9) There were even some in the position of Phia or Lu-Phia, to be distinguished from Phi-Nyaa, the highest rank any of them held and of which there was only one, Phi-Nya Khwoen himself. These councilors included Yaao-thsiang Lu-Phia, Wuen Fou Syo Lu-Phia, and a great many others, all of whom had assembled to discuss the case of Phia Tso.

Now, Phia Khwoen’s house consisted of two storeys, the upstairs being his official government offices and the downstairs forming his regular living quarters. The meeting was held downstairs and during it Wuen Lin Lu-Phia insisted that Phia Tso should be tied up. When Phia Tso heard about the meeting, he realized that this time he wouldn’t be able to escape, that no matter what, they were determined to tie him up. Since he had no other recourse he got out his silver and put some in each of the side pockets of his coat; in these days men were wearing long coats with very large pockets which were bought from Chinese traders and were called ko tu lui.

An escort was sent to bring him to Phia Khwoen’s village as everyone was afraid that he wouldn’t come otherwise. The escort, whose name was Ta-Seng Wuen, was a highly respected person. When they reached their destination, Phia Tso was not allowed to enter Phia Khwoen’s house or to sleep there. Instead, he stayed at Ta-Seng Wuen’s home and the next morning was escorted to Phia Khwoen’s place.

The night before Wuen Lin Lu-Phia and the other Mien officials had sat up late discussing the case and working a consensus on tying up Phia Tso. Because of the many guests who had to be fed during the proceedings, a huge cane basket to uncooked hulled rice had been placed upstairs. While the deliberations were still going on downstairs, the basket burst with a resounding “pop” and the rice came pouring down on the people seated below. “Hey! How come,” someone said, “you didn’t floor over this part of the upstairs? And now to have the basket burst like this!” Everyone’s daring dissipated somewhat with this incident, and someone else said, “If we don’t tie up Phia Tso then he won’t have any opportunity to escape his bonds.” And so it was agreed that they wouldn’t tie him up.10)

When Phia Tso reached Phia Khwoen’s house the next morning, he went in and started up the stairs to see Phia Khwoen. At this moments Phia Khwoen, who had just gotten up, started downstairs and so the two encountered each other there on the middle of the stairway. Phia Tso quickly transferred the silver in his pockets to the pockets of Phia Khwoen. Phia Khwoen didn’t know how much it was; all he knew was that his pockets were equally weighted down. They descended the stairs. Phia Khwoen invited his opponent to have a seat while he went into the family quarters to get some tea and tobacco and while he was there he took the silver out of his pockets and put it aside.

When Phia Khwoen returned, he and Phia Tso talked for some time. Finally Phia Khwoen said, “Well, I guess there isn’t much more to be done. Everything that you have said here younger brother Phia has been very placating.” Phia Tso, after all, was trying to get off with as little punishment as possible. “Yes, very placating. In these circumstances we think the best course is for all of us to share in a feast of reconciliation.” So a special pavilion was erected and a cow was killed while the discussions continued at Phia Khwoen’s house.

All the preparations for the meal were carried out in the pavilion and a great many Mien were invited to share the feast. As the discussions at Phia Khwoen’s drew to a close, Yao Thsiang Lu-Phia got up to say a few instructive words. “Well, now, people say that ‘the early litters are fat while the later ones are skinny’. It’s been said here before and I’ll say it again loudly, the only reason matters have reached this point is because of your actions, younger brother Phia Tso. If it hadn’t been for your actions we wouldn’t have had to do all this. So think about the saying ‘the early litters are fat while the later ones are skinny!’” Yao Thsiang then sat back down.

That was just too much for Phia Tso. He rolled up his pants legs and then jumped up, shouting, “Damn it! What are you talking to me about ‘the early litters are fat while the later ones are skinny’ for? Whose wife have I dishonored?” On and on he ranted, his body poised in fighting stance with one leg raised to kick. Everyone sat stunned, their faces blotched, and nobody could get in a word in answer. When he had finally run down, Tsan Syo Lu-Phia spoke up, “We needn’t say anything more about this, or we’ll just get into another argument. There was plenty of justification for holding this meeting—we all know about it—and now we should all get together and settle the matter. We are going to eat a feast of reconciliation. Now, we of Phia Khwoen’s group will eat more of the meat because there are more of us, but together we constitute only one of the parties to this case.” Wuen Tso’s group, though fewer in number, constitute the other party in this case. The ox for the feast, whatever its cost, should be paid for equally by each groups. “Fine,” said Phia Tso, “I know the proper custom here.” And so each of the two parties paid for half of the feast ox and the case was formally closed.

Phia Khwoen’s son, Wuen Lin Lu-Phia, however, was not satisfied with the feast of reconciliation. Being still very angry at Phia Tso, he ensorcelled him. During the sorcery ritual, Wuen Lin invited his masters to help him, collected together the heavenly forces, blocked off the protective spirits who might have rendered the sorcery ineffective, built a magic bridge, and sent his celestial soldiers across it to Phia Tso’s body where his soldiers captured his life spirits. When the soldiers had returned across the bridge with Phia Tso’s life spirits, Wuen Lin put them on the back of a land crab and let the crab go down into a hole.

Well! Phia Tso got really sick and no matter what measures were taken he didn’t get any better. A divination ceremony held for him reveled that his life spirits wouldn’t return but had descended into the water world. A save-the-life ceremony (tzo seng), therefore, was held but was unsuccessful. Nothing worked! He went on being sick until he became prematurely senile. Sick for years, he didn’t die. All the family’s money was spent on unsuccessful cures and they ended up as nobodies, with neither rank nor face.

When I (Jiem Tsan) was born, Tsan Khwoen Lu-Phia had just completed a 60 year cycle. I met him once when I was quite young, my uncle having taken me to visit him. He was 60 in ki-yo 1909 and 70 in loi-mei 1919. He didn’t live to 80, but only reached 75 or 76, while Phia Tso, the younger of the two, died later. After Phia Khwoen his son, Wuen Lin, was made Lu-Phia, but he was not the man his father was, nor were the times the same anymore.

On Chiefs and Interethnic Polities

The life story is not meant as a report that simply lists facts, but instead as a Mien performance that is entertaining and pleasant, and expresses the varied skills (memory, word-play, insight, social commentary, humor, etc.) of the storyteller. The story is quite unique and gives considerable insight into life in the old days while chiefs mediated relations between villagers and lowland kingdoms. Tsan Khwoen is a real person, his title from the king of Nan is right, he lived in a two storey house (unlike other Mien at the time), and he would purchase a cow from lowlanders for the occasional feast (Jonsson 1999). There is a photo of Tsan Khwoen flanked by family and perhaps associates in an old volume of the Journal of the Siam Society, that was taken in Nan town in about 1920. The photo caption only declares that the people are “a group of Yao” and calls attention to the silver jewelry (Rangsiyanan and Naowakarn 1925, 84).

I had never heard of Phaya Intha before reading the story in translation, but instead had been told that Phaya Khiri’s full title had been Phaya Inthakhiri. This is curious, and it is possible that his son Wuen Lin (who had the title Thao La and later was made kamnan and was based in the village of Phulangka), who hexed Phaya Intha with lasting effect, had a hand in making his father’s rival disappear in plain sight by having his official identity absorbed by that of his father. On this front I can only offer conjecture, but I find the matter intriguing.

Mien leaders in 1860–1930 were for the most part strongmen, analogous to the Thai nak-laeng. Their power came in part from the ability to intimidate people, but how this was felt is another matter. The way Mien people have related this to me, both regarding chiefs in Thailand and Laos, is as follows: some say that the chief had complete command and that there was peace and the rule of law; others say the chiefs were cruel and heavy-handed and would arbitrarily punish or harm people; and a third segment of the population suggests that these men were not so important, that they basically sat in their house, never engaged in farming themselves, and mostly kept busy by drinking tea and receiving visitors (Jonsson 2005, 82; 2014a, 65).

Chiefs in highland areas were largely made to disappear in the social transformations that came with colonial rule and subsequent nation states. The basic difference concerns a shift from localized valley kingdoms that had many networks in lowland and highland areas, toward a single-capital nation-state whose officials owed primary loyalty to the capital and not to the local peoples where they ruled. Nan is somewhat exceptional in Thailand in that the royal house was not immediately dismantled but was allowed to exist for two more generations. The king of Nan lost a lot of power, however. His domain had covered what now are parts of northern Laos. Along with a shrunken land-mass, the king no longer could demand tribute in rice from the peasants.

Thus was the king’s interest in striking a deal with Tsan Khwoen to collect tax from the highlanders, and his facilitation of legal poppy growing through the Royal Opium Monopoly. Poppy cultivation everywhere else was against the law. Both the Nan king and the Mien leader profited greatly from this legal farming and trade. Everywhere else, poppy cultivation basically profited only the agents of the illegal trade, and the highland farmers had no other options since they were formally excluded from Thai society. There is some indication that the account of Phaya Intha procuring rice for the soldiers stationed in Nan is to a large extent historically accurate. I at least found published accounts describing that Bangkok had stationed a number of soldiers in Nan by the border with Laos, and that because the Nan peasants had no rice surplus then this became an opportunity for the Mien to sell their rice (Jonsson 2005, 77).

Many elements of the story of Tsan Khwoen as Phaya Khiri correspond to things I had learned from local recollections in the early 1990s, as well as the occasional published source. Tsan Khwoen was engaged in a major status contestation with another Mien leader, Tzeo Wuen Tsoi Lin who became Phaya Kham Khoen Srisongfa in northern Laos during 1870–1930. They were both well connected to lowland authorities, had an analogous title, and are said to have been trying to outdo one another with a household of 100 people—something neither of them really achieved (Jonsson 2009; 2014a). Mien recollections to me were that the king of Nan had denied the group settlement in the domain but reversed the decision in exchange for a payment of silver and elephant tusks. After that, Tsan Khwoen received his title and collected tax for the Nan king. Published works by explorers and missionaries affirm Tsan Khwoen’s two-floor house, his considerable wealth, his many trips to the court in Nan, and declare that it was the Mien population that was providing rice to the Thai military posts in Nan that were placed near the border with French Laos/Indochina (Jonsson 1999; 2001; 2005, 73–93).

I had not previously heard of Phaya Intha, or that there had been a Mien settlement on Doi Chang in Chiangrai. The story brings out persistent rivalries between Mien contenders for leadership, such as in relation to the king of Nan. This suggests that conflict was less between state authorities and highlanders and more internal to either social order. The story suggests repeated assassination attempts and numerous conflicts among Mien and Hmong highlanders. The ritual desecration of spirit paintings suggests, somewhat like the story of the spell against Phaya Intha at the end, that ritual knowledge was commonly used for competitive and destructive purposes—this element is an important corrective to the ethnographic impulse to assemble a composite image of Mien religion as somehow a shared tradition. Equally, it is important to note that the storyteller insists on the effectiveness of certain spells and formulas and at the same time he mocks the group of Mien men who were lacking even the basics of calling on ancestor spirits and performing a curing spell.

The story reflects the esteem that Tsan Khwoen had among his followers, in such elements as the magical quality of his hair (compared to his uncle) and his unusual strength when he later broke the chains that held the same uncle. But he is also described as rather easily corruptible, such as in accepting the bribe from his rival Wuen Tso (Phaya Intha).

One thing I learned in the early 1990s is that in approximately 1945 the Thai police had come to Phulangka and had taken away a permit that was in the possession of Thao La (Tang Wuen Lin), Phaya Khiri Srisombat (Tang Tsan Khwoen)’s son. The permit was never returned and I don’t know what it said. But I do know that for the following decades, the Mien population and their leaders stubbornly insisted on their membership in Thai society by annually going to pay respect and taxes at the District Center in Pong. The Mien villages each had a “village owner spirit.” They would ask around who was the most powerful lowland leader in their area and then invite the spirit of that leader to become the guardian of the village (Jonsson 1999, 105, 115). These ritual relationships certainly indicate one aspect of inclusive identities, elements that the ethnographic emphasis on the Mien as bounded, unique, and distinct might make disappear.

When I first learned of Tsan Khwoen as Phaya Khiri I did not have the sense that such chiefly connections were common. But I later learned that many Mien leaders at the time were successfully making analogous connections in the adjacent areas of Vietnam, Laos, and Yunnan. Vanina Bouté (2007; 2011; 2015) shows how Phunoy came into titled leadership and registered villages in an area of northern Laos in the eighteenth century. The preserved record of titles and associated command is unusual; in most cases such relations were made verbally and practically without any archival trace (see Sprenger 2006; Evrard 2006; 2007; Badenoch and Tomita 2013 for some cases of non-recorded titles and networks; for a rare case of a documented contract and titles, see Kraisri 1965). This is the main reason Renard (1980; 1986; 2002) could find little archival trace of the Karen in Thai histories.

Dynamics of national integration contributed to the general disappearance of titled highland chiefs across mainland Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The kingdoms which made such relations and granted the titles were demolished in the colonial-era making of large single-capital states. Kingdoms previously had mostly been much more locality-specific affairs of particular hill-valley settings that combined diplomacy, trade, and ritual that established relations and at the same time maintained ethic and other differences. There is no indication that pre-twentieth-century states insisted on ethnic or other homogeneity, or that ethnic diversity marked the state’s outside (as suggested by Scott 2009). Instead, the typical situation appears closer to the shifting and multi-ethnic networks described for northern Laos by Badenoch and Tomita (2013), Bouté (2011), Evrard (2006), and Sprenger (2006), where members of the same ethnic group were unevenly situated and differentially integrated into polities, but where a considerable number of ethnic identities was generally involved in any one state.

Given these indications of pluralism, one may ask why there is so little trace of it in the archives, and how come there is no trace of Karen and many other hinterland peoples in the common perceptions of the region’s history (Renard 2002). I suggest that the pluralism that some scholars have pointed to is just one of several “structural poses” among the region’s peoples. The term is from anthropologist Fred Gearing (1962), who suggested that any society takes shape in relation to particular orientations and activities; livelihood, feuds, ritual practice, and war each structured the same settlement differently and in terms of different units. For mainland Southeast Asia, if pluralism was a regular feature of social life then it was made largely invisible by an alternative structural pose that stressed boundaries and exclusivity. That is, I suggest that any society may harbor alternative models of itself that imply exclusive versus inclusive identities. In general, groups tend to promote an exclusive self-image while in practice its boundaries can be much more varied, negotiable, and/or elusive. Linguist N. J. Enfield (2005; 2011) makes one such case for social diversity in mainland Southeast Asia, that an insistence on ethnic boundaries went hand-in-hand with the cultivation of ethnic diversity.

The Nan Chronicle (Wyatt 1994) can serve as an example of how such diversity was made to disappear from public view. Written by a certain Saenluang Ratchasomphan in about 1894, the chronicle is singularly focused on Tai royal genealogies and Buddhist virtue, and there is no trace of the Mlabri, Khmu, Lawa, Mien, or any other hinterland peoples who had more or less formal and more or less regular relations with the court. This issue of a public denial of internal diversity commonly arises in ethnographic research, such as in statements that members of a particular ethnic group will only marry members of the same group and not of others, when follow-up inquiries such as household surveys and the assembly of genealogies often reveal pervasive patterns of the incorporation of outsiders (Hanks and Hanks 2001). Such strategic essentialism, the insistence on an exclusive identity (in kinship, politics, or any other dimension of sociality), is a common feature of a society’s self-image, while no society is ever singular or matches the ideal image of itself.

The complexity of social orders is not specific to states. Anthropologist Robert H. Lowie (1920; 1927) suggests that any social order can have at least three dimensions that are in part incompatible or at least irreducible to any single one. Organization along alternative lines such as kinship and territoriality (based on a village or a larger entity) tends to coincide, and Lowie further suggests that it is general to find also associations based on some third premise (gender, age, craft, trade, etc.). Any social group may come up with norms of behavior and ways of monitoring and enforcing them, while the three alternative and co-present bases for social organization may at times be at odds: “A trade union may oppose the central authority, successfully cope with its agents, and in so far forth nullify national unity” (1927, 111).

To some extent it was anthropologists’ shift from ethnology to ethnography by about the 1930s (see Stocking 1992)—from comparisons to the expectation of bounded groups—that encouraged the disappearance of multi-ethnic networks from the anthropological horizon. Scholars tended to seek “pure” examples of hinterland peoples who showed little or no signs of “contact” (see Jonsson 2014a, 46–47). One example is the work of anthropologist Douglas Miles in 1967–68 (Miles 1967; 1990) with the direct descendants of Phaya Khiri, Tsan Khwoen Waa, in the village of Phulangka. In the introduction to his dissertation he acknowledges the link to the authorities and the considerable wealth that derived from the opium trade, but Miles proceeds to study and describe the Mien of Phulangka as an ethnic case that reveals particular patterns in the combination of agriculture, ancestor worship, and kinship.

Karl Gustav Izikowitz did research in northern Laos in the 1930s. He mentions titled Lamet chiefs, but not as an important feature of local social life and regional connections. He states instead that; “the Lamet were deceived into buying titles of nobility from the [Tai Lue] in Tafa” (1951, 354). In my assessment, the Lamet interest in purchasing titles must be understood in terms of how Lao, Lue, and other rulers of lowland kingdoms in what is now Laos had shifted their interest from Khmu, Lamet, Phunoy, and others and toward Mien, Hmong, and Mun leaders (Jonsson 2014a; Lee 2015; Badenoch and Tomita 2013).

Edmund Leach’s (1954) work on Kachin and Kachin-Shan connections suggests that ambitious Kachin chiefs would emulate the Shan and call themselves Saopha (Shan, analogous to chao fa, “lord of the sky”). But his description does not show that any of the Shan lords or kings had a role in social life—50 years after the British colonial take-over of northern Burma, which separated Shan and Kachin in previously unprecedented ways—so it is unclear how telling the case is of things beyond the colonial setting.

In contrast, connections to valley lords and national authorities in Thailand and Laos in the 1930s had considerable impact in the everyday lives of Hmong, Mien, and others. The ethnographic consensus—the focus on ethnic groups as distinct from one another and as either tribal peoples in kinship-based societies or peasants in stratified and territorial societies—contributes to making unthinkable the long histories of multi-ethnic networks that shaped Southeast Asian societies. Neither Izikowitz (1951) nor Leach (1954) viewed highland chiefs as normal or important features of regional and local societies—the former thought the titles were fraudulent, while the latter thought they expressed a quest for power that drew on imitative desire of lowland king’s glory and would lead to the emulation of stratified lowland society.

The Mien story of how Tang Tsan Khwoen became Phaya Khiri shows the mutual interest between the Nan king and the Mien leader in making and maintaining interethnic networks. The kingdom of Nan had a long but mostly-unrecorded history of making networks with a range of peoples, and recollections of Tsan Khwoen and other leaders suggest that they had been making such relations with lowland rulers in numerous places as they moved through southern China and into areas that now are northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand (see Jonsson 2005, 74–85). Elsewhere I have suggested that there are clear parallels in Mien attitudes toward the spirit world and what can be called the political world, of an interested search for contracts of some mutual benefit by establishing relations that are maintained as long as they are considered rewarding (ibid., 78–91; Jonsson 2014a, 27–35).

Guido Sprenger’s (2010) study of the relevance of lowland-derived titles among Rmeet/Lamet upland peoples suggests an important regional dimension to these dynamics: “Outside objects are introduced into the ritual reproduction of society, kin terms are expanded to foreigners, people boast of their knowledge of other languages. . . . The necessity of external influence for a social system crystallizes in values that emphasize interethnic communication as desirable and productive” (2010, 421). This perspective spells out what I am calling inclusive identities which contrast sharply with the exclusive-identity focus on group distinctions and non-permeable boundaries.

When Le Jiem Tsan told his story to Richard Cushman in 1972 he remarked at one point: “In those days only the Thai tax collector could arrest Mien, not like today when the Thai are all confused.” He was talking during a time of civil war when there was considerable violence and discrimination against highland peoples, and Hmong in particular had become singled out as dangerous communist suspects (as Meo Daeng, “Red Hmong”). Le Jiem Tsan had lived in a region where the Mien had citizenship, legal residence, and license to farm. That area was unlike anywhere else in the northern mountains, where highland peoples and in some ways especially the Hmong regularly faced extortion and imprisonment.

The Mien population that was integrated into Thai administration, economy, and society since the late 1800s was always diverse and differentiated, and the Hmong who were under the Mien leader may never have received citizenship. The members of one Hmong community in that area joined with forces of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the late 1960s but later surrendered. As part of their surrender in the early 1970s they discussed how they came to join the CPT. In one testimony, a Hmong man says that they felt betrayed by the Mien leader, the kamnan, who annually collected taxes from the Hmong on the promise that this would get them citizenship. The Mien leader simply took their money every year, and never brought them any benefits in return (Somchai 1974, 250–274).

Perhaps because of the conditions of the interview—the surrender of former guerillas to government forces—the Hmong villagers do not air the possibility that decades of official (military and police) discrimination, extortion, or abuse had motivated them to join the insurgents. The Mien kamnan in question was the third-generation leader, Fu Tsan, who according to his daughter-in-law had a weakness for opium and who did no work at home or in the fields. Fu-Tsan’s son who succeeded him as kamnan, Tang Tsoi Fong (his Thai name was Phaisal Srisombat, and he passed away in 2011), was a farmer and a genial leader. He was instrumental in bringing some equality and recognition to the Hmong people in his sub-district during the 1980s and early 1990s, before he reached the age of mandated retirement. In my experience, Tsoi Fong never had any chiefly airs about him; he did not impose himself on people in the nak-laeng fashion of his grandfather and great-grandfather. The times were different, and each person is individual.

In a recent historical study that responds to the claim regarding highland “Zomian” statelessness (Scott 2009), Kataoka (2013) suggests that the Lahu in Yunnan and Southeast Asia had their own notions of kingship and states, and that it had only been as of the eighteenth century encroachment of Han Chinese on Lahu domains that they became “stateless.” This claim is very much at odds with the ethnographic consensus that so-called tribal peoples are kinship-based and stateless societies. Kataoka’s case is compelling, but in many ways different from what I call attention to in this article regarding the Mien and various other groups having most likely for centuries been embedded in multiethnic political networks that connected hill and valley populations.

The case for Lahu statelessness as a recent matter of active dispossession is useful for critiquing the ethnographic consensus. In many ways the idea that some peoples are intrinsically stateless has been the rhetoric of dispossession, in the Americas, Africa, and across Asia. Ethnologist Robert Lowie (1920; 1927) argued strongly against the notion that state-ness was a feature exclusive to certain societies. He showed through comparisons that even the most apparently egalitarian peoples had state-like features and could produce mechanisms of coercive power. Lowie suggested further that even in simple societies one can find elements that are associated with sovereignty. He expressly rejected the validity of an evolutionary trajectory for human societies, and the distinction among societies on the binary of kinship versus territoriality (1927, 112–113).

This distinction was common among anthropologists as a way to distinguish state societies from tribal peoples as supposedly non-state societies (thus the distinction between kinship and territoriality). A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1940) offers an angle somewhat similar to Lowie’s in the preface to the African Political Systems, a collection of essays by his peers and juniors. Radcliffe-Brown’s preface blatantly disagrees with the premise of the book, which was also the consensus in British social anthropology; the distinction between state societies (as organized territorially) and stateless societies (as organized through kinship) that later re-surfaced in Edmund Leach’s (1954) study of highland Burma:

Every human society has some sort of territorial structure [that] provides the framework, not only for political organization whatever it may be, but for other forms of social organization also, such as the economic, for example. The system of local aggregation and segregation, as such, has nothing specifically political about it; it is the basis of all social life. To try to distinguish, as Maine and Morgan did, between societies based in kinship (or, more strictly, on lineage) and societies based on occupation of a common territory or locality, and to regard the former as more “primitive” than the latter, leads only to confusion. (Radcliffe-Brown 1940, xiv)

States may look somehow singular from examinations of the ethnic frontier, if ethnicity implies a political unit. But with Lowie (1920; 1927) things may look different—the same society may harbor rival agendas or perspectives rooted in the different priorities of kinship, territoriality, and sodalities. Instead of any hard and fast ethnic and/or upland-lowland divides, Southeast Asia as a region may avail a very different story of complexity and the negotiation of diversity. The case of the Mien in Nan (later Chiangrai, Phayao, Lampang, Kamphaeng Phet, and elsewhere) suggests that they are somewhat exceptional among highland peoples in northern Thailand in that they were not made stateless in the early twentieth century. Bernatzik ([1947] 1970) describes how most of the highlanders were defined as illegal settlers and illegal farmers. The consequence was a general highlander avoidance of Thai authorities and many other lowlanders, as they were perpetually at risk of arrest and fines. The tendency to avoid contact with lowland peoples is apparent in what Bernatzik reported about a stay in a Lahu village in 1937, when he had sat down with his notebook and was about to get answers to all his questions about them as a people:

Suddenly a Lahu man from a neighboring village appeared and whispered a few words. Without a word, all my informants and the spectators who had gathered seized their belongings and, to my astonishment, disappeared with kith and kin into the forest. I did not understand what was going on until, almost three hours later, several Thai gendarmes appeared, who, after a short rest, again left the village. They had scarcely disappeared [when] my Lahu with friendly smiles appeared again. (Bernatzik 1970, 702)

Such avoidance patterns correspond to the Zomian image of highland areas as those actively avoiding contact with lowland states (Scott 2009). It seems clear that this contrasts sharply with the manifest interest in interethnic hill-valley networks that shine through the Mien case of Phaya Khiri and the king of Nan. In that case there was little sign of conflict of interest between lowland kings and highland leaders, while there is much about rivalries among contenders for leadership within highland domains.

While the vagaries of life mean that the three co-authors are not in direct consultation about the contents of this article, it does seem appropriate to close on a somewhat enigmatic statement from Le Jiem Tsan that makes up the final entry in Richard Cushman’s field diary, dated in March of 1972:

The other day Jiem Tsan told me [RDC] that before WWII the Yao fled to the forest whenever Thai came to their village. We were really stupid then, he said—now we are beginning to wise up and learn a little about the world.

This description certainly seems to contradict the ease of interaction between Mien leaders and the court in Nan, but it comes very close to describing how stateless highlanders lived in perpetual fear of arrests based on their (recent) dispossession. Among Thailand’s Mien one can find evidence of successful integration and national recognition, as much as of dispossession and marginalization. The story of the life of Tang Tsan Khwoen Waa and his rivals is a clear indication of the kinds of histories that were never included in any histories that emphasized ethnic exclusiveness, either highland or lowland—stories that express regional traditions of multiethnic negotiation that maintained a level of diversity and contestation that had no singular center.


The life story of the Mien leader Tang Tsan Khwoen Waa is telling of a historical setting that has been somewhat unthinkable in ethnography, of diverse and multi-ethnic networks as the basic units of politics and society. I situate the issues in relation to alternative models of exclusive and inclusive identities, in part to contextualize the invisibility of highland peoples in the historical record of Southeast Asia. Rather than aiming to offer an interpretation or explanation of every part of the life story of Tang Tsan Khwoen, I (HJ) wish to leave some things for the reader to discover, ponder, and perhaps enjoy. Instead of being exhaustive about the story I have tried to call some attention to regional and historical contexts that have made or unmade the patterns of social resilience and creativity that one finds in settings of inclusive diversity, within and beyond Thai society and the Thai national borders.

Some episodes of the life story evoke hilarity, such as the accidental explosion of gunpowder and the rice-container that burst. Hilarity may also pertain to the group of Mien men who knew not even the basics of curing spells and knew no details regarding their own ancestor spirits. Many elements of the story concern human decency, including when the traveling Mien men tended to the injured monks until they were healed. Various components bring up human trickery (“mustard-green horns,” Tsoi Tso disguising himself as a woman to escape assassins) and sometimes cruelty, and the very last bit is on the use of powerful magic spells that can destroy a person and ruin a family’s fortune. I don’t try to extract some timeless Mien culture from the story, but insist instead that a number of Mien perspectives and experiences come together in the complex and skilled performance of Le Jiem Tsan’s storytelling that Richard Cushman recorded and translated.

By 1910, the Bangkok government had largely replaced all valley kings with provincial governors whose primary allegiance was to Bangkok and they were not particularly interested in striking up relations of possible mutual benefit with local upland or lowland peoples. By 1915 the governor of Chiangrai officially declared a ban on opium cultivation and slash-and-burn farming, and for the next 20 years the highland peoples were being fined and arrested on both real and bogus charges by agents of the Thai police and military. The dynamic created much distrust across the upland-lowland divide, and appears to have given this divide a stronger force than was otherwise the case. This production of mistrust between hills and valleys went on for the next 60 years in all the provinces across northern Thailand before things turned even worse during a civil war (Jonsson 2005).

In reaction to the general expectation that the hill tribes were traditional and isolated until the Thai state started to incorporate them by the 1960s, I suggest that the isolation of highlanders was a novel element that can be dated to 100 years ago. All of the scholars of highland society have presumably perused the books of Bernatzik, but none so far has been looking to explain highland people’s isolation as recent and anomalous. The awareness of highland diversity helps clarify the situation: A small group of perhaps initially only 500 Mien people had official recognition from the king of Nan by the 1870s and their descendants have had official recognition since, including citizenship (ibid., 73–147).

This group is an exception. All other ethnic minority highlanders and including many Mien peoples were made stateless and deprived of the ability to negotiate for any improvement of their lot. Many people in this particular state-included Mien group were legal growers of poppy from perhaps 1900 and until 1958. Everyone else in the highlands was continually at risk of arrest, eviction, and extortion. The leader of the legal Mien group had received a semi-royal title, phaya, from the king of Nan in perhaps 1880, and the group never lost these administrative connections because they stubbornly maintained them through friendly visits and annual tax-payments.

Outside the small area of legal poppy cultivation by certain Mien peoples under the king of Nan, the pervasive opium production in the northern Thai hills was the result of highlanders’ societal isolation. They were made to grow the crop by agents of the illegal trade (this includes the Thai police force during the mid-twentieth century) who profited greatly, and the farmers had practically no other options because of their “accidental” isolation from Thai society. The (mostly “Chinese”) traders would visit villages and sell consumer goods, often on credit. This process perpetuated the isolation of hill peoples from Thai society and their dependence on the clandestine opium traders. The majority of highlanders had no inroads in the Thai towns and most did not learn to speak Thai during this time of isolation.

Most of the ethnographic work on the highland peoples of northern Thailand was done through the Tribal Research Center in Chiangmai. This work was directed at discovering and describing “the six main tribes”; Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, and Mien as non-Thai peoples and as ethnic types. By design or not, the research accentuated ethnic distinctions and uniqueness, and generally focused on settlements that seemed untainted by too much contact with lowland society. Thus this research generally found nothing unusual about the isolation of highland peoples from lowland national society. The resulting ethnographic image suggests that highlanders can be described in terms of their disconnection from regional society and hill-valley networks. Against that ethnographic grain, the story of the lives of Tsan Khwoen Waa and his rivals implies that Mien and other highland peoples have always situated themselves in networks with valley populations, and that they have only become stateless through deliberate policies of dispossession.

Accepted: May 24, 2016


I am indebted to Mien villagers in Pangkha, Pang Ma-O, and Huai Kok in Phayao Province, Phale and Huai Chomphu in Chiangrai, Khun Haeng in Lampang, and Jom Khwaen in Kampheng Phet for friendship, collaboration, and various assistance that in some cases goes back to 1990. Tang Tsoi Fong and Pung-Si Fam Kwe deserve special recognition, as do my old friends Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri and Ratason Srisombat. Greg Green, Tre Berney, and others at the Cornell University Library have been very helpful regarding the Cushman archive and the digitization of the sound recordings. A Visiting Fellowship at Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program in 2014–15 provided the freedom to explore new things. An A. T. Steele Travel Research Grant from the Center for Asian Research at Arizona State University enabled by work in Thailand during summer of 2015, and my ability to concentrate on the material in the Cushman archive came down to a sabbatical leave from my teaching duties at ASU. Finally, I am much indebted to SEAS and their anonymous readers for their efforts regarding the text.


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Appendix: On Richard D. Cushman’s Research

Richard D. Cushman had written a two-volume ethnohistorical study of Yao in southern China, based on archival materials accessible in the USA (Cushman 1970). His follow-up research in Thailand was focused on the ritual language and ritual traditions. Cushman wanted in his work to emphasize a “confrontation” of many cultural elements, and thereby to offer an alternative to the commonly expected story of the colonization of weaker or less advanced people by a stronger civilization (see for instance Wiens 1954). Inter-cultural borrowing, he proposed, may have played a much more creative role in the fashioning of new societies than commonly expected in scholarship and elsewhere. To show this, there needed to be research on Yao (Mien and some others) religious practices. Cushman conducted research with Mien in Thailand in 1970–71 under a Cornell China Program post-doctoral research grant. A Ford Foundation Southeast Asia Research Fellowship enabled continued data collection during 1971–72, and that is the archive of tape recordings, texts, and photographs that now is housed in the Cornell University Archives.

