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Vol. 9, No. 3, Albert Hasudungan and Jeffrey Neilson


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

The Institutional Environment of the Palm Oil Value Chain and Its Impact on Community Development in Kapuas Hulu, Indonesia

Albert Hasudungan* and Jeffrey Neilson**

*School of Business and Economics, Universitas Prasetiya Mulya, BSD City Kavling Edutown I.1 Jl. BSD Raya Utama, BSD City Kabupaten Tangerang Banten 15339, Indonesia
Corresponding author’s e-mail: albert.hasdung[at]; albert.hasudungan[at]
**School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_439

The aim of this study is to present the multi-scalar institutional environment that has emerged around the palm oil value chain, and to analyze how this influences community development outcomes in the Kapuas Hulu district of West Kalimantan. A common narrative presented by many environmental organizations, and indeed often reinforced in the academic literature, is one where local communities actively resist the expansion of oil palm plantations but are ultimately powerless to halt it. This narrative tends to depend on, and reinforces, a portrait of traditional communities as being dependent on subsistence food provisioning and natural resources for their livelihoods, thus making them particularly sensitive to the widespread environmental changes caused by this highly transformative—in a landscape sense—type of commercial agriculture. This research draws upon mixed method data collection techniques, including eight months of participant observation fieldwork across three villages in 2016 and 2017, group discussions, household surveys, and semi-structured interviews. Conceptually, we develop an understanding of the institutional environment as applied within global value chain theory, which we present as a complex amalgam of social structures from within the value chain (especially governance by lead firms), those external to it (including formal state institutions and NGOs), and the changing customary institutions within production landscapes. The ability of local communities to participate in the construction of this broader institutional environment, and to benefit from it, is of critical importance when assessing the impact of incorporation within the palm oil economy. This study thus helps present a more nuanced analysis of community engagement with palm oil and the processes driving contemporary agrarian change.

Keywords: institutions, institutional environment, global value chains, palm oil, swidden, agrarian change, Indonesia, Kalimantan

I Introduction

The ongoing expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia has been actively challenged by various advocacy groups and foreign governments on both social and environmental grounds, whilst being strongly supported by the government of Indonesia. The negotiating space within which decisions are made regarding this expansion connects primary producers, processors, exporters, importers, product manufacturers, retailers, and final consumers within the value chain with a much broader set of societal actors, including traditional landowners, community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and governments, that are essentially external to the value chain. Collectively, these actors mutually construct a continually emergent institutional environment within which industry and community outcomes are shaped. We borrow the concept of the institutional environment as applied within global value chain (GVC) theory, and use it in this article to refer to the complex amalgam of social structures both from within the value chain (especially governance by lead firms) as well as external to it (including formal state institutions and NGOs, but also extending in our case to customary law arrangements). Despite such complex multi-scalar institutional connections, industry critics tend to highlight the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts occurring in remote rural regions as a simple consequence of exploitation by downstream corporate actors (Paganini 2018). The market dominance of powerful corporations is associated with the economic marginalization of swidden-based farming communities in Kalimantan, which are heavily dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods (Colchester et al. 2006). Yet, as described by J. F. McCarthy (2010), outcomes on the ground in rural communities are highly variable and include successful wealth accumulation—especially by local elites—often occurring alongside “adverse incorporation” and deepening poverty for others. Blanket claims about the industry are often made without adequate consideration of the ways many smallholders actively seek to rearrange the terms under which they engage with the palm oil economy.

This paper presents the multi-scalar institutional environment within which local communities have become enmeshed by virtue of their participation in the global value chain for palm oil. This study contributes to our knowledge of how the outcomes of community engagements with the palm oil industry are shaped by the strategies of NGOs, customary landowners, the government, and agribusiness and food processing firms. An understanding of the institutional environment thus created can also be helpful to identify points of leverage to effect change. It furthermore makes a contribution to our understanding of contemporary agrarian change as being shaped by a broad constellation of actors, including those operating at a distance through the global value chain.

The aim of this study is to present the multi-scalar institutional environment that has emerged around the palm oil value chain, and to analyze how this influences community development outcomes in the Kapuas Hulu district of West Kalimantan (Fig. 1). According to understandings of value chain governance, lead firms will position themselves strategically amongst competitors to serve their own interests while also meeting consumer expectations in respect to economic, social, and environmental conditions, resulting in particular strategies to manage a globally coordinated production process (Neilson et al. 2018). Drawing upon eight months of fieldwork in Kapuas Hulu, this paper demonstrates the way in which the multi-scalar institutional environment presents room to maneuver for communities and individuals engaging with the palm oil sector. This study unpacks the complex interactions of agribusiness firms, the government, and NGOs with local customary arrangements. Downstream firms play a key role in governing the value chain to ensure faster and more efficient supply chain deliveries by extending their reach into local communities through the establishment of physical infrastructure such as roads and manufacturing mills, but this is also mediated by the broader institutional environment.



Fig. 1 The Study Site of Kapuas Hulu District in West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Source: Authors, prepared using ArcGIS Software.


II The Institutional Environment: The Global Value Chain and Beyond

Our understanding of the institutional environment shaping development outcomes in the palm oil economy is greatly assisted through recent conceptual developments in GVC theory. GVC analysis helps us, in the first instance, to understand how value is added through an input-output structure, by tracing production from upstream producers (such as farmers) to primary processors, exporters, importers, product manufacturers, retailers, and on to final consumers. In the contemporary global economy, these value-adding processes are often geographically dispersed across regions and countries and have their own “territoriality.” Within a value chain, moreover, there is often a dynamic relationship among different actors that governs the flow and allocation of profit and human resources throughout the chain (Hassler 2009). When examining the entire chain, it becomes clear that different groups make their own rules to regulate and allocate resources among their members and to dictate the actions of others elsewhere in the chain. Such rules of the game can be thought of as being embodied within governance structures that are often strongly dictated by the most powerful actors in the chain—those lead firms located at strategic value-adding nodes. The critical conceptual contribution of GVC analysis has thus been to highlight the ability of such firms to dictate chain governance structures.

G. Gereffi (1995) described how a (value) chain does not only possess an input-output structure, a territoriality, and a governance structure but is also contained within an “institutional framework.” He defined this as “how local, national, and international conditions and policies shape the globalization process at each stage of the chain” (Gereffi 1995, 113). Subsequent work in GVC studies, however, for instance by J. Neilson and B. Pritchard (2009), has further developed an understanding of the institutional framework of GVCs that borrows more explicitly from the work on institutions in new institutional sociology and economics such as that by D. C. North, who explained:

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction. They consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct), and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights). Throughout history, institutions have been devised by human beings to create order and reduce uncertainty in exchange. (North 1991, 97)

In this paper we follow the clear distinction in North’s (1990) study between “institutions” and “organizations,” the former being the “rules” and the latter the “players.” We also respect North’s fundamental distinction between “institutional arrangements” as discrete arrangements between economic units and the broader “institutional environment” as the “fundamental political, social and legal ground rules that establish the basis for production, exchange and distribution” (Davis and North 1971, 6–7). According to Neilson and Pritchard (2009), it is necessary for GVC analysis to move beyond a concept of the institutional framework as something that GVCs are “framed within,” toward one that is both external and internal to chains. They argue that “The institutional environment is a pre-determining characteristic of the governance structures which subsequently emerge within the chain and which, in turn, then act upon those arrangements in continual feedback” (Neilson and Pritchard 2009, 56).