Cushman (1972) explained in a final report to the Anthropology Department at Cornell University: “My basic strategy of research consisted in working from text to performance. I discovered quite early in my research that even the simplest ceremonies were too complex in actual performance to allow me to take down adequate descriptive information—and this even if I had a knowledgeable priest free to explain what was happening! Moreover, because priests frequently had to move around during ceremonies, and because the background noise was usually excessive, tape recordings of what was being said proved to be both incomplete and often unintelligible. Furthermore, in several cases, because of the special sacredness of actual performance, I was requested not to record or do any photographing. The only reasonable solution was to have the texts for the various rites written out in Chinese characters. The texts could then be recorded and explicated, and detailed instructions for all activities linked in at the appropriate places. A crosscheck on the reliability of the results was maintained by my attendance at as many real performances as possible.”

Mien ritual traditions are voluminous and complex. “When I left the field in June [1972] my list of ceremonies totaled 280. These may, on the basis of form, be divided into three types: ‘ordinary’ rites each under five hours in performance (total 210 ceremonies); rites witnessed by the Jade Emperor (heu lung) which take between 5 and 10 hours (50 ceremonies), and ‘feast’ rites which run continuously for three or four days and nights (20 ceremonies). My chief informant managed to write out the texts for fifty of the ceremonies, a total of 2,300 pages. Of these fifty, I ‘finished’ thirty-five: i.e. we recorded the texts verbatim on tape, and then for each recorded detailed explication covering meaning and how-when-where-why-by-whom-for-whom performed. Although we could have finished the other fifteen ceremonies, I chose instead to spend the time taping a general overview of all the other ceremonies in order to have available a greater range of material while pursuing the comparative side of this research.”

In addition to the number of ceremonies and the length of their performance, Mien religious life is further complicated by the use of four or five distinctive linguistic idioms. Certain parts of most ceremonies are spoken in Everyday Mien language but they have an enormous ritual vocabulary which I refer to as “liturgical Mien” (sip mien nye waa). The conventions of story-telling are distinct enough from Everyday Mien to refer to this variant as “Narrative Mien” (ko waa). Yunnanese Mandarin (khe waa) is used for reciting many spells, for reading the official petitions addressed to the high gods, for consulting horoscope books, and for the complete text of one ceremony. Many myths and stories are written in a formal song-style. The Song Language (ndzuung waa) is related to Cantonese. Finally, the language used in most rituals is a second form on Cantonese; Liturgical Cantonese (zie waa).

Linguist Herbert Purnell was Cushman’s graduate-school mate and in 2014 he gave me (HJ) a box with over 20 reel-to-reel tapes of Cushman’s recordings that I then passed on to Cornell University. Then I learned that historian David K. Wyatt had deposited 18 boxes of Richard Cushman’s research materials to the Cornell Library and that there were over 70 tapes in the Cushman Papers that are in the Rare Manuscripts Collection. The Library channeled some funding to cover the cost of digitizing the recordings (myth, history, song, and primarily ritual matters) that ideally will have a guide to the contents in English, Thai, Romanized Mien, and in Chinese (I am still working on the details and the collaborators). The history involing Tang Tsan Khwoen Waa is on one of the tapes, and Cushman had written up an English draft translation of it but not pursued the matter further.

When Cushman got an academic job at Rice University (1974–81) he appears to have already abandoned the Mien research project (Wyatt 2000). So far I have not found any explanation for this shift. But it deserves mention that as of 1971, the world of US American anthropology was convinced that many or most of the anthropologists working among Thailand’s hill tribes (and especially through the Tribal Research Center) had been complicit with counterinsurgency efforts and had been entangled with the agents of the US State Department in Thailand and that information garnered from the anthropologists had been essential to the Thai military’s bombing of highland villages. While the claims or insinuations were based on scanty information and primarily on misinformation and panic, they appeared convincing to many in the USA who wanted to take a stand against the US war effort in Vietnam and Cambodia and needed somewhere to point an accusatory finger (Hinton 2002; Jonsson 2014b; for the more conventional view, see Wakin 1992; Price 2011).

The consensus in American anthropology at the time did make it difficult for Thai highland researchers to get published and they met persistent suspicion at conferences and the like. This is the most likely explanation for Cushman having abandoned the Mien project. Earlier, Cushman (1970) had written a PhD dissertation based on library research on the Yao in southern China, a work that Mien and Yao scholars consider top-notch and still of major importance. Subsequent to this, Cushman channeled his energies into a translation of the Ayutthya chronicles, work that David K. Wyatt helped finish (Cushman and Wyatt 2000) as Richard Cushman had passed away in 1991.

The story of the life of Tsan Khwoen Waa was a story which Richard Cushman’s teacher, informant, and friend Le Jiem Tsan wanted to tell. The village of Khun Haeng had only been in existence for a little over a year when Cushman arrived there for his research project. Sometime in 1969 or 1970 the Suan Ya Luang people moved, fleeing increased fighting between units of the Communist Party of Thailand and the Thai military in the mountains of Chiangrai and Nan Provinces adjacent to Laos. By the late 1970s, many in Jiem Tsan’s group had moved to the village of Jom Khwaen in Amphoe Muang of Kamphaeng Phet Province, where I met them in summer of 2015 and played them some of the digitized recordings. When they settled in Kamphaeng Phet they bought forested land in lowland areas that they gradually cleared. Initially the soil was fertile but over the years it has required more and more fertilizer to sustain yields, and for about the last 20 years the soil has only been good enough for growing tapioca, not rice or corn. But the ability to purchase land in the early 1970s is very telling of their somewhat unique history. Because of Tsan Khwoen’s status as Phaya Khiri, and of his direct descendants’ continued administrative service as kamnan, everyone in that group had citizenship and village registration already for a long time. This is very unlike the marginalization that was common among highlanders in the 1960s to 1980s (see Alting 1983; McKinnon and Vienne 1989), and which I suggest was the result of policy changes initiated in about 1910.

1) “Fate” is only a rough translation of the complex Mien concept maeng which relates to a person’s luck, fortune, or power as dictated by astrological influence. The concept is close, but not identical, to that of rit (ฤทธิ) in Thai.

2) [HJ] In 1992–94 I asked after this regarding Thao La, Phia Khiri’s successor son. One answer I got from older people was that the chief expected this but that people often kept him uninformed of their occasional hunt. The issue was identified by Edmund Leach’s (1954) study of Kachin chiefs and their prerogatives, and continued in Cornelia Kammerer’s (2003) study of “thigh-eating chiefs” among the Akha of Thailand.

3) A “pack saddle” (taw) measure is a wooden frame to each side of which baskets, boxes, or other containers may be strapped. The saddle is then lifted up by two men and placed on the back of an ox or horse and the only trick is to make sure that the two sides balance each other in weight. Taw is used here only as a very loose measure of silver. According to Bunchuai Srisawat (1954, 349), one ox can carry about 52 kilograms with a pack saddle, as compared to about 78 kilograms for a horse, but takes two or three times as long to cover the same distance as a horse does.

4) Dong Ngon (Phu Dong Ngon) is the name of the western end of a mountainous area located within the angle formed by the Nam Beng and the Mekong River and, since it rises over a mile above sea level, contains one of the highest peaks in northwestern Laos.

5) Phu Wae is a mountainous region extending over the eastern through northwestern parts of Thung Chang District in northernmost Nan Province. Phu Wae is located in the eastern part of Pua District, in Bo-Kleua-Neua Township, just south of Thung Chang District.

6) [HJ] Cushman was going to include a study of the Charter for Crossing Mountains (which he photographed, transcribed, and translated) in a prospective book from his research.

7) Ten tiu equals one lung. [HJ] The ratio is comparable to what Douglas Miles reports from the Mien village of Phulangka in 1967, of 10 saleung amounting to one tamleng. About 24 tamleng weigh in at about a kilogram (Miles 1967, 20).

8) At 1972 exchange rates, 120 bars of silver equaled Thai Baht 60,000 and US$ 3,000.

9) [RDC/HJ] These titles pertain to the rulers of individual villages, while Phaya and Saen usually implied a chief who had power over a number of settlements.

10) Note that Wuen Lin is Phia Khwoen’s son who at the time did not yet have a title or an official position. Also note how small a role Phia Khwoen plays in the discussion. RDC had left himself a note to discuss the significance of the burst rice basket, but did not get to that task. It may remain a mystery.


Vol.5, No.3, Muhammad RUM


Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 3 

The Case of Regional Disaster Management Cooperation in ASEAN: A Constructivist Approach to Understanding How International Norms Travel

Muhammad Rum*

* Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Science, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Jalan Socio-Yustisia No. 1, Bulaksumur, Sleman, Yogyakarta 55281, Indonesia; Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University, 1 Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya, Aichi 464-0814, Japan

e-mail: rummuhammad[at]; muhammad.rum[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.3_491

This paper demonstrates how constructivism is applicable to the rationale for the growing trend in international relations. The case to be examined is disaster management cooperation in the Southeast Asian region, although there are now 13 regional organizations around the world implementing concerted regional efforts to respond to and reduce the risk of natural disasters. This paper suggests that national interest is not the sole motive for member states to support this agenda; there are also norms that dictate how states recognize the appropriateness of a behavior. Member states believe that establishing regional disaster management is an appropriate behavior. In an attempt to discuss how the norms for disaster management were adopted in the Southeast Asian region, this paper underlines the importance of international dynamics of norms in the formation of the ASEAN regional disaster management architecture. Ideas travel from one mind to another, and this happens also in international politics. Hence, this paper uses the norm life cycle framework to track the journey of international disaster management norms. The idea of disaster management norms emerged and was promoted by norm entrepreneurs on the international stage, and from there international organizations introduced the idea to the Southeast Asian region.

Keywords: international dynamics of norms, norm life cycle, regional disaster management cooperation, ASEAN

I Introduction

I-1 Background

The 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started cooperating on disaster management under the framework of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), signed in 2005 and in force since 2009. Cooperation under AADMER is an institutionalized expression of the member states’ joint efforts. Previously, ASEAN worked in an ad hoc manner to deal with major natural disasters, especially the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 and Myanmar’s 2008 Cyclone Nargis.

ASEAN now has two operating arms for disaster management. To facilitate the institutionalization of regional cooperation, the ASEAN Secretariat established a division responsible for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance (DMHA). This division works to help the 10 member states discuss the agreement, facilitate meetings to formulate standard operating procedure, and assist the parties in building a working plan for future development several years ahead. In addition, for executing mandated works such as dispatching emergency response and survey teams, coordinating aid from different member states, and delivering such aid to the field, the 10 member states established the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (the AHA Centre) in November 2011, headquartered in Jakarta. The AHA Centre has been involved in some major humanitarian operations, such as in Thailand’s floods of 2011–12, the Philippines’ Typhoon Bopha in December 2012, response preparation on the eve of Myanmar’s Cyclone Mahasen in May 2013, the Aceh’s Bener Meuria earthquake in July 2013, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013.1) This development is considered relatively progressive for ASEAN, which was originally established in 1967 as a political effort to contain Communism.

I-2 Significance of the Study

The development of ASEAN is not a unique phenomenon in the contemporary world. Within the last decade there have been many other intergovernmental arrangements established by different actors. The international community has agreed to further support the Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA) of 2005 as the basis for strengthening global, regional, and local empowerment to tackle disasters. Hence, the growing trend of empowering intergovernmental cooperation in disaster management is interesting to examine from the perspective of international relations.

In accordance with the HFA 2005, regional organizations are also strongly urged to establish their own frameworks for disaster management cooperation. According to Elizabeth Ferris and Daniel Petz (2013), there are 13 regional organizations working on their own frameworks for disaster risk reduction and management. International disaster management involves a large number of nations, including ASEAN members.

One motive seems to be positive: in today’s international politics, regionalism plays an important role in effectively bridging the international and national systems (Ferris and Petz 2013). Regionalism has also moved from hard politics to more specific issues. The group of scholars who believe in Functionalism Theory argue that more sectorial cooperation is needed to achieve even deeper regional identities. For example, by cooperating in combating common problems, the member states of a region can learn that there are more advantages to cooperation than conflict. This leads to a decrease in military conflict. A reduction in military conflict means more space for peace, which could lead to regional stability, the fortunate condition that is a requirement to further nurture economic development. While interactions through trade and cultural exchange are intensified, at the end of the day the feeling of belonging (togetherness) with each other becomes stronger.

Nevertheless, conventional or rational motives per se (as suggested by realism and liberalism) may not explain the specific reasoning of different regions with regard to their socio-political development. The trend of international disaster management may be explained globally by using both realist and liberal approaches, but it would be a generalization of problems as both schools neglect the importance of the idea and normative reasoning beyond cooperation in disaster management. From the perspective of international relations, it is necessary to answer certain questions about states’ behavior: Why are different nations doing the same thing? Furthermore, what makes them do it in a similar span of time? Both realists and liberals might be unable to answer the questions because they require material proof. For example, does the number of disasters necessarily have to increase within the last two decades in every region in the world to meet the requirement of rational justification?

Meanwhile, the more developed form of neorealism as suggested by its main advocate, Kenneth Waltz, is not sufficient to predict the trend of regionalism in Southeast Asia. Nuanced by the Cold War international structure of bipolarism, the neorealist perspective believes that the international structure is anarchic and that therefore states tend to behave according to their own interest and rely on the unequal capacity of power (Waltz 1988). The neoliberal approach might touch the whole picture of international politics, relying on millions of lobbies and interests. The corresponding interests are interwoven into a complex interdependent structure of international politics (Keohane and Nye 1989). However, neoliberalism cannot detach the focus of analysis from state interest and does not deny the anarchic nature of international politics. Neoliberals believe in international institutionalism, but like neorealists they believe in a positivistic way of analyzing the state system.

Meanwhile, regionalism in Europe shows that it is more than a state’s interests that determine the behavior of states in international politics. There are many other variables, such as identity, discourse, and norms, that can be manifested in deeper regional integration. This success is echoed through other regional endeavors to deepen ties beyond state boundaries through normative means, including in Southeast Asia. Both neorealism and neoliberalism hence fail to explain the paramount importance of those variables. On the other hand, constructivism emanated as an alternative to further understand the ignored variables, such as the importance of norms in international politics.

Hence, this paper aims to understand the institutionalization of regional and international cooperation in disaster management by using a constructivist approach for a specific region. The main reason for using this alternative approach is that the other conventional approaches fail to explain why such a trend occurs globally during the same period of time. This paper can contribute to understanding the matter from a Southeast Asian perspective. Instead of picking the global stage, this paper attempts to understand regional disaster management cooperation by examining the case of ASEAN to find how the norms of regional disaster management have been introduced, socialized, demonstrated, and internalized as one of the normative drives for ASEAN member states.

I-3 Literature Review and Methodology

This sub-section explains the constructivist approach used in this paper as the most suitable approach to understand the development of regionalism in Southeast Asia as part of the debate in international relations between constructivism versus the positivistic approaches of realism, liberalism, and their variants neorealism and neoliberalism.

According to Martha Finnemore and Katheryn Sikkink, constructivism posits that there are factors other than state interests that influence a state’s behavior (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). For example, a democratic state tries to shape its foreign policy according to democratic principles. Foreign policy could be driven by several factors, such as identity, norms, or discourse. How do global norms influence ASEAN? The general definition of a norm is a standard appropriate behavior with a given identity. Norms promote justification over action and embody a quality of moral “oughtness” (ibid., 892).

Two norm life cycle works are examined in this sub-section to illustrate how the theoretical framework is used to explain the spread of new international norms. The first work, by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and David Hulme (2011), focuses on the international level, while Birgit Locher (2003) focuses on a regional-level case study in the European Union.

Fukuda-Parr and Hulme assert that Finnemore and Sikkink’s norm life cycle is a valuable tool to understand the evolution of complex international norms (Fukuda-Parr and Hulme 2011, 29). They successfully map the journey of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) from formulation to introduction by the UN. They show the dynamics within the formulation. There was a norm marketing strategy and even ideological battle within the formulation of the MDGs, but there is also a limitation to using this method according to Fukuda-Parr and Hulme. It cannot be used to understand why the norm life cycle is relatively fast during the process of emergence but rather slow in implementation.

Locher’s work indicates that the norm life cycle is sufficient to understand the extension of international norms into regionalism. The case against trafficking of women in the EU is an attempt to demonstrate Finnemore and Sikkink’s framework for solving the puzzle of EU policy making. The extension of international norms to the regional level in the case of the EU is possible only if there are “political opportunity structures” resulting from the deepening of regional integration (Locher 2003). In the case of ASEAN, regional disaster management cooperation could also be linked with the success story of the deepening of ASEAN by the establishment of the ASEAN Charter.

The norm life cycle can be described as a tool to understand a pattern of influence. It is divided into three stages. Between the first and second stages there is a critical point that is very important in determining when state actors start to adopt the norms (see Table 1).

Table 1 Stages of Norm Life Cycle


I-3-1 Norm Emergence

The first stage is characterized by the motive of persuasion. Norm entrepreneurs work to persuade or influence a critical mass of national leaders to adopt a new norm (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 895). One well-known example of a norm entrepreneur is Henry Dunant of the Red Cross. Organizational platforms could also have a certain characteristic that makes them suitable to play the same role. According to Finnemore and Sikkink, the UN has certain bodies that influence state leaders to promote specific ideas (ibid., 899).

The tipping point is where a norm reaches sufficient critical mass. This means the norm entrepreneurs have successfully persuaded state leaders to adopt the new norm. According to Finnemore and Sikkink, it should reach one-third of the total number of states (ibid., 901). The other way to measure this critical mass is by examining which important states adopt the new norm. The more powerful and influential an adopting country is, the more likely it is to influence critical mass compared to a small country (ibid.).

I-3-2 Norm Cascade

The second stage is characterized as dynamic imitation. This means that state leaders are already convinced and are now trying to influence other states to also follow the norm (ibid., 895). Cascading an idea means that the population is about ready to accept the new idea due to pressure for conformity, to gain international legitimacy, or because the political leaders are pursuing self-esteem and are therefore promoting this new idea to the people and their counterparts.

I-3-3 Internalization

If an idea is already well recognized, the newly formulated norm has started to be internalized. People and actors with different interests are less likely to challenge the importance of the idea. State leaders are willing to obey agreements regarding this norm. Regional or international actors are therefore bound by the necessity to comply. The other word to describe this behavior is “habit.”

II Analysis

For the analysis, this paper uses data collected from interviews conducted with ASEAN bureaucrats: at the ASEAN Secretariat with Neni Marlina of the DMHA Division and Rio Augusta and Asri Wijayanti of the AHA Centre in Jakarta in July 2013; and the deputy secretary general of ASEAN, Dr. A. K. P. Mochtan, in October 2014. This paper has been greatly influenced by the works of Finnemore and Sikkink on the international dynamics of norms, the experiences of ASEAN bureaucrats through William Sabandar’s “Cyclone Nargis and ASEAN: A Window for More Meaningful Development Cooperation in Myanmar” (2010), and Ferris and Petz’s In the Neighborhood: The Growing Role of Regional Organizations in Disaster Risk Management (2013).

II-1 Norm Emergence in International/Regional Disaster Management

The very foundation of norm development is the necessity to govern. Modern history is filled with progress as well as calamities. The necessity to govern responses during calamities is the origin of disaster management. As suggested by Damon P. Coppola, as the world witnessed the horrors of World War II states were beginning to organize civilian protection; the concern was not natural disasters at that time. This wartime civil defense is the origin of disaster management (Coppola 2011). As for how the idea of disaster management was developed further at the international level, the role of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNSIDR) in the 1980s was critical to creating the tipping point. Meanwhile, to introduce the advanced idea of regional disaster management into Southeast Asia in the 1990s, donors and dialogue partners engaged with ASEAN.

II-1-1 The Norm Entrepreneurs: States Involved in Wars

Coppola mentions no specific individual who had the most important role in building the new idea of international and regional disaster management. Instead, he suggests that states initially introduced the idea of civil defense. During this early period, the term “disaster management” was not well known. Coppola observes that the idea of global standards and organized efforts to manage disaster emerged only in the middle of the twentieth century (ibid., 4). It was correlated with the institutionalized mechanism of civil defense in the post-World War II period.

Prior to World War II the idea of disaster management was largely unknown. After the war, governments with experience in facing war played an important role in the formulation of civil defense. There were no comprehensive national disaster management authorities as we know them today, but the system was reinforced with legal frameworks to provide authority and budgeting during the 1950s and 1960s. According to Enrico Quarantelli (1995), these civil defense units later evolved and formed more comprehensive disaster management organizations (Coppola 2011, 5). This process of evolution can be seen in the following examples. In Britain, the Civil Defence Act of 1948 evolved into Great Britain’s multilayered disaster management system, which included the involvement of local authorities, the Strategic Coordination Centre, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, and the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. In Canada, the Canadian Civil Defence Organization, which was established in 1948, is the foundation of Canada’s Office of Critical Infrastructure Preparedness and Emergency Preparedness. In the United States, the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 led to the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In France, the Ordinance of 1950 and the Decree Relating to Civil Defense of 1965 formed the basis for the Direction de la Protection et de la Sécurité de la Défense, which is administered by the Ministry of Interior. Algeria’s Direction Générale de la Protection Civile is rooted in the 1964 Decree on the Administrative Organization of Civil Defense.

Nevertheless, Coppola observes that there was another motive for the creation of disaster management agencies, particularly in countries that established their disaster management in the 1970s. This other motive was responding to the pressure of popular criticism of governments’ poor disaster management, for example in Peru in 1970, Nicaragua in 1972, and Guatemala in 1976 (ibid., 6). The first attempt in Southeast Asia also occurred during this decade. Yasuyuki Sawada and Fauziah Zen argue that disaster management in ASEAN was conceived in 1976 (Sawada and Zen 2014). Meanwhile, Lolita Bildan’s report also points out that among the earliest domestic disaster management bodies established in Southeast Asia are the Philippines’ National Disaster Coordinating Council in 1978 and the Indonesian BAKORNAS PBP in 1979 (Bildan 2003). We may say that these countries were in the second wave of disaster management emergence.

From Coppola’s examination we can conclude that although disaster management agencies are within the authority of the national polity, there were two patterns in the emergence of these agencies. The first pattern dated to the postwar era and was dominated by more developed nations such as the United States, France, and Great Britain, while the second wave was started in the 1970s mostly in developing countries such as Peru, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This phenomenon illustrates the mirroring of an idea from one country to another, especially through assistance from developed countries to developing countries. This means that as more countries tried to establish disaster management bodies, they learned and adopted the best practices from other nations. From this interrelated learning process, global standards of disaster management were created.

Within ASEAN, the group of experts on disaster management was established in 1971. This group, called the Experts Group on Disaster Management (AEGDM), is viewed as the pioneering body in the region and was behind the acknowledgement of disaster issues in the ASEAN Concord of 1976. This group is no longer active, but it acted as the norm emergence agent within the region. Until the first decade of the twenty-first century, its status did not noticeably improve. With the support of foreign actors such as the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), formerly known as the European Community Humanitarian Aid Office, it successfully sustained the effort to mainstream the idea of institutionalizing regional disaster management (ibid.). During AEGDM’s early period, its role was to establish a non-binding document that would later serve as the basis for regional cooperation.

There have been several attempts to elevate the status of disaster management cooperation in ASEAN. In the AEGDM’s 11th meeting in Chiang Rai, there was a proposal to elevate its status to the ASEAN Committee or the Senior Officials Meetings with the obligation to report to the ASEAN Standing Committee or to the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (Sawada and Zen 2014). However, ASEAN cooperation on disaster management did not really gain momentum until the successful operations for the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 and Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when ASEAN and the international community found a way to cooperate.

Since the 1990s, more developed countries have been involved in helping with Southeast Asian efforts to strengthen disaster management norms. Based on previous research, ASEAN donors and dialogue partners such as the European Union, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF), and NGOs such as Oxfam continuously encouraged Southeast Asian countries to introduce best practices for disaster management. As in the case of the MDG norms (Fukuda-Parr and Hulme 2011) and the anti-trafficking of women norms in the EU (Locher 2003), the motivations of actors in the first stage of norm emergence were varied. In the case of disaster management in ASEAN, there were two scopes of cooperation. The first aimed to develop better domestic disaster management institutions, and the second to establish country-to-country cooperation in disaster management. The development of domestic disaster management agencies is important, because without them it is less likely that Southeast Asian countries can engage in any international or regional cooperation. Listed by Bildan (2003), among the donors and dialogue partners who engaged with Southeast Asian countries were USAID, the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), and ECHO.

The main function of USAID is to achieve US foreign policy goals by providing economic, humanitarian, and development assistance for the people of developing countries. In the case of ASEAN disaster management, USAID founded the Asian Urban Disaster Mitigation Program in 1995. The program was responsible for the following: (1) engaging Cambodia by introducing community-based flood mitigation preparedness; (2) engaging Indonesia with an earthquake vulnerability reduction program; (3) engaging Lao PDR by establishing an urban fire and emergency management program; (4) engaging the Philippines by working on flood and typhoon mitigation; (5) cooperating with Thailand in risk assessment and mitigation planning; and (6) working with the Vietnamese by sharing disaster-resistant housing best practices. Through these programs, USAID engaged six Southeast Asian countries and socialized them to the idea of disaster management. Another important scheme carried out by USAID is the Extreme Climate Events Programme, as reported by Bildan (2003, 13). The program began in 1999 and was funded by USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. Through this program, the application of climate information toward disaster management in three countries—Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—is illustrated through training for capacity building and demonstration. Lastly, USAID funded the Program for Enhancement of Emergency Response in 1999. The program focused on building capacity in Indonesia and the Philippines, especially for urban search and rescue, medical response, and hospital preparedness for emergency response (Bildan 2003).

DANIDA started a program for less-developed countries in Southeast Asia in 2001. Through the Disaster Reduction Programme for Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam, DANIDA focused on the development of short- and medium-term frameworks for community public awareness programs in Cambodia and Vietnam and the development of disaster awareness teaching materials for elementary schools in Lao PDR (ibid.).

The European Union works closely with Southeast Asia through ECHO, a global collaboration that the EU initiated in 1996 via the Partnerships for Disaster Reduction–South East Asia, which aims to train disaster management practitioners in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Vietnam and facilitate capacity building for community-based disaster management. ECHO also assisted the oldest disaster management expert group in the region, AEGDM. Acknowledging that AEGDM was the norm entrepreneur inside ASEAN, we can conclude that ECHO aimed to support ASEAN in building its own regional disaster management architecture.

Those initial programs played an important role in bringing norms of disaster management into Southeast Asia. Experienced dialogue partners introduced regional disaster management to ASEAN in two waves: the first wave of cooperation was to build state national disaster management offices. The second wave of cooperation was to build state-to-state disaster management cooperation in the region.

II-1-2 Organizational Platforms: UNISDR, International and Regional Organizations

According to Coppola, there are some milestones at the international level in the evolution of disaster management. One of the most important events was the United Nations General Assembly declaration of the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). The action was aimed at promoting internationally coordinated efforts to reduce losses caused by natural disasters. The United Nations declared this campaign in 1987 and supported it through UN Resolution 44/236, which promoted better disaster management practices globally and encouraged national governments to improve their performance in disaster management (Coppola 2011, 6–7).

The second milestone was the Yokohama Strategy–Global Recognition of the Need for Disaster Management (ibid., 7–9). The Yokohama Strategy was approved by the UN member states in 1994 at the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction. This conference was held to evaluate the progress of the IDNDR. There are some important points of the Yokohama Strategy that we can use to understand the formulation of international disaster management, such as in articles 4 and 7.g, where it states that the world is increasingly interdependent and that regional and international cooperation will significantly enhance the ability to respond to disaster (HFA 2005).

These two points of importance are a call to promote further regional and international disaster management, as we recognize that we are living in an interdependent world and better coordination is needed to tackle disasters, which do not respect borders. To further sustain the efforts, IDNDR and the Yokohama Strategy were followed by the setting up of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). The main role of UNISDR is to guide the international community in disaster management (ibid., 12).

Entering the twenty-first century, international organizations launched some programs in Southeast Asia in parallel with their efforts at the international level. Among the notable actors named by Bildan (2003) are the Asian Disaster Reduction Center (ADRC), the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center–Regional Consultative Committee on Disaster Management (ADPC-RCC), and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) Typhoon Committee. Established in 1998, ADRC supports Southeast Asian countries mostly through socialization and information sharing on disaster reduction mechanisms. The ADPC-RCC, established in 2000, focuses on capacity building for national disaster management offices (NDMOs), including those in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, since July 2001 the UN ESCAP Typhoon Committee has been assessing the technology required for mitigation and preparedness, serving as an information and education provider, and developing communication networks in Southeast Asia.

Complementing the efforts of international organizations are Southeast Asian regional bodies. One example is the ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Disaster Relief, which was established in 1993. Although this forum was not very active in the past, at its fourth meeting in May 2000 the body agreed on the idea of socialization and capacity building for better regional disaster management. As noted by Bildan (2003), there was agreement on the following: (1) information sharing of disaster data and early warning; (2) mutual assistance for disaster preparedness and relief; and (3) training in disaster management and promotion of greater awareness in disaster preparedness and relief. The key word for this program is socialization. At the subregional level, associated with Southeast Asian Indochinese countries, there is also the Mekong River Commission, which is working on flood management and mitigation strategy.

It should be noted that not all cases of regional cooperation are success stories—for instance, ASEAN experienced a failed attempt to integrate haze pollution into disaster management. Although ASEAN regional cooperation in tackling transboundary haze pollution started in 1995, it ran into several political obstacles. Malaysia and Singapore protested against Indonesia for the haze pollution produced from forest fires in Borneo, particularly after the 1997 fires there. Until the first decade of the twenty-first century the tension rose, since there was no settlement agreed upon between the three countries.

In the beginning, Malaysia and Singapore benefited from the continuous bilateral pressure on Indonesia. Indonesia initially preferred to discuss the matter with Malaysia and Singapore at a subregional ministerial meeting in Riau instead of bringing the issue to be fully resolved under the ASEAN mechanism (Tan 2005). But due to political considerations, ASEAN established its own legal umbrella for transboundary haze pollution, which is the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution signed in 2002 (ibid.).

The issue of transboundary haze pollution deserves elaboration. It is true that the national interests of member states may clash with regional endeavors to regulate a particular conflict. However, this case shows the weakness of neorealism theory in predicting the trend of ASEAN regionalism. Neorealism believes that the international structure is anarchic (Waltz 1988, 618). Using the logic of neorealism, Singapore and Malaysia would prefer to use the variables of unequal state capacity (by which they would benefit) and defect from the regional architecture. However, as issues and negotiations develop, governments rely on the formation of regional normative tools to ensure the implementation of cooperation.

Formal regional attempts to tackle transboundary haze pollution began with the signing of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002. This agreement requires ASEAN member states to actively monitor and prevent activities that may lead to forest fires. The agreement also endorses regional cooperation in the form of joint monitoring of such activities. Although the agreement was signed by ASEAN member governments in 2002, the ratification process was hindered by domestic politics, especially in Indonesia. Malaysia and Singapore were the first two nations to ratify the agreement, in December 2002 and January 2003 respectively, while the ratification process in the Indonesian parliament was impeded until 2007 (Haze Action Online 2015). This prolonged process of ratification worried Malaysia and Singapore because the haze produced from Indonesian forest fires frequently carried over into their territory.

The inability of the regional organization to mediate the negotiation and give satisfying closure would create distrust toward regionalism. It could have caused Malaysia and Singapore to voluntarily defect or withdraw. However, the conflicting parties were willing to give the regional mechanism a chance. Strategic sequential measures (or rather positive tit for tats) were launched by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. In the absence of the implementation of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, the new Indonesian administration preferred a subregional negotiation. ASEAN then facilitated a subregional ministerial steering committee in 2006 as a forum to assist Indonesia. Malaysia and Singapore responded by joining in together with Brunei Darussalam and Thailand. To respond to the goodwill, the Indonesian government invited Malaysia and Singapore to assist Indonesian provinces that were prone to forest fires. Both countries responded well: Singapore signed a collaboration agreement with Jambi Province, which lasted from 2007 to 2011; and Malaysia signed a collaboration agreement with Riau Province in 2008 (National Environment Agency, Singapore 2016). The sequential give and take of political negotiations during this period was important to build trust within the regional framework despite the absence of an agreement.

The ASEAN subregional arrangement was continuously implemented through frequent subregional ministerial meetings. There were 16 subregional meetings from 2006 to 2014. The Indonesian parliament finally ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution on October 14, 2014 (Aritonang 2014; Haze Action Online 2015). It took 12 years to build trust among these three neighboring countries. At the moment, the process of combating transboundary pollution is managed multilaterally under ASEAN regionalism. This finding opposes the argument that anarchic bilateral pressure works best. Using the constructivism framework allows for predictability in analyzing how the traveling of norms affects regionalism. The framework helps us understand when and how international norms influence regionalism in accordance with universal values. This method can be applied to analyze various cases in different regions. There is potential for supranational governability of transboundary pollution since the 10 member states agreed on the ASEAN haze monitoring system in October 2013. Hence, the predictability of the constructivist approach (i.e., international norm dynamics) is beneficial for analyzing the trend of regionalism.