To examine palm oil dynamics in West Kalimantan, we borrow and apply this understanding of the institutional environment of a GVC as an amalgam of rules, norms, and conventions set by lead firms from within the chain along with those constructed by extra-firm actors who are essentially external to it. The approach builds on the insights generated by J. F. McCarthy et al. (2012), where oil palm development outcomes in Indonesia were examined by drawing together insights from GVC theory with the literature on state formation and regime interests. We have also been influenced by the earlier work on dynamic legal pluralism in political ecology by R. S. Meinzen-Dick and R. Pradhan (2002), who highlighted the ambiguity of rules and coexisting multiplicity of legal systems and institutions with respect to natural resource access and exploitation. Importantly, various local, national, and global institutions (formal and informal) intersect in a multi-scalar process to ultimately shape how natural resources are allocated and controlled (Meinzen-Dick and Pradhan 2002).

This article applies a value chain analysis to examine the complex relationships among different layers of institutions connected to the value chain. In this multi-layered institutional environment, different actors negotiate rules to determine the right to access and use resources under specific conditions (McCarthy 2006). In the case of oil palm, T. M. Li (2015) found a degradation of customary institutions when local villagers were incorporated into palm oil value chains. We extend those observations by scrutinizing how local customary institutions are constantly challenged by various institutions associated with the palm oil value chain in Kapuas Hulu. We specifically examine the changing labor and resource access arrangements influenced by palm oil value chains.

In their application of GVC theory to the global cocoa sector, N. Fold and J. Neilson (2016) argue that while firms are increasingly able to determine the rules and standards in the global value chain, they act in a dialectical relationship with extra-firm actors, including state-based actors and NGOs. While the government often supports proposals for oil palm development in Indonesia, several NGOs strongly reject oil palm development (Levang et al. 2016), continually recreating spaces of negotiation. Similarly, the “inextricably entwined and mutually constitutive” interests of the state and large agribusiness are highlighted by McCarthy et al. (2012), who demonstrate how these interests coalesce to shape development pathways.

In Kapuas Hulu, we find community and household attitudes toward oil palm are far from homogenous, are difficult to predict, and appear to be highly contingent. This is suggested elsewhere, for example, in the diverse outcomes reported in Jambi, Sumatra (McCarthy 2010), and West Kalimantan (Potter 2011), where local community engagements as relatively independent landholders and highly dependent contract farmers were respectively reported. In the palm oil economy, local communities are seen to pursue quite diverse livelihood portfolios (Elmhirst et al. 2016), which clearly affects disparate development outcomes, and these outcomes frequently reflect a shifting set of local cultural institutions. This study examines how particular institutions, within and external to the global value chain and operating across multiple scales, coalesce in an institutional environment to shape different modes of oil palm community engagement with impacts on processes of agrarian change.

III Research Methods

This research uses a case study approach, and fieldwork was conducted across three villages in Kapuas Hulu District, West Kalimantan, as shown in Fig. 1. Each village was selected based on particular geographies, ethnic composition, and modes of engagement with oil palm development. Village A and Village B (both located proximate to the Malaysian border) were chosen partly due to their relatively recent incorporation within the palm oil economy, which occurred from around 2012 and was driven partly by territorial competition at the national scale with Malaysia. On the other hand, oil palm development in Village C commenced in the early 2000s and was promoted by local government elites as a means to replace the swidden practices that they considered an unproductive use of land resources. The development model in Village C included a significant smallholder production base, and it attracted migrants to either work directly on their own smallholdings or to work as plantation labor (Leonald and Rowland 2016).

A key reason for the inclusion of both Village A and Village B in the study was the reported dominance of ethnic Malays in the former and Iban Dayaks in the latter. Household livelihood surveys were conducted on a sample of 40 households within each of the three villages (120 household responses in total), where households were invited to participate based on a random selection from listings provided by administrative village heads. Table 1 shows the approximate ethnic composition of the villages based on this survey, which confirmed information provided by earlier interviews.


Table 1 Ethnic Composition of Each Village



Qualitative data collection techniques were undertaken in 2016 and 2017, comprising participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and group discussions. Participant observation is a way of collecting information about social activities within a particular society using both verbal and non-verbal clues (Schmuck 1997). It was conducted in Kapuas Hulu to trace local attitudes toward farming systems and livelihoods linked to oil palm, and lasted a total of six months, with two months in each of the three villages. Semi-structured interviews sought to capture various institutional forms of oil palm development and perceptions toward oil palm development. The selection of informants was based on their ability to communicate their ideas and experiences relevant to the research investigation (Dunn 2005). In both village and local urban centres, a total of 40 interviews with a variety of informants and stakeholders were undertaken, as presented in Table 2. Interview topics within the village environments included local demographic change, perceptions of the introduction of oil palm in their villages, and changes in land access, labor arrangements, and livelihood strategies. Group discussions were organized to obtain responses regarding palm oil development in local areas and were used to observe the interpersonal dynamics between different individuals. Discussions were either organized explicitly by the researcher (as in Village B) or involved attending regular village meetings (as in Village A and Village C).


Table 2 List of Semi-structured Interview Informants



IV The Multi-scalar Institutional Environment in Kapuas Hulu

The following analysis is based on a three-fold assessment of the institutional environment, which we present in terms of: (i) governance structures resulting from lead firm strategies within the global value chain; (ii) institutions constructed by extra-firm actors who are essentially external to the value chain (including the government and NGOs); and (iii) informal customary institutions peculiar to place-based sites of production. While we recognize that these three forms are, in a sense, arbitrary in that they are actually mutually constituted, we present them separately here for analytical purposes. It is, however, our intention that they be considered as collectively coalescing to construct a broader multi-scalar institutional environment that in turn shapes the nature of palm oil–community engagements.

Governance Structures within the Palm Oil Value Chain

Indonesia produces significant volumes of several agricultural commodities for the global market, including palm oil, rubber, coffee, and cocoa, such that the activities of global lead firms in these sectors often exert a powerful influence on sites of production. For example, chocolate manufacturing firms have been generally reluctant to get directly involved in farm-level cocoa production due to the relatively low cost-capability ratio for that activity (Neilson et al. 2018). While chocolate firms would struggle to manage labor more efficiently than smallholder farmers, their influence on agricultural production is exerted (at a distance) through various commitments to sustainability programs and certification schemes (Neilson et al. 2018). Moreover, chocolate firms have also outsourced primary processing of cocoa beans to specialist grinding firms rather than absorbing these costs themselves, and it is these firms that frequently implement farm-level development programs. The economics of palm oil, however, are different. The end users of palm oil are more diverse across a number of consumer products, such that ultimate lead firms (generally branded food manufacturers) are unlikely to be involved in agricultural production. They do, however, rely on large agribusiness firms as suppliers of palm oil products, and these firms (unlike cocoa processors) are intimately involved in agricultural production themselves.