II-1-3 The Tipping Point

The idea of international disaster management did not reach the tipping point until most of the world’s countries recognized its importance. This paper argues that the most important event that could be defined as a tipping point was the HFA in 2005, which came about as a result of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction held in Kobe on January 18–22, 2005. The HFA is an international effort to encourage national governments to strengthen the institutional basis for implementation of disaster risk management and to integrate it into sustainable development policy. The HFA has directly influenced ASEAN to pursue its own regional disaster management cooperation. It should be noted that the HFA is referred to as an international strategy for disaster management and the ASEAN legal framework acknowledges the importance of this framework as the basis of Southeast Asian regional cooperation on disaster management.

Coppola highlighted the magnitude of this conference by showing that there were more than 4,000 participants, with 168 governments represented out of about 195 countries in the world in 2005. A total of 78 specialized UN agencies participated, along with 562 journalists from 154 media corporations, and the conference attracted more than 40,000 visitors (Coppola 2011, 13). According to Finnemore and Sikkink, to reach the tipping point, no less than one-third of the world’s state number (33.33 percent) needs to recognize the importance of newly established international norm (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 901). Based on the number of countries that participated in the conference, we can conclude that 86.15 percent of states recognized the necessity for international disaster management. This means the tipping point was reached globally. Regionally, the tipping point was reached with the signing of the AADMER on July 26, 2005 in Vientiane, Laos, only six months after the signing of the HFA. The AADMER was signed by all ASEAN member states, which consist of all Southeast Asian countries except for Timor Leste.

II-2 Norm Cascade

In the norm cascade, states try to persuade other states through socialization and demonstration. In this case, ASEAN states were influenced to adopt the norms and to build a feeling of belonging to the international community. In this stage, leaders who have already been convinced about the new disaster management norms try to influence other leaders. Three possible motives are: (1) to provide pressure for conformity by asking the member states to implement the agreement; (2) to gain international legitimacy; and (3) to pursue self-esteem.

This paper has pointed out several important actors that were influential in promoting ASEAN regional disaster management cooperation. Among the strong supporters of this regional mechanism was then-ASEAN Secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan. He served as the secretary general from 2008 to 2012. During the early part of his term, Southeast Asia was hit by a major calamity in Myanmar. Assisted by William Sabandar, the then-special envoy of the ASEAN Secretary General for the post-Nargis recovery in Myanmar, and field officers led by Adelina Kamal, Pitsuwan succeeded not only in uniting ASEAN behind Myanmar to deal with Cyclone Nargis, but also through his dispatched assistance team he proved that the ASEAN-led mechanism worked in the field and technical operations.

As reported by Anik Yuniarti, Pitsuwan proudly claimed that AADMER was the fastest ASEAN agreement to be negotiated and accepted by all of the member states—it took only four months (Yuniarti 2011, 25). Pitsuwan’s optimistic tone is worth examining. The way the ASEAN secretary general proudly claimed the success of disaster management cooperation could be regarded as a way to gain esteem and reputation. We also understand that Pitsuwan proposed the idea of a more progressive ASEAN during his term as Thai foreign affairs minister. During his term, he proposed the ideas of flexible engagement in 1998 and forward engagement in 2003 to challenge the traditional conception of the ASEAN way (Katanyuu 2006). “Flexible engagement” was an idea proposed to make ASEAN more critical of unsavory practices in Myanmar under the military junta. This proposal was rejected by the other member states back in 1998. However, Pitsuwan in his capacity as Thai foreign affairs minister unilaterally launched the policy of forward engagement in 2003. This policy was designed to pressure Myanmar to proceed with the road map to democracy. This implies that Pitsuwan was among the progressive diplomats in the region.

Under his leadership, ASEAN also achieved consensus in signing the ASEAN Charter and establishing the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. From what we have learned about his background, Pitsuwan himself believed in a more progressive ASEAN. His perspective shaped his style of leadership to be more open toward the international community, endorsed open and frank discussion, and aimed to gain ASEAN more legitimacy. As for the involvement of ASEAN in Myanmar in 2008, he argued for responsibility to protect, as he stated in his speech at the Asia-Europe Summit in Beijing on October 24, 2008.

The other motive involves the state as an actor. For example, under its period of chairmanship in 2011, Indonesia built a facility for ASEAN disaster response on its own initiative, located in West Java. This was initiated by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during the session of the ASEAN-Japan Special Meeting in the ASEAN Secretariat on April 9, 2011 (Yuniarti 2011, 29). According to this author’s interview with the AHA Centre representative, the Indonesian government also fully supported the establishment of the AHA Centre, which is located in Jakarta. This regional disaster management operating body was established in November 2011. The Indonesian government provides the facility for the AHA Centre, integrated into the infrastructure of the Badan Pengkajian dan Penerapan Teknologi (Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology). The development of the AHA Centre was supervised by the coordinating minister for people’s welfare, Agung Laksono, who routinely monitored the progress of the project.

These Indonesian attempts were informed by the country’s motive of gaining legitimacy and esteem as one of the most influential ASEAN member states. This was in accordance with Indonesia’s efforts to promote deeper ASEAN regionalism. Since its democratic transition in 1998, Indonesia—together with Thailand and the Philippines—has become more vocal in supporting a democratic ASEAN. In the Bali Concord II of 2003, Indonesia for the first time introduced the terminology of democratization in an ASEAN document. It also launched the Bali Democracy Forum to further spread the idea of a more democratic regional sphere.

ASEAN’s success in cascading the norms of regional disaster management cannot be separated from the successful mechanism of linking issues. Borrowing the terminology proposed by Fukuda-Parr and Hulme, as a “supernorm,” disaster management cooperation is closely linked to global normative shifts such as the issues of human rights, political openness, and democratization. Deeper ASEAN regionalism has resulted in newly established bodies dealing with nontraditional issues, as exemplified by the establishment of the Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Division, the AHA Centre, and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. At the operational level, disaster management and humanitarian assistance cannot be separated from the issue of political openness. If ASEAN cannot make an agreement with all of the member states, any joint operation will not succeed. For example, if diplomatic trust among ASEAN member states is not high, it is less likely that the involvement of foreign military personnel will be welcomed. To help build trust regarding military involvement in regional disaster response, ASEAN has initiated the collaboration of civil-military actors in disaster management and humanitarian assistance operations since 2005. Through annual regional disaster response exercises, ASEAN member states gain a better understanding on how to coordinate joint civil-military operations in a regional operation. This could reduce suspicion among member states.

Involving the military in regional disaster management could also help ASEAN countries redefine the purpose of the armed forces. The challenge to proportionally reposition the function of the military is urgent in several countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia. In Thailand 19 military coups d’état have been launched to date, indicating that the military has constantly attempted to get involved in domestic politics. Reformed Indonesia also has had the same problem of military political involvement in the past. In the Reformation era, the repositioning of the military to make this institution more professional includes introducing international peace building and other nontraditional operations. With this new mechanism created by ASEAN, the governments have found a forum to exercise their interests. It can be said that cooperation on disaster management has led ASEAN to establish deeper mechanisms, such as the use of military assets in “joint operation[s] other than war” (ibid., 16). The use of military assets and personnel to deal with disaster management was discussed by the defense ministers of ASEAN member states in Vietnam on October 7, 2010, followed by another meeting in Jakarta in 2011. Workshops for the representatives of all member states’ military forces on the use of ASEAN military assets and capacities in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief were held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia on October 7–8, 2010 (ibid., 27). These workshops produced the standard operating procedure for ASEAN’s disaster response, in which military personnel from ASEAN member states are allowed to contribute to disaster response—although there are some limitations, such as different administrative mechanisms to accept foreign military assets within other countries’ borders and creating an extra budget to establish this mechanism. The most important thing to be highlighted is the willingness of member states to nurture healthier civil-military relations. The presence of foreign military personnel in cases of disaster relief should not be overreacted to, because their presence is for the sake of humanitarian operations (ibid., 28). Responses from the Indonesian side collected by Yuniarti were also positive, and Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of Science) claimed that the aid from foreign military forces for Aceh had gradually reduced ideological suspicions while Syiah Kuala University also noted that the mechanism to include the military was successful in Aceh (ibid., 29). With the aid from foreign military forces for Aceh gradually reducing suspicions, the international community is no longer divided by ideology (ibid.).

II-3 Internalization

The final stage of new norm installation is the internalization process, when states in Southeast Asia have no further obstacles to implementing cooperation on disaster management. There are legally binding documents, and ASEAN member states willingly comply with the agreement. The AADMER and the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedure for Regional Standby Arrangements and Coordination of Joint Disaster Relief and Emergency Response Operations (SASOP) outline the actors responsible for regional disaster management within, associated with, and collaborating with ASEAN, such as NGOs and donors, since the establishment of AADMER. This means the internalization of regional disaster management in ASEAN can be examined in its implementation.

ASEAN regional disaster management cooperation is now supported politically. According to ASEAN Deputy Secretary General A. K. P. Mochtan, disaster management cooperation in ASEAN is considered an important tool to further nurture solidarity. According to this high-ranking ASEAN bureaucrat, cooperation is growing fast due to three important factors. First, cooperation is a less sensitive matter than issues such as democratization, corruption, and human rights. Second, the ASEAN members view disaster management as the necessity to act quickly at critical moments. Third, ASEAN needs a tangible result to showcase the progress of the Southeast Asian regional framework. Hence, the deployment of ASEAN missions into disaster-affected areas is important.

The internalization of ASEAN cooperation can be noted also in the exchange of projects in the NDMOs. NDMOs are the official bodies responsible for disaster management and risk reduction within member countries. They vary in terms of organizational structure, but under the AADMER they work together within the framework that has been set by ASEAN. Therefore, although they are primarily domestic actors, under the ASEAN mechanism they are also regional actors, since they send representatives to the ACDM and collaborate through the assistance of the AHA Centre in cases of field assistance deployment. Although they vary in form and legal framework (see Table 2), they have been working closely to build their networks since November 2011.

Table 2 List of NDMOs in ASEAN Countries


To help ASEAN member states implement effective cooperation, ASEAN established two operating arms: the DMHA Division (Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Division) and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance for disaster management (AHA Centre). The ASEAN Secretariat works to facilitate dialogue and serve as the bureaucracy for the implementation of AADMER. Before the AHA Centre was established, the DMHA Division also served as the operational body for field operations. Nowadays there are incremental transfers of roles, such as in mid-2013, when tasks related to disaster response, operations, and capacity building were transferred to the AHA Centre. The DMHA Division also has transferred the administration of the ASEAN Disaster Risk Reduction Portal (DRR Portal) to the AHA Centre. Nevertheless, the division still functions as the custodian of disaster response funds and monitored the balance scorecard for the implementation of the 2010–15 work plans. Therefore, the DMHA Division acts as the bureaucratic arm with the task of monitoring conformity. The AHA Centre is the operating arm of ASEAN cooperation in disaster management and risk reduction. Since its establishment in 2011, the AHA Centre has been involved in major natural disasters such as the Thailand floods of 2011–12, Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines in December 2012, response preparation on the eve of Myanmar’s Cyclone Mahasen in May 2013, the Aceh-Indonesia Bener Meuria earthquake in July 2013, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013.

The AHA Centre also operates a yearly regional exercise called the ASEAN Regional Disaster Emergency Simulation Exercise (ARDEX) as the platform for member states and different actors to collaborate in a simulation. ARDEX involves NDMOs, search and rescue teams, and the military personnel of member states. All of these mechanisms were developed by the AHA Centre to ensure the smoothness of regional cooperation by making it habitual and internalized.

An interesting finding is that help from donors and dialogue partners continues up to today. They support the fund under the larger framework of the ASEAN master plan for connectivity. I was informed by Mochtan that he was still helping ASEAN to maintain cooperation with JAIF. JAIF has been donating funds and material since its establishment, including the real-time early detection warning system for the AHA Centre. This information was previously confirmed by the communication officer of the AHA Centre, Asri Wijayanti.

In the wider area of regional cooperation, ASEAN also drives the ASEAN Regional Forum Exercises (ARF DiRex), which involve not only the 10 member states but also their dialogue partners2) to ensure peaceful coexistence in the Pacific region. In 2015 alone, there were four meetings and agendas related to disaster management in the joint ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting and Defence Ministers of Dialogue Partners (ADMM-Plus).3) Among them was the ARF DiRex in Kedah, Malaysia, in May 2015.

Another important aspect is the involvement of the population in ASEAN regionalism. To endorse a more people-centered approach, ASEAN established the AADMER Partnership Group (APG). The APG is a consortium of international NGOs collaborating with ASEAN for the people-centered implementation of AADMER. The NGOs involved in this endeavor are Child Fund International, Oxfam, Save the Children, Mercy Malaysia, and Plan. The funding comes from the European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. This could help ASEAN promote activities for wider audiences in the region. According to my interview with ASEAN DMHA representative Neni Marlina in July 2013, the ASEAN Secretariat welcomes such progressive ideas. The motives range from socialization and education to the internalization of the idea of regional disaster management.

III Conclusion

Through the analysis in this paper, I have answered the question of why there is a trend of regional organizations establishing disaster management cooperation mechanisms: the reason is strong global advocacy. The move to establish the supernorms of international/regional disaster management has successfully traveled from the norm entrepreneur to the international stage through introduction, socialization, and persuasion mainly by international organizations. The dominant mechanism to introduce and persuade state leaders in the norm emergence stage is the top-down approach, using the UN as an organizational platform for entrepreneurs. Hence, the genealogy of an internalized idea can be traced back to UN resolutions as the basis for global cooperation. The roles of UN resolutions and UNSIDR were important in bringing the idea to the tipping point in 2005, followed by the Southeast Asian tipping point which also reached the ASEAN region in 2005. This means that advocacy during the norm emergence stage was diffused in parallel at the international and regional levels, as we can see in Table 3. We can also conclude that in terms of the regional/international disaster management idea, the function of international organizations is pivotal.

Table 3 International/ASEAN Regional Disaster Management Supernorm Life Cycle


To sum up the findings, regional disaster management cooperation in ASEAN was successful only because there were certain facilitating factors: (1) continuous assistance from the international community; (2) the determined leadership of ASEAN; and (3) a proven regional mechanism as a result of the deepening of ASEAN regional cooperation.

First, most of the funding and initiative to introduce socialization and demonstration of disaster management in ASEAN was supported by foreign actors. Hence, there was strong international advocacy for spreading the global normative shift. Since the 1990s there has been continuous engagement by international organizations and dialogue partners in assisting Southeast Asian states to establish domestic national disaster management offices and improve regional disaster management cooperation. Donors have worked together with individual countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as giving assistance to the ASEAN Expert Group on Disaster Management. The collaboration created better opportunities for the future regional disaster management architecture. Some donors are still working with ASEAN in this sector.

Second, there was strong leadership from both ASEAN bureaucrats and state leaders. As demonstrated in this paper, the role of then-Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan and the current director of the DMHA Division, Adelina Kamal, was pivotal in determining the success of ASEAN operations during Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis in 2008. State leaders such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Agung Laksono were also important in showcasing the political will to support the cause and indirectly convincing other ASEAN member states to join Indonesia in supporting regional disaster management cooperation.

Third, ASEAN has a proven regional cooperation mechanism. The importance of the momentum resulting from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 cannot be ignored. The former had a great impact on both HFA and AADMER reaching the tipping point in 2005. ASEAN involvement in Aceh to assist in the reconstruction and reconciliation process was a successful demonstration that the regional organization was capable of conducting field operations. Moreover, the Indonesian government was open to accepting the assistance of the international community. This showed the other ASEAN member states that there was no reason for them to be suspicious of ASEAN’s capability. Meanwhile, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 provided the motive for the AADMER to be put in force in 2009. ASEAN successfully deployed the humanitarian operation and facilitated the cooperation of the Myanmar government and international community. This success raised the confidence of ASEAN member states to further develop disaster management cooperation. Nevertheless, without the international dynamics of norms that illustrate the transfer of disaster management norms from entrepreneurs to the world and then to ASEAN, such a phenomenon cannot be clearly explained.

Accepted: March 7, 2016


My gratitude to Prof. Yuzuru Shimada for his invaluable advice in writing this article. I would like to appreciate the ASEAN Secretariat and AHA Centre for allowing me conducting research in their institutions.


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1) Collected from direct interviews with ASEAN officers and official news disseminated by the AHA Centre.

2) Their dialogue partners are Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste, and the United States.

3) The members were Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the eight Plus countries: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States.


Vol.5, No.3, Quan Manh HA


Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 3 

When Memory Speaks: Transnational Remembrances in Vietnam War Literature

Quan Manh Ha*

* Department of English, The University of Montana, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA

e-mail: Quan.Ha[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.3_463

This article offers a brief overview of the problems in representations of the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese people, in Vietnamese, American, and Vietnamese American literatures. Each literary corpus ideologically politicizes collective and individual memory about the war to serve a certain political agenda. Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace—two narratives written from the perspective of the Vietnamese victims of the war—which are selected for textual analysis in this article, with an emphasis on traumatic memories and suffering, debunk the myth of the just cause of the war claimed by the United States and decenter the Euro-Americacentric view on trauma and human suffering, thus challenging the common, one-dimensional perceptions about the Vietnamese and the Vietnam war in American cultural politics and memory.

Keywords: trauma, postcolonial discourse, Vietnam War, Vietnamese literature, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

The conflicting attitudes toward, and the moral dilemmas surrounding, the Vietnam War are recorded extensively in Vietnamese, Vietnamese American, and American histories and literatures. Each side interprets the war from its own partisan perspective, creating a plethora of opinions and well-argued positions on the political and military conflict. The year 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of Vietnam’s reunification, and although nearly half a century has elapsed, the Vietnam War remains actual in the socio-political determinants, literary productions, and cultural memories of both Vietnam and the United States. Viet Thanh Nguyen notes, “So much is told about Viet Nam, and so little is understood” (V. T. Nguyen 2006, 13), and Neil L. Jamieson advises the Americans to “learn more about Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese paradigms in order to untangle the muddled debates about our own,” because the Vietnam War is an important event that Americans must excogitate in their attempt to understand the Vietnamese and themselves (Jamieson 1993, x). Discourses on the Vietnam War, in the West and particularly in the American cultural memory, have been criticized for their exclusion of the Vietnamese experience and suffering, and even if the Vietnamese are present in U.S. films and books, they tend to be presented as “shadowy cardboard figures, merely one-dimensional stage props for the inner workings of the American psyche” (ibid.). Thus, in order to gain a multidimensional understanding of the war, Edward Miller and Tuong Vu suggest a new critical approach, dubbed “The Vietnamization of Vietnam War Studies” (Miller and Vu 2009, 2) that accentuates “Vietnamese agency and the sociocultural dimensions of the event as lived and experienced by Vietnamese” (ibid., 5). This approach facilitates examinations of how the war exercises perennial effects upon Vietnamese society and its postwar mentality and how it enriches our knowledge about this conflict. In this article, I respond to the appeal made by Miller and Vu above by highlighting several problems occurring in representations of the war in both U.S. and Vietnamese literature in order to challenge or debunk certain misconceptions about the Vietnamese experience. My analysis of Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace will indicate that these two Vietnamese literary texts function to humanize victims and pay due respect to the wounded and the dead on the Vietnamese side, thus challenging the way U.S. and Vietnamese American cultural politics funnel “all of these histories into the single story” that serves a narrow ideological agenda (Nguyen-Vo 2005, 171). The nameless faces and the faceless names of the Vietnamese victims of the war that Bao and Dang lament demand questioning the “narcissistic myths of the war as a US tragedy” (Schwenkel 2009, 39).

Epic Heroism in Vietnamese Literature about the Vietnam War, 1960 to 1975

Prior to considering the two literary texts selected for this article, it behooves readers to understand how war-related trauma and suffering necessarily were treated in Vietnamese literature produced under the guidelines prescribed by the Hanoi government: writers were required “to support the national endeavor by authoring stereotyped works that featured typical characters and themes and that focused on the goals of the collective struggle” (Schafer 2000, 13). If one were to study the wartime corpus of literature without some background knowledge of its historical and political context, one might mistakenly conclude that the Vietnamese did not suffer excessive loss and pain during the war, because the war was romanticized in the literature, as a propagandistic expedient to invigorate the people in their struggle against the enemy (the Americans and anti-communist South Vietnamese troops). Vương Trí Nhàn observes, retrospectively: “‘Accentuate the positive, cover up the negative’—this way of thinking has sunk deep into the Vietnamese psyche and silently guides society” (Vương 2008, 182). He also quotes Nguyen Minh Chau, a well-known Vietnamese author, who wrote that the Vietnamese traditionally have “idealized texts as sacred objects” devoid of “the vulgar and dirty” and that the public expects authors to portray patriotic heroes and their sacrifices nobly and beautifully, without “a single spec of dirt” (ibid.). Vương emphasizes that Vietnamese wartime literature had to be ideological, inspirational, and propagandistic because “[o]ne must depict the war in Vietnam as different from all other wars in the world” (ibid., 183). He uses the term epic-propagandistic to characterize the wartime literary corpus: in order to achieve victory, a soldier must be ebullient and possess a different mindset by showing “dogged determination and be[ing] able to steel his soul to the suffering of combat” (ibid., 185). Literature that deviated from such criteria was censored and rejected from dissemination.

Anthropologist Christina Schwenkel, in her article on a 2000 photographic exhibition about the war in Ho Chi Minh City, insightfully reminds us that visual images of warfare must be contextualized within specific “structural and ideological frameworks and offer only partial and situated insights rather than transparent historical truths and accuracies” (Schwenkel 2008, 37). Her statement is also germane to our reading of Vietnamese war literature, which attempts to represent the national struggle against the Americans very differently from the way the United States and Western media often portray the “violence and suffering” (ibid.). In Vietnam, “[o]fficial narratives of the American War are encoded in images that symbolize national heroism and sacrifice, rather than individual memories of hardship, loss, and trauma” (ibid., 47). Vietnamese writers were required to produce narratives that celebrated triumphs, virtues, solidarity, and optimism that imbued people with great faith in the Party and the army and that honored those who joined the revolution. For example, Lam Thi My Da’s poem entitled “A Sky in a Bomb Crater” (1972) expresses the speaker’s admiration for the heroine’s distinguished mettle or fortitude:

Your friends said that you, a road builder,
had such love for our country, you rushed
down the trail that night, waving your torch
to save the convoy, calling the bombs on yourself. (Lam 1998, 111)1)

In a later stanza, the speaker romanticizes the road builder’s audacious sacrifice, endowing her soul with celestial beauty:

Now you rest deep in the ground,
quiet as the sky that rests in the crater.
At night your soul pours down,
Bright as the stars. (ibid.)

When the speaker and his comrades pass by this area, they are inspired by the road builder’s intrepidity, and in their minds, she has metamorphosed into beacons, “columns of white clouds,” and “the sun,” beaming light upon the hearts of other soldiers (ibid.). The poem does not depict her death as tragic; the pain associated with her death is mitigated because “Our country is so kind” (ibid.). The stanzas quoted above can be construed theoretically, based on Shaun Kingsley Malarney’s discussion of the definition and connotations of the Vietnamese word hi sinh (sacrifice) as: “The revolutionary formulation of selfless virtue was conjoined with the public glorification of death and personal sacrifice to advance the revolutionary cause. The greatest virtue was achieved with death, a transformation that reached its apotheosis in the concept of ‘sacrifice’ (hi sinh)” (Malarney 2001, 49). Because the road builder exemplifies selfless virtue, her death is nobly transformed into sacrifice that kindles in soldiers the fire of patriotism and dedication for the revolutionary cause. Or as Peter Zinoman observes, “Representations of revolutionary heroism” are efficacious in evoking patriotic spirits in wartime (Zinoman 2001, 37).

War causes separation, which is especially traumatic between loved ones, and it generally engenders feelings of sorrow, despair, and loneliness. Phan Thi Thanh Nhan’s “Secret Scent” (1969), however, romanticizes the separation of two friends who are lovers. The girl learns about her friend’s pending departure for the front, and “She [hides] a bunch of flowers in her handkerchief” when she comes to say goodbye to him, so that the scent of her flowers will follow him everywhere and fill his heart: “Leaving each other / They still didn’t speak, / Yet the fragrance sweetens the young man’s journey” (Phan T. T. N. 1998, 117).2) In her aforementioned article, Schwenkel notes that, at the photographic exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City, the photos taken by Vietnamese correspondents not only expose the cruelties of war but also capture the solidarity and cooperation between soldiers and civilians by focusing on their daily activities and hopeful futures (Schwenkel 2008, 45–46). She adds that even when deaths and injuries are evident, “the emphasis is on camaraderie,” rather than on “pain and suffering” (ibid., 49). Visual images are political-ideological expedients, and so is literature. This fact urges us to reexamine how deaths and injuries are portrayed in canonical Vietnamese literature. Nguyen Duc Mau’s “The Grave and the Sandalwood Tree” (1969), for instance, is an in-memoriam poem about the death of a fellow soldier named Hung; however, its tone is heroic as the speaker celebrates Hung’s fearlessness, their comradeship, and their mutual affection. As the speaker buries his friend, he says,

Not much distance between us now.
Only a yard of earth separates us. But you don’t hear my call?
A yard of earth becomes an endless sky.
Now, I miss you more than ever. (Nguyen D. M. 1998, 107)3)

The speaker later calls Hung’s sacrifice “a source of happiness” (ibid.), and Mother Earth tends his grave with blossoming flowers and shining stars. To live the life of a soldier is “beautiful,” and Hung’s corpse “perfume[s] the earth and sky” (ibid., 109).

Although poems like these served the government’s ideological agenda effectively in wartime Vietnam, they undoubtedly have a different effect upon American readers who might fail to see death, separation, loss, and suffering on the Vietnamese side as the tragic and traumatic realities that they, indeed, were to the Vietnamese. A de-romanticized reality was coldly expressed in 1995, when the Hanoi government released the numbers of deaths caused by the long conflict: over three million Vietnamese lost their lives, including both civilians and combatants. The effects of the war remained truly tragic and traumatic in every aspect of postwar Vietnamese society, and they continue to be so even today. This fact is further reaffirmed by Hue-Tam Ho Tai in her essay “Faces of Remembrance and Forgetting,” in which she discusses museum photographs of lugubrious faces of Vietnamese mothers grieving the “supreme sacrifice” of their sons who “gave their lives to the cause of independence and revolution.” Many Vietnamese women and wives “[hugged] to themselves memories of loss,” while others became maritally devastated by the cruelty of war (Tai 2001, 167).

Problems in Representations of the Vietnam War in U.S. Literature

In the 1980s and 1990s, Vietnam War literature in the United States burgeoned, as veterans returning from the war started to write about their experiences in Vietnam. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association introduced the neurobiological term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to describe and diagnose the mental and psychological conditions of victims of warfare more properly, and another authorial perspective emerged: the literature of trauma. Literary criticism on Vietnam War literature generally tends to be one-dimensional, focusing extensively on the American experience and perspective, and it “is concerned with the ways in which the literature of the war challenges and adjusts American myth” (Jason 2000, 4), and with how a sense of American masculinity is constructed when boys achieve manhood through experience in war (Boyle 2009, 3). This corpus of literature and its criticism have been negatively criticized for their Americacentrism and ethnocentrism. Philip H. Melling observes that, in American literature about Vietnam, “the Vietnamese have been culturally undermined”—they are portrayed merely as “figures of darkness and obscurity who live on the wrong side of history, the bearers of a primitive and fallible wisdom who have fallen prey to an atheistic mission and a communist myth” (Melling 1990, 32). This attitude toward the Vietnamese during the war, Viet Thanh Nguyen argues in his book Race and Resistance, effectively “served the interests of the United States” because it focused the discourse on the just cause of the war (V. T. Nguyen 2002, 111). Peter Marin criticizes the Americans for not being able to “extend our own sense of human reciprocity or responsibility past the ordinary limits of family or nation to include those unlike ourselves” (Marin 1980, 51). The Vietnamese and their sufferings are almost invisible in American literature, and the apologia for this exclusion is based on the pretext that U.S. authors do not have “sufficient knowledge” of the Vietnamese to “feel comfortable in characterizing them,” because, during the war, there was hardly any close contact between the Americans and the Vietnamese. Therefore, U.S. writers focus on the American tragedy instead of the universal tragedy of the war (McGregor 1990, 54). In his book Vietnam in American Literature, Philip H. Melling points out that U.S. writers who attempted to portray Vietnam as a country, and not simply as a war, did not attract substantial critical attention:

 In our discussion of the Vietnam War, those who write about the Vietnamese people are often relegated to the periphery. In criticism we continue to regard the Vietnamese as second-class citizens, culturally impoverished, socially unimportant, and aesthetically dull. Their presence has yet to fire the imagination of those of use who bring to Vietnam much of the cultural baggage—and the cultural prejudices—of a vast colonial undertaking. The tragedy of indifference is the continuing tragedy of the war itself: the failure to recognize that the war in Vietnam belongs to the country, not the country to the war. For Graham Greene this was the problem that lay at the heart of the American dilemma in Indochina. (Melling 1990, 95)

Melling’s insightful comments explain why, to most Americans, Vietnam remains a war and not a nation with a long history and significant culture. In Bruce Franklin’s words, the United States generally has viewed Vietnam as “something that happened to us, an event that divided, wounded, and victimized America” (Franklin 2003, 28).

The Vietnamese American Perspective

The gear shifted slightly when Vietnamese American literature started to gain some attention in U.S. academe in the 1990s, especially with the publication of Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1993) and Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (1998), both of which deal with traumatic memories caused by the Vietnam War and introduce the American readership to another reality—that of the Vietnamese refugees. Isabelle Thuy Pelaud argues that Vietnamese American literature, which focuses primarily on diaspora, displacement, nostalgia, and emotional attachment to the homeland, “provides alternative portrayals of the American War in Vietnam and its legacy” by emphasizing the “complexities and contradictions of abandonment and protection” (Pelaud 2015, 109–110).

The gap between Asian American Studies and Asian Studies recently has become narrower, as scholars in both fields promote transnational discourse, transoceanic interaction, and interdisciplinary research. In the United States, although discourse on Vietnam War literature in the last two decades has attempted to include both the American perspective and the Vietnamese American perspective, the transnational discourse remains incomplete and even biased, as the voice and presence of the Vietnamese nationals have not yet received enough serious consideration. I attended a panel on the future of Asian American studies at the 2014 Association for Asian American Studies conference, held in San Francisco, and one member in the audience expressed his concern about the absence or exclusion of Asian scholars from critical dialogue in the panel. Although all discussants promoted transnationalism and global discourse in the field, the panel members either were born in the United States, or grew up in the United States from very early in their lives, and all had earned graduate degrees from U.S. institutions. In his book Literary Criticism, Charles E. Bressler raises a question on the credibility of some critics of postcolonialism who are “products of the Western mindset”: they have completed their formal, advanced education in the West and come from the upper echelon in society; therefore, they do not represent the voice of the subaltern cultures and their peoples (Bressler 2011, 209). To refer to the lens through which most Asian Americans view Asia and Asian people, I coin the term Amerasia-centricism. A characteristic of this Amerasia-centricism, to borrow Frank H. Wu’s argument on the issue, lies in the perception that Asian Americans feel a need to criticize Asian cultural mores and political policies negatively as “prerequisite” to addressing racial and socio-political in the United States (Wu 2002, 86). To this, I would add that Asian Americans tend to interpret the concepts of freedom and democracy from a Eurocentric viewpoint. In his article “Just Memory, War and the Ethics of Remembrance,” Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses problems of recollection in Vietnamese American literature. He argues that Asian American literature, in general, is both “an act of resistance against oppression” and “an act of accommodation.” For example, Hayslip’s memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places has been positively and widely received in the United States because the book not only addresses the cruelties of war but also expresses the author’s forgiveness for the atrocities committed by the Americans. However, her forgiveness cannot be accepted as the Vietnamese people’s general forgiveness of the Americans: the theme of reconciliation in Hayslip’s book “becomes problematic and premature when the historical conditions that produced such pain have not yet themselves been resolved, including American global domination and the inequitable place of minorities within the US” (V. T. Nguyen 2013, 147–148). Nguyen also observes that Southeast Asian refugees in the United States speak out about their trauma, poverty, and oppression, all of which make them empowered or “ideal Asian Americans” whose activism and representation gain attention within the dominant culture. However, they are also “unideal Asian Americans” because they speak from a partisan point of view, expressing an “anticommunist, conservative, and prowar” attitude (ibid., 149), and Vietnamese Americans, in particular, “have the unnerving experience of seeing themselves in those crosshairs of American solipsism and American memory” (V. T. Nguyen 2006, 25).

Like the Vietnamese literature of the period, the Vietnamese American literature fails in objectivity. Many Vietnamese American literary texts about the war illustrate the problems that Nguyen mentions above. By romanticizing South Vietnam before the war ended, supporting the U.S. involvement in Vietnamese politics, and dehumanizing the communists and soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), many authors justify their life in exile, express their rapport with the United States, reaffirm their anti-communist political affiliation, strengthen their diasporic solidarity, and gain sympathy from the American public. Ironically, while Vietnamese American refugees left their home country because of discovering an absence of freedom, human rights, and democracy in postwar Vietnam, many of them subsequently have demonstrated extremism and hostility toward those fellow refugees who do not share their anti-communist perspective in the United States. For example, Hayslip says that, after the publication of her memoir, several Vietnamese refugees threatened to kill her because of her former affiliation with the communists during the war. In Child of War, Woman of Peace, Hayslip observes that books about Vietnam generally have been authored by “generals or soldiers or politicians or scholars—nobody has told Americans what the war was like for ordinary people, villagers and farmers” (Hayslip 1993, 283). She is the only Vietnamese American author who did not come an elite background—the educated class of wartime Vietnam. Her wartime experience was that of a peasant, and even that of a prostitute. In his most current book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen notes that while the majority of Vietnam’s population was of the peasantry and of the farming class, Vietnamese American literature is written by or about the “classes above them”; therefore, it fails to represent the voice and experience of Vietnamese Americans in general: “If using literature gives the Vietnamese American author a voice, it does not give a voice to the people for whom the author speaks, or is perceived to speak” (V. T. Nguyen 2016, 208).

It should also be noted that most of these texts focus extensively on the traumatic experiences of the Vietnamese refugees while ignoring those similar experiences of the Vietnamese nationals who fought for the country’s reunification. They erroneously assume that the victorious Vietnamese are not subject, as they are, to human suffering. For instance, Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge portrays Uncle Michael as an American diplomat, or a representative of U.S. goodwill, who embodies the U.S. efforts to help the oppressed, miserable, and least fortunate peoples worldwide. The narrator’s mother, Thanh, lavishes encomia upon the Americans for their amiability, simplicity, and politeness, although she once refers to them as “day ghosts” and “elephants” (Cao 1998, 241). She compares the Vietcong to “swarms of invisible fleas” and “ghosts” (ibid., 239), accusing them of forcing her and other villagers to participate in political meetings, donate money, and supply foodstuff from their own meager larders:

[T]here were Vietcong study sessions we were forced to attend, and fund drives we had to contribute to. Rice had to be supplied to the Collective and Purchasing Committee of the Front, in exchange not for cash but for promises of payment and receipts redeemable only after the revolution. There was even a rice-bowl policy, so that everyone had to set aside a designated portion of rice every night for a Vietcong soldier, the way you would for a dead family member. (ibid.)

While the arrival of the Americans to the village signaled presents, joy, and laughter, the arrival of the Vietcong heralded only marauding, indoctrination, and atrocity. Similarly, Kien Nguyen’s The Unwanted (2001) romanticizes the narrator’s happy childhood and his family’s wealthy lifestyle in South Vietnam during the war, when the Americans were present, and a few years after the reunification of the country, his mother, Khuon, still hoped that the Americans would return to save South Vietnam. After 1975, his family’s mansion was appropriated, and the family consequently lost its privileged, upper-class status. Although the Americans are described only briefly at the opening of the memoir, they leave positive impressions upon Kien’s childhood memory. In opposition to this, postwar communist officials, who had affiliated themselves with the NVA, are described as dirty, ugly, uneducated, corrupt, and uncivilized. These prejudicial descriptions of the communists and NVA veterans, and the romanticized depictions of pre-1975 South Vietnam, are also present in many other Vietnamese American texts, such as Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh’s South Wind Changing, Truong Nhu Dinh and Tran Thi Truong Nga’s The Last Boat Out, and Nguyen Qui Duc’s Where the Ashes Are. Wayne Karlin, in his Introduction to Love After War, debunks this biased myth about Vietnamese combatants as he reflects upon his experience of interacting with Vietnamese writers about the war: “I found a common humanity and rapport with them, and when I began to read their stories, I discovered that they both reflected our own heartbreaks and concerns” (Karlin 2003, x).

Another challenge for U.S. readers in understanding the experience of the Vietnamese nationals lies in the limited number of Vietnamese texts that are available in English translation. Since the U.S. diplomatic normalization with Vietnam was achieved in the early 1990s, some attempts have been made on both sides to understand the war from a more balanced perspective. With the publications in English translation of Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, Le Luu’s A Time Far Past, Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, and editors Kevin Bowen et al.’s Mountain River: Vietnamese Poetry from the Wars, 1948–1993, as well as through international conferences on the Vietnam War and its literature held in both Vietnam and the United States, the war has been re-examined more critically, although many obstacles and ideological myths still impede true dialogue.

Trauma and the Politics of Remembrance in Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and in Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

The Sorrow of War is the first Vietnamese novel written about the Vietnam War to be translated into other languages, and it first appeared in English in 1994. Upon its initial release in Vietnam in 1987, the novel had a different title, Thân phận của tình yêu (The Destiny of Love), and even though it had won a prestigious award from the Vietnam Writers’ Association and was widely received by the Vietnamese readership, it was soon-after mysteriously banned for a year, primarily because it entered realms of cultural politics antithetical to the Party’s policy directives. The “destiny” of this novel seems to have been prophesied in its original title. The Sorrow of War represents the spirit of the Vietnamese literature of the Reform (or Renovation) period of the late 1980s, when writers began to critique societal reality more vigorously, focus upon individual experience more insightfully, experiment with unconventional narrative styles more imaginatively, and expose negative perceptions more candidly. In his summary article on Vietnamese literature since 1975, and more specifically the period between 1986 and the early 1990s, Nguyễn Văn Long observes that such authors as Nguyen Minh Chau, Bao Ninh, Duong Huong, Nguyen Khac Tuong, and Ma Van Khang are pioneers in portraying dark corners of reality that had been sugar-coated under the veneer of propagandistic romanticization. These authors candidly use their works as “wake-up calls” to draw the public’s attention to various frustrating, anguishing social issues, as a response to the new mission of Vietnamese literature, which encourages artists to “enthusiastically reform society, express aspirations for democracy, and demonstrate candidity in critiquing reality directly” (Nguyễn V. L. 2006, 12; my translation).4)

Prior to my discussion of The Sorrow of War, it is important to contextualize the novel within the literary movement of the Reform period, which has attracted substantial attention from Western critics. In 1986, Le Luu published A Time Far Past, which became a glorifying success as he critiques the psychological effects of war and “collective concern” upon the male protagonist Sai, who is unable to adjust himself to postwar marital life and society. John C. Schafer notes that Sai has always had to live his life according to the expectations of his family and society; thus the novel emphasizes the “private battles” and “the hopes and fears of individuals” (Schafer 2000, 13–14). With the appearance of The General Retires (1987), Nguyen Huy Thiep established his reputation as one of the most prominent writers of the late 1980s. After having devoted all of his youthful life to the national resistance against the French and the Americans, the general finds himself alienated from a postwar society that views him merely as a forgotten piece of wood. In an interview, Nguyen stated that he “was interested in judgments about the work’s literary merits [. . .] rather than assessments of its political or social project.” He refuses to follow the traditional portrayals of “colorless, monotonous, and one-dimensional characters” by examining the richness and profundity of the gamut of human emotion and comportment, often times through sarcasm and irony (Dinh 2006, 492). Peter Zinoman observes that in Nguyen’s fiction, he critiques the state’s “prescribed and policed socialist realism” (Zinoman 1994, 304). Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind (1988) is another salient example of this literary movement, but unfortunately it was banned in Vietnam due to its political incorrectness: her novel criticizes patriarchy, rampant corruption, and bureaucracy in postwar socialist Vietnam, and the female protagonist Hang eventually has to free herself from the suffocating past of her family and national memory. By doing so, Hang “embodies a totally different attitude toward [the] revolutionary past” and articulates her “yearnings for different futures” (Tai 2001, 8–9). Duong is a maverick whose fiction is a polemical counterblast to the ugly realities camouflaged under socialist idealism, and Linh Dinh, a Vietnamese American author and translator, insightfully notes that “many Vietnamese writers [of the Reform period] are not concerned about “the exigencies of war and politics,” but that they “are plumbing their own subjectivity and reinventing the multifaceted self” by not conforming to “[t]otalitarian, dogmatic truth” (Dinh 1996, xiv).

Paralleling the literary ideologies promoted during this period, in The Sorrow of War, Bao empowers his protagonist to explore his personal reflections and memories, and he resists adherence to the official history of the Vietnam War mandated by government agencies. Memory plays a significant role in the protagonist’s search for self-identity, because memory “establishes life’s continuity; it gives meaning to the present, as each moment is constituted by the past. As the means by which we remember who we are, memory provides the very core of identity” (Sturken 1997, 1). Vietnamese culture often is portrayed as a culture of remembrance: the media and a common set of images, ideas, and texts record the nation’s past and reinforce the public’s awareness of important facts and events. War memorials, war monuments engraved with “The Fatherland is grateful,” and cemeteries for the martyred dead are built everywhere in Vietnam to honor the fallen soldiers of the victorious and reunited country. Hue-Tam Ho Tai observes that in the postwar period, the Vietnamese government “has tried to shape collective memory,” which is equated with a significant form of “cultural production,” in order to emphasize the necessary and unbreakable nexus between the national revolution against the Americans and Vietnam’s preceding struggles for independence (Tai 2001, 177). The Sorrow of War weaves the protagonist’s individual memory into the nation’s collective memory, and by doing so, the novel both subverts the official narrative of historical events and diversifies the collective memory, which heretofore has been ideologically limited; or to borrow Tai’s words from her Introduction to The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, the protagonist’s private memory and counternarrative are “powerful weapon[s] against the totalitarian conspiracy of silence” for the sake of political hegemony and official commemoration reinforced by the state (ibid., 7).

Bao’s novel can be categorized under the rubric of the literature of trauma. Andrew Ng describes the traumatic memories portrayed in the novel as “the unspeakable” and “the unpresentable,” those which resist linguistic representation and defy attempts to impose meaning upon them (Ng 2014, 85–86). The Sorrow of War is a quasi-autobiographical fictional account (not a memoir) that displays the emotional and psychological wounds caused by warfare in thousands of Vietnamese veterans, including the author himself, who joined the national revolution against the Americans from 1969 through 1975. The novel’s protagonist, Kien, is plagued by the traumatic and indelible memories of his past experience: the deaths of his comrades, the atrocities of war, the haunting images of damaged souls, and the fragility of human life. Unlike most previous Vietnamese fiction about the war, which was used as propaganda to extoll heroism, promote patriotism, and romanticize soldiers’ experiences on the battlefield, The Sorrow of War condemns how the cruelties of warfare enervate soldiers’ spirits and cause lasting mental, physical, emotional, and psychological damage to those who suffered through them.

A salient characteristic of the literature of trauma is a fragmented plot, resulting from the victims’ inability to articulate their thoughts coherently. After his deployment, Kien processes his war-zone trauma in order to construct personal meaning out of his experience. The war-zone reality is so devastating for Kien that it violently intrudes upon and disrupts the present, and the line between past and present, space and time, becomes blurred, as Kien struggles to understand the incomprehensible past while attempting to achieve reconciliation with it. Ng notes that Bao depicts Kien’s tragedy through both what cruelties surface and how they are translated into language (ibid., 84). Kalí Tal explains that traumatized victims constantly write and rewrite their traumatic experiences “until they become codified[,] and narrative form gradually replaces content as the focus of attention” (Tal 1996, 6). In The Sorrow of War, events are narrated non-chronologically, through a mediated consciousness: Kien is unable to enjoy his present moments because lingering war-related memories and the powerful emotions evoked by them constantly intrude into his consciousness. The traumatic scars of war impede Kien’s ability to establish events in a linear order or see them in logical, cause-and-effect relationships. He cannot translate the chaotic ebb and flow of his combat flashbacks into a conventional narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thus, the novel’s plot is structured around Kien’s “sensations of psychical/temporal dislocation” (Ng 2014, 88). This psychological phenomenon, Cathy Caruth insightfully explains, results from the fact that the traumatized victims “carry an impossible history with them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess” (Caruth 1995, 5). Therefore, Elizabeth A. Waites defines trauma as “an injury to mind or body that requires structural repair” (Waites 1993, 22), and a common way to “repair” the injury is through scriptotherapy—“the process of writing out and writing through traumatic experience in the mode of therapeutic reenactment” (Henke 2000, xii). Kien transforms his experience into fiction, attempting to find healing and self-redemption through such scriptotherapy, but his pen refuses to comply with his intended plan to piece together a postwar plot about the Missing in Action Remains-Gathering Team. Living in postwar Vietnam, Kien struggles to return to his prewar life: “He drinks to stay awake”; alcohol helps him become more alert, imaginative, and creative, especially at night, because “[i]t seems that darkness truly reflects the darkness of his soul” (Bao 1998, 107). Kien hopes that writing down his memories will help him “rid himself of his devils” and mitigate his trauma: “[t]he spirits of all those killed in the war will remain with Kien beyond all political consequences of the war (ibid., 44, 57). Writing becomes a therapy for Kien’s repressed memories because it helps him redirect his frustration, agony, paranoia, and fear, especially when he is unable to communicate these “unspeakables” directly to any other human being.

In postwar Vietnam, there is no battlefield and no bombardment, but Kien’s mind contains its own battlefield, and the sounds of screaming souls call to him in his sleep as Kien is unable to exorcise the demons of war from his consciousness: “And now his whole fighting life parades before him, with troops of dead soldiers met on the battlefields returning through a dim arch in an endless dream. The echoes of the past days and months seem like rumbles of distant thunder, paining then numbing his own turbulent soul” (ibid., 22). Caruth points out that a traumatized victim, when directly confronting reality, often experiences “an absolute numbing to it” (Caruth 1995, 6). She further emphasizes that traumatic remembrance is by no means synonymous with memory, literally, because this act of recollection conflicts with the inaccessibilty to the past “through the very denial of active recollection” (ibid., 151–152). Kien struggles with how he should comprehend past catastrophic events and where truth actually resides. In her book Unclaimed Experience, Caruth once again elaborates upon this complicated issue, stating that the traumatized victim is trapped “between knowing and not knowing,” which can be seen in “the language of trauma and in the stories associated with it” (Caruth 1996, 3–4). Echoing Caruth’s observations, Dominick LaCapra draws our attention to the fact that the disruption engendered by trauma deprives the self of the ability to articulate itself effectively and meaningfully. In fact, trauma “has belated effects that are controlled only with difficulty and perhaps never fully mastered” (LaCapra 2001, 41). The ghosts of Kien’s war are seen in the recurring images in Bao’s novel, and Heonik Kwon reminds readers of the novel that, because the images are associated with “the troubled memory of the war,” the readers must bear in mind that death in this war occurred primarily in Vietnam and that “it is the Vietnamese who count [as] the vast majority in the list of the war dead” (Kwon 2008, 13–14). That Kien, in postwar Vietnam, serves as a member of the Missing in Action Remains Gathering Team is important: as a war survivor, his excavation task to restore fallen soldiers’ bones evokes gruesome memories about the war, reminding him of the unrelenting impact of severe trauma, and of the constant threat of mortal danger that he and his comrades had faced. The nightmares that constantly haunt Kien in his sleep suggest that he not only is suffocated by brutal reality but that he also is unable to comprehend its violence (Caruth 1996, 6). While peace should be celebrated and enjoyed, Kien must conduct his persisting, internal war, in which “[a]ges and times were mixed in confusion, as were peace and war” because “peace is a tree that thrives only on the blood and bones of fallen comrades” (Bao 1998, 37). Kien’s traumatic memory disruptively intersects Vietnam’s hegemonic history in this way: whenever he recollects calamitous events, he suffers “the same quality of shock or disruption” (Leys 2000, 10). Thus, postwar peace, to him, is not rewarding but a reminder of tragic deaths, sorrows, and sanguinary battles.

The damages caused by warfare are incalculable, and the sorrows associated with them often are unbearable. Fear, agony, frustration, and anxiety dominate Kien’s psyche. For him, “war was a world with no home, no roof, no comforts. A miserable journey, of endless drifting. War was a world without real men, without real women, without feeling” (Bao 1998, 27). These felicitously written lines capture the entire picture of Kien’s war, in which tragic death, bloody massacre, and human vulnerability comprise the human condition: “Dying and surviving were separated by a thin line” (ibid., 81). Christina Schwenkel, in her book The American War in Contemporary Vietnam, comments that, by emphasizing the horrors of war, especially the sounds, smell, and images associated with death, injuries, lost souls, and suffering—all of which “permeated the solemn air for years”—the novel gives “representation to individual suffering in a broader context of pervasive social trauma” (Schwenkel 2009, 63). Kien learns, from his 10 years as a combatant, that romantic love becomes a luxury because the fear of death deprives combatants of their sense of humanity.

The Sorrow of War, a novel of disillusionment and subversion, deviates thematically from the orthodox Vietnamese war literature that promotes the Vietnamese government’s agenda of praising the national revolution and the spirit of noble sacrifice. Postwar literature was expected to portray the war as a heroic endeavor and to view the reunified Vietnam through a rose-colored lens. Bao’s iconoclastic novel does not comply with these tenets. Its depictions of “rampant but admittable despair, uncontrollable violence, broken dreams, and pain” help to explain why it was once banned in Vietnam (Janette 2015, 51). Kien neither romanticizes nor glorifies the soldiers’ experience on the battlefield. In most traditional Vietnamese literature about war in general, the image of the soldier has been idealized and ennobled; tragic events involving soldiers are uncommon, and even if tragic events occur, they are depicted with elements of heroism. Soldiers in Vietnamese war narratives live and fight for the collective cause, and they repress their personal feelings and inner crises. Living in postwar Vietnam, Kien, unlike traditional Vietnamese war heroes, feels imprisoned by memories of his hellish past: “Since returning to Hanoi I’ve had to live with this parade of horrific memories, day after day, long night after long night. For how many years now” (Bao 1998, 41), and these memories bring him only “utter isolation” and “spiritual emptiness” (ibid., 67) as he is unable to salvage his life and career. Kien also considers the way the local authorities treat his fellow soldiers, searching their pockets “as though the mountain of property that had been looted and hidden after the takeover of the South had been taken only by soldiers” (ibid., 73). In his description of postwar Hanoi, he exposes its “loneliness in poverty,” characterized by “unbroken, monotonous sorrow and suffering” and “cheap flashing lights” (ibid., 138). After 10 years of fighting the war, Kien is unable to appreciate the arrival of peace: how can he enjoy peace when his comrades have suffered so long from hunger, cold, malaria, and death? A soldier does not have the right to choose his fate or destiny; he responds to external circumstances; he basically is powerless to do otherwise. The former soldier drinks, thinks of women, dreams of family reunions, or seeks solace in drugs to evade the ghosts of the warfare that has been experienced. The soldiers’ wartime lives were defined by endless fighting, and former combatants generally do not perceive their former military duties as noble and glorious. At the time, they had no other choice, trapped, as they were, in a meaningless game named war. Bao humanizes his protagonist by highlighting his simple aspirations and his continuous effort to live with past trauma. Kien is not developed as a traditional hero; he is a victim of the events that determine the sorrows of his life.

A question arises concerning how Bao’s The Sorrow of War could be interpreted in terms of truth claims and historiography. Dominick LaCapra analyzes the relationship between narrative structures and truth claims profoundly in his book Writing History, Writing Trauma. He coins the term traumatic realism in his discussion of art (more specifically, fiction) and historiography (LaCapra 2001, 14): “Truth claims are neither the only nor always the most important consideration in art and its analysis. Of obvious importance are poetic, rhetorical, and performative dimensions of art which not only mark but also make differences historically” (ibid., 15). The language and plot development employed by Bao highlight how the present and future are blocked by the “compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes” (ibid., 21). Kien camouflages his personal emotions and private memories as a way to present multiple histories and to deconstruct the orthodox History policed by the government.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, a diary by Dang Thuy Tram, was first published posthumously in Vietnam in 2005, and its English translation was released in the United States in 2007. Commenting upon that book, Vietnamese American author Bich Minh Nguyen emphasizes the importance of Dang’s diary in her brief review of the book in The Chicago Tribune. In the United States during the last 40 years, the Vietnam War usually has been interpreted from an Americacentric point of view, but for this reason crucial elements tend to be omitted: “the voice of the Vietnamese and, even more so, the voice of the ‘other side’—the North Vietnamese.” The English version of Dang’s diary “helps fill this gap and presents a major contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War” (B. M. Nguyen 2007, n.pag.). Richard C. Paddock, in his discussion of Dang’s diary in the Los Angeles Times, asserts that the book is “an emotional account of sacrifice, love and bloodshed, the diary humanizes an enemy of America once demonized as ruthless and sneaky” (Paddock 2006, n.pag.). Clearly, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace enables U.S. readers to reconsider the war and adjust the dehumanized image of the Vietnamese communists projected by most American writers. The diary also questions the “just cause” for the Vietnam War, which the United States has claimed.

Historically, American political involvement in Vietnam began in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when American support of French interests there arrived through allotments of aid and deployments of advisors. The escalation of that early involvement into a larger-scale military commitment by the United States occurred during the 1960s under the Johnson administration. It reached a turning point when the Tet Offensive of 1968 proved the determination of the communist partisans to reunite their divided nation. It was during this climactic period of concerted communist effort that Dang volunteered her service. The original title of the diary in Vietnamese was simply The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram. Translator Andrew X. Pham changed it to Last Night I Dreamed of Peace for its English publication. An interesting history lies behind the publication of the diary. In 1970, Frederic Whitehurst, an American intelligence specialist, captured Dang’s diary but did not burn it, although he was ordered to destroy any seized documents written by the communists that had no intelligence value. He returned to the United States with Dang’s diary in 1972 and kept it until 2005, when he decided to give it to Dang’s family in Hanoi. For several months, following the publication of the diary in 2005, it became a much-discussed topic in all national newspapers and public media in Vietnam, and it still foments strong sentiments among Vietnamese readers of all generations. Its English version reaffirms the fact that the Vietnam War served primarily an American political agenda. For American audiences, the diary highlights a Vietnamese spirit of humanity and survival amid the chaos, atrocity, and destruction caused by the war, which presented a new perspective for an American audience. It is its positive spirit that transforms the diary into a literary text worthy of international attention, and since 2005, the diary has been published around the world, in more than 20 languages.

Dang’s diary chronicles her life as a civilian doctor between April 8, 1968, and June 20, 1970. After graduating from Hanoi University of Medical Studies in 1966, Dang immediately volunteered to serve in the country’s war against the Americans, joining the National Liberation Front. In March 1967, she arrived in Quang Ngai, a province in central Vietnam, where she was assigned to work at the Duc Pho Hospital, a civilian hospital but used primarily to treat injured communist soldiers. As a diary, the text is fragmented and somewhat difficult to follow because it does not have a central plot, and names are mentioned but often are not contextualized. The diary reflects, rather, Dang’s daily or weekly thoughts and feelings about the war, the goals of the revolution, the Vietnamese Communist Party, Dang’s comrades and patients, her nostalgia for Hanoi, and her homesickness.

Despite its purely chronological presentation of events, many recurring themes are developed, which provide coherence: the professional challenges Dang encounters as a doctor in an inadequately equipped, thatched-roof clinic in war-torn Vietnam; her abhorrence for the Americans who were killing her countrymen and destroying her country; the patriotism and heroism of the communist soldiers; and the fragile divide that separates life and death amid the cruelties of war. On April 27, 1969, Dang returned to her clinic after an evacuation and witnessed the ubiquitous destruction caused by American bombing, which saddened her deeply. She wrote: “Last night, a dream of peace came to me [. . .]. Oh, the dream is not mine alone, but it’s the dream of Peace and Independence burning in the hearts of thirty million Vietnamese and in millions of people around the world” (Dang 2007, 111). The English title of the diary emphasizes Dang’s and the Vietnamese people’s burning desire for peace and for an end to suffering caused by war. The word dream suggests that peace remained for Dang an almost unattainable dream, because the war would not end soon.

At the opening of her diary, Dang quotes a famous statement from Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, a Russian novel about courage and self-sacrifice for a socialist, labor-exploitation-free society: “All my life and all my strength have been dedicated to the most noble goal in life, the struggle to liberate the human race” (ibid., 3). This statement expresses the philosophy of her life, permeating all of her thoughts and actions, as well as those of many other communist soldiers and civilian workers. Dang’s diary shares many themes common to other literary texts and memoirs about war: it portrays the human body in pain and the terrors and absurdities of war; its treats comradeship, love, and humanity vs. enmity, rancor, and violence; it celebrates a resilience of the human spirit and an undefeated optimism for a better future. Judith B. Walzer, therefore, lauds the diary for its “human qualities that much of the American literature [about the Vietnam War] lacks” (Walzer 2010, 99). Love and war, of course, form a leitmotif in Last Night I Dreamed of Peace. Despite the horrors of war and the scenes of death that Dang and her comrades witness daily, American weapons and bombardments cannot extinguish their longing for peace and liberty.

The Vietnamese communists and soldiers are not stoic, unemotional “jungle fighters” as they often are stereotyped in American writings. Haywood T. Kirkland, an African American veteran, says that before U.S. soldiers went to Vietnam, they were trained to detach themselves from the realities of a war zone and instructed “not to call Vietnamese ‘Vietnamese.’ Rather, everyone is called gooks, dinks, slant-eyes, and not talked about as people and not to be treated with mercy or apprehension” (Terry 1984, 90). The reason behind this practice was to free U.S. soldiers from moral dilemmas, so that killing the enemy would be perceived as tolerable. Even as the United States racialized and dehumanized the Vietnamese, Dang humanizes her countrymen: her diary is replete with human interactions and affectionate exchanges between fellow nationals. She writes, for example, “A wounded soldier under my care wrote me a poem [. . . which] was filled with compassion for my broken heart, it spoke of the bitter grief of a girl betrayed by her lover” (Dang 2007, 7). At the time, Dang is upset with her own lover, M., who has become indifferent to her feelings, but in this scene the reader sees that she finds consolation in the abundant affection that she receives from her soldier patients, friends, and nurses. The romantic soul of the Vietnamese infuses Dang and many soldiers with the courage and confidence to overcome fear and danger, even when they know that death is a constant companion to all in wartime Vietnam.

Occurrences of bravery and self-sacrifice for the noble cause of reunification are noted throughout the diary. Many soldiers and colleagues that Dang mentions or describes reveal these qualities; they are true patriots and nationalists fighting for the liberation of Vietnam. The possibility of being captured and tortured does not make them unduly fearful or tractable. She writes: “The war has not hindered our nation on the road to victory (of course it has suffered grievous wounds, but it marches forward like a wounded soldier who still has a smile on his lips and determination and conviction in his heart)” (ibid., 37). Comradeship and solidarity strengthen platonic sister-brother relationships and motivate comrades to fight heroically for the realization of their two most cherished aspirations: “Independence and Liberty,” and Dang herself is “ready to die for the final victory” (ibid., 27, 93). She emphasizes that no victory can be attained without sacrifice.

It is important to be aware of the genre of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace. Because it is a diary, and its author did not intend to have it published, it records the perceptions of her individual “I” and her private reflections on the war and the Party, which were not censored. Thus, as she criticizes corrupt and parochial communist cadres, exposes the atrocities of war, and contemplates the tragedy that her countrymen must endure, her diary does not conform to the strict constraints imposed by government agencies upon the writing of history. The daily entries reflect her internal battles and express her personal fears, hopes, and frustrations. The diary portrays “purity and innocence” in the attitude of its author, who devoted her entire life to the communist cause (ibid., 110), or to the idealized paradigm of values iterated and published publically as guidelines for the national revolutionary struggle for a reunified Vietnam. However, Dang does not romanticize war. Unlike Bao, she does see the revolution as an epic struggle for the right of self-determination of political identity for Vietnam, and she does view the efforts of the Vietnamese people, both military and civilian, as heroic. She condemns the Americans for their war crimes and atrocities, laments the tragic deaths of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, grieves with families whose sons or daughters are killed, and emphasizes the incompensable sacrifices that the Vietnamese people must make for liberation’s sake: “War means losses. On this scorching soil of the South, it seemed one hundred percent of the families had suffered a loss. Death and suffering weigh heavily on each citizen’s head” (ibid., 24); she later adds, “day after day, blood pours, bones shatter” (ibid., 27). Like Bao’s The Sorrow of War, Dang’s diary highlights the thin line that separates, even in peacetime, life and death, which is made all-the-more narrow by the cruelties and absurdities of warfare. Tragic but often heroic deaths, or severe and often mortal injuries, are images that recur on almost every page of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace. Thus, the conditions of trauma come to define the usual experience of the life that Dang’s diary records. Humans necessarily live on the cusp between life and death. Gunfire, bombing, fighting, and possible imprisonment bracket one’s life dramatically and focus the mind upon the existential moment. Dang perceives the cruel reality of war when she all-too-often receives news of the deaths of her comrades: “I suddenly thought of my dear ones in both parts of the country, and told myself, Death is so simple” (ibid., 121). Unlike Kien, in The Sorrow of War, however, Dang stands as a witness to much of the trauma experienced in battle. Her personal experience remains peripheral, while Kien’s direct experience more seriously impairs his ability to break free of the existential moment and live again in the challenging continuum of time, the medium through which a meaningful postwar life is to be constructed.

The diary acerbically condemns American atrocities. The fire of hatred for the American enemies burned deep in the thoughts of Dang and in the hearts and minds of millions of Vietnamese people. She accuses the Americans of “trampling on our nation and killing our countrymen” and of raining havoc upon Vietnamese families who “are still scattered in all directions” (ibid., 86). Language fails to expose fully the deep-seated resentment for war crimes that the Americans perpetrated in Vietnam and for all of the suffering that the Vietnamese experienced due to the long-term effects of those atrocities: “This is war; it spares no one, not a baby or an old woman, and the most hideous thing about it is the bloodthirsty Americans” (ibid., 149). Dang uses obloquies to describe the Americans, referring to them as “devil bandits,” “invaders,” “the enemy,” “bloodthirsty devils,” “foes,” and “imperialists” (ibid., 84, 119, 118, 47, 83, 187), and she calls President Richard Nixon a “mad dog” who “has foolishly enlarged the fighting” (ibid., 210).

Dang’s fragmented diary is unified in part by the metaphorical recurrence of the word fire. When Frederic Whitehurst was about to burn Dang’s diary along with other seized documents, his Vietnamese translator Sergeant Nguyen Trung Hieu alerted him: “Don’t burn this one, Fred. It has fire in it already” (Fitzgerald 2007, xvi). Dang’s use of the word fire bears various layers of metaphorical meaning. It refers to the fire of patriotism and sacrifice, the fire of youth and service, the fire of love and comradeship, the fire of the revolution, the fire of desire for peace and a unified Vietnam, and the fire of partisan animosity for the American enemy. It is these references to raging fires that compelled Whitehurst to reread Dang’s diary repeatedly for more than 30 years, to gain on-going understanding of the war from the “other side.” It is these fires that help make Dang’s diary a very significant literary text in Vietnamese, and an important historical document in the transnational discourse on the Vietnam War, as it makes visible the sufferings of the Vietnamese people during the devastating conflict.

Contextualizing Dang’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace within the postcolonial discourse on war and trauma is difficult because of its uniqueness as a text. Her diary does not treat the theme of traumatic memory, as does Bao’s The Sorrow of War does, because Dang was martyred to her political cause before the retrospective conditions of a memoir, or of a fictional reconstruction of past events, could prevail. However, her family, and especially her mother, who read the diary must deal emotionally with the memories that the diary evokes. Her mother is “unable to bear reading more than a few passages at a time” (Võ 2008, 201), because the painful recollection of wartime events continues to impinge upon her present moments. The Vietnamese version of the diary, published in Vietnam in 2005, adds a brief anecdote about the journey taken by the diary, written by the author’s younger sister, Đặng Kim Trâm, who writes: “Mrs. Doan Ngoc Tram, Dang Thuy Tram’s mother, has agreed to have the book published although she has not dared read twice the bloody lines written by her own beloved daughter thirty-five years ago” (Đặng 2005, 27, my translation). The photo of her mother holding the diary close to her chest at the Vietnam Archive of Texas Tech University and her moving words, “Her corpse is in Vietnam, but this is her soul. [. . .] She’s right here in front of me. I want to hold her, but I cannot. I can only hold her diary,” emphasize that the war and memories of lost loved ones pressure the present (A. Phan 2005, n.pag.). The lingering vexation of inexpressible grief caused by the war haunts Dang’s mother, as her memories of extreme personal suffering continue to register as the lingering effects of trauma caused by a mother’s loss of a daughter to the senselessness of wartime events. Although Fred Whitehurst’s return of the diary to Dang’s family in Hanoi 30 years later and its subsequent publication in Vietnam stand as tangible acts of contrition, on the one hand, and of reconciliation, on the other, “the emotions are no less intense for those who lived through the war,” as both sides were victimized mentally, emotionally, and physically (Võ 2008, 196). Diane Niblack Fox, in her essay on “Fire, Spirit, Love, Story [in Dang’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace],” states:

Through an interaction of narrators and listeners in the process of recasting traumatic events—events that engulfed them and stripped away their previous identities, threatening to turn them from active subjects and victims—storytelling creates new narratives that restore agency and give narrators some control over the events that overpowered them. The challenge is to tell stories in such a way that they both bear faithful witness to the past and transcend its deadly limits. The publication of Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries as Last Night I Dreamed of Peace may be one such retelling. (Fox 2008, 220)

The diary became a best-seller in Vietnam because the Vietnamese born after the war find the book’s personal reflections on love, perseverance, homesickness, and nostalgia appealing, while the veterans who had joined the revolution in their early 20s identify with the death or the memory of missing loved ones, which the diary depicts so heart-wrenchingly (Võ 2008, 200). Vương Trí Nhàn, in his article “The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram and the Postwar Vietnamese Mentality,” states that the book “happened to appear at a time when Vietnamese were yearning to understand more about the war’s impact on society. In the diary they found an account of the war in real time, enabling them to look back and examine both its conditions and participants” (Vương 2008, 189). It is such immediacy that defines the uniqueness of Dang’s diary within the context of Vietnamese war literature.