The cost calculations of oil palm plantations are far more dependent on capital (manifest particularly in access to land and fertilizers) than cocoa plantations, which have lower capital-labor ratios (Budidarsono et al. 2012). Therefore, being a competitive oil palm producer in Indonesia, and a strategic supplier to global lead firms, generally depends on obtaining access to large areas of land, with reliable access to finance and a disciplined labor force. For such potential investors with the necessary connections to political decision makers, Kapuas Hulu seemed to provide the right combination of factors.

The combination of financial and political capital possessed by agribusiness firms in the palm oil sector is disproportionate to that possessed by local communities as the customary landowners, whose rights over land are highly variable and determined by an assortment of both formal and informal institutions. As a result, the terms of community engagement with these firms are overwhelmingly shaped by firm-specific priorities. In Village A and Village B, PT Buana Tunas Sejahtera (PT BTS)1) made a contractual agreement with the community where local community members were enrolled as laborers, and where the firm was in direct control of production. In that negotiation, the firm acquired a 30-year Hak Guna Usaha (leasing concession right, HGU) from the government over customary land after obtaining written consent from representatives of the community. In return, the firm was to pay 20 percent dividends from its profit to the original landowners (KOPSA MGB and BTS 2010). According to community representatives, this contract reflected an attempt by the firm to formally limit the activities of smallholder farmers while ensuring access to labor.

The processes through which agribusiness firms are able to access land to begin with are critical and complicated (Hasudungan and Neilson 2020). First, agribusiness firms routinely construct a discourse around poor smallholder agricultural capacity and productivity in order to accumulate land and assert control over resources. To convince the government of the superiority of large-scale plantations over local agricultural systems, investors present local swidden cultivations as backward and unproductive (Potter 2011). This provides a conducive environment for the subsequent lease negotiations between firms and the state at the district and national levels. To then ensure optimal land access, agribusiness firms seek ways to negotiate contractual agreements that allow them greater direct control of upstream production sites. This means that agribusiness firms need to engage in active negotiations and bargaining with actors outside the value chain, including government and local communities, the latter primarily as gatekeepers of land but whose members often later participate directly in the value chain as either fruit suppliers or laborers.

Community consent emerges as a key milestone in ensuring access to land, but since negotiating with all the landholders is costly, time-consuming, and uncertain, firms inevitably choose to pursue contract negotiations mediated through a more limited number of customary elites (Li 2015). Our fieldwork in multiethnic Village A, where a Dayak leader occupied the position of village head, found that the allure of promised future prosperity was an important factor in eliciting consent. One firm’s representatives took village leaders to the firm’s other plantation in Riau, on the east coast of Sumatra, where the visitors were exposed to apparently high levels of material prosperity, which they associated with corporate control of oil palm production. In this case, however, it led to later disappointment:

About 30 village leaders were invited to a comparative study in Riau. They were shown the development in the firm’s concession, and in return we gave the land to them. Yet those promises were misleading. What they promised was different from the current reality. (Respondent J, Iban, 2016)

Through these field trips and other activities, the firm expected key leaders in the village to convince others to agree to land transfers, and these leaders were often recruited for this specific purpose. As negotiations progressed in this case, the firm sought to directly influence internal community dynamics and increasingly relied on existing institutions of patronage through which customary leaders would provide material and social support to their “clients” in return for obedience and recognition of their superior social standing. Through the successful recruitment of such local patrons as supporters of the firm, the likelihood of acquiescence from other community members was greatly increased, resulting in more secure access to the natural resources available on community lands.

In these contested land deals, some customary Dayak elites rejected the contractual conditions while others became strong advocates in favor of the offered agreements, leading to sometimes-serious intra-community conflict. One Dayak community member sold access rights to large tracts of land with the expectation that his children would be given supervisor-level jobs within the firm. The upstream influence of agribusiness firms within communities divided aspirations in ways that sometimes led to horizontal conflict and violence. Another Dayak man revealed how he had been verbally abused as a result of his father-in-law opposing the firm contracts, the terms and conditions of which he felt were unclear. In another instance, it was recounted that a man who supported the firm ended up in a duel (using a machete-like weapon known as mandau) with another man who opposed it. Such conflicts also led to imprisonment, such as a case in Village B, when an Iban man contested his neighbor’s recently placed boundary markers for land sold to the firm, leading him to physically threaten a firm representative with his mandau. The Iban man, whose frustration at his inability to assert his rights was palpable, was later sentenced to jail:

My older brother was convicted by the law because of that conflict over the land (boundary). He couldn’t find a legal solution to that issue, so he brought his mandau, and the firm representative claimed he was attempting to kill him. He was prosecuted in Putussibau. (Respondent N, Village C, 2016)

Lead firms in a global value chain, moreover, position themselves strategically amongst competitors to meet consumers’ expectations in respect to various quality, economic, social, and environmental requirements (Neilson et al. 2018). This is often associated with a stronger buyer-driven governance structure within the chain. Gereffi (1994) emphasized how lead firms enact such governance within a chain, not necessarily through the direct ownership of upstream firms but through decentralized production settings, outsourcing, and indirect control. Large agri-food firms, such as Sinarmas Group (which owns Golden Agri Resources, GAR) and Indofood, operate as lead firms in the palm oil value chain. Both these Indonesian-owned conglomerates, for example, are manufacturers of diversified consumer products including cooking oil, while also engaging upstream with plantation production.

For the most part, these lead firms enact relatively strict supply chain traceability programs on third-party suppliers. On the GAR website,2) the firm provides detailed information regarding third-party suppliers and its attempts to manage them. For example, a GAR internal monitoring team found indications of 2018 clearing of high-conservation-value forest in West Kalimantan by PT BTS (a GAR third-party supplier), which was subsequently deemed to be non-compliant with GAR’s grievance process.3) An alternative model is evident in Kapuas Hulu, where PT Riau Agrotama Plantation is a subsidiary of Indofood Agri, a major agribusiness conglomerate with a reported 247,630 hectares of oil palm across Indonesia in 2017 along with 26 palm oil mills and five refineries (IndoAgri 2016). Both Indofood Agri and Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology are important suppliers for the domestic market, for which they manufacture consumer products, while also exporting to various markets across Asia-Pacific and Europe.