While trauma generally has been studied through a psychoanalytical lens in the West, war-related trauma often is dealt with from a cultural and ritual perspective in postwar Vietnam. In Culture, Ritual and Revolution in Vietnam, Shaun Kingsley Malarney rightfully observes that the Vietnamese government recently has become more “tacitly tolerating, and sometimes encouraging” when it comes to ritual practices, although it theoretically endorses Marxist materialism (Malarney 2002, 1–2). In 1996, the Center for Studying Human Potentialities was established as a necessary response to the needs of families searching for missing-in-action or dead soldiers of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, with the assistance of spiritual mediums, several families have been able to retrieve the remains of war martyrs.5) Malarney describes the “audible sobbing” and “distress inflicted by their loved one’s death” when members of the deceased’s family learn about how their soldier had died and where the soldier had been buried in wartime Vietnam. It should be noted that dead soldiers were buried where they fell, and only “[f]ew were transported back to their natal villages for burial” (ibid., 181, 183). Wayne Karlin states that missing-in-action soldiers and war martyrs who lost their lives on the battlefield are “wandering souls [. . .] that still haunt Viet Nam” (Karlin 2009, 183). This fact is portrayed vividly in The Sorrow of War, as Kien is unable to enjoy any moment of postwar peace while his comrades are still wandering souls in the jungles. Vietnamese families who lost their loved ones in the war suffer, of course, from psychological trauma, especially when the families have not been able to locate where the martyrs were buried and to commemorate their deaths properly, which requires the presence of the deceased’s corpse. Karlin adds, “It is as if the arc of trauma and recovery has been given corporality in the form of the dead who still need to be discovered, disinterred, and brought home again, wrapped into the lives of their families” (ibid.). Vietnamese people feel that the remains of the dead must be brought home to their families, or no one, neither the living nor the dead, “[can] find peace, in the simplest and most profound meaning of that word. As long as they [the martyrs] remained lost, the war [will] never be over” (ibid.).


Bao’s The Sorrow of War and Dang’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace bear witness to the suffering of the Vietnamese people caused by the Vietnam War, standing as testimonies, as they do, to the cruelties of war inflicted upon the so-called “victorious side.” Although the two narratives differ, primarily due to their genres, they can be read as documents that effectively decenter the Americacentric writing of history and literature about the war. Stef Craps and Gert Buelens argue that trauma studies based in a Euro-American context or agency “maintain or widen the gap between the West and the rest of the world” (Craps and Buelens 2008, 2). Therefore, according to their findings, scrutiny of a marginalized group’s trauma and the historical experience in which the traumatic events occurred “can contribute to a cross-cultural solidarity and to the creation of a new form of community” (ibid., 1). Generally, trauma studies focus on individual psychological damage, but by situating an individual’s traumatic experience within a larger, historical and societal context, one gains a more profound insight into the agonies of a marginalized group that had remained voiceless in Western literary history. In Bao’s novel, Kien’s PTSD lingers as an intolerable presence in Kien’s psyche; in Dang’s diary, Dang’s depiction of the horrific suffering of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians in wartime Vietnam become pain-inducing memories, 30 years later, in the minds of her family members, and in the minds of Vietnamese readers who had lived through the war. By presenting the textual analyses in this article of The Sorrow of War and Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, I emphasize the marginalized pathos of the Vietnamese people that these narratives evoke, rejecting thereby the post-structuralist ahistorical perspective celebrated by postmodernists. Because much information about the Vietnam War is filtered through the ideological and discriminatory lenses of the U.S. media and the society’s idées reçues, reading of the traumatic experiences of the Vietnamese people becomes an ethical responsibility for anyone interested in the Vietnam War, and anyone is seeking to discover the humanity that is common to each side in the a partisan divisions that persist even after nearly half a century. Through a deep consideration of the wounds suffered by the “enemy,” American readers may find healing for some of the wounds from which they also suffer. The English version of Bao’s novel and Dang’s diary, the Vietnamese version of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and the publication of U.S. veterans’ journals, such as Wayne Karlin’s Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam, about their returns to Vietnam and their reflections upon their former enemy, just to name a few, help both sides of the conflict gain a more humanistic perspective of the war. The inclusion of both perspectives in college courses on Vietnam War literature narrows the gaps between Vietnam and the United States in terms of historical analysis and interpretation.

Vietnamese author and literary critic Nguyên Ngọc observes that writers help readerships remember: they are entrusted “with the ongoing task of holding a mirror up” from the past for later generations to view (Nguyên N. 2008, 211). Remembrances of past events, whether they be fictional or non-fictional, necessarily are subjective. David G. Marr expresses this observation with candor: “The only truth in history is that there are no historical truths, only an infinite number of experiences, most of them quickly forgotten, a few remembered and elaborated upon by bards, novelists, philosophers, priests, filmmakers, and, of course, professional historians” (Marr 1995, xxv). However, it is important to discuss the Vietnam War with an informed attitude of fairness toward both sides of the conflict in order to appreciate the human costs for each side. The Sorrow of War and Last Night I Dreamed of Peace and other such insightful accounts help to generate that attitude of fairness for all readers who seek mutual understanding and reconciliation in our postwar world.

Accepted: March 1, 2016


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―. 1994. Declassifying Nguyen Huy Thiep. Positions 2(2): 294–317.

1) The poem was published in Vietnamese in 1972, and it was translated into English and published in 1998.

2) The poem was published in Vietnamese in 1969, and it was translated into English and published in 1998.

3) The poem was published in Vietnamese in 1969, and it was translated into English and published in 1998.

4) For more information about Vietnamese literature since the mid-1980s, see Nguyên Ngọc’s “An Exciting Period for Vietnamese Prose,” which has been translated into English and published in Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, no. 1 (2008): 197–219.

5) A few years ago, the BBC and the Discovery Channel broadcasted a 45-minute documentary film on how Vietnamese spiritual mediums proved successful in locating unidentified graves of the honored dead.–4NZklTA0


Vol.5, No.3, Kai Lit PHUA


Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 3 

Rare Earth Plant in Malaysia: Governance, Green Politics, and Geopolitics

Kai Lit Phua*

* School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Monash University, Sunway Campus, Jalan Lagoon Selatan, 46150 Bandar Sunway, Selangor, Malaysia

e-mail: phuakl[at]

A rare earth elements (REE) extraction plant was built and began operating in Gebeng, Malaysia (near the city of Kuantan), from early December 2012. This plant, slated to be the world’s largest when it operates at full capacity, is very controversial in Malaysia. Various factors appear to have influenced the setting up of this foreign-owned REE extraction plant, although the source of its raw material is thousands of kilometers away in the desert of Western Australia. This article examines and discusses the reasons why the Malaysian authorities approved the highly controversial project despite the fear of the local community that it would have significant negative impacts on the environment and the health of the public, and despite major protests (some of which were nationwide) against the project. The decision by the Malaysian authorities to approve it was probably due to factors such as the importance of rare earth metals in high-technology production; geopolitical considerations, with China dominating and supplying most of the market; high rare earth prices because of actions taken by the Chinese authorities; differences in environmental laws and their enforcement between Malaysia and Australia; and poor governance and lack of citizen input into public decision making in Malaysia. This article demonstrates how a seemingly local issue—specifically, strong objection by local residents to an industrial project—is linked to broader issues such as governance, regional and national politics, and the geopolitics of access to critically important mineral resources. It also discusses various ethical issues in relation to the controversial project.

Keywords: rare earth, governance, environmental politics, environmental ethics, Malaysia

I Introduction

Foreign investment in the mining sector in developing countries can give rise to bitter conflict between local residents on the one hand and the investors and their supporters (including host government authorities) on the other. These conflicts are often fueled by fears of—or actual experience with—serious damage to the environment, negative effects on human health, and negative impacts on livelihoods and property values. Sometimes such investment may even lead to divisions among the residents themselves if some think they will benefit materially from it.

Hazardous wastes have been defined as wastes that “have the potential to cause harm to human health and the environment if they are improperly treated, stored, transported, or inadequately disposed of” (British Medical Association 1991). Mining operations often generate wastes in large quantities, some of which can be classified as “hazardous wastes.”

In theory, environmental and public health standards and their effective enforcement can protect local communities against the negative effects of foreign investment in sectors such as mining. However, it has been noted that in many developing countries standards may look good on paper but enforcement is often problematic because of issues such as lack of resources, inadequate training, or corruption on the part of local pollution control officials (Newell 2008; Sahabat Alam Malaysia n.d.). A related concern is the suspicion that poor enforcement or inadequacy of environmental regulation can be used by transnational corporations to locate the more hazardous or highly polluting of their activities in poorer developing countries (Newell 2008).

In their review of the literature on global environmental governance, Frank Biermann and Philipp Pattberg (2008) argue that it increasingly involves the participation of actors that were previously active mainly at the subnational level. Thus, governance today involves not only environmentalists, networks of experts, government regulatory bodies, and multinational corporations, but also other agencies such as intergovernmental organizations and international courts. Recent conflicts over the possible impact of specific industrial foreign investment projects on the environment and health in Malaysia have seen the involvement of non-Malaysian (Australian) environmentalists and European experts (Oko Institut 2013) as well as international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA 2011).

In a similar vein, Maria Carmen Lemos and Arun Agrawal define environmental governance as “. . . the set of regulatory processes, mechanisms and organizations through which political actors influence environmental actions and outcomes. . . . It includes the actions of the state and, in addition, encompasses actors such as communities, businesses, and NGOs” (Lemos and Agrawal 2006, 298).

Recent conflicts over environmental governance in Malaysia have involved a wide range of actors. For example, the conflict over the Australian-owned rare earth elements (REE) processing plant in Gebeng has drawn in environmentalists and local residents as well as public sector regulatory bodies, individual politicians, political parties, scientists and academicians, the courts, and even ministries that normally do not deal with environmental and health issues, e.g., the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Why did the Malaysian authorities approve the highly controversial project despite the fear of the local community that it would have a significant negative impact on the environment and public health, and despite major protests (some of which were nationwide) against the project?

Adnan A. Hezri’s (2011) view on environmental governance in Malaysia is that it can be greatly improved. For example, he notes that there may be a lack of coordination amongst various government agencies dealing with environmental issues, and the policies of the federal government and individual state governments can sometimes contradict each other. More than that, I argue in this paper that the approval of the project by the Malaysian authorities (especially the Atomic Energy Licensing Board or AELB, located within the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation), the construction of the plant, its operation under the two-year temporary operating license (TOL), and the resulting controversy are due to various factors, including the importance of rare earth metals in high-technology production to many developed nations (including Japan); geopolitical considerations, with China supplying 97 percent of the market (Hurst 2010); high rare earth prices when the project was launched because of actions taken by the Chinese authorities; differences in environmental laws and their enforcement between countries; and poor governance and lack of citizen input in public decision making in developing countries such as Malaysia.

II The Controversial REE Extraction Project in Gebeng, Malaysia

Rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium, and neodymium are a group of strategically important metals that are used in the production of high-technology equipment (including those with military applications) and, ironically, also in green technology such as wind turbines. REE production in Baotou, China, has been associated with significant environmental damage (Hurst 2010). Partly because of rare earth metals’ strategic importance and the dominance of China as a source of them, local political conflict over potentially harmful and environmentally damaging mining and processing activities associated with REEs could conceivably also get entangled in geopolitics.

A foreign-owned rare earth elements extraction plant began operating in Gebeng, a small town near the city of Kuantan, the state capital of Pahang state, Malaysia (see Fig. 1), in early December 2012. This plant is owned by an Australia-based company, Lynas Corporation. The plant is a subject of great controversy and has energized the environmental movement in Malaysia. Basically, the plant imports its ore from thousands of kilometers away, in Western Australia, processing it in Malaysia and then selling the resulting REE to overseas customers. At the same time the plant owners enjoy a 12-year tax holiday. Meanwhile, there are no concrete plans for long-term waste management except for vague assertions that the waste (which includes radioactive thorium and uranium) can be processed into by-products that can be sold on the market. Western Australia authorities have explicitly ruled out the possibility of taking back any of the waste generated (Sta Maria 2012).


Fig. 1 Map of Malaysia (showing location of Kuantan)

Source: Adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

Gebeng lies within the Kuantan metropolitan area (population 700,000) and hosts a major industrial estate with many different foreign-owned factories. It is located near the port, but the city of Kuantan actually lies about 25 kilometers farther south (Pahang State Development Corporation 2012). Major foreign companies that have built chemical and petrochemical plants at Gebeng include BP, Kaneka, and BASF. Some of these are joint ventures with Petronas, the Malaysian national petroleum corporation.

The public authority tasked with attracting foreign investment to the Gebeng industrial zone proclaims that its

excellent infrastructure such as a 9-kilometre common pipe-rack connects the petrochemical plants of Gebeng Industrial Estate to and from the tank farm facilities at Kuantan Port and its liquid chemical berths to facilitate safer and faster transportation of petrochemical products between the two areas. (ibid.)

Improperly regulated petrochemical plants can have a significant negative impact on surrounding areas. Critics—the most prominent groups opposing the project being Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas (SMSL; Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas 2014) and Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) (Himpunan Hijau 2014)—fear that an REE plant would further increase the risk to the environment partly because of the chemicals used in the process of rare earth extraction. Another reason is that when production reaches full capacity of about 22,000 tonnes of REE per annum at the Gebeng factory, this plant will be the world’s biggest rare earth plant and will therefore generate a huge amount of waste too.

Processing agents and chemicals that will be used in rare earth extraction at the plant (Lynas Corporation 2012) include ammonium bicarbonate, oxalic acid, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, magnesium oxide, kerosene, and trichloroethylene. All these chemicals are known to be hazardous to human health. As for the waste that will be produced, it will include radioactive materials such as thorium and uranium and the products of their radioactive decay, e.g., radium. Some of the isotopes of thorium and uranium have very long half-lives (extending into millions and even billions of years) and therefore will be present in the immediate environment as a result of REE extraction unless they are removed and stored safely elsewhere.

Final REE products include lanthanum-cerium carbonate, lanthanum carbonate, samarium europium gadolinium, and heavy rare earths carbonate as well as neodymium and praseodymium (didymium) oxide (see Table 1).

Table 1 The Process of Rare Earth Elements (REE) Extraction


The plant at Gebeng is controversial because of the following three reasons. First, it processes rare earth-containing ore (lanthanide concentrate) that is imported all the way from its source at Mount Weld in Western Australia and Australian governmental authorities have stated explicitly that they will not accept any return of the waste that is produced (Sta Maria 2012).

Second, Lynas Corporation, the company that owns the plant (called Lynas Advanced Materials Plant, or LAMP) has no long-term waste management plan in place although the waste will include radioactive materials such as thorium and uranium and the products of their decay. No permanent disposal facility (PDF) has been built to store the waste, and no plan for eventual decommissioning of the plant exists. The building of such a facility and a plan was recommended by a panel of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA 2011).

Meanwhile, the main Malaysian governmental body responsible for regulating the project, the AELB, has arranged a financial scheme with the company whereby 0.05 percent of yearly revenues will be paid to the AELB. In response to criticism about a financial conflict of interest, the director general of the AELB claimed that this money would be used only to verify the company’s waste management studies by independent researchers (Yow 2012). Yet, no detailed environmental impact assessment or health impact assessment has been done for the plant in Malaysia (Teoh and Palani 2012).

Lastly, huge amounts of waste will be produced. It should be pointed out that although environmental contamination by rare earth metals can have an impact on human health, the substances are not especially toxic (Hirano and Suzuki 1996). It is actually the storage and disposal of the waste associated with REE extraction that is of primary concern and the source of controversy.

According to Lynas Corporation, current plans are to have liquid discharge of 500 tonnes per hour into the nearby Balok River, which flows into the South China Sea. The company also claimed, in response to fierce criticism of its lack of a long-term waste management plan, that the waste could be processed into commercial by-products that could be sold on the market (Lynas Corporation 2011). These include synthetic gypsum for the manufacture of plasterboard and cement; magnesium-rich gypsum fertilizer for plantations, crops, and soil remediation; and carbon-enriched magnesium gypsum fertilizer to rejuvenate acidic soils. The remaining material allegedly can either be “disposed safely in a secure municipal landfill” if it is classified as non-scheduled waste or “disposed at a licensed facility” if classified as scheduled waste by the Department of the Environment (ibid.).

The estimates made by Lee Bell (2012) based on the experience of REE plants in Baotou show a different picture. Bell made the following estimates of the huge amount of waste that will be produced per year when the plant reaches full capacity. As radioactive waste, 22,500 tonnes of radioactive waste residue (containing water) will be produced. As non-radioactive waste, 191.25 tonnes of fluoride compounds, 292.5 tonnes of flue dust particulates, 1,687,500 cubic meters of acidic wastewater, and 216–270 million cubic meters of waste gas (containing nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, dust concentrate, and sulfuric acid) will be produced.

III Factors Affecting the Approval of the REE Extraction Plant

Why did the Malaysian authorities approve this highly controversial project despite the public fear that it would have a significant negative impact on the environment and the health of the public?

Rare earth metals are of major importance in high-technology production to many developed nations. The term “rare earth” is a misnomer since such metals are actually abundant. But the challenge for rare earth production is that the metals tend not to be found in concentrated deposits, unlike other metals. Rare earth metals are used in the manufacture of high-tech products such as mobile phones, aircraft engines, and advanced weapons systems (e.g., missiles) and, ironically, also in green technologies such as catalytic converters, hybrid cars, and wind turbines. Recognition of their strategic as well as commercial importance has led to efforts by governments and companies to either stockpile REEs (Grasso 2012) or engage in long-term contracts with companies supplying REEs. M. A. B. Siddique (2009) analyzed the importance of Western Australia as a source of raw materials for industrial production by Japanese companies. The fact that the plant owners in Malaysia have signed contracts with Japanese companies to supply the latter with REEs is simply a continuation of this relationship. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group is also a substantial shareholder in the company that owns the Malaysian REE extraction plant (Lynas Corporation 2012).

In terms of access to REEs, there are also geopolitical considerations since China supplies 97 percent of the world market for rare earth metals (Hurst 2010). Valerie Grasso (2012) noted the following:

In 2010, a series of events and press reports highlighted what some referred to as the rare earth “crisis.” Some policymakers were concerned that China had cut its rare earth exports and appeared to be restricting the world’s access to rare earths, with a nearly total U.S. dependence on China for rare earth elements, including oxides, phosphors, metals, alloys, and magnets.
 Additionally, some policymakers had expressed growing concern that the United States had lost its domestic capacity to produce strategic and critical materials, and its implications for U.S. national security.

According to the New York Times, in September 2010

China imposed a two-month embargo on rare earth shipments to Japan during a territorial dispute, and for a short time even blocked some shipments to the United States and Europe. Beijing’s behavior, which has also included lowering the export limit on its rare earths, has helped propel world prices of the material to record highs—and sent industrial countries scrambling for alternatives. (Bradshaw 2011)

Such actions undertaken by the Chinese authorities (under the guise of closing illegal rare earth mines in China in order to deal with environmental problems), and the resulting effect on prices of rare earth metals, has raised the financial incentive for producers outside China to increase production of REEs for sale on the world market.

According to a British newspaper, some experts believe that another motive for Chinese export restriction of rare earth metals is to force foreign high-technology manufacturers to bring their factories and technological secrets to China. Thus, Dudley Kingsnorth, an independent rare earths marketing consultant, is quoted as saying, “The Chinese will not deny the rest of the world rare-earths but the price will be that the West needs to move its manufacturing facilities to China in order to get access” (Jones 2010).

Differences in environmental standards and enforcement vigor between countries such as Australia and Malaysia also appear to be a factor in the interesting phenomenon whereby REE-containing ore is mined in Western Australia but extraction of the metals is carried out thousands of kilometers away in Malaysia. Lynas chose Malaysia to site its processing plant although the company also had the option to do so in Australia. Table 2 illustrates differences (as required by regulatory authorities) in REE production and the handling of waste in the two countries.

Table 2 Differences in REE Production and the Handling of Waste in Australia and Malaysia


It is interesting to note that Australian standards forbid the accumulation of waste at the refinery site, while in Malaysia waste can be stored “temporarily” on-site. In fact, Australian standards require waste to be shipped to the burial site immediately as it is produced. Furthermore, Australia’s total containment policy mandates that liquid waste needs to undergo evaporation, thus leaving only solid waste for safe disposal. In contrast, in Malaysia the rare earth extraction plant is allowed to discharge liquid waste at the rate of 500 tonnes per hour into the Balok River, which flows directly into the nearby South China Sea, as described previously.

The Gebeng plant is located on land that is prone to flooding. This constitutes a significant environmental risk since floods can spread hazardous waste widely into surrounding areas. The Gebeng-Kuantan area is subjected to the heavy rains of the Northeast Monsoon at the end of every year. The project site was flooded (to a depth of just a few centimeters) because of heavy rain as the plant was being built. Kuantan city also suffered a major flood, its worst ever, in December 2012 (The Star, December 24, 2012).

There appears to be poor governance and lack of citizen input in public decision making when it comes to the Gebeng REE plant. “Poor governance” can be defined as the failure of the authorities to adhere to the laws of the land or to follow relevant regulations and administrative procedures. Many local residents were unaware about plans to build the factory until the New York Times published an article about it in March 2011 (Bradshaw 2011). When citizen groups formed to voice their opposition to the project, the governmental authorities responded in ways that failed to alleviate public concerns.

For example, the government invited a team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations to evaluate the project. However, many of the recommendations of the IAEA team were not implemented, e.g., the recommendations that the project should come up with a long-term waste management plan, build a PDF to handle the waste that would be produced, and draw up a decommissioning plan for the factory (IAEA 2011).

Another example of poor governance and inadequacy of government action would be the approval of the TOL (valid for two years of production) in February 2012 and its issuance in December 2012, although a long-term waste management plan did not materialize and there were no plans to build a PDF for the waste. Critics of the project tend to view this as a ploy to get the plant built and operating, supposedly on a “temporary” basis, although the important IAEA recommendations were neglected (S. M. Mohamad Idris 2012).

In January 2012, a major nongovernmental organization in Malaysia called the Consumers Association of Penang voiced its strong opposition to the project and criticized the Malaysian authorities for poor governance and non-transparency with respect to the handling of the REE project. The association urged that no TOL should be issued for the project. It also claimed that various government agencies were acting in an uncoordinated manner (CAP 2012).

In response to criticisms such as these, ministers from four ministries (International Trade and Industry; Science, Technology and Innovation; Natural Resources and Environment; Health) declared jointly that “[t]he Temporary Operating License (TOL) granted to Lynas requires as a specific condition that the company removes all the residue generated by LAMP out of Malaysia. This includes all products made from the residue” (Ministry of International Trade and Industry 2012).

Shortly after, one of the ministers made the seemingly contradictory statement that commercial by-products made from the waste could be sold in Malaysia itself (New Straits Times, December 12, 2012). This was after the local managing director of the plant had publicly announced that international law forbade the export of hazardous waste out of Malaysia and that the company would process the waste into marketable commercial by-products called “synthetic aggregate” (Tasker 2012).

Pro-project Malaysian authorities include the prime minister and the chief minister of the state of Pahang. Both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Chief Minister Adnan Yaakob have been defending the project throughout the controversy. Najib said, “We have studied the Lynas project and we have come out with scientific evidence endorsed by local and international experts, that the Lynas plant and rare earth residue are safe” (Malaysian Insider 2012b).

The main Malaysian governmental bodies responsible for regulating the project, the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (part of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation) and the Department of Environment (part of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment), appear to be consistent defenders of the project. For example, during the worst-ever floods in Kuantan in December 2013, the AELB reassured the public that the “residue” (i.e., waste generated by REE production) storage areas and retention ponds had not been affected by the floods; that radioactive material would not leak into ground and underground water; and that even if there was flooding, there would be no risk of radioactive waste leaking to the surrounding area. However, the AELB also made the contradictory statement that any radioactive material that leaked would be “diluted” by floodwaters to safe concentrations (Lim 2013).

IV Anti-Lynas Movement

In the face of such inconsistent and even contradictory remarks from the Malaysian authorities, it is not surprising that the negative reaction of local residents and the larger Malaysian public has been strong. One suspicion is that Malaysia will be used as a permanent dumping ground for improperly stored toxic waste (both radioactive as well as non-radioactive).

The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) expressed its concerns about the project in a public statement released in July 2011. In fact, the MMA declared bluntly that it believed that

there remain many unanswered and unresolved questions and concerns regarding the safety and the implementation of the Lynas rare earth refinery plant in Gebeng, . . . we remain deeply concerned that public safety and health concerns have not been adequately met. . . . We need evidence that the plant will be totally failsafe and a guarantee that no harm will be caused to our people . . . the MMA joins numerous individuals, community groups and NGOs in urging the government to stop the Lynas project in order to ensure the protection of our citizens’ health and the safety of our environment. (Malaysian Medical Association 2011)

A scientific study commissioned by SMSL from the Oko Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology, a Germany-based scientific consultancy firm), which was released in January 2013, concluded bluntly that the proposed processing of waste from the rare earth plant into commercially viable by-products was “scientifically and technically non-sense, and in respect to the so posed risks, careless” (Oko Institut 2013). The study also declared that the operation of an REE extraction plant that generated huge amounts of waste like the Gebeng factory “should only be (temporarily or permanently) allowed if the PDF is available, otherwise another dangerous legacy is created and the burden of caring about and disposing these wastes is unacceptably shifted to future generations” (ibid.). The study also pointed out severe technical deficiencies with respect to the planned method of “temporary storage” of waste on-site.

Thus, there are multiple areas of concern associated with the project, including the treatment of waste (e.g., no evaporation of wastewater such that only solid waste would remain), storage of waste (“temporary” storage on-site under technically deficient conditions), and disposal (discharge into the nearby river and into the air, with other waste converted into allegedly safe commercial products that can be sold on the market in Malaysia).

All these issues have created worry among local residents and also given grounds for suspicion among the Malaysian public that there could be a financial conflict of interest on the part of ruling regime politicians and the Malaysian authorities and their relevant regulatory agencies vis-à-vis the REE extraction plant project. The financial arrangement between Lynas and the AELB mentioned earlier casts doubt on the latter’s ability to regulate the former in a totally objective manner. Another reason for suspicion is the mention in 2011 (which later disappeared) of an “indemnity fund” set up by the company in cooperation with Malaysian governmental authorities (Chong 2011a). Details on how much was paid into this indemnity fund and who is managing it have not been forthcoming from the parties involved.

Activist groups are continuing their opposition to the plant in various ways. The main groups include SMSL, Himpunan Hijau, and the Stop Lynas Coalition. SMSL has chosen a more legalistic route, with challenges filed using the judiciary system. It has not given up on the strategy of using legal proceedings although the plant has been operating since December 2012. Nevertheless, SMSL has also protested at the headquarters of the parent company in Sydney and attended the parent company’s shareholders’ meeting to highlight the concerns of Kuantan residents about the entire project. The group has also sought support from green groups and sympathetic politicians in Australia. One of the SMSL leaders said that there has been a “lost [sic] of faith and trust on the government brought about by their past responses to queries and appeals by the affected communities” with the phenomenon of “irregular approval procedures” for the REE project.1)

Himpunan Hijau has engaged in more dramatic direct action, including organizing demonstrations at the site of the plant and carrying out publicity-generating events such as the “Green Walk” protest march from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur, which grew into a mass demonstration with an estimated 20,000 protesters at its final destination. After this, it organized a protest motorcade that went in the other direction, i.e., from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan. One of the leaders of Himpunan Hijau, Wong Tack, even stood as a candidate for a Pahang parliamentary seat in the Malaysian general election of 2013 (Anisah 2013). Wong Tack was narrowly defeated by the candidate from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front). The light green T-shirt with a logo produced by Himpunan Hijau has become an iconic symbol and features prominently at mass demonstrations in Malaysia that push for clean elections and responsive, accountable government.

Activists have been making use of traditional face-to-face meetings as well as information and communications technology (including independent online mass media that are not linked to the Malaysian government) to mobilize opposition both in Malaysia and overseas in Australia. Opposition political parties in Malaysia such as Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia), the Democratic Action Party, and Parti Sosialis Malaysia (Malaysian Socialist Party) have lent their support to the anti-Lynas movement. The member of parliament for Kuantan—from Parti Keadilan Rakyat—has also lent her strong support for the movement opposing the rare earth extraction plant.

The REE plant has become a major political issue in the state of Pahang, where Gebeng is located. Pahang is considered to be a BN stronghold, and the controversy has weakened support for BN in this state. For example, in the May 2013 general election the federal parliamentary seat for Kuantan was won by the opposition. Of the five Pahang state assembly seats under Kuantan, four were won by the opposition (The Star, May 9, 2013). The strong support given to the anti-Lynas movement by the opposition party member of parliament for Kuantan, the Right Honourable Fuziah Salleh, has boosted her popularity and shot her into national prominence. Fuziah Salleh pointed out that the government of the neighboring state of Terengganu had actually turned down a proposal by Lynas to build the REE plant in the state in 2007 and demanded to know why Pahang had chosen to allow the building of the plant within its borders (Chong 2011b). Parliamentarian Fuziah Salleh and Pahang State Assembly Person Andansura Rabu have been especially active in opposing the project and in supporting anti-Lynas environmental activists.

The Gebeng rare earth plant controversy has not only weakened support for BN, especially in the Kuantan area, but has also energized the green movement in Malaysia. Thomas Rudel, J. Timmons Roberts, and JoAnn Carmin (2011) note that local residents may turn to foreign environmental activists for help in their environmental battles.

However, they note that the effectiveness of this strategy depends to a certain degree on

the preferences of the international NGOs for working in familiar democratic political settings. . . . The selective engagement of transnational actors means that domestic environmental actors in some of the nations with the greatest needs have difficulty enlisting help from external bodies and pressuring their governments to adopt policies that will reverse trends in resource depletion and environmental degradation. (Rudel et al. 2011)

The anti-Lynas activists have had some success in enlisting help from Australian environmental groups and sympathetic politicians from the Australian Greens political party. Help has been forthcoming also from the overseas Malaysian community resident in Australia and from ex-Malaysians (now Australian citizens). However, the mining lobby is strong in Western Australia, and this strategy does not seem to have made much headway.

Robin Chapple, an Australian Greens member of the Legislative Council of Western Australia, declared in response to the approval of the TOL:

For all intents and purposes, this approval looks like the sanctioning of an Australian mining company making use of lax environmental controls and governance arrangements in a developing country. To my mind it has not gone through a rigorous environmental process and should not have been issued. This is a poor representation of Australian notions of “fair play” and good corporate citizenship and one that it seems our State Government is paying little mind to. (Guthrie 2012)

Major political parties in Australia, such as the Australian Labor Party, have been notably silent on the controversy. Thus, Lynn McLaren of the Western Australian Greens, another member of the Legislative Council of Western Australia, declared, “It is unacceptable for the Australian Government to wash its hands of responsibility for the effects of unsustainable mining, whether they are in our own backyard or that of our neighbours” (ibid.).

V Ethical Issues Fueling the Controversy

There are ethical issues associated with the siting and operation of the REE plant in Malaysia rather than in Western Australia, since the latter is the source of the rare-earth-containing ore. Local residents oppose the project partly because they were not informed about the project beforehand. Iris Young’s principle of “participatory justice” (Young 1983)—i.e., the right to take part in collective decisions that affect one’s interests—has been violated here. On the other hand, some local supporters of the project—including politicians associated with the ruling BN government—argue that it is generating jobs that pay relatively high wages. Thus, project supporters claim that activists opposing the plant are infringing on the rights of others to make a decent living.

Supporters of the project sometimes argue that the technological spin-offs may be considerable. Ethical questions to be pondered here include the issue of overall costs (direct as well as indirect) versus overall benefits, the distribution of costs and benefits across social groups and across the two countries, benefits arising now versus benefits arising later, and so on. The fact that the plant is wholly foreign-owned and that it has been granted a 12-year tax holiday has led activists to believe that local residents are getting the raw end of the deal, especially in terms of having to bear the health and environmental costs arising from the toxic waste that will be generated (Lit 2014).