Specific norms around corporate social responsibility have emerged within the palm oil sector that in themselves constitute institutional forms (that is, accepted patterns of behavior). Lead firms enact interventions along the value chain primarily in an attempt to ensure long-term stability over palm oil supplies, which often involves upstream commitments to stimulate local development surrounding the mills (SMART 2016). To meet their supply needs (and consumer expectations), lead firms have funded the building of mills, roads, schools, and facilities around Kapuas Hulu. Indofood Agri has initiated social investments through its Solidarity Programme(IndoAgri 2016), which delivers improved community health and education facilities in an explicit attempt to improve relationships with the local community of Village C. Such social infrastructure development has been replicated in Village A and Village B by other agribusiness firms to fulfill their corporate interests to integrate more productive and capable potential laborers in their supply chain. Indeed, relatively high rates of satisfaction with education and health infrastructure were reported by respondents to our household survey, as presented in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3, even if satisfaction with education facilities was somewhat lower in the more established oil palm plantation of Village C.



Fig. 2 Satisfaction with Education Services in Oil Palm Villages

Source: Authors’ survey, 2016.



Fig. 3 Satisfaction with Health Services in Oil Palm Villages

Source: Authors’ survey, 2016.


While an expanding corporate infrastructure program primarily serves strategic business interests, rural households with adequate capability assets can leverage this to configure diversified livelihood strategies where they effectively engage with multiple value chains simultaneously (Bolwig et al. 2010). For instance, with improved access to education and health care, some members of the local community are able to access better jobs on the plantations and elsewhere. In an interview with a younger, high-school-educated Dayak man, he explained that the ability to write, read, and understand basic numerical calculations allowed him to work as a field supervisor on a plantation and improve his overall economic situation.

Indeed, many community members have successfully upgraded their positions within the value chain to occupy more lucrative positions as collectors or middlemen, where they use the improved infrastructure to supply mills in Sintang, a processing hub farther down the Kapuas River. They act as local market conduits from smallholders to downstream value chain actors, and use their economic position to coordinate and increase smallholder production. These chains continue to be effectively governed by lead firms, which create limiting institutions for participation, including through price and standard settings, although collectors also retain a degree of autonomy.

The characteristics of oil palm fruit have a powerful effect on the value chain structure and the relations between actors. Fresh fruit bunches generally need to be processed within 48 hours to maintain oil quality, and prices paid are severely discounted or rejected outright if delivery is delayed. A relatively capital-intensive processing mill will thus often be surrounded by a hinterland of producers who are virtually tied to it with few alternative marketing options, with resulting highly uneven power relations between the two sets of actors. It can also have the effect of empowering transport operators who provide a critical service linking them together. During the period of fieldwork in 2017, when general market prices for oil palm fruit in West Kalimantan were around IDR 1,600 per kilo, local middlemen in Village C would pay as little as IDR 1,300 per kilo due to these local dynamics.

We observe how contractual deals for large-scale oil palm plantations can affect social relations among customary leaders as a result of firm-specific strategies to assert control over supplies. Despite that disruption, the palm oil value chain functions in other ways to facilitate local participation in this value chain and in other economic activities. Previous research has emphasized that smallholding oil palm plantations can indeed be a way for local villagers to adopt commodity production largely on their own terms (Cramb and Sujang 2013; Potter 2015). In our study, the business capabilities of some individuals were enhanced as a result of their exposure to corporate sustainability programs initiated by downstream value chain actors, especially improved social and physical infrastructure, enabling them to engage in new small business opportunities.

Extra-firm Actors and the Institutional Environment of the Palm Oil Value Chain

The palm oil value chain consists of various direct economic actors, including smallholder growers, collectors, agribusiness firms, processors, exporters, product manufacturers, supermarkets, and financial organizations. These actors and their value-adding activities constitute the fundamental input-output structure of the chain, with a buyer-driven governance structure dictated by the needs of lead firms that manifests itself in the various institutions described in the previous subsection. These economic actors are then embedded within a broader set of institutions shaped by various external stakeholders, many of whom have a major impact on oil palm cultivation at the local level (the “institutional framework” in Gereffi’s 1995 formulation). In Kapuas Hulu, the Indonesian government, operating at various scales, is clearly an important driver of this broader institutional framework and acts to either promote or inhibit the spatial expansion of plantations. Meanwhile, various environmental and conservation interests, including international NGOs, have performed a further critical role in bringing public attention to the damaging environmental impacts of the palm oil industry, and their actions, agendas, and interests are reshaping the way smallholders engage with the palm oil sector and their ability to develop their own livelihood trajectories.

J. Ribot (1998) emphasized how state institutions shape access to resources, which in turn influences profit distribution along a value chain. In Kapuas Hulu, there are various state actors—including the local government, national and provincial land agencies, financial regulators, and conservation agencies—that shape the contours of industry expansion. Principal amongst these state actors’ roles is allocation of land access to preferred economic actors, where Badan Pertanahan Nasional (National Land Agency, BPN), agricultural authorities (through Permentan No. 98/2013, for example), and the local government are all pivotal. National and local authorities facilitate the expansion of oil palm cultivation through improving labor supply (including through transmigrasi schemes) and by providing subsidies, loans, agricultural extension services, and infrastructure development.

Plantation expansion has been a key pillar of state policies through which to promote agricultural modernization in border areas such as Kapuas Hulu, further encouraging large-scale appropriation of land resources (Hasudungan and Neilson 2020). These state interventions are mediated through local government agencies such as Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Daerah (Regional Development Planning Board, BAPPEDA), which also oversees the spatial planning process. In Kapuas Hulu, agribusiness firms actively negotiated with local authorities, such as BAPPEDA, to acquire land for oil palm development, due to such authorities’ influence over local land use decisions.

BPN is the only state institution legally allowed to issue HGUs in Indonesia, although if the lease area is below 1,000 hectares, authority falls upon the provincial land agency. Prior to gaining concession rights, firms are legally required to negotiate with local communities about their proposal to establish a plantation. In these situations, state agents often view swidden cultivation negatively while embracing and supporting the need to develop modern, large-scale plantations. A frequent problem is that state agents overlook the informal, customary rights of swidden cultivators. Certain representatives of the state were quite explicit about their attitudes toward customary rights, which were seen to be subservient to state claims over land:

Here [West Kalimantan], customary rights do not exist. These would require satisfying formal requirements, such as the presence of local customary and collective rights. In fact, these cannot be observed—they are just able to claim access to sacred forests to collect local resources. The firm was granted the [legal] concession based on the prior legal status of that being state land. (Interview with a staff member of the West Kalimantan Provincial Land Agency, Pontianak, 2016)

Furthermore, to discourage swidden farmers’ control over their swidden territory, the state imposed various rules to restrict their farming practices, such as demarcating the land as state land where legal sanctions could be imposed on any parties carrying out swidden burning. In Village C, environmental policies were being pursued on such “state land,” with many Dayaks now reluctant to undertake swidden planting. Such policies tend to create a regulatory dichotomy between state land and freehold land, which implicitly suggests an absence of informal rights or customary tenure. This false dichotomy has contributed to multiple conflicts, competing claims, and ultimately the ability of firm interests to access land at relatively low cost.