The principle of participatory justice is of major importance especially in light of Malaysia’s negative experience with the earlier and much smaller REE extraction plant built at Bukit Merah on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. This plant, owned by a company called Asian Rare Earth (partly owned by Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation), extracted an REE called yttrium from monazite ore. It operated from 1982 to 1994 in spite of protests from residents of Bukit Merah and nearby communities. It was closed by court order in 1992, but the verdict was suspended and eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1993. The plant finally closed a year later due to public pressure (including pressure in Japan). Critics argue that there is a link between the waste produced by the plant and physical defects in newborn babies. Furthermore, eight cases of leukemia occurred over five years among a population of only 11,000 people (Koh 2012).

An article on lessons to be learned from the Bukit Merah project declared,

It was a saga that ran for more than two decades, and it pitted the villagers, helped by various civic organisations, against big business and powerful state authorities. An exercise to decommission the ARE [Asian Rare Earth] plant finally began in 2003, but the work to decontaminate the area is still going on and is estimated to cost RM300 million. (ibid.)

The Proximity Principle, i.e., the disposal of hazardous waste should be as near to its place of production as possible (Landon 2006), is also violated by the “temporary storage” of waste on-site in Malaysia before it is “processed” into commercial by-products. Other harm that will arise includes economic and psychological harm. Economic harm caused to people employed in the fisheries and tourism sectors, such as loss of livelihood, may not be compensated adequately.

The Gebeng project may also generate externalities for neighboring countries in the form of significant pollution of the South China Sea. A vast amount of waste will be produced and discharged into it. Possible health threats to residents of countries adjoining the South China Sea include airborne fine particulate waste, lead contamination (since process wastewater from cerium production will contain this material), and contamination—radioactive as well as non-radioactive—of seafood caught in the South China Sea. Other questions to be pondered include the possibility of significant damage to mangrove swamps, damage to coral formations, and eutrophication (algae blooms leading to oxygen depletion and death of marine life).

Psychological harm refers to any negative impact of the project on the mental health of nearby residents. One could also argue that the project will have an unfair impact on future generations yet unborn as it will add to the environmental burden they will have to bear (Jamieson 2008).

If the health and welfare of residents are negatively affected, will residents be adequately compensated? And by whom will they be compensated? These will be the next issues surrounding the REE plant in Gebeng.

VI Conclusion

Various factors appear to have led to the approval of the controversial REE plant in Gebeng by the Malaysian authorities in spite of strong opposition at both the local and national levels. I argue that the decision to build and operate the plant in Gebeng and the decision by the Malaysian authorities to approve it are probably due to factors such as the importance of rare earth metals in high-technology production and the resulting necessity of ensuring continued access to REE; geopolitical considerations, with China supplying 97 percent of the market and its seemingly politically motivated actions with respect to supply restrictions of REE on the international market (Hurst 2010); high rare earth prices because of such actions taken by the Chinese authorities; differences in environmental laws and their enforcement between Australia and Malaysia; and poor governance and lack of citizen input into public decision making in developing countries such as Malaysia.

Baotou has paid a heavy price in terms of environmental damage as a center for REE production in China (ibid.). However, the Malaysian authorities approved the Lynas project and continue to support it even though Malaysia has had a prior negative experience with environmental pollution caused by the much smaller foreign-owned rare earth extraction plant (partly owned by Mitsubishi) in Bukit Merah, which closed down in 1994 (Sahabat Alam Malaysia n.d.).

Top political leaders, such as the prime minister of Malaysia and the chief minister of the state of Pahang, continue to doggedly defend the project in the face of significant opposition from the Malaysian public, e.g., the “Green Walk” protest march from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur grew into a mass demonstration of an estimated 20,000 protesters at its final destination.

Opposition political parties did very well in the March 2008 general election in Malaysia, with the BN ruling coalition losing its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time and a number of important states falling under the control of the opposition too. In the May 2013 general election, the opposition parties did even better: the BN was again prevented from winning a two-thirds majority in parliament. Furthermore, the BN share of the popular vote was only 47 percent. However, the BN remained in power at the federal level because the first-past-the-post electoral system allowed it to win more parliamentary seats than the opposition political parties did.

The green movement in Malaysia has been given a strong boost by the controversy through the support of opposition politicians as well as members of the public. In turn, green activists have encouraged members of the public to vote for opposition political parties since the latter, in the shape of the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition, has stated that it will shut down the plant if it comes to power at the federal level (Free Malaysia Today, March 15, 2013).

In terms of economics, a 12-year tax holiday has been granted to the foreign investors. Furthermore, only 350 jobs will be created directly. Meanwhile, future damage to the existing labor-intensive local fisheries and tourism industries could be significant, notwithstanding claims by Lynas and its supporters that the REE project will generate spin-offs and even serve as a catalyst in attracting additional REE-related high-technology investments to the area.

The question arises as to whether there is enough democratic accountability in a country like Malaysia. In other words, are the actions of the authorities sufficiently “transparent” to the ordinary citizens of Malaysia, and have they been carried out in conformity with usual practice in parliamentary democracies? Who would ultimately be responsible for the consequences of the action of granting the operating license to the controversial Lynas project? Furthermore, if the worst fears and predictions of the activists (based on the earlier experience with the Bukit Merah plant and the contemporary example of Baotou in China) come true, will those who suffer physical, economic, and psychological harm be adequately compensated? Who will bear the costs of cleaning up the damage to the environment? Meanwhile, the 700,000 people of the Kuantan metropolitan area (in which Gebeng lies) who are caught in the middle of all this can only continue with their protests and strong resistance to the project with the help of their allies from the rest of Malaysia and overseas.2)

Accepted: February 10, 2016


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accessed March 14, 2013.

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Grasso, Valerie Bailey. 2012. Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

Guthrie, Shane. 2012. Lynas Having a Laugh at Australia’s Political Impotence., accessed February 6, 2013.

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International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 2011. Report of the International Review Mission on the Radiation Safety Aspects of a Proposed Rare Earths Processing Facility (the Lynas Project). May 29–June 3, Malaysia. Vienna: IAEA., accessed December 24, 2012.

Jamieson, Dale. 2008. Environment. In Issues in Political Theory, edited by Catriona McKinnon, pp. 313–335. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Richard. 2010. Exclusive: Inside China’s Secret Toxic Unobtainium Mine. Mail Online. January 10., accessed February 6, 2013.

Koh, Stanley. 2012. Lessons from Bukit Merah. Free Malaysia Today. March 21., accessed March 13, 2013.

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Lim, Ida. 2013. AELB: “No Risk” of Radioactive Leaks at Lynas from Kuantan Floods. Malay Mail Online. December 7., accessed June 25, 2014.

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accessed December 24, 2012.

―. 2012b. Lynas Corp Must Shift Waste Disposal Site, Says PM. March 2.,
accessed June 25, 2014.

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accessed December 24, 2012.

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1) From personal communication between the author and Bun Teet Tan, Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas (SMSL). Kuala Lumpur, June 23, 2014.

2) The REE extraction project was granted a Full Operating Stage License by the AELB on September 2, 2014. Production of REE at the plant is lower than actual capacity because of relatively low prices on the international market. Nevertheless, opposition by project critics continues.


Vol.5, No.3, MORISHITA Akiko


Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 3 

Political Dynamics of Foreign-Invested Development Projects in Decentralized Indonesia: The Case of Coal Railway Projects in Kalimantan

Morishita Akiko*

* 森下明子, Research Administration Office (KURA), Kyoto University, Research Administration Office Bldg., Yoshida-Honmachi, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 606-8501, Japan

e-mail: akikomori77[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.3_373

Resource-rich Indonesia has been promoting massive infrastructure development projects involving billions of dollars in the aftermath of the Seoharto era. One area of intense focus is in Kalimantan which required infrastructure development for extractive industries, particularly coal. Since the early 2000s, the central and local governments as well as foreign companies have been interested in embarking on the first-ever railway construction projects for transportation of coal in Kalimantan. However, the projects have experienced several setbacks including changes to its original plans and delays to approvals. This paper explores the reasons why the local development projects could not progress smoothly from a political viewpoint. It argues that Indonesia’s democratization and decentralization have brought about unremitting struggles over power and resources among local political elites. Sometimes national politicians and even foreign investors are embroiled in the struggles of the local leaders when venturing into such development projects. The coal railway projects in Kalimantan highlight how local government leaders deal with the central government and foreign investors in their attempt to secure their position politically and financially in the venture, which would give them an edge over their rivals. This paper reveals the strategy of local power players who project themselves as defenders of local communities and the environment although a gap exists between their rhetorics and the realities on the ground in Kalimantan.

Keywords: Indonesian local politics, foreign investment for railway construction, coal transportation, Barito region, Kalimantan

I Introduction

Indonesian government leaders, both at the national and local levels, have promoted infrastructure development for extractive industries, particularly coal, at a time when global demand for it is rising. Local politicians in natural resource-rich regions are embarking on development projects at a rapid pace, using their influence as leverage to broker deals with foreign investors. The first-ever railway construction projects for coal transportation has been in the pipeline in Kalimantan since the early 2000s when feasibility studies were undertaken. However, several of the projects have experienced changes and delays. As a result, the construction of the railway tracks has yet to begin as of early 2016 and this paper explores the reasons why the multibillion-dollar development projects could not progress smoothly from a political viewpoint.

During the New Order period (1967–98), Indonesia was highly centralized and local authorities only acted as agents of the central government. Consequently, studies on international business-government relations focused on interactions between foreign firms and the central government (Khong 1980; 1986). In today’s decentralized Indonesia, however, provincial and district governments have extensive regulatory authority over local matters and hold the authorization rights for enterprises in their provinces and districts.1) District governments have the authority to issue a variety of business permits and licenses—such as a mining services business license (izin usaha jasa pertambangan, IUJP), a building permit (izin mendirikan bangunan, IMB), and an environmental permit (izin lingkungan)—within their own districts, while provincial governments have the authority to issue permits and licenses for business operations extending beyond a single district within a province.2)

Given that both the central and local governments participate in the processes of foreign investment projects, investors now “need to play a different game to get access to local resources, which becomes more complicated” (Priyambudi and Erb 2009, 15). Investors have responded to various demands from local governments, ranging from corporate social responsibility programs for local communities to bribery of officials, in order to develop a harmonious relationship with local stakeholders (Indra and Emil 2009). Some foreign companies, especially in the mining sector, also face protests and conflicts with local communities and NGO groups over land and environmental issues (Gedicks 2001; Indra and Emil 2009; JATAM 2010).

In addition to direct demands from and confrontations with local stakeholders, this paper demonstrates why foreign and multinational corporations—not to speak of the central government and Jakarta-based big companies—need to be aware of a different layer of political dynamics, specifically local politics, including intra-provincial power struggles as well as inter-provincial relations when venturing into local development projects.

In Indonesian political studies, many scholars have examined local politics since democratization and decentralization brought about unremitting struggles over power and resources among local political elites (Aspinall and Fealy 2003; Schulte Nordholt and van Klinken 2007; Erb and Priyambudi 2009; Hadiz 2010; Choi 2011). Some have also explored central and local government relations with a focus on the formation of new provinces (Okamoto 2007; Kimura 2012) and the privatization of state-owned enterprises (Wahyu 2005; 2006). The relationships between local governments and global players, however, have not been discussed thoroughly enough despite the fact that direct encounter between them occurs particularly at foreign investment project sites.

Thus, this paper gives a clear picture of the local-global relations in decentralized Indonesia, specifically a tripartite relationship of local governments, foreign companies, and the central government through the case study of coal railway projects in Kalimantan. It shows how local government leaders deal with the central government and foreign investors in their attempt to secure their position and financial assistance in the project venture, which would give them an edge in local power struggles. To put it another way, even a big foreign firm with immense financial clout and support from the central government can face difficulty in securing investment deals if its proposed project potentially undermines the power base of local political leaders.

This paper also illustrates how local power players secure their position in a project venture by manipulating the sentiments of local communities and environmental issues. Since the democratization and decentralization of Indonesia, local power players have more often than not exploited social and cultural issues for political purposes, particularly in direct elections for the positions of local government heads (Erb and Priyambudi 2009; Aspinall 2011). One of the most widely used campaign strategies is to promote the resurgence of customary culture and traditional institutions (Davidson and Henley 2007). Even while in power, as this paper demonstrates, local government leaders project themselves as defenders of local communities and the environment so that they will be able to hold a leading position in their negotiations with foreign and national players. This paper exposes a gap between this “defender of local communities and the environment” rhetoric and the reality on the ground when it comes to whether local power players really care for their region’s people and nature.

In what follows, this paper briefly describes the economic background of the development of railway projects in Kalimantan. It illustrates chronologically various efforts by the central and local governments and foreign companies to construct a railway network, and the arising conflicts of interests among them. In conclusion, the paper sets the direction for future research by providing an insight into the dealings of local leaders in the railway construction projects and the impact of local political conditions on foreign investment projects in Kalimantan.

II Coal behind the Railway Network

Coal has played an important role in Indonesia’s economic development; the country has extensive deposits—possibly sufficient for another 100–150 years to come (Daulay et al. 2007). The production of coal has been increasing steadily, growing from 40.1 million tons in 1995 to 75.6 million tons in 2000 and 152.8 million tons in 2005. In 2010, the total production of coal rose to 275.2 million tons. The increase in coal production is due to rising demand, especially from Asian countries, such as China, Japan, Korea, and India (Indoanalisis 2012).

Today Indonesia is the largest coal exporter in the world, followed by Australia (Ewart and Vaughn 2009). Kalimantan has the second-largest coal reserves in the country (see Map 1), after Sumatra. Kalimantan is the biggest coal-producing region, having provided more than 93 percent of the country’s thermal coal production in 2011 (SALVA Report, 2012). Kalimantan’s coal is high-grade, with high calorific value and a low ash and sulfur content, which makes it saleable on the export and domestic markets (Harrington and Trivett 2012). The spread of coal reserves is mainly in East, South, and Central Kalimantan, where 69 mines operated as of 2005; there was only 1 mine in West Kalimantan (Hanan 2006).


Map 1 Coal Reserves in Indonesia (2011)

Source: Based on Kementerian Energi dan Sumber Daya Mineral (2012).

Provincial governments in Kalimantan recognized the necessity of building a railway network for more efficient transportation of coal from interior mining areas to ports of lading. At present, inland coal transportation in Kalimantan is conducted by trucks and barges that convey coal to an offshore loading point or a coal terminal for transshipment. The capacities of the existing road and river transportation networks for coal are quite limited. Yet, not a single rail line was constructed for coal transportation in Kalimantan, due to the high construction cost and weak institutional capacity to construct new railway lines—including the Railway Law (Law No. 13/1992), which only permitted the state-owned railway company PT Kereta Api Indonesia (PT KAI) to construct railroads (Hanan 2006).

In 2000 the Institute of Energy Economics Japan (IEEJ), a Japanese think tank, conducted a preliminary feasibility study on railway coal transportation in Kalimantan, based on its view that newly developed mines would be located farther inland than existing mines and that the use of barges for coal transportation might be unsuitable. Using a linear programming (LP) model, IEEJ determined the coal transportation route that could best maximize earnings of individual mines in Kalimantan as a whole. It estimated the production and transportation costs incurred by new mines, based on survey results of the currently operating mines, and prepared three scenarios for coal transportation routes: the existing truck and barge system, a combination of the existing system plus railway, and a railway network system. By running an LP model, IEEJ simulated the three scenarios and concluded that maximum earnings could be realized by using rail transportation to convey coal from mines rather than using existing road and river networks (IEEJ 2002).

A feasibility study for the provincial government of Central Kalimantan also stated that coal transportation by road was viable only for short distances and that rivers, like the Barito in the eastern part of the province, suffered from seasonal variations that made transportation during the dry season unreliable (Central Kalimantan Provincial Government 2009). Based on the recommendations of the feasibility studies that the railway network was a cost-effective, reliable all-season mode of transportation for coal resources, the central and provincial governments embarked on the Kalimantan railway network venture with foreign multinational companies.

III Development of Railway Projects in Kalimantan

Starting as a Big Regional Dream
The original concept of a vast railway network in Kalimantan began as part of a broader picture of regional economic cooperation and integration when a proposal for a trans-Borneo railway network was discussed at a meeting of the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) in 1997. Under the BIMP-EAGA railway project, the plan was to build a rail link between Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak, and Kalimantan and to form part of the Pan-EAGA Multi-Capital Transportation Network approved by the subregional grouping in 2000 (Europa Publications 2003, 218). The network would be used mainly for goods trains, with the aim of stimulating regional economic growth. Construction was to have begun in 2001, starting with a rail linking Sabah, Brunei, and Sarawak (Jakarta Post, April 21, 1999).

Historically, since the colonial days in Borneo, there have been railway tracks in Sabah and Brunei, covering only a small part of the northern area but not linked with each other. Roads and rivers have been the main mode of transportation in Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah, and Brunei. In Kalimantan, arterial roads connect a provincial capital to most district capitals and small towns within the province. There are also inter-provincial roads. But some stretches of road have been severely damaged and even destroyed, especially on routes used daily by trucks carrying tons of timber, oil palm, coal, and other heavy loads (Tempo Interaktif, August 3, 2012). River transportation is the main mode for people traveling between coastal towns and villages in the upstream interior areas.

At the international level, a cross-border road connects Pontianak, the provincial capital of West Kalimantan, to Kuching, the state capital of Sarawak.3) Yet, there is no road network connecting other provincial capitals in Kalimantan to the state capitals of Sarawak and Sabah or Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. Only small tracks and partly unpaved roads at the border areas are available for local people crossing the international border. Marine and air transportation is also used for cross-border flows of people and goods between Kalimantan and Sarawak, Sabah, and Brunei, but such modes are unsuitable for the daily mass transportation required to stimulate regional economic growth as envisaged by the BIMP-EAGA railway project.

In April 2000 a Sabah-based company, Keretapi Trans-Borneo Berhad (KTB), and the Kuala Lumpur-based Business Focus Sdn Bhd signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in Kota Kinabalu to construct a 3,640 km trans-Borneo railway. It would link all major towns in Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, and Kalimantan by the year 2010 (New Straits Times, April 18, 2000). It was supposed to be financed by German investors; and in June 2002 the German consulting firm, Project Development Management South East Asia, announced that it had allocated US$7 million for its feasibility study (Europa Publications 2003, 218). The project proposal was supported by the state government of Sabah, but neither the provincial governments of Kalimantan nor the state government of Sarawak were aware of it.

Despite the BIMP-EAGA’s big vision of regional integration, the proposed Borneo trans-regional railway project was abandoned. The Sabah-based KTB apparently gave up the plan due to lack of funding. The German companies, which were supposed to be the major players, also expressed some uncertainty over investing in such a project. According to Soenarno, then Indonesian minister of settlement and regional infrastructure, investors were concerned about a delay in the return on their investments since they were not sure whether the situation in Indonesia was conducive to investing (Tempo Interaktif, August 26, 2004).4)

Around the time that the BIMP-EAGA proposal was taking shape, Indonesia had also initiated its own plans for the construction of the first-ever railway system in Kalimantan as part of the trans-Borneo railway project. In 2002, at least 10 Indonesian private companies proposed forming a consortium for this mega project. Giving a push for the rapid progress of the railway infrastructure project, Minister of Settlement and Regional Infrastructure Soenarno granted provincial governors in Kalimantan permission to participate in it (Indonesian Ministry of State Owned Enterprises 2002). The four provinces—East, South, Central, and West Kalimantan—individually showed an interest in the railway project and offered to facilitate its preliminary feasibility studies, conducted through cooperation among the relevant agencies of the central government and foreign experts (Wanly 2012).

In August 2004 the Indonesian government decided to look for other investors for railway construction in Kalimantan and began asking the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to borrow capital. After Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected to the presidency in October 2004, the inflow of FDI increased. It grew from US$1.9 billion in 2004 to US$8.3 billion in 2005, reaching US$13.3 billion in 2010 (ASEAN Secretariat 2006, 13; 2012). But for quite some time, the Indonesian government found it difficult to attract new investors for the railway project. A local newspaper in South Kalimantan reported in 2006 that even the provincial head of the Department of Mining and Energy was unable to confirm when construction would begin since it depended on investors. The reporter remarked that the project appeared to be just a dream (Radar Banjarmasin, July 28, 2006).

Local Governments Stay on Track
While the central government made little progress on the railway project, the provincial government of Central Kalimantan worked steadily on its own railway plan. Decentralization enabled local governments to engage in railway construction and operations. Government Regulation (Peraturan Pemerintah) No. 25/2000, linked to the Decentralization Law (Law No. 22/1999), defined the division of authority of the central and local governments such that district and municipal governments were given the authority to plan and construct a railway network in a single district or city while provincial governments were allowed to plan and construct railway networks connecting districts and cities within a single province.5)

A new Railway Law (Law No. 23/2007) also outlined and defined the three permits required for railway infrastructure: a business license (izin usaha), a construction permit, (izin pembangunan), and an operations permit (izin operasi). The central government has the authority to issue business licenses, while provincial governments have the authority to issue construction and operations permits for railway networks connecting districts and cities within a single province with approval from the central government. The district governments can also issue construction and operations permits with the recommendation of the provincial government and approval of the central government.6)

In line with those laws and regulations, Agustin Teras Narang,7) then governor of Central Kalimantan, signed an MoU with the Japanese company Itochu Corporation in 2007.8) The MoU was for a feasibility study for the construction of a 300 km railway running north to south within the Barito region in the eastern part of Central Kalimantan, and the estimated cost of the project was US$1 billion. Hatta Rajasa, then Indonesian coordinating minister for the economy, attended the MoU signing ceremony. Itochu had coal-mining concessions in Central Kalimantan and intended to build the railway in the region (Kompas, April 16, 2007).

Giving a background of the coal railway project in the Barito region, the provincial government stated the following:

Central Kalimantan is a major source of high-grade coal that is in demand nationally and internationally. The provincial government has already issued permits for the extraction of coal in large areas of the Barito River valley and actual extraction is now starting. However, there are significant constraints to the transportation of coal to the seaports on the Kalimantan coast caused by distance, remoteness of the area, and the lack of reliable transportation. Transportation by road is only feasible for comparatively short distances, and the Barito River suffers from seasonal variation, which makes transportation during the dry season unreliable except in the lower reaches of the river. (Central Kalimantan Provincial Government 2009, ii)

Fifteen big companies have conducted coal-mining operations, covering a 527,444 ha concession area in Central Kalimantan. Among them, seven have concessions in the Barito region, including the Itochu subsidiary PT Marunda Graha Mineral; the military-related PT Asmin Koalindo Tuhup; and PT Maruwai Coal, a subsidiary of the Australia-United Kingdom affiliated PT BHP Billiton Indonesia. Another 17 small and medium-sized coal companies also have concessions in the region but were not active as of 2009 (ibid., 9).

Under the planned Central Kalimantan railway network, the following five routes were chosen:

 a. Route 1: 360 km railway running north-south from the interior district of Murung Raya in the upper Barito to a port in the coastal district of Kapuas in the southeastern part of the province (see Route 1 in Map 2);

 b. Route 2: 195 km railway running north-south from the interior district of Lamandau to a port in the coastal district of West Kotawaringin in the western part of the province (see Route 2 in Map 2);

 c. Route 3: 466 km railway running east-west in the mid-west part of the province, connecting Murung Raya District to a port in the southwestern district of Seruyan (see Route 3 in Map 2);

 d. Route 4: 418 km railway running east-west in the western part of the province, connecting Route 2 and Route 3 (see Route 4 in Map 2);

 e. Route 5: 390 km railway running north-south, connecting Route 1 and Route 3 via Palangka Raya, the provincial capital (see Route 5 in Map 2) (ibid.).


Map 2 Railway Routes Proposed by the Provincial Government of Central Kalimantan

Source: Based on Central Kalimantan Provincial Government (2009, 2).

In May 2007 Governor Narang also signed an MoU with China Overseas Engineering Group, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Railway Engineering Corp (CREC), on the construction of a 517 km railway connecting Route 1 of the above-mentioned proposal to a port in Seruyan District via Palangka Raya (Kompas, June 8, 2007).

The railway infrastructure is to be developed through a public-private partnership (PPP) scheme, which the central government has promoted to finance infrastructure development projects in the country since the Yudhoyono administration.9) Under the regulations of the PPP scheme, the government has to call for bids on a project and the tender winner is granted business licenses and permits.

In accordance with those regulations, the Central Kalimantan government asked for bids to be submitted for the construction of a 185 km railway between Puruk Cahu and Bangkuang in the Barito region as the first phase for Route 1. The tender winner would be given a permit for constructing the rail line and a concession to operate the railway for 30 years.

By 2008, 16 consortiums of foreign and domestic companies, including Itochu and CREC, had participated in the bid. After the screening at the end of 2011, the four consortiums that passed the tender prequalifications were: Itochu and PT Toll (an Australia-based transport and logistics firm); China Railways Group (a subsidiary of CREC) and two Indonesian companies called PT Mega Guna Ganda Semesta and PT Royal Energi; Dubai’s Drydocks World and PT MAP Resources Indonesia (an Indonesian engineering company); and PT Bakrie (one of Indonesia’s most powerful conglomerates) and Canada’s SNC Lavalin Thyssenkrupp. The four consortiums submitted their project proposals to the provincial government, and in 2014 a tender was eventually awarded to the consortium of China Railways Group and two Indonesian companies (Imam and Ester 2011; Antara News, October 13, 2014).10)

Keeping pace with its neighboring province, East Kalimantan proceeded with its own railway plan in partnership with foreign companies. In March 2009 the district head of East Kutai approved a plan to construct railway infrastructure in the district; the plan was proposed by MEC Holdings, a subsidiary of the Dubai-based Trimex Group. The railway network will be used for coal transportation from MEC’s mining concession area to a port terminal (see Map 3). The plan is part of the company’s US$5 billion investment in East Kalimantan to build industrial facilities, including a power plant, aluminum smelter, and fertilizer plant. The project received the complete support of the central government and the East Kalimantan provincial government (Railway Technology 2010).


Map 3 Location of Proposed MEC Railway Route

Sources: Based on Casson (2006, 67) and BAPPENAS (2013, 41).

Other foreign companies also participated in this mega project as a joint venture with MEC. India-based IL&FS Transportation Networks Limited is providing financing for the railway project as well as other projects planned by MEC. MEC also has partnered with Canada-based CANAC Railway Services for operating and maintaining the railway and port terminal. The feasibility studies for the railway line were conducted by UK-based ARUP and US-based KPMG. The two consulting companies identified the route of the railway line and the entire layout of the transport corridor, including the necessary infrastructure such as roads and bridges, terminal and jetty structure, and cargo-handling facilities for the railway line. They also prepared the possible timeline for the project’s construction and developed a complete financial plan and risk matrix for the railway line (ibid.).

MEC announced in March 2010 that it had completed the acquisition of land for the railway project in East Kutai District. Generally, in Indonesia developers face problems with local villagers when acquiring land for any project. However, an MEC representative said that the company had not experienced any such issues. He said the company’s biggest concern initially was that the villagers would not give up their land, but “the truth is villagers are the easiest people to talk to. If you go to them and tell them that your plan will create jobs, they will give you their land” (Bisara 2010). The company had to also deal with many stakeholders, such as ministries in Jakarta, politicians, local governments, along with villagers. Mahmud Azhar Lubis, the deputy chairman of the Indonesian Investment Coordinating Board (Badan Koordinasi Penanaman Modal), admired how “MEC handled all the complications in the land acquisition delicately, by talking to each member and stakeholder of the local community, without putting any pressure” (Trimex 2010).

Among other possible reasons for the smooth land acquisition were the company’s enormous financial capability for providing substantial financial compensation for the land acquired and paying for other miscellaneous expenses incurred during the process of coordination and negotiation with local stakeholders, and the expectations of villagers for more job opportunities created by the revitalization of the local economy with the construction of the railway infrastructure. Another factor could be the relatively narrow width of land used for building railway tracks compared with commercial logging and oil palm plantations, which need huge areas of land and sometimes encroach into natives’ customary land.11) Other factors could be the lack of information on possible negative effects of railway construction, such as environmental degradation with the opening of larger mines, and the massive influx of immigrant workers from overpopulated Java, who might take most railway-related job opportunities away from locals.

IV Center-Local Conflicts of Interest

The smooth progress of the railway projects at the provincial level encouraged the provincial governments in Kalimantan to gain more support from the central government for their regional development. In May 2010 the four governors of Kalimantan gathered in Jakarta to attend a National Development Planning Meeting (Musrenbang Nasional), and during their stay there, they worked hard to draw support from the central government, especially for the railway infrastructure project (Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Daerah Provinsi Kalimantan Barat 2010).

Their efforts paid off a year later, in May 2011, when the central government introduced the Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development 2011–2025 (Masterplan Percepatan dan Perluasan Pembangunan Ekonomi Indonesia, MP3EI), with the aim of transforming Indonesia into one of the 10 major economies in the world by 2025. MP3EI identified six economic corridors (Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali-Nusa Tenggara, and Papua-Maluku Islands) to boost economic development, and it designated Kalimantan as a “center for production and processing of national mining and energy reserves” (Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs 2011a). The trans-Kalimantan railway infrastructure became part of the corridor project under which companies engaged in mining, particularly coal, would share the use of railways and roads constructed through a consortium model of a PPP scheme.

The central government also enacted certain necessary laws to facilitate infrastructure projects in Indonesia. In December 2011 the national parliament approved a land-acquisition bill that allowed the government to acquire private land more quickly in order to facilitate the development of new infrastructure projects such as roads, ports, power plants, airports, railways, dams, oil facilities, and other projects catering to the public interest.

During Soeharto’s New Order period, the government confiscated land easily by exercising the coercive power of the military. After 1998, democratization brought a reduction in the military power and a rise in the number of local protests against land acquisitions. This resulted in longer negotiation periods for acquiring land, with many cases taking as long as five years to settle. The new Law on Land Procurement for Development in Public Interest (Law No. 2/2012) and Presidential Decree No. 71/2012, clearly outlined the procedures for land acquisition. The law stipulates that the land acquisition process should be completed in less than 583 days. A landowner will receive cash compensation, alternative land, resettlement, shareholding, or something else agreed upon by the government agency and the landowner. The owner is required to release his or her land after receiving compensation or in accordance with a binding court decision in which the compensation will be deposited with the district court (Hanim and Afriyan 2011).

Serious steps were also undertaken by the central government to encourage foreign and domestic joint-venture investments in the trans-Kalimantan railway project. In June 2011 Hatta Rajasa, then Indonesian coordinating minister for the economy, was invited by the Russian government to attend the International Economic Forum. He took the opportunity to attract Russian investments for the food security, energy, trade, and transportation sectors as well as welcoming Russian participation in the trans-Kalimantan railway infrastructure project (Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs 2011b). During a Jakarta meeting in early August 2011 between Hatta Rajasa and Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, the Russian ambassador to Indonesia, Russia confirmed its intention to invest US$2.5 billion for the construction of a 135 km railway link between East Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan to transport coal (Jakarta Post, August 1, 2011) (see Map 4).


Map 4 Central Government’s Proposed Trans-Kalimantan Railway Route

Source: Based on Kompas (February 8, 2012).

However, this Russian bilateral agreement with the central government created a conflict given that the rail line would connect coal mines in Central Kalimantan to a port in East Kalimantan. Soon after the Hatta and Ivanov meeting, Agustin Teras Narang, then governor of Central Kalimantan, expressed his stiff disagreement with the central government and opposed the railway plan linking the two provinces. Narang stated that Central Kalimantan had its own plan to build a railway network in the province. He also argued that the central government’s plan of a railway link could destroy the environment as the tracks passed through areas of protected forest,12) while the provincial plan would not involve forest clearing since the railway would be built alongside roads and rivers. Narang even said that he would resign as governor if the central government persisted with the Russian railway plan (Berita Daerah, October 12, 2009; Jakarta Post, August 4, 2011; Tempo Interaktif, August 8, 2011).

Following the governor’s objection, the provincial branch of the Dayak Customary Council (Dewan Adat Dayak, DAD), an organization of indigenous people in Kalimantan, also voiced its opposition to the central government’s plan. Governor Narang is the president of the National Dayak Customary Council (Majelis Adat Dayak Nasional), DAD’s umbrella organization. Provincial DAD members were concerned that natural resources from Central Kalimantan would be taken to East Kalimantan through the railway and nothing would remain in their own province (Surya 2011).

On the other hand, an environmental NGO called the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, WALHI) disagreed with the railway plans of both the central government and the provincial government, saying that the project could harm not only the environment but also the safety of people living alongside the Barito and Mahakam Rivers since the railway network would pass through the catchment areas (Jakarta Post, August 7, 2011).

In fact, the provincial government acknowledged the possible environmental impact on the Barito region caused by the railway construction. However, it justified the project from an engineering point of view by saying:

Throughout this part of Central Kalimantan, there are very significant environmental issues connected with coal mining and commercial forestry. Of particular concern is . . . coal roads from the coal mining areas to the Barito River. . . . The road corridors are wide and the construction and operation of these roads have caused: loss of forest cover for long distances, significant dust creation particularly during the construction phase, blocking of local drainage channels and only limited replacement of cross and parallel drainage. Although the rail construction and operation will cause environmental impacts it is likely that these impacts will be less than impacts caused by the continued construction of coal roads. In addition the environmental benefits of rail for the transportation of coal will be greater if the construction of new coal roads is restricted for all new coal mines. Coal roads will still be necessary from the mine to the rail head, but coal roads to the Barito River will not be necessary. (Central Kalimantan Provincial Government 2009, 16)

This statement indicates that the provincial government used different arguments and logic to push through its own railway plan depending on whom it had to persuade. The provincial government actually recognized that the rail construction and operations would cause an impact on the environment. Thus, it used the rhetoric of “a less-damaging way of infrastructure development” to persuade local stakeholders to agree to the provincial railway project while using the rhetoric of “defender of local communities and the environment” to oppose the central government’s plan.