In 2015 a presidential decree4) established an independent authority, directly under the high-profile coordinating minister for economic affairs and known as Badan Pengelola Dana Perkebunan Kelapa Sawit (Palm Oil Fund Management Agency, BPDPKS), to essentially channel loans and other support to the palm oil sector. It was an extension of a previous program to provide micro-credit to smallholders. BPDPKS is financed from an industry levy imposed on palm oil exports, and in return it provides subsidized loans through state-owned banks and other support for research and development and replanting. Despite government claims that the fund would support smallholder farmers (Dara Aziliya 2016), in the Kapuas Hulu case study sites at least, funds were channelled primarily into “plasma plots” that had long been under the indirect control of large firms rather than independent smallholders. Plasma plots refer to smallholdings surrounding a larger “nuclear” estate that are compelled to sell their produce to the estate. Most of the actors provided with financial assistance were finance organizations, such as local banks and credit unions, that channelled the funds to farmers for accessing fertilizers, herbicides, and motorcycles (for transporting fruit).

Agricultural assistance is provided also through the Directorate General of Estate Crops, which in 2016 provided the local community in Village B with planting material and fertilizers through sporadic projects. The local agricultural development office is also a conduit for the distribution of subsidized fertilizer, formally intended for use on local food crops.5) This subsidized fertilizer is widely used for oil palm, even if it is accessed through food crop farmer groups. A government program to issue “fertilizer cards” in 2018 to prevent such misallocation largely failed, and subsidized fertilizer scarcity is an ongoing problem in Kapuas Hulu, leading to hoarding and illegal sales by traders. Swidden farmers are generally ineligible to access subsidized fertilizers.

In contrast, nongovernmental organizations link oil palm expansion with the loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the pollution of soils and waterways (Levang et al. 2016). These NGOs, furthermore, expand their focus to highlight negative social impacts in order to generate broader public opposition. In Silat Hilir, agribusiness firms were accused by one international NGO of exploiting child labor and paying low salaries while destroying rain forests and orangutan habitats (Greenpeace 2017). This public opposition has included criticism of financial institutions for unethical investments in the palm oil sector. For instance, Chain Reaction Research (2017) highlighted the critical role played by banks in financing oil palm expansion, claiming that NGO pressure on financiers had resulted in the latter’s adoption of more stringent environmental and social policies.

Environmental organizations thereby also actively reconstruct the institutional environment of the chain at various scales. At the local level, NGOs have worked with some villagers to oppose oil palm and successfully reshape local opposition toward its expansion (Acciaoli and Dewi 2016). In Village B the influence of NGOs was exerted through engagements between village activists and NGO staff, where the latter actively urged local villagers to reject oil palm expansion. Community members in one village received pamphlets from a Jakarta-based NGO about the negative impacts of palm oil, which identified the lack of employment and dispossession resulting from palm oil development:

Oil palm plantations destroy local livelihoods. The local community has been cultivating food crops for hundreds of years. Rotation and swidden cultivation in particular has allowed for the regrowing of forests. Palm oil development erased that subsistence food and other agroforestry incomes such as rattan, resin rubber, and pepper. (Local pamphlet from an NGO, NN, Embaloh Hulu, Kapuas Hulu, 2016)

Such NGOs tend to present villagers as having lived in harmony with the environment as ecologically “noble savages” prior to the introduction of oil palm, and as being powerless to resist the changes enacted upon their livelihoods (as described also by Levang et al. 2016). In Kapuas Hulu an influential NGO, Lanting Borneo, worked with around 24 local communities; its discourse emphasized a dichotomy between oil palm development and the interests of the “customary community”:

Currently, we advocate the endorsement of customary rights in Kapuas Hulu. With regard to palm oil development, we ask the customary community to calculate the costs and benefits of accepting palm oil development. We can conclude that the customary community received only 0.1 percent, yet they lost their rights for 35 years along with their rubber. In fact, by working in their rubber fields they can use this cash income for their daily shopping needs. (Interview with DU, head of a local Kapuas Hulu NGO, Putussibau, 2016)

This approach, where environmental activists advocated protection of customary rights, gained favorable traction among local communities. Nonetheless, the inability of NGOs to differentiate between oil palm as a smallholder crop (grown on terms set by community members) and large-scale oil palm plantations meant that they often distanced themselves from prevailing community interests (Levang et al. 2016). In the pamphlet disseminated by activists, oil palm was linked to labor exploitation:

In the Indonesian palm oil sector, labor rights such as decent pay, freedom, and their ability to negotiate are suppressed. Agreements and expectations from palm oil firms about employment are rarely met. Many people face a worse situation than before the arrival of oil palm. (Local pamphlet from an NGO, NN, Kapuas Hulu, 2016)

This argument seemed to ignore the reality of active community participation in the palm oil sector across Kapuas Hulu, both as smallholders and as plantation workers, and the mutual existence of palm oil laboring and swidden farming. From another perspective, the oppositional stance taken by activists tended to raise local expectations about the prospects of alternative livelihood improvements, which were rarely realized in practice (Acciaoli and Dewi 2016). NGO activists in Putussibau, for instance, promoted swidden cultivation and rubber as a way to sustain livelihoods, as presented in a local seminar: “[Rubber is] a founding local livelihood. While the local community shifts to other crops, rubber plays an important role to sustain household economies. Rubber is the social capital for local development” (Swandiri Institute in the BAPPEDA office of Putussibau, April 19, 2016).

While activists insist on the economic and social viability of rubber, the local community views it as having declining importance and (at least at the time of fieldwork) being far less important than either pepper or oil palm. Farmers tended to harvest rubber only during periods when they urgently needed cash, as suggested by one farmer:

Even though I have rubber, I have not yet tapped it. These days I am more comfortable cultivating padi (swidden) and working as an oil palm laborer. . . . I follow other people to work as an oil palm laborer . . . working in palm oil mills is not complicated, just chopping down [trees]. Previously, I got rid of the [rubber] bark and would harvest it . . . but today I am chopping it down. (Respondent TT, Iban, Village B, 2016)

Indeed, aspirations and monetary needs in West Kalimantan had been growing, and this resulted in greater interest in education, health care, and goods such as motorbikes and electronic equipment (Levang et al. 2016). Involvement in the palm oil economy appeared to offer realistic opportunities to meet these desires and needs through increased involvement in the cash economy. In areas that had rejected oil palm cultivation, such as the communities surrounding the buffer conservation areas of Embaloh Hulu and Batang Lupar subdistricts, local people were frequently confused about what livelihood alternatives could be realistically pursued given broader structural constraints. In these communities, which had closer relationships with various environmental activists from Jakarta and Putussibau, local people were more likely to complain about their economic situation and the difficulties they faced in meeting their basic needs.