Moreover, some domestic NGOs such as WALHI and the Indonesian Mining Advocacy Network (Jaringan Advokasi Tambang, JATAM) were aware of another possible environmental impact—that the vast railway network would see a rapid increase of coal exploitation in Kalimantan. Based on research by the two NGOs, JATAM reported that coal-mining and transportation operations by some companies had caused dust pollution, displacement of indigenous communities, and disruption and threats to clean water supplies due to river pollution in several mining areas in Kalimantan (JATAM 2010). However, the provincial government turned a blind eye to such possible destructive consequences after the construction of the railway.

From the double-talk and selective criticisms of the provincial government, it is likely that a concern for local communities and the environment is not the real reason for the provincial government to push through its own railway project and oppose a cross-provincial railway network planned by the central government. As demonstrated in the following section, the provincial government had another reason to adhere to its own railway plan.

V Local Struggle over the Barito Region

Governor Narang’s opposition to the central government’s railway plan to link Central and East Kalimantan was not essentially due to his concern for local communities and the environment. Along with a fear that the profits from his province’s natural resources would be intercepted by the neighboring province, there was also a perceived risk that he would lose regional control, economically and politically, in the Barito region.

The main channel of transportation in the Barito region is the Barito River, which flows from the northeastern part of Central Kalimantan to Banjarmasin, the provincial capital of the neighboring province of South Kalimantan. This has made Banjarmasin a key hub for logistics and commerce in the Barito region, although a major portion of the region administratively belongs to Central Kalimantan. Coal and other commercial products such as timber, rubber, and palm oil from the upstream Barito districts are transported via the river to a port of lading in Banjarmasin, and commodities headed to the interior towns also have to go through Banjarmasin (see Map 5).


Map 5 Barito River across the Provincial Border

Source: Based on NordNordWest/Wikipedia (2011).

Even the road network connecting districts in the Barito region to Palangka Raya, the provincial capital of Central Kalimantan, has to pass through Banjarmasin. There is a northern mountainous route connecting the Barito region to Palangka Raya, but it has been badly damaged by heavy trucks rumbling down the road daily. Therefore, people prefer to take a southern route via Banjarmasin to go to the Barito region from Palangka Raya (see Map 6).


Map 6 Road Network in Central Kalimantan

Source: Based on Kementerian Pekerjaan Umum dan Perumahan Rakyat, Republik Indonesia (2012).

Hence, it is likely that Narang viewed the central government and Russia’s railway plan connecting the Barito region to East Kalimantan as taking the Barito region farther away from the control of the Central Kalimantan government (see Map 4). On the other hand, the Central Kalimantan provincial government’s railway network plan would first connect districts in the Barito region and then extend the railway track to a port of lading in Kapuas District, located in the southeastern part of Central Kalimantan (see Map 2).

Not only economically but also in part socially and politically, the Barito region has been closer to South Kalimantan than Palangka Raya. In the lower Barito region, local residents are mainly Banjarese—Malay descendants of aristocrats and subjects of the Banjar Kingdom (1526–1860) centered in South Kalimantan—while Dayaks live mainly in the middle and upper Barito regions. One of the major Dayak sub-ethnic groups in the region is the Bakumpai, making up 36.4 percent of the 36,2815 total population of four districts (Murung Raya, North Barito, South Barito, and East Barito) in the middle and upper Barito regions (Badan Pusat Statistik 2001, 75). Bakumpai people converted to Islam under the strong influence of the Banjar Kingdom, while many other Dayaks converted to Christianity or continue to practice varieties of animism. Narang is a Christian Dayak Ngaju, a major Dayak sub-ethnic group in the central part of Central Kalimantan that makes up 39.9 percent of the 670,218 total population of three districts in the provincial central part (Kapuas, Gunung Mas, Pulang Pisau) and Palangka Raya (ibid.).

The Bakumpai people also dominate politics in the Barito region. The current district heads of North Barito, South Barito, and East Barito are of Bakumpai descent. Since 1999, Bakumpai politicians have played a leading role in proposing the formation of a new province of Barito Raya, consisting of Murung Raya, North Barito, South Barito, and East Barito in Central Kalimantan and the district of Barito Kuala in South Kalimantan. If the new province is established, profits from the natural resources in the Barito region, including coal, will fly out of the hands of the Central Kalimantan provincial government and land in the hands of Bakumpai politicians.

In order for the formation of Barito Raya to materialize, the Bakumpai politicians also attempted to extend their influence at the provincial level. In the 2010 gubernatorial election, two pairs of candidates for governor and vice governor campaigned for the formation of the new province of Barito Raya. One pair was Achmad Amur, the Pulang Pisau district head, and Baharudin H. Lisa, the South Barito district head; and the other was Achmad Yuliansyah, the North Barito district head, and Didik Salmijardi, the former district head of East Kotawaringin. They had a close contest with the pair of then incumbent governor Narang and vice governor Achmad Diran.

While Achmad Amur is Banjarese, Baharudin H. Lisa and Achmad Yuliansyah are Bakumpai. Achmad Diran and Didik Salmijardi are immigrants of Javanese descent, a category that makes up 18.1 percent of the total population in Central Kalimantan (ibid.). In the gubernatorial election, Narang and Achmad Diran won 42.3 percent of votes, while Achmad Amur and Baharudin H. Lisa gained 37.7 percent and Achmad Yuliansyah and Didik Salmijardi gained 15.7 percent (Noorjani 2010). Narang and Bakumpai politicians are certainly political adversaries, and thus Narang has to defend a provincial railway plan at all costs in order to retain the resource-rich Barito region in his province.

VI Intra- and Inter-provincial Politics over Railway

A Conciliatory Move

In response to Governor Narang’s objection to the interprovincial railway plan, Hatta Rajasa, coordinating minister for the economy, called on Narang to compromise on the provincial railway project. He stated that the railway project proposed by the provincial government had not materialized yet, and that the central government’s plan was more feasible than the provincial one since the latter intended to build a long railway, which would cost too much. Hatta ensured that the central government would review the railway route so that it would not pass through protected forest areas (Tempo Interaktif, August 8, 2011). While facing opposition from Central Kalimantan, the central government continued the discussion with Russia on the trans-Kalimantan railway project, which became one of the agendas for the Russia-Indonesia High Level Meeting on Bilateral Economic Cooperation in Jakarta in October 2011 (Media Indonesia, October 27, 2011).

The central government made a conciliatory move in November 2011 to resolve the deadlock with the provincial government of Central Kalimantan over the railway project. The government-sponsored Indonesian Infrastructure Financial Guarantee Fund (PT Penjaminan Infrastruktur Indonesia, PII), which was launched in May 2010 for the purpose of providing guarantees for infrastructure projects under the public-private partnership scheme, agreed to guarantee a railway project planned by Central Kalimantan. PII would guarantee investors from risks that could arise from licensing delays, land acquisition, and government policy changes (Jakarta Post, December 1, 2011).

East Kalimantan as Willing Ally

In contrast to Central Kalimantan, the provincial government of East Kalimantan welcomed the railway plan proposed by the central government and Russia. The East Kalimantan government dispatched its delegation to Marketing Investment Indonesia in Moscow in September 2011 to undertake a possible business partnership with Russian investors. Awang Faroek Ishak,13) the governor of East Kalimantan, and Andrey Shigaev, director of Kalimantan Rail—a subsidiary of Russian Railways Group, a public-private partnership railway company—signed an MoU in February 2012 on the construction of a 275 km railway and associated infrastructure in Kalimantan.

Russian Railways is the fourth-largest company in Russia by revenue, with over 1195.2 billion rubles (about US$40 billion) in 2010. The project consists of two phases. The first one involves building a railway between coastal Balikpapan and inland district of West Kutai in East Kalimantan, which will connect to the neighboring province of Central Kalimantan in the second phase. The total project investment would be US$2.4 billion. The MoU signing event was attended by the Russian ambassador and representatives of Russian Railways and the Russian state-owned Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs (Vnesheconombank). The Indonesian attendees were the deputy coordinating minister for economic affairs, the director general of the Indonesian Ministry of Transport, the director for Central and Eastern European affairs of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, district heads of East Kalimantan, and other officials (Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Indonesia 2012).

Russia is so serious about its investment in the trans-Kalimantan railway project that it established the Export Insurance Agency of Russia in November 2011 to facilitate the project. For the Russian government, the railway construction is needed to support the plans of the Enplus Group, a Russia-based diversified mining, metals, and energy group owned by the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, which plans to acquire a coal-mining company in Indonesia (Algooth and Stefanus 2012b).

In order to avoid any conflict with the Central Kalimantan provincial government, the Russian government stated that the Kalimantan railway would pay special attention to avoid all protected forests in the area. It also mentioned that the project would require careful planning and coordination with other existing projects in Central Kalimantan (Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Indonesia 2012).

However, Narang again voiced his strong opposition to the project on the day of the MoU signing ceremony between East Kalimantan and the Russian investor. He said the Central Kalimantan government would not participate in the Russian-planned railway project. He reiterated the argument that according to the Russian plan, the railway line would be constructed in a protected forest area in the Muller-Schwanner mountain range in Murung Raya District, which serves as a water catchment area (Algooth and Stefanus 2012a).

The Russian investor was forced to shelve part of the project. In March 2012 Shigaev, the director of Kalimantan Rail, said that only after Central Kalimantan finished its own railway project would his company start to build the rail line connecting Central Kalimantan and East Kalimantan. Syahrin Daulay, the head of the Provincial Regional Development Planning Agency (Bappeda) in Central Kalimantan, confirmed in April 2012 that the four governors in Kalimantan had agreed to build a rail network in their own regions first and after that the interconnection among provinces would be constructed (Tempo Interaktif, April 16, 2012).

District Power Play

While Governor Narang opposed the railway link between the two provinces, Achmad Yuliansyah, then district head of North Barito who was one of Narang’s rival candidates in the 2010 gubernatorial election, welcomed the MoU between East Kalimantan and the Russian investor. Without giving any notice to Narang, Yuliansyah signed an MoU with Ismail Thomas, the district head of West Kutai in East Kalimantan, a northeastern neighboring district of Central Kalimantan, on cooperation for interdistrict infrastructure development—including the railway between the two provinces, which the provincial government of Central Kalimantan strongly opposed (Antara News, March 1, 2012).

The MoU obviously outraged Narang. Siun Karoas, then provincial secretary of Central Kalimantan, stated that the provincial government strongly deplored the MoU signed by the district governments of North Barito and West Kutai without any consultation with the provincial government (Agustin Teras Narang Center, March 7, 2012). Narang immediately issued a letter of request to cancel the MoU between the two districts. Achmad Yuliansyah then made a rebuttal statement that it was the provincial government that had long ignored the North Barito district governments’ asking for support for infrastructure development such as a local airport, hospital, bridge, and so forth. He also said that the interdistrict cooperation and coordination for infrastructure development across the provincial border had been discussed since 2004 (Kalteng Pos, March 15, 2012).

South Kalimantan’s Catch-up Attempt

Meanwhile, South Kalimantan has lagged far behind the neighboring provinces of Central and East Kalimantan in the promotion of local infrastructure development under the Kalimantan Corridor of MP3EI, including the railway construction. In April 2012 Gusti Nurpansyah, an executive member of the Banua Care Forum (Forum Peduli Banua, FPB), a social organization aiming at improving social economic conditions in South Kalimantan,14) expressed his hope that South Kalimantan would get actively involved in the implementation of the Kalimantan Corridor, not just stand by and watch. The FPB intended to hold a focus group discussion on the Kalimantan Corridor and to invite national and local NGOs and young leaders to the discussion (Radar Banjarmasin, April 29, 2012).

In the middle of May 2012, Rudy Ariffin, then governor of South Kalimantan, led delegates from the four provinces in Kalimantan to urge the national parliament to increase subsidized fuel quotas since the allocation for Kalimantan was too small. The central government restricted supplies of subsidized fuel, which costs less than half as much as regular fuel, to try to stop a surge in oil prices hurting its budget deficit. Previously, a petition signed by the four Kalimantan governors was sent to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the Upstream Oil and Gas Regulator and Implementing Agency (Badan Pelaksana Kegiatan Usaha Hulu Minyak dan Gas Bumi, BP Migas), and the national parliament, threatening to terminate coal supplies from Kalimantan if subsidized-fuel allocations were not raised. The governors argued that the supply of fuel to the four Kalimantan provinces had to be raised from 7 percent of the total national allocation to 14 percent due to rapid economic development (Rangga 2012b). Rudy Ariffin became the most active participant, as he was the only governor who attended the meeting with members of the energy commission of the national parliament. The other three governors were represented by their deputies. The meeting ended with no decision (Jakarta Post, May 23, 2012).

At the end of May 2012, with support from Governor Rudy Ariffin, the FPB initiated a protest and launched a blockade against coal barges entering the lower Barito River—in retaliation to the lack of fuel oil supply—and demanded a bigger quota of subsidized fuel for the Kalimantan region. Thousands of local residents took part in the blockade of the coal transportation route using motorboats; they stopped at least 20 barges from sailing through.

The blockade affected the entire Barito region, including major coal mines in the territory of Central Kalimantan. The Indonesian Coal Mining Association (APBI) threatened to stop the supply of coal to Java from Central Kalimantan if the blockade at the Barito persisted. The State Electric Company (Perusahaan Listrik Negara) prepared for the worst scenario if Java failed to receive coal supplies from Kalimantan once its entire coal stockpile was consumed. Aside from halting supply, APBI estimated that coal companies would have to bear substantial losses.

Only a few barges could pass through Barito. They were the barges owned by the Hasnur Group, as the owner was the father of Hasnuryadi Sulaiman, one of the FPB executive members, and by PT Adaro Indonesia, a big coal company that had a close relationship with the Hasnur Group. Their barges passed through the Barito before protesters started a blockade (Rangga and Hans 2012; Radar Banjarmasin, May 17, 2012; Tribun News, May 26, 2012; Jurnal Nasional, May 28, 2012). The two companies were probably told the time schedule of the blockade by the FPB.

A similar blockade was raised at the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan, led by the provincial branch of the Indonesian Youth National Committee (Komisi Nasional Pemuda Indonesia). They were inspired by the Barito’s blockade. However, the blockade in the Mahakam quickly fizzled out as Awang Faroek, the governor of East Kalimantan, disapproved of it and warned the protesters that they were committing a criminal offence (Tempo Interaktif, May 29, 2012).

As an emergency response to the blockade at the Barito River, Jero Wacik, then minister of energy and mineral resources, stated that the central government would increase the quotas for the supply of non-subsidized fuel to Kalimantan. Governor Rudy Ariffin responded by asking the blockade organizers to stand down. The blockade was over within a week (Rangga 2012a; Rangga and Hans 2012). With the success of the blockade, Rudy Ariffin was able to show that South Kalimantan was capable of playing a leading role in the negotiations with the central government for the sake of regional development in Kalimantan, just like the neighboring provinces.

Windfall for Governor Narang

The blockade at the Barito brought a windfall to Governor Narang. It showed the political and business circles in Jakarta that the dependence on river transportation in the Barito region would pose a high risk to coal supply to Java as well as to the coal-mining industry in the middle and upper Barito regions in Central Kalimantan if blockades occurred in the lower Barito in the neighboring province. It also demonstrated not only that the coal railway network in Central Kalimantan was vital to economic strategy but also that there was a need to diversify risk.

In July 2012, a declaration of commitment for the construction of a rail track between Murung Raya and Kapuas in Central Kalimantan was signed by state-owned companies, including PT PLN and PT PII, as well as the areas’ major coal-producing private companies such as PT BHP Billiton Indonesia, PT Asmin Koalindo Tuhup, and PT Indika Indonesia Resources. The signing ceremony was held in front of then Indonesian Vice President Boediono and ministers in Palangka Raya (Kompas, July 12, 2012).

Another railway line in Central Kalimantan also became a real possibility. In August 2012, Governor Narang and PT Kereta Api Indonesia (PT KAI), the state-owned railway company, signed an MoU on the construction of an approximately 200 km railway network running north to south in the mid-west part of the province. It would connect the northern district of Gunung Mas to a port in the southwestern district of Seruyan. PT KAI showed its keen interest by agreeing to conduct a feasibility study on soil conditions right away. This rail line would be used for goods and passenger trains. PT KAI stated that the railway would not only improve the local economy and social welfare but also create job opportunities, since at least 1,000–2,000 railway officers were required to operate a railway system (Tempo Interaktif, August 3, 2012).

Narang expressed his long-standing concern that forests in Central Kalimantan had been cut and lost since the 1970s but the results of local development had never been seen, with the people living in poverty. “Conditions of national roads in the province have been always severely damaged because 8-ton capacity trucks carrying 12 to 20 tons of load rumble down the roads daily,” he said. “I feel even if hundreds of billions are spent on the construction of roads, they will always remain damaged and broken. Given this situation, the solution is to build a railway line in Central Kalimantan” (ibid.).

VII Conclusion

The question to be asked is: How effectively planned is the trans-Kalimantan rail project going to be in the midst of the wheeling and dealing taking place at the district, provincial, central, and global levels?

As the case of East Kalimantan shows, local power holders would welcome a railway plan proposed by foreign investors and the central government if the project fitted in with the economic and political agenda of local government leaders. However, as in the case of Central Kalimantan, the central government and foreign investors could face difficulty in securing investment deals if the proposed plan had the potential to undermine the power base of local power holders. In such cases, as represented by Narang, the governor of Central Kalimantan, local political leaders have tried to hold a leading position by portraying themselves as defenders of local communities and the environment in their negotiations with foreign and national players.

It is, however, clear that the local government’s priority is not the concerns of local communities or the environment in Central Kalimantan. The provincial government actually recognized that the rail construction and operations would cause an impact on the environment. Thus, it used the rhetoric of “a less-damaging way of infrastructure development” to persuade local stakeholders to agree to the provincial railway project while using the rhetoric of “defender of local communities and the environment” to oppose the central government’s plan.

Whatever the case may be, the voices of ordinary local residents in the region where the railway projects would be implemented have not been publicly heard in any significant way. A possible reason could be that it has yet to sink in among residents that a coal railway will be built in their area. They might have been listening to the politicians and businesspeople harping on the positive aspects of a new railway system. They might have heard that the infrastructure development would lead to urbanization, with more jobs and economic opportunities as well as a better life for them. They might be expecting foreign companies to pay a large amount of financial compensation for their land.

The railway construction might also bring about some negative effects for local residents and the environment. There might be an influx of immigrant workers from other provinces, and locals might have to compete with them for railway-related job opportunities, which could eventually lead to ethnic tensions. Unplanned rapid urbanization of Kalimantan might lead to social problems, including poverty. Roads and paths might be opened up illegally from the railway line to interior forest areas, making it easier for illegal logging. More coal-mining companies would enter the region, and they could include some that might not be able to fulfill the technical requirements and financial guarantees related to compulsory reclamation and post-mining rehabilitation. Some companies might operate in a forest beyond their licensing area. These issues could escalate if the central and local government authorities failed to supervise the planning of the rail infrastructure as well as control businesses and mining operations in the region.

Hence, the role of local governments is crucial not only in the negotiation process with the central government and foreign investors but also during the construction and operations of the railway. However, general elections and direct elections for local government heads are held once five years, by which time major realignments can take place in national and local politics. In Central Kalimantan, the last gubernatorial election was held in January 2016. Narang was not able to run for re-election since the law limits the governor to two terms of office, and his favorite candidate was not elected as governor. Therefore, the direction for future research will be to seriously consider the impact of highly possible realignments in local politics on the progress of railway construction, and its effects on local residents and the environment. How rapidly the pace of development and projects move in Kalimantan will very much depend on it.

Accepted: February 10, 2016


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Agustin Teras Narang Center. 2012. MoU Barut dan Kubar melanggar etika pemerintahan [MoU by North Barito and West Kutai violates ethics of government]. March 7., accessed November 14, 2012.

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1) According to Decentralization Law No. 22/1999, obligatory sectors for the local government include health, education, public works, environment, communication, transport, agriculture, industry and trade, capital investment, land, cooperatives, manpower, and infrastructure services. Provincial governments are required to coordinate local governments and perform functions that affect more than one local government (World Bank 2008, 113).

2) IUJP, IMB, and environmental permits are under the purview of Regulation of the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources No. 28/2009; Government Regulation No. 32/2010; and Government Regulation No. 27/2012 respectively.

3) It usually takes about 8 to 10 hours to drive from Pontianak to Kuching.

4) Indonesia’s investment climate deteriorated after the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98. In 1997 the inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) was US$4.7 billion, but the following year Indonesia experienced a greater outflow than inflow, posting a negative of US$356 million. The country kept registering a negative inflow of FDI from 1998 to 2001 and in 2003 (ASEAN Secretariat 2006, 13). Frequent labor disputes and rapid wage increases also caused the relocation of foreign firms to other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam (Thee 2006).

5) The Government Regulation also defined the authority of provincial governments in 20 sectors, including agriculture, marine, mining and energy, forestry and plantation, and transportation.

6) See Chapter 5 of Law No. 23/2007.

7) Agustin Teras Narang was born to a local Dayak family in 1955. Dayak is a loose generic term for the indigenous communities of Kalimantan. The Narang family is one of the influential families among local Dayaks, especially in the central part of Central Kalimantan. Narang’s grandfather was a traditional customary leader and also a Christian church leader in the Kapuas region (interview with a local Dayak historian, April 2005). His father was a local businessman, and his elder brother is a local politician who is now the provincial chairman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Agustin Teras Narang himself was a lawyer and served as a parliament member of PDI-P before being elected as governor. He won the elections for governor of Central Kalimantan in 2005 and in 2010.

8) A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is generally a statement of intent and does not imply any legally binding obligation or official agreement.

9) Soon after Yudhoyono took over as president in 2004, the central government began to streamline regulatory laws and the system for PPP schemes for infrastructure projects. PPP schemes were implemented since the 1980s but only for specific sectors, such as electricity and toll roads. Following the Asian economic crisis in 1997, the central government embarked on the implementation of a legal and institutional framework that could serve as a basis for a greater degree of private participation in the form of PPPs and as part of the reform process for revitalizing the Indonesian economy. However, it made little progress until Yudhoyono took the presidency (OECD 2012, 184).

10) After the determination of the tender, there is another process, including finalizing government regulations and financing for the tendered project. At the national level, the Public Private Partnership Central Unit (P3CU) under the Directorate of PPP Development in the National Development Planning Agency (Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Nasional, BAPPENAS) is one of the key central units to monitor and evaluate PPP project development. The P3CU is also assigned the tasks of formulating policies; assessing requests for contingent government support; assessing and recommending project proposals feasible for government support; supporting government contracting agencies in the preparation of projects; and conducting PPP promotions, capacity building, and information dissemination (Strategic Asia 2012, 15).

11) Compared with the vast hectares of oil palm plantations fully utilizing all the land within concession areas, railways need land only for the length of rail tracks and the width of the rail gauge (approximately 1,000–1,500 mm in Indonesia).

12) According to the forestry laws (Law No. 41/1999), Indonesian forest is classified into three categories: production forest (hutan produksi), protected forest (hutan lindung), and conservation forest (hutan konservasi). Protected forest is a forest area having the main function of protecting life-supporting systems for hydrology, preventing floods, controlling erosion, preventing sea water intrusion, and maintaining soil fertility (Article 1). The use of protected forest can be in the form of utilizing its area, environmental services, and collection of non-timber forest products (Article 26). The law also stipulates that the use of forest area for development needs for non-forestry purposes can be made only in production and protected forest areas, and open-cast mining is prohibited in protected forest (Article 38).

13) Awang Faroek Ishak was born to a local aristocratic Kutai family in 1948. He was a scholar and became a member of parliament, representing East Kalimantan from 1987 to 1997. He was also the provincial secretary of Golkar from 1983 to 1988. After decentralization, he was elected as the district head of East Kutai in 2001 and reelected in 2006. He was elected as governor of East Kalimantan in 2008, backed by the then President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat) (Morishita 2008).

14) The FPB was established in February 2012 by national and local figures in politics, business, and civil society who came from South Kalimantan. As of 2015, they included Berry Nahdian Furqon, an executive director of WALHI; Mohammad Ilmi, an official of the National Atomic Energy Agency; Hasnuryadi Sulaiman, a son of Sulaiman HB, then provincial chairman of the Golkar Party and a founder of the Hasnur Group—which operates forestry, coal mining, oil palm plantations, infrastructure, shipping services, and so forth mainly in the Barito region; Aditya Mufi Ariffin, then national parliament member belonging to an Islamic party called United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP) and a son of Rudy Ariffin, then governor of South Kalimantan; and Gusti Perdana Pesuma, an influential politician from South Kalimantan belonging to the Golkar Party. Rudy Ariffin, then governor of South Kalimantan (2005–15), also supported the organization. As of 2015 he was a member of the advisory board of the FPB along with Gusti Muhammad Hatta, then minister for research and technology (2011–14) (Media Kalimantan, February 16, 2012).


Vol.5, No.3, Andrew AERIA


Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 3 

Economic Development via Dam Building: The Role of the State Government in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy and the Impact on Environment and Local Communities

Andrew Aeria*

* Faculty of Social Sciences, University Malaysia Sarawak, 94300 Kota Samarahan Sarawak, Malaysia

e-mail: andrewaeria[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.3_373

Since 1970, as a consequence of Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (NEP) and its integration into the global economy, the development achievements and per capita GDP growth of the resource-rich state of Sarawak have been impressive—although not without problems. Since timber and petroleum resources are exhaustible, and there is a concern with finding new sources of growth and revenue, the federal and state governments advocated industrial diversification in 2008 via the development of a multibillion-ringgit regional development corridor called the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE). Central to the success of the huge developmental corridor was cheap hydroelectric power (HEP). For the Sarawak government, SCORE’s launch and eventual success were based on the availability of abundant water resources and suitable hydropower dam sites in the state. Yet, SCORE is likely to contribute to further environmental degradation and impact negatively upon the livelihoods and welfare of local communities. This paper examines this recent development trend and its consequences. Specifically, it examines the role of the Sarawak state government in advocating the construction of numerous HEP dams, the role of foreign and local investment in SCORE, and their collective impact upon the environment and local communities. What this paper reveals is the nexus of close relationships that binds key politicians in the state administration with crony businesses associated with foreign-linked contracts that has proven to be destructive socially and environmentally.

Keywords: hydropower dam, foreign investment, state patronage, NEP, SCORE, Sarawak, Malaysia

I Introduction

In late October 2007 Abdul Aziz Husain, a former state secretary of Sarawak, brother-in-law of then Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, and the newly appointed group managing director of Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB),1) gave a PowerPoint presentation titled “Chinese Power Plants in Malaysia—Present & Future Development” at the China—ASEAN Power Corporation & Development Forum in Nanning, China.

His slide presentation, which was temporarily uploaded onto the Internet,2) outlined the Sarawak state government’s plans to transform the state from a rural backwater into the industrial powerhouse of Borneo via the construction of numerous hydroelectric mega-dams to supply power to the recently announced massive industrial corridor in the state. Called the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), the corridor was conceived as part of a concerted attempt by the country’s policy planners in 2006 “to stimulate global and domestic investment in traditionally rural areas to create balanced development throughout the country” (RECODA 2015a) in a resource-rich part of the country.

Providing the clean and green renewable energy to power the numerous expected local and foreign large-scale industrial investments in SCORE was the proposal (revealed by Abdul Aziz Husain) to construct 52 hydroelectric power (HEP) mega-dams. This was to be achieved with the assistance of Chinese companies and their dam-building technology, which would provide a total power capacity of 20,000 MW and an electricity potential generating capacity of 82,000 GWh/year (Abdul Aziz Husain 2007). Of these dams, 13 were scheduled to be built by 2020 and would have an installed capacity of 7,165 MW of electricity. Collectively, these 13 major dams would flood a total land area of 2,300 km2 and displace 30,000–50,000 indigenous people from over 235 settlements (BMF 2013a; 2013b) (see map in Appendix).

Since then, indigenous community organizations along with local and international environmental groups have been struggling to stop the construction of these proposed hydroelectric mega-dams designed to power Sarawak well into the twenty-first century (The Star, July 23, 2008; Mongabay 2009; The Borneo Project n.d., Stop the Dams). No broad public consultations have been held to discuss whether such a large-scale industrial development program is desirable, let alone viable. Neither have local indigenous peoples affected by this dam-building program been consulted, in outright violation of the principles of the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) mandating prior and informed consent when development impacts indigenous peoples (The Borneo Project n.d., NGO Coalition).

To date, detailed information about the Sarawak government’s official development plans involving so many HEP dams remains vague and under wraps except for what has been uploaded onto a Web site dedicated to the development of SCORE3) and regular official government press statements about its benefits (Sarawak Government 2014). Consequently, the various issues and impact of this development strategy remain largely unexamined. Former Chief Minister and now Governor Abdul Taib Mahmud has long been Sarawak’s most ardent proponent of hydroelectric dams (The Star, April 11, 2009; April 12, 2009). He remains convinced about their multiple benefits, which include reversing rural-urban population migration and transforming the basic infrastructure of the state’s interior regions (The Borneo Post, June 18, 2013).

Since 1970, as a consequence of the New Economic Policy (NEP)4) and as a result of being integrated into the global economy, Sarawak has displayed impressive development achievements and per capita GDP growth—although not without problems. Since Sarawak’s economy is precipitated on massive resource extraction and primary commodity-based industries, the economy has seen significant wealth creation but one based on a pattern of resource exhaustion and environmental degradation with significant affiliated impacts upon local communities (Hong 1987; Colchester 1989; WRM and SAM 1989; Bevis 1995; Cleary and Eaton 1995; Majid-Cooke 1997; 1999; Kaur 1998a; IDEAL 1999; Brown 2001; BMF 2012a; Bryan et al. 2013).

The sustainability of the current NEP-led development model—which is based on primary resource exhaustion, agricultural commodity plantation development, large-scale infrastructure, and regional industrial corridors—may just be undermined by its own success (Majid-Cooke 1997; Phoa 2003; BMF 2014). Hence, instead of improving the quality of life for the majority, the commissioning of numerous hydroelectric dam projects by the Sarawak state government in its single-minded pursuit of SCORE is likely to contribute to further environmental degradation and impact negatively upon the livelihoods and welfare of local communities (BMF 2010; 2012a; Yale Environment Review 2013; Sarawak Report, January 30, 2015).

This paper examines the recent development trend and its consequences. Specifically, it examines the role of the Sarawak state government in advocating the construction of numerous HEP dams, the role of foreign and local investment in SCORE, and their collective impact upon the environment and local communities. What this paper reveals is the nexus of close relationships that binds key politicians in the state administration with crony businesses associated with foreign-linked contracts, which has proven to be destructive socially and environmentally.

There is a whole body of literature on the political economy of development relating to state capture by corporate and political crony interests whereby politicians and agencies of the state, which in theory serve the people, are captured by interests antithetical to those of the public.5) These practices have been ongoing in Sarawak since independence, particularly in the form of crony business contract awards such as timber concessions, land grants, and infrastructure contracts (Milne 1973; Leigh 1991; Mason 1995; Brown 2001; Ross 2001; Aeria 2002; Mersat 2005; Straumann 2014). This paper contributes further to these studies by examining the recent expansion of crony political business links into a foreign-invested venture.

II Sarawak’s Development Record as Background

The largest state in Malaysia, Sarawak holds rich resource deposits of petroleum, natural gas, coal, silica, and, until recently, timber and gold. Much land, post-logging, has been made available for modern commercial plantation agriculture, mainly oil palm and acacia pulp plantations.6) The state’s numerous large rivers are also potential generators of hydroelectric power to transform the state into a heavy industry powerhouse.

Wealth Inequalities in Economic Growth
Development achievement has been impressive since 1970. Sarawak’s transformation into a fast-growing state is reflected in its recurrently positive growth rates (see Table 1). Its economic growth has consistently weathered economic recessions—in 1985–86, 1998–2000, and 2008–09.7) However, Sarawak’s economic growth is also volatile. Annual GDP swings are large, with differences ranging as much as eight percentage points either way.

Table 1 Sarawak: Average Annual GDP Growth Rates, 1970–2010


Consequently, Sarawak has, on aggregate, seen a general rise in life expectancy and standards of living and significant improvements in transport and communication infrastructure. Education and health-care systems have improved and provide for the welfare of more people than ever before (Government of Malaysia 1989; 1993). Similarly, more Sarawakians own houses, cars, motorcycles, and other household amenities (Department of Statistics, Malaysia 1995). Clearly, poverty has been reduced in Sarawak, as shown in Table 2.8)

Table 2 Sarawak Poverty Rates, 1975–2009 (percent of households below the official poverty line)


Even as overall poverty levels have fallen, Sarawak’s Gini coefficient has fluctuated. From a reading of 0.501 (1979), the Gini fell to a low of 0.407 (1999) before rising again to 0.442 (2004) and 0.448 (2009). This means that income and wealth inequality in the state actually fell in the first 30 years of the NEP before rising again (UNDP 2007; Unit Perancang Ekonomi 2011). It is the hard-core poor who are most affected. Current data for this category shows a similar trend since 2007, when the percentage of hard-core poor, which had dropped to 0.7 percent from a high of 10 percent (1984), reversed and rose again to 1 percent in 2009 (Government of Malaysia 2008, 58; Unit Perancang Ekonomi 2011).

Likewise, wealth inequalities are clearly evident in the government unit trust schemes (ASN/ASB)9) specifically set up for Bumiputera groups10) since 1980—in terms of both number of investors and total investments (2004: 694,000 investors/RM3.8623 billion; 2012: 1.098 million investors/RM16.442 billion) (Government of Malaysia 2008, 59; The Borneo Post, February 20, 2013). By the end of 2012, each Sarawakian Bumiputera investor averaged RM15,000 in their ASN/ASB unit trust accounts (The Star, February 20, 2013). This growth augured well for poverty eradication since it suggested more people had disposable income, which they set aside for savings and investment as a result of the NEP’s implementation.11)

However, a closer examination indicates a more nuanced picture. The median of the 7.824 million ASBN unit holders in Malaysia falls in the lowest category of “RM5,000 and below” with a mean investment/saving of RM611 (see Table 3). Hence, although the mean investment/saving of the 1.098 million ASBN unit holders in Sarawak each was RM15,000 (The Star, February 20, 2013), there is likely relatively little difference in the median pattern of ASBN unit holders in the state, i.e. in the lowest “RM5,000 and below” category with a mean investment/saving of RM611.

Table 3 Malaysia: Number of ASN/ASB Unit Trust Holders and Total Units Held, 2012


While the ASN/ASB unit trust funds were set up to encourage savings and long-term investments among low-income Bumiputeras, the reality is that a majority of Bumiputeras in the state do not earn sufficient incomes to give them the extra cash after monthly expenses to allocate funds to savings and long-term investments in unit trust schemes.

This would also explain why, in 2006, Sarawak was ranked 11th out of 14 in Malaysia’s overall development composite index (Government of Malaysia 2006, 356)12) and why UNDP noted that poverty in Malaysia was mainly Bumiputera in ethnic character and had a rural and regional character, with “the indigenous communities in Sabah and Sarawak” being “especially prominent” (UNDP 2007, iii).

There are further realities that call into question the overall sustainability of Sarawak’s economic development model, an issue seldom addressed—let alone discussed in depth—by policy makers.

A recent social impact assessment of the hitherto nomadic Penan of the Ulu Belaga area affected by the current Murum dam project included the preparation of a “Resettlement Action Plan” (RAP). The RAP noted that their “average cash incomes (from wages and allowances) vary between RM49 and RM272 per household per month” (Chemsian Konsultant Sdn Bhd 2011; Sarawak Energy 2012). Hence, although there has been much progress overall in reducing poverty and inequality under the NEP’s rapid economic growth since 1970, both remain entrenched in Sarawak.

Reliance on Primary Resource Extraction
Sarawak’s economic growth and pattern of industrialization over the last four decades has also produced a skewed pattern of “unequal development,” a pattern most clearly seen in the exploitation of Sarawak’s rich resource endowments (Aeria 2013).

Up until now, Sarawak’s economy has focused intensively upon the exploitation of its extensive petroleum, gas, and forest resources, mainly timber. Petroleum is largely an offshore enclave industry controlled by the professionally run national oil corporation Petronas; and revenues and profits when derived are owned solely by the federal government. Hence, the Sarawak government has focused mainly on land-based “economic development,” a euphemism for tropical timber extraction and more recently the conversion of logged forest lands into commercial oil palm and other cash crop plantations.13)

Weak governance and state capture by political-business elites have seen a growing prevalence of extensive corruption and financial leakages in the award of timber concessions and infrastructure contracts, weak enforcement of state forest policy, and blatant land grabs of native customary rights lands under the pretext of “development.”14)

Consequently, the state has been depleted of its once-pristine rain forests. Bereft of sustainable timber revenues, logged secondary rain forest has been clear-felled, mainly for commercial oil palm plantations. A study by Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF) found that

only an estimated 5 per cent of primary forests have been spared from logging. Sarawak’s large remaining secondary rainforests are currently being destroyed at a rate three times faster than in Asia overall, mainly for the planting of oil palms. 1,021,587 hectares out of Sarawak’s 12.4 million hectares (around one twelfth) were already covered with oil palm plantations in late 2011. (BMF 2012a, 6)15)

Indeed, an official document leaked from the Sarawak Land and Survey Department to the whistle-blower Web site Sarawak Report details an extensive list of politically well-connected companies, a listing of the who’s who of the political and business elites within the state that have benefited from extremely cheap and even free grants of extensive tracts of land for cash crop plantation farming (especially oil palm) (Sarawak Report, January 28, 2015).

Compounding this “unequal development” pattern is Sarawak’s economic path dependence given its over-reliance on primary resource extraction. Sarawak’s relative share of sectoral GDP by industrial origin reflects this. Its reliance on its primary commodity sector averaged around 35 percent in 1967, over 40 percent in the 1970s, and over 50 percent in the 1980s before reducing to 45 percent in 1995, 41 percent in 1997, 47 percent in 2000, 36.3 percent in 2005, and 34.3 percent in 2009 (Department of Statistics, Sarawak, various issues) (see also Table 4).

Table 4 Sarawak: Comparison of Share of GDP by Industrial Origin in Constant Prices, 1967–2009 (percent)


What is significant and important to note is that this over-reliance on primary resource extraction has meant that Sarawak’s forests have all but been decimated over the last four decades. A recent study that utilized CLASlite satellite technology to monitor tropical forest deforestation and degradation found that “nearly 80% of the land surface of Sabah and Sarawak was impacted by previously undocumented, high-impact logging or clearing operations from 1990 to 2009” (Bryan et al. 2013).16)

Dams as Next Source of Economic Development
Since timber and petroleum resources are exhaustible and there is concern over finding new sources of growth and revenue, the federal and state governments advocated industrial diversification in 2008 via the development of the multibillion-ringgit SCORE to ensure that the NEP’s objectives of redistribution with continued growth were not jeopardized. Central to the success of the huge developmental corridor was cheap hydroelectric power. For the Sarawak government, SCORE’s launch and eventual success were based on the availability of abundant water resources and suitable hydropower dam sites in the state. The Sarawak Integrated Water Resources Management Master Plan concluded that “hydroelectric power generation [had] particularly highly potential and [was] suitable in Sarawak due to the abundance of water, with an annual precipitation of about 4000 mm” (SIWRM Master Plan 2008). The huge financial resources required to build the initial 13 mega-dams with their spinoff contracts also meant that hydroelectric mega-dam construction and electricity power generation along with hundreds of kilometers of power cable infrastructure would emerge as the state’s new source of economic growth over the next decade.

III The Regional Corridor Development Authority and SCORE

The lead agency for the implementation of SCORE has not been any local government authority but the state government via a powerful statutory agency, the Regional Corridor Development Authority (RECODA). This is due to the unique constitutional characteristics of Sarawak within the federation of Malaysia.

The 1963 Malaysia Agreement along with the Federal Constitution accorded the state government of Sarawak (and Sabah) greater control over all its land-based resources and greater autonomy in overseeing economic development than the powers enjoyed by the state governments in Peninsular Malaysia. Principally, this was enshrined in the transfer of federal powers to the state and concurrent lists of governmental powers, which included the unusual power of control over immigration into Sarawak territory, along with additional sources of revenue and special development grants (Lim 1997).17) As well, enshrined in the State List of Powers of the Malaysian Constitution was control over local government and development within its borders.

Sarawak is presently divided into 26 local government administrative districts (also known as local councils) made up of city councils, municipal councils, district councils, and one special authority called the Bintulu Development Authority. All these local councils fall under the strict financial and political jurisdiction of the state government’s Ministry of Local Government and Community Development. Local government elections in Sarawak were suspended in 1971 and abolished in 1977, when the state assembly adopted the Local Authority Amendment and the Kuching Municipal Amendment Bills. Since then, all local councilors have been political appointees of the state government.

As a result, the only autonomy available to local councils is in the form of planning and management functions related to “conservancy, scavenging, street lighting, road maintenance and to a certain extent matters pertaining to environment and public health” (Sarok 2009, 22) within their areas of jurisdiction. Although local councils collect local taxes, these funds are insufficient to cover all their annual expenses. Hence, nearly all remain dependent on financial grants and transfers from the Sarawak state government.

Constitutionally, the Sarawak state government has always enjoyed considerable leeway in undertaking and managing its own development projects and activities, the most recent and important being SCORE. To this end, the state government set up RECODA in 2009 as the sole agency “tasked with overseeing and managing SCORE” (RECODA 2015b).

RECODA: Powerful Supra-Agency of the State Government of Sarawak
The setting up of RECODA was seen as necessary given the huge size of SCORE. According to official sources, SCORE covers “over 70,000 square kilometres of the resource rich central region” of Sarawak, and it “has a long coastline of more than 1,000 km, over 8 million hectares of forests, almost 5 million hectares of arable land and peat land suitable for agriculture” (RECODA 2015c).18) The corridor has 1.2 billion barrels of known oil reserves; over 80 million tonnes of silica sand; and over 22 million tonnes of kaolin or china clay, a key component of cosmetics, ceramics, and, most recently, combat area medical equipment (RECODA 2015a). Citing Sarawak’s “abundance of natural resources, including clean and safe renewable resources, such as hydropower that offers commercial users clean energy at competitive rates” (ibid.), policy planners thus earmarked SCORE as the region for the establishment of energy-sector industries. Ten high-impact priority industries19) were identified and a two-decade-long development plan drawn up to realize the state’s industrialization blueprint.

SCORE’s geographic reach and its desire for large-scale investments have meant that economic and developmental activities within it often traverse numerous local council jurisdictions. Not only would managing major investors require deft coordination between various state government agencies, but it would also require organization and dexterity when dealing with the many local councils and their various planning and maintenance departments located within SCORE. Hence, the state government established RECODA as an agency tasked with overseeing and managing SCORE in an effort to cut bureaucratic red tape and facilitate foreign and domestic investment.

Set up as a one-stop government agency to avoid “traditional government procedural delays” (RECODA 2015b), RECODA is a powerful agency chaired by the chief minister of Sarawak. To ensure efficiency and efficacy, RECODA also has “board representation from all of the relevant federal and state agencies to ensure swift decision making” (ibid.). It has two defined primary tasks. First, RECODA “promotes SCORE by creating and stimulating new and existing markets”; and second, it is tasked with attracting investments and industries to SCORE so as to “achieve the ambitious investment goals set by the state” (ibid.). As noted on its Web site, “in the face of fierce global competition not just from traditional or regional competitors, but also from developed countries, RECODA understands the need for an environment that generates confidence for private and corporate investors” (ibid.). In other words, RECODA was set up to be a “lean and nimble organisation capable of rapid decision-making, fast track approvals and implementation of strategic and tactical initiatives to ensure investors are able to hit the ground running” (ibid.).

And yet, precisely because the RECODA board is chaired by the chief minister, the agency is effectively a powerful supra-agency of the state government of Sarawak,20) one that transcends all local government authorities within its geographic sphere of activity. Hence, for all purposes, when we discuss SCORE and the developmental impact of the foreign investments and industries in the corridor, our discussion is focused on the role of the state government and not on local government or local councils, since the latter’s role is minimal. Although local government authorities do operate within the geographical area of SCORE, they essentially act only as providers of public services within their areas of urban and rural jurisdiction,21) with little responsibility over investments, development, and industries related to SCORE.

IV The Hydroelectric Mega-Dams and Their Collective Impact on Environment and Local Communities

Early in the second decade of this century, SCORE’s industrialization program was valued at US$105 billion and was aimed at transforming and developing the state by the year 2030 (Sovacool and Bulan 2011). The underlying assumption is that accelerated economic growth and development will, ipso facto, improve the quality of life for the people of Sarawak (RECODA 2012).

Indeed, SCORE has been touted as “the most capital intensive and ambitious energy project ever undertaken in Southeast Asia” (Sovacool and Bulan 2011) with the “firm belief that a massively increased energy supply will entail economic growth and development” (BMF 2012a).

In pursuit of this goal, the 52 HEP dams—including the completed Batang Ai dam, as announced by Abdul Aziz Husain in China in 2007—were conceived on the assumption that Sarawak’s numerous rivers had the potential to produce 28,000 MW of hydropower (ibid.)22) as well as “clean” and cheap energy to power the demands of various heavy industries such as aluminum smelting and steel, which had been identified as the backbone industries within SCORE.

Of the 52 major HEP dams planned for the state, 3 have already been completed (Batang Ai, Bakun, and Murum). A fourth (Baram) was under initial phase of construction until its cancellation in early 2016. Seven other HEP dams are in their feasibility planning stages: Limbang, Balleh, Lawas, Belaga, Menjawa, Pelagus, and Punan Bah (SIWRM Master Plan 2008). Another recently completed dam, Bengoh, located about 50 km outside Kuching, is not an HEP dam but one designed to meet the raw water needs of the growing capital city and its hinterlands until 2030.

And yet, deep concerns remain that most of these HEP dams are unsustainable and will have a negative impact upon local communities and the environment (Mongabay 2009; BMF 2010, 2012a; 2014). All of these dams have been, or currently are, reliant upon foreign investment or foreign technological expertise for their development. We examine four—namely, Batang Ai, Bakun, Murum, and Baram—to draw lessons from them. It is to these issues that we now turn.

Batang Ai Dam: Impact and Environmental Footprint
Completed in 1985, the 110-meter-high Batang Ai HEP dam “has a water surface area of 84 km2, a water volume of 750 million m3, and a mean depth of 44 m” (Ling et al. 2012). Its reservoir inundated approximately 21,000 acres of land and displaced more than 3,000 indigenous people from some 26 longhouses (Avang 1999; First Peoples Worldwide 2012). Costing US$236 million, it was financed by federal government funds (US$44.8 million) and the Employees Provident Fund23) (US$57.3 million) and received loans of US$44.8 million, US$40.4 million, US$36.3 million, US$9.9 million, and US$2.2 million from the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the Mitsui Trust Banking Company (Mitsui), the Australian Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, and the English Export Credit Guarantee Department respectively (Hong 1987, in Avang 1999).

Sarawak’s first HEP dam, Batang Ai has four turbines (4 × 23 MW) with a total electricity-generating capacity of 92 MW of power (Avang 1999). Pre-feasibility studies for Batang Ai were provided by the Australian engineering consultancy Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) beginning in 1973, with the feasibility study completed in 1978. SMEC listed its clients for this project as the Australian Development Assistance Bureau and Sarawak Electricity Supply Corporation (SMEC Malaysia 2007–12). A joint venture, Maeda-Okumura, began construction of Batang Ai dam in 1981; water impoundment started in 1984 and power generation in 1985 (CIWRHR 2009). Since then, the state government-owned Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB),24) the owner of Batang Ai, has proposed enhancing the power-generation capacity of Batang Ai by a further 80 MW via an extension of two power turbines (2 × 40 MW) by constructing a “separate power waterway system with an intake, a tunnel, a penstock and a powerhouse” (ibid.). This extension is aimed at meeting “peak loads in the power grid” (ibid.).25)

According to Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), 22 local indigenous communities were displaced by this project; 10 communities relocated in 1982 and the remaining 12 in 1984 (SAM 1998, in Avang 1999). Other local communities that were not inundated by the dam impoundment either chose to stay or moved to higher ground. They were, nonetheless, also affected, when their traditional transportation routes were cut off by the rising waters of the dam reservoir.

Available research suggests that the Batang Ai HEP dam resettlement scheme has not brought about much benefit to those resettled but instead has caused great hardship to the affected population. Ngidang (1996) noted that

about 1,595 families were resettled in a land scheme, with each family allocated 4.5 hectares of farmland: 2ha of rubber, 1.2ha of cocoa and 0.4ha for a garden plot, while the remaining 0.8ha for rice cultivation is yet to be given. The cocoa farm scheme was abandoned after cocoa price plunged in the 1980s and has since been replanted with oil palm . . . although the resettlement scheme provided facilities and infrastructure, the farm scheme had not been able to provide a sustainable income for the settlers. Besides, the lack of land for rice cultivation seemed to add to the problem of food insecurity. The aquaculture project in Batang Ai has long been discontinued for lack of funding and found to be not viable due to the high cost of feed and limited market outlets. (Ngidang 1996, in Jarrow 2010)

Similarly, Avang Itik’s (1999) short study of two indigenous communities to assess the sociocultural impacts of the Batang Ai Hydroelectric Project and its resettlement scheme found that most of those resettled did not have firm resettlement contracts but merely verbal assurances from the government. Land compensation was set at an unrealistically low rate of RM300/acre. On average, those resettled received approximately RM30,000 per family while those who were not resettled received about RM10,000 (Avang 1999). Ngidang (1996), however, states that the “average compensation in the ‘Danger Zone’ area was about RM90,000 per family and about RM62,000 per family in the ‘Partial Danger Zone’” (Ngidang 1996, in Avang 1999). Most of those resettled also did not receive the amount of land promised after they moved from their native customary rights (NCR) lands into the resettlement areas. Many resettlers felt shortchanged by the government. This issue has since consistently been part of election campaign discourses in the parliamentary constituency of Lubok Antu and state constituency of Batang Ai in all elections since the 1990s (Yi 2009).

As well, resettlers discovered that with the building of the dam came massive socio-environmental changes that forced major lifestyle changes upon them. They found they had to pay for their new homes, which cost RM36,000 each. Instead of being compensated for the loss of their inundated homes, resettled families found that the government’s compensation of RM8,000 per house was used as a down payment for their new homes, with the government expecting resettled families to pay the difference via monthly installments. Many have been unable to pay. Resettlers also discovered that they had to pay for water and electricity supply despite earlier government promises of free utilities in the resettlement areas.

Early efforts by the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA) to assist the resettled Batang Ai communities via cocoa and rubber plantations also failed. These cocoa and rubber plantation programs were “delayed by several years due to the lack of staff and labor, and difficulties in obtaining planting material. The cocoa plantations failed before 1989” (ADB 1999, 11) before being replanted with oil palm. Nor has the SALCRA oil palm scheme in the resettlement area benefited the resettlers, as they have never managed to earn enough income from SALCRA (Ngidang 1996, in Jarrow 2010). After 10 years of their SALCRA plantation projects, resettled families earned a mere

RM230 a month compared with the income (RM523 a month) that was envisaged from plantations after 10 years. This also compared unfavorably with the average monthly family income of RM675 of those who continued to live in native customary rights lands in upstream Batang Ai (without the Project). (ADB 1999, 11)

Complicating matters, many also realized that they now lived in a pure cash economy as opposed to their former lives in which they were able to rely upon the forest to supplement their food and other needs. With higher expenses, insufficient income from their land crops, and burdensome debt, a majority of resettlers in Batang Ai have not managed to cope and have not managed to extricate themselves from poverty. Consequently, the Batang Ai HEP dam resettlement has long been regarded as a socioeconomic failure (Ngidang 1996, in Jarrow 2010; The Borneo Post, May 19, 2013), with resettled families having to live in areas with severe environmental and social challenges that place stress upon their lives and their cultural identities (ADB 1999).

Environmentally as well, Batang Ai has problems. The inundation of the dam proceeded without its biomass being cleared. Consequently, Batang Ai has already contributed serious levels of hydrogen sulfide and methane into the atmosphere (and continues to do so), with potential impacts on global warming. Absurdly, there have been few studies on the levels of methane and hydrogen sulfide produced in Batang Ai since it was commissioned. As such, little is known about Batang Ai’s damaging global environmental footprint. A recent local study, however, found that Batang Ai continues to produce and harbor copious amounts of toxic hydrogen sulfide in its waters, with levels rising in proportion to water depth (Ling et al. 2012). Although the levels have decreased over the years compared to an earlier study in 1995 (Pusin 1995, in Ling et al. 2012), “the irritating smell of hydrogen sulphide has been detected at the reservoir, at outflow and at a downstream town of Lubok Antu” (Ling et al. 2012, 24). After testing the water, the study found that “58% of the hydrogen sulphide concentrations observed in the various test sites of the dam exceeded US EPA recommended values of 2 μg/L” (ibid., 27). Such concentrations posed a toxic hazard to aquaculture, especially in the event of an “upwelling or mixing of water where the high sulphide level is brought to the culture zone with anoxic water” (ibid.).

Although methane is also being produced and emitted at the Batang Ai reservoir, there are as yet no known studies on the levels of methane.26) There are also no publicly available studies on sedimentation, fish migrations, or non-native and invasive species of flora and fauna upstream of the dam. Similarly, no known studies have been undertaken on the impact of changes of downstream river flows upon the natural and human communities and environments of the Batang Ai River.

What little is known is that Batang Ai has seen the disappearance of several “large migratory fish species adapted to fast-moving water [which] now appear to be rare or nonexistent in the reservoir and the upper reaches” (ADB 1999, 10) of the dam. As well, the introduction of exotic fish species such as tilapia in cage aquaculture

poses a long-term risk to the fisheries in the reservoir and downstream, as this species can overpopulate. Fish cage culture and lack of proper clearing of vegetation from the reservoir have contributed to the anoxic conditions of the reservoir. Conditions for aquatic life in the Batang Ai River below the dam are poor due to a lack of minimum flow releases during the dry season and periodic bouts of poor water quality characterized by hydrogen sulfide and possibly reduced dissolved oxygen. (ibid.)

Bakun HEP Dam: Impact and Environmental Footprint
Located on the Balui River, a tributary of the mighty Rejang River, the Bakun HEP dam is the second-highest concrete-faced rockfill dam in the world. With eight power tunnels delivering water to eight 300 MW turbines, Bakun is capable of producing 2,400 MW of electricity (BNHP 2011). Bakun rises to a height of 207 m, has a catchment area of 14,750 km2, and has a reservoir surface area of nearly 700 km2, nearly the surface area of Singapore. Its reservoir fill volume is 16.71 million m3, with a gross storage volume of 43,800 million m3 (EcoKnights 2010).

First mooted in the 1960s, work on the controversial HEP dam began in 1986 but was crippled and shelved in 1990, revived in 1993, stopped in 1997, and revived again in 2000, due to a lack of demand for electricity, serious financial constraints, economic recessions, and regional financial crises. The project was finally completed in 2011 when Sinohydro, a state-owned enterprise from China, got involved via a Malaysia-China joint-venture company after various Malaysian public-private joint ventures had failed (International Rivers n.d., Bakun Dam).

From design until completion, Bakun saw the involvement of both the federal and state governments and their agencies, major investors, consultants, and contractors, domestic as well as foreign. Both the federal and state governments (along with their agencies) invested huge sums of public funds into Bakun. Some of the better-known domestic agencies/companies that invested resources into the project included Ekran Berhad; Bakun Hydroelectric Corporation (a joint venture comprising Malaysia’s national power corporation, Tenaga Nasional Berhad [TNB]; Sarawak Electricity Supply Corporation [SESCO]; and Malaysia Mining Corporation [MMC]) (Sulaiman 2013). Global Upline Bhd, Sarawak Hidro, and Malaysia-China Hydro JV (comprising Sime Engineering Bhd, Sinohydro Corporation of China, WCT Bhd, MTD Capital, Ahmad Zaki Resources, Syarikat Ismail, and Edward & Sons) were also involved (The Malay Mail, December 1, 2004).

All these companies, whether government-linked (e.g., TNB, SESCO, and MMC) or privately owned, were closely connected to various political interests close to the governing coalition (federal and state level) Barisan Nasional or to then Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (Gomez 1999; Brown 2001; How et al. 2013).27) Many of these companies had proven track records in completing various large financial, engineering, and construction projects. They also formed the political-economic vanguard of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s grand strategy of modernizing Malaysia via industrialization and mega-construction projects (Gomez and Jomo 1997; Milne and Mauzy 1999; Wain 2009).

Some of the better-known foreign companies involved with Bakun included SAMA Consortium German Agency for Technical Cooperation, Snowy Mountains Engineering Coporation (Australia), Harza Engineering LP (United States), Swedish-Swiss joint venture Asea Brown Boveri (Switzerland), Companhia Brasileira de Projetos e Obras (Brazil), Lahmeyer (Germany), DongAh (Korea), IMPSA (Argentina), and Alstom (France) (Allison 2000).

Bakun has proven controversial. Its sheer size has drawn international odium ever since the World Bank and the World Commission on Dams both eschewed any further involvement with large dams as “dam projects face on average cost-overruns of 56%, that promoters systematically exaggerate benefits and that 55% of the analysed dams generated less power than projected” (BMF 2012a, 7). Officially Bakun cost RM7.4 billion (Sovacool and Bulan 2011; Malay Mail Online, October 2, 2013), although critics suggest the project cost closer to RM15 billion (BMF 2012a; Asia Sentinel, April 24, 2012). The exact total amount of public funds expended for the completion of this project, however, remains unknown. What is known is that the federal government paid about US$250 million compensation to Bakun Hydroelectric Corporation and its foreign contractors, Asea Brown Boveri, Companhia Brasileira de Projetos e Obras, and DongAh of South Korea to rescue the project from its myriad disputes and delays (Allison 2000; Swain and Ang 2004).28) Bakun was ultimately completed with financial support from various Malaysian government pension funds and the China Export Import Bank (International Rivers n.d., Bakun Dam).

Such massive expenditures without accountability suggest that when it came to mega-development projects linked to political interests, financial costs were not the priority of the Malaysian government. Instead, crony political business links were. In a 2005 report, Transparency International branded the project “‘a monument of corruption’ citing years of delays, ownership changes and overall costs that more than doubled” (Free Malaysia Today, October 27, 2011). A similar conclusion was reached by Bruno Manser Fonds (2012a) given the numerous politically connected companies involved in the construction of the dam. Indeed, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Bakun was the politically linked company Cahya Mata Sarawak,29) which has long had a monopoly on the supply of cement and steel in the state. In 1996 it expanded its production capacities as a direct response to the building of Bakun (Aeria 2002).

Bakun has also been dogged by local and global criticism over the treatment of those resettled. Over 10,000 indigenous people from 15 communities were relocated and resettled on account of the Bakun hydropower project. Although intially given assurances and a raft of promises about a better life and future for their communities in the Bakun Resettlement Area at Sungei Asap, all were eventually shortchanged. Despite the communities being resettled in 1998, compensation for inundated NCR lands was delayed by over 14 years on account of uncertainty over how the compensation was calculated (Netto 1998; The Borneo Post, June 17, 2012) and also because of local disputes over the size of each community’s and individual’s NCR landholdings and among individual claimants (Tawie 2010).

Most of those affected by the dam were resettled in a remote area with poor soil (rocky, sandy, and sloping land) in Sungei Asap. Despite the government’s promise of three hectares of adequate land per family, each family was given only three acres of land; this was insufficient for hill rice cultivation (Hornbill Unleashed 2011). All their efforts to plant traditional crops such as pepper, cocoa, dragon fruit, and ginger came to naught since the land was too poor to nurture any crop except oil palm. To add insult to injury, all resettled families were told to pay between RM50,000 and RM60,000 for their individual apartments in the longhouses built for them (The Borneo Post, November 9, 2010). Sungei Asap did have a school, a police post, a health clinic, and an agricultural office. But it still does not have a fire station, a post office, or a bank (SMLD and SALCO 2008).

Cut off from their traditional river environments where they had access to fishing and river transportation, forced to settle on poor soil, and constrained to pay for their new apartments in Sungei Asap, the resettled communities were effectively forced by the government into penury and hardship (Malaysiakini, September 17, 2010). In other words, despite rosy official promises that construction of the dam would bring progress and development, once proud and dignified communities have been reduced to working as unskilled labor in nearby oil palm plantations and construction sites and waiting on coffee shop tables in urban areas. Many residents who could not take the “bad living conditions” and the severe stress they encountered in their new lives in the resettlement area moved back to their traditional lands (Malaysiakini, July 6, 2013).

The near absence of sustained agricultural activity due to poor soil fertility in Sungei Asap, the absence of nearby markets for the villagers’ meager produce, and “a lack of employment and limited resources in the resettlement” (Jehom 2008, 152) has also meant that many longhouses of the Sungei Asap resettlement village are largely vacant except for a few old people with their grandchildren.30) Adults of working age are rarely seen in Sungei Asap as most of them work as migrant labor in urban centers such as Bintulu, Sibu, Miri, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, and farther afield in Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia. These migrant workers return only once or twice a year, during festive periods. This serious labor outflow from rural areas to urban centers is made worse on account of the lack of waged employment in Sungei Asap, low wages, and poor educational achievement of the resettled communities (Baru 2012; The Borneo Post, June 17, 2012). Those who remain in Sungei Asap “imply a disappointment with the resettlement” (SMLD and SALCO 2008, 54).

In 2008, a study that examined the standard of living and quality of life in Sungei Asap found a “majority (55 percent) rated themselves as ‘middling’ (sedang), with a sizeable 39 percent rating their condition as ‘difficult’ (susah).” The more nomadic Penan who had been resettled felt, without exception, that their living conditions were “difficult” and that they were worse off after resettlement (ibid., 54–55). While resettlement had a positive impact31) on a small proportion (of those resettled), for the majority it had no impact or a negative one (ibid., 58). Indeed, the study found that “resettlement had apparently not improved the standard of living of the majority, with only 10 per cent reporting themselves to be better off than five years ago” (ibid., 60).32) The study also concluded that, apart from incomes and ownership of consumer durables, there were likely to be “other more psycho-social, or cultural matters relating to a sense of well-being” (ibid.). The Sungei Asap resettlement area today does not reflect the rich cultural diversity and communal intermeshing of rural life that was once the hallmark of indigenous society along the Balui River basin.33)

Along with unhappy Sungei Asap residents who moved back into their traditional homelands, there were about 189 families from five longhouses within the Bakun catchment who refused to move to Sungei Asap. All these people moved to higher grounds on their NCR lands that lay within the Bakun reservoir and catchment area (Malaysiakini, September 28, 2010). These higher grounds, hilltops, soon became islands (hilltop-islands) within the Bakun reservoir once the dam was impounded to its full capacity. Consequently, many of these indigenous communities now live on homemade houseboats (jelatongs)—built with floating logs and large plastic jerry cans—in the dam reservoir lake or tributaries, their houseboats tethered to their hilltop-island NCR lands.

Visits to the hilltop-island jelatongs confirm that these floating communities, with a total population numbering in the hundreds (Malaysiakini, July 6, 2013), do not have access to any clean water, electricity, fuel, sanitation, or public services. Located hours away by boat from the dam, these communities face lives that are “deplorable and inhumane” (Kedit 2012). They rely completely on rainwater, as the reservoir water is “polluted, foul-smelling and muddy. Their only source of clean water is from heaven; rain-water collected in plastic tanks fitted with piping to supply the main hut” (ibid.). There are public health signs warning these communities against drinking or swimming in the reservoir water “because of the risk of Melioidosis and Leptospirosis” (Sarawak Report, November 25, 2012). Toilets are holes cut into the floor of the jelatongs that empty straight into the dam. The only source of electricity is generator sets powered by gasoline, which has to be purchased from shops near the dam, hours away by boat—a dam that produces surplus energy that the communities cannot access (ibid.). Given their remote location, children in these communities do not have access to schools. Nor do the sick have access to health clinics or hospitals. As for food, the jelatong communities cultivate hill rice on nearby hilltop-islands. And they have a plentiful supply of fish, although little is known about how healthy these fish are. Comprehensive studies on the health and nutritional status of these impoverished and marginalized communities are currently lacking.

Adding to the woes of these remote jelatong communities are plans by the state government to gazette their watery homelands and adjoining hilltop-islands into a “Bakun Islands National Park.” A total of 18 islands within the Bakun dam area are affected (Malaysiakini, July 6, 2013). Effectively, this action will deprive all the remaining indigenous communities living within the Bakun reservoir area of their NCR rights and privileges (ibid.) as well as access to agricultural lands and fishing grounds, since such activities would not be allowed in a national park. Instead, the islands in the park “would eventually be developed into eco-tourism areas so that the locals can venture into the tourism sector” (The Borneo Post, March 1, 2012). The local state assemblyman and Assistant Minister of Culture and Heritage Liwan Lagang pledges to safeguard the rights of local people affected by this National Park gazettement since the decision to gazette the islands was really to “preserve them for the benefit of all the people affected by the Bakun dam” (The Borneo Post, July 8, 2013).

One cannot help but consider this a perverse argument to sugarcoat what would effectively be an action to dispossess indigenous peoples of even their marginal lands and impoverished existence so as to allow politicians and their business cronies free and unhindered access to new “tourist playgrounds.” Other more callous politicians have simply c