At the global scale, exposure by NGOs of the relationship between deforestation and oil palm expansion has had profound effects on the institutional environment of the palm oil value chain. These include the setting up of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004 as a voluntary certification standard that has established new behavioral norms for firms seeking access to ethically aware consumers. This standard demands, amongst other social and environmental requirements, that plantation firms obtain prior informed consent from customary landholders. This has resulted in slowly shifting institutional norms on the ground in Kapuas Hulu. International finance organizations are also under increasing pressure to obtain independent verification that their investments are not contributing to environmental and social degradation. As a final example, the European Parliament responded to consumer and NGO pressure by issuing a resolution in 2017 to phase out biofuels made from palm oil, a decision that has had profound effects on trade and was, at the time of writing, strongly contested by the Indonesian government.

It can be seen that the broader institutional framework of the palm oil sector, most notably the influence of the state and environmental NGOs, created conditions that influenced—sometimes in contradictory ways—the nature of community engagement with the sector. In some instances these institutions provided opportunities for positive engagement that could be strategically leveraged by individuals and organizations, while at other times they could shut down negotiations. Furthermore, these institutions were often powerfully reinforced through the discursive interventions of these actors in a battle for the attitudes and perceptions of local communities exposed to the palm oil economy.

Customary Institutions in Kapuas Hulu

The Ibanic Dayak community in Kapuas Hulu has complex customary cultural institutions that manage natural resources and address conflicts (Yasmi et al. 2007). For instance, in Ibanic customary culture the community lives in a longhouse consisting of 10 to 30 households, with a longhouse head called the tue rumah. During the 1950s and 1960s, Village B consisted of 12 households living in one longhouse, while Village A had 20 to 30 households in a longhouse. To demarcate the territory between longhouses, it would be customary for communally managed agroforests called tembawang to be established. The tue rumah imposed sanctions on any outsiders collecting resources without their approval, and the negotiation of territorial claims among longhouses was decided based on the negotiation between the tue rumah and higher leaders of several longhouses, known as patih.

Incorporation within palm oil value chains has been associated with a shift in preferences for individual, rather than longhouse, residency. In Village B, scarce timber resources combined with past conflicts among customary leaders also contributed to the decline of longhouse unions and their accompanying institutions. Here, the role of the tue rumah to regulate land and labor access has been diminishing, such that many Dayak communities now depend on customary decisions to be made at the higher level of patih. While longhouses are often important sites for various social gatherings (as we observed in villages where less oil palm was grown), the Iban community in Village B was not really functioning in this way, due to increased intra-community conflicts. Conflicts within Dayak communities were frequently perceived by local migrants and non-Dayaks as a sign of weak customary institutions that would increase the ability of firms to gain further access to resources.

Customary institutions once had a significant influence on the regulations of subsistence-based swidden cultivation in allocating land access and facilitating reciprocal labor exchange. For instance, villagers would obtain exclusive rights to ancestral land after it was transferred by their grandparents. Farmers would take the risk and invest their time and energy to open up forest areas for swiddening, but only after gaining local approval from the tue rumah. Clearing primary forest, in particular, posed major risks, including dangers of encountering crocodiles, sun bears, or venomous snakes. In addition, the tue rumah would also monitor labor reciprocity among the households within the longhouse, and they would impose customary sanctions on any reluctance to appropriately engage in labor exchanges.

Ibanic Dayak culture and institutions are strongly associated with swidden cultivation. M. R. Dove (1985) highlighted past studies of swidden cultivation that demonstrated its economic and cultural importance for Dayaks in terms of inheriting collective norms and ensuring food production. These cultural practices continued even as rubber became integrated as a complementary cash crop alongside a subsistence crop economy for Dayak households (Dove 2011). Nevertheless, external influences associated with oil palm development have changed local attitudes toward swidden cultivation. In the previous discussion of government institutions, national and local elites enacted regulatory interventions that restricted local swidden-linked burning practices. Their assumption was that the swidden cultivators were incapable and reluctant to participate in oil palm development. In fact, a new tentative coexistence seems to be emerging between swidden farming and oil palm at the case sites. In Village B and Village C, some farmers have largely incorporated oil palm cultivation into their swidden plots, but with a marked generational pattern. Older informants revealed their continued commitment to swidden land, while at the same time they had begun to embrace oil palm cultivation. Yet, for younger Dayaks, swidden cultivation is often seen as a mostly unproductive livelihood strategy and one with decreasing social value. The generational shift was explained by a Sebaruk farmer:

I work in a palm oil firm here. . . . I am not involved in swidden cultivation, but my parents are. However, I am involved in oil palm and rubber cultivation. The oil palm [fruit] has not yet been harvested, but the rubber has. For me, swidden cultivation is insufficient for us. (Respondent AS, Sebaruk, Village C, 2016)

Swidden cultivation is poorly valued by younger farmers due to its inability to generate significant cash income and due to the influences of urban lifestyles and mass consumerism (as also described by Cramb et al. 2009). With better formal education and training, youths are abandoning swidden farming and participating more in various livelihood activities linked to oil palm. In Village B, a 41-year-old Iban man described the process through which he abandoned swidden cultivation and embraced oil palm cultivation:

In 2013 I went to Lubok Antu to visit my relatives in Malaysia. One of them shared his story about the unpleasant experience of planting pepper, rubber, swidden, and running a local shop. A Chinese man persuaded my brother in Malaysia to plant oil palm, saying it was more beneficial than pepper. I then took 500 (oil palm) seeds. I started to plant despite the warnings of local villagers. Nowadays I no longer practice swidden cultivation, as I expect more from the oil palm harvest. (Respondent YE, Village B, 2018)

Dayaks in Village A shared similar opinions about swidden cultivation. For example, a well-educated Dayak man in his mid-40s explained how swidden cultivation had largely become irrelevant to his livelihood as he instead invested cash resources into rental properties. Another Iban man in Village A, in his mid-30s, had moved away from swidden cultivation to local trading after receiving a university education in Java. He preferred purchasing rather than growing food: “I was born here. I am a local trader but not a farmer. I purchase my own food, as I cannot depend on this local society. I purchase it from Malaysia” (Respondent J, Village A, 2016).

In Village C, Dayaks are a minority compared to Malays and other migrants, who often aggressively criticize customary swidden farming by Dayaks, which they claim is destructive and polluting. A local Malay leader explained:

I need to explain the effects to indigenous farmers. I already told them the smog will go overseas [to Malaysia]. I did not blame the swidden cultivation, but just the way land is converted through slash-and-burn practices. We observed little progress [in government attempts] to reduce slash-and-burn farming. It took two months to socialize that to farmers. (Respondent N, Village C, 2016)

A decline in customary resource tenure institutions has also facilitated a further powerful mechanism driving exclusion and unequal land possession among villagers—that of the market itself. In addition to contractual deals negotiated by firms, growing numbers of villagers from Village A and Silat Hilir have become engaged in land markets associated with oil palm, such that increasing economic differentiation has emerged. It has been reported elsewhere in Southeast Asia how the local transition to perennial cash crops resulted in an increasing pattern of individualized land tenure and the weakening of community governance (Cramb et al. 2009). This was observed, for instance, in both Village B and Village C, where customary institutions that had traditionally demarcated village boundaries based on natural signs (such as rocks, rivers, and trees) obtained from village elders were now being challenged as the physical landscape itself was transformed through oil palm. A Sebaruk man explained how he preferred using GPS and a letter of consent from the village head (Surat Keterangan Tanah, SKT) to demarcate land boundaries when purchasing swidden land from other villagers.

In addition to an increasing trend toward perennial cash crops, declining traditional practices of labor exchange have also been observed (Cramb et al. 2009). In the past, reciprocal labor exchange arrangements, known as kabanbelayan among the Iban (Sather 2006), were employed within longhouse communities to overcome labor bottlenecks during planting, weeding, and harvesting times (Dove 2011). When the arrangement was strictly enforced, not even material returns or surplus rice was allowed to be substituted for labor. In Iban culture, cooperation between local community members is particularly useful when it comes to labor-intensive activities such as felling trees and harvesting subsistence food crops (Cramb 2007).

In contemporary Kapuas Hulu, however, instead of complying with traditional labor exchange rules, many instances of labor exchange now involve monetary contributions, as reported by a Dayak man in Village C who paid IDR 80,000 per day for local assistance on his swidden, and an Iban Dayak in Village B who paid IDR 50,000 per day for outside labor to assist with the rice harvest. For perennial cash crops, labor arrangements are almost universally based on monetary exchanges; in both Village B and Village C daily labor was reportedly paid up to IDR 100,000 to harvest oil palm fruit.

Across Southeast Asia there has been a trend toward off-farm livelihood diversification, but often as part of a multipronged strategy to continue farming or as a strategy to accumulate resources and invest in larger smallholding plots (Rigg et al. 2016). Land dispossession due to plantation development has been reported elsewhere, leading to highly unequal access to land and processes of agrarian differentiation (Hall et al. 2011), such that off-farm work can even help reduce distress land sales. Similar outcomes were observed in Village B, as explained by a Dayak Iban (a single mother):

The advantage of working in palm oil mills is that I can earn money while still engaged in swidden cultivation. I work from 7 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. Afterward, I continue my swidden work. . . . Fifteen years ago, women could not seek a financial income apart from swidden cultivation. Yet I can make it to work on the palm oil plantation. (Respondent VM, Dayak farmer, Village B, 2016)

While work on the oil palm plantation did not provide the abovementioned single mother with significant money to meet all her needs, she found this work beneficial because it allowed her to flexibly meet her daily cash economic needs.

Customary institutions in Kapuas Hulu (such as those linked to swidden cultivation) once played a critical role in determining livelihood aspirations and engagement with new economic opportunities. These institutions are still important for some Dayak communities, especially the older generation, and they can be seen to have mediated the integration of these communities into the palm oil economy. Yet, over time, the influence of these institutions has tended to evolve (and indeed decline). Local institutional adaptation is a key feature of the social landscape in Kapuas Hulu and has resulted in new systems of resource access that frequently build upon past customary institutions in a largely path-dependent way. The ability of communities to draw legitimacy and strength from these institutions appears to be a key determinant of social outcomes arising from engagement with the palm oil economy.

V Conclusion

This research presents the complex multi-scalar institutional environment emerging around the palm oil value chain as it manifests itself in Kapuas Hulu. While we recognize that livelihood outcomes for rural households are often site specific, our study has highlighted the multi-scalar sets of institutions that intervene in the relationship between agrarian communities and the palm oil sector. We have further demonstrated how livelihood change and rural development outcomes can be helpfully analyzed, and indeed understood, through a global value chain lens, especially one that is sensitive to the broader institutional environment of the chain.

In this case study, large-scale oil palm development has resulted in land appropriation and the exclusion of some individuals from accessing traditional land resources. This has occurred as a result of various mechanisms, including the regulatory processes associated with spatial planning, formalizing private concessions (HGUs), constructing discursive strategies, and establishing patronage relationships with local customary elites. While local communities have, at times, been able to call on external institutions to mobilize support for their struggle against land appropriation, they are generally engaged in a negotiating space with highly unequal power relations. National and local elites have more successfully configured alternative strategies to incorporate regulations, force, discursive constructions, and market pressures to achieve access to land (to borrow from the powers of exclusion presented by Hall et al. 2011). The outcome of this process has been a large-scale landscape transformation across Kapuas Hulu away from a mosaic of forests, agroforests, and swidden land toward mostly monocultural oil palm plantations, even as this process remains incomplete.

The process of allocating large-scale concessions combines regulations and discursive narratives to accommodate the interests of lead firms in global value chains. These interests are able to concentrate land resources into their hands, or at least their supply chain, through regulatory mechanisms that ensure this is achieved at relatively low cost. They rely heavily on negotiating and networking with various national and local elites within the state apparatus who support their desire to encourage a shift away from swidden-based land practices. With such formal regulatory support, plantation firms can secure land access and exert pressure on customary institutions to facilitate resource access. The degradation of customary institutions was also influenced by competing aspirations among Dayak communities themselves to reject or accept firm land contracts, and was ultimately associated with an increase in market-based land transactions (a relatively new institution) and subsequent loss of indigenously controlled land.

While there has been a countermovement by environmental activists and other NGOs to recognize customary rights and to reject oil palm expansion, this countermovement has largely failed to consider the reality that many community members are actively embracing the crop and voluntarily engaging with the broader oil palm economy. Many swidden farmers expressed their disappointment with environmental advocacy groups, since they had been largely unable to generate alternative income-generating activities for the local community. As a result, many of these farmers have established their own oil palm smallholdings to secure a cash income. In the current broader context of the Indonesian agrarian political economy (and the institutional environment described in this article), there appears to be limited room for maneuver for many rural households beyond the palm oil sector—at least in Kapuas Hulu.

While agribusiness firms are generally able to increase their control over land through various contractual agreements, there is another associated process of establishing palm oil related infrastructure. This infrastructure development provides some (albeit limited) choice and improved access to local inhabitants, so that they can engage with the larger value chain that reaches beyond Kapuas Hulu, and often in quite beneficial ways. Local actors occupy different positions in the value chain in order to improve market access and strengthen their social and economic position. The broader market access associated with global palm oil value chain interventions encourages more local engagement with smallholding palm plantations, as found also by previous smallholding oil palm studies (Cramb 2015; Potter 2016). Our approach of examining the broader institutional environment of the GVC for palm oil generates insights into the possibilities for reforming governance structures in ways that might allow community engagement to occur on terms more amenable to community interests.

Our research findings also have implications for understanding agrarian change and rural development trajectories in Indonesia. Smallholder households are clearly not just functioning as passive objects of development assistance or corporate accumulation, but they are actively configuring new roles as producers and broader agents within the local economy. However, their attempts to assert a vision for appropriate rural development pathways in this case are ultimately dependent on their capacity to engage with, and actively reshape, the broader institutional environment of the palm oil value chain. Efforts to promote rural development should consider a much wider set of leverage points and actors embedded at different scales within an institutional environment that is continually under construction.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


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Vol. 9, No. 3, Nuurrianti Jalli and Yearry Panji Setianto


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Revisiting Transnational Media Flow in Nusantara: Cross-border Content Broadcasting in Indonesia and Malaysia

Nuurrianti Jalli* and Yearry Panji Setianto**

*Department of Languages, Literature, and Communication Studies, Northern State University, 1200 S Jay St, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 57401, The United States of America
Corresponding author’s e-mail: nuurrianti.jalli[at]
**Departemen Ilmu Komunikasi, Universitas Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, Jl. Raya Jakarta Km 4 Pakupatan Kota Serang Provinsi Banten, Indonesia

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_413

Previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content, especially in a non-Western context. This study aims to fill theoretical gaps within this scholarship by providing an analysis of the Southeast Asian media sphere, focusing on Indonesia and Malaysia in a historical context—transnational media flow before 2010. The two neighboring nations of Indonesia and Malaysia have many things in common, from culture to language and religion. This study not only explores similarities in the reception and appropriation of transnational content in both countries but also investigates why, to some extent, each had a different attitude toward content produced by the other. It also looks at how governments in these two nations control the flow of transnational media content. Focusing on broadcast media, the study finds that cross-border media flow between Indonesia and Malaysia was made possible primarily in two ways: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, and (2) legal and intended media exchange. Illicit media exchange was enabled through the use of satellite dishes and antennae near state borders, as well as piracy. Legal and intended media exchange was enabled through state collaboration and the purchase of media rights; both governments also utilized several bodies of laws to assist in controlling transnational media content. Based on our analysis, there is a path of transnational media exchange between these two countries. We also found Malaysians to be more accepting of Indonesian content than vice versa.

Keywords: Nusantara, Indonesia, Malaysia, transnational media, cross-border content, broadcast media


The effect of globalization on national media systems has encouraged various countries to reconsider the effectiveness of their media policy. While the presence of foreign media content is not new for most nations, the intrusion of material produced by other countries has long been considered a national threat (Crofts Wiley 2004; Cohen 2008). This is more so in states that aim to protect their national identities from the infiltration of foreign cultures, which are viewed as unsuitable for local audiences, via imported media content. Today, with the proliferation of the Internet, Indonesia and Malaysia are expressing concerns over the media flow from foreign countries through global channels such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Viu, among others. Leaders in Malaysia and Indonesia have raised concerns over the potential impact of loosely regulated media content on local cultural and religious values, especially content related to LGBTQA+, violence, and leftist political ideologies (Anton Hermansyah 2016; Kelion 2016; Katrina 2019).

Notwithstanding the current reality, where global media companies like Netflix have already infiltrated Malaysia and Indonesia through the Internet, this paper aims to provide a historical overview of transnational content in both countries before 2010. Since previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content (Esser and Strömbäck 2012), this paper hopes to fill this theoretical gap by providing data focusing on these two nations. More data on this topic will help to cross-examine the significance of country and regional studies from the perspective of global communication and media studies (Flew and Waisbord 2015). Additionally, this research hopes to assist in providing insights into prognosticating reactions from both governments to trends in global media consumption, based on policies implemented by both countries in the past decade.

The relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has always been defined based on the idea of serumpun (kinship), the sharing of racial and religious affinity (Islam), linguistic similarity, geographical proximity in the Malay Archipelago (or Nusantara), and a shared history (Khalid and Yacob 2012). Yet the two countries have adopted restrictive media policies toward transnational/foreign media content from each other—along with other countries in the region. Cross-border flow of media content eventually became a political debate in Indonesia and Malaysia (Mohamad Rizal 2010), but what influenced the laws and regulations put in place to deal with this issue remains unanswered. Thus, we argue that comparing the media regulations between Indonesia and Malaysia would further explain what factors determined their decisions in media policy-making processes, especially their critical stance toward Western media content. We also look at the media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia and investigate the channels of transnational media in these two states in the decades up to 2010. Finally, this study also explores factors influencing the acceptance of cross-border media content in both countries.

For this study we used a historical method, focusing on the comparison of media policies in Indonesia and Malaysia and how these countries developed their strategy on the flow of transnational media content. Among the secondary data we used were past publications, government reports, as well as online databases. This paper aims to answer three research questions: (1) How was the practice of transnational media content flow in Indonesia and Malaysia before 2010? (2) How did the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia control transnational media content? (3) What factors influenced the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries? The discussion is focused on broadcast media before 2010. It is essential to also understand that, despite the objectives, this paper does not aim to measure the acceptance level of media content in Malaysia and Indonesia. We aim to provide insights on matters related to the practice of transnational media flow and government approaches to cross-border content, and to explore potential factors influencing the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries.

Globalization and Transnational Media

With globalization, societies are becoming more transnational. Globalization also creates problems that cannot be handled at the level of nation-states, and this forces governments to think at the supranational level (Kearney 1995). Globalization can be illustrated by the increasing cross-border activities, from interactions among people from different parts of the world through social media platforms to people in different locations enjoying similar content provided by global media-services providers like Netflix. While these transnational phenomena cannot be simplified as logical consequences of the increasing popularity of global media widely accessed by global audiences, it is somewhat difficult to diminish the impact of media on the advancement of globalization. As a result, the transnational flow of media content can also be seen as one of the effects of globalization.

Edward Herman and Robert McChesney (2004) explained that significant changes are taking place within society and in our relationship with media due to the influence of global media. These changes include increasing cross-border flows of media content as well as a growing number of transnational media organizations. However, the authors also warned of the negative consequences of global media, mainly an increase in commercialization and centralized control over media. On the one hand, thanks to the globalization of media, many people in underdeveloped countries can easily watch high-quality programs produced by television stations in developed nations. On the other hand, the infiltration of transnational media content, mostly from Western countries, is seen as a threat to national cultures. Even the dominance of news content from the Western world through global media into Third World countries like Malaysia and Indonesia has often been perceived as an attack on the free flow of information (McBride 1980). Additionally, within the perspective of cultural imperialism, the international flow of communication is seen as favoring industrialized nations and threatening sociocultural values of developing countries (McBride 1980; Kraidy 2002). In some states, foreign television programs have been accused of promoting consumerism (Paek and Pan 2004). Even though policy makers in different countries have varying attitudes toward the presence of global media, governments in many developing nations tend to exhibit hostility toward unwanted transnational media content.

One of the most interesting debates concerning the threat of global media and transnational flows of communication took place during the UNESCO meeting in Kenya in 1973. During the initiation of the New World Information and Communication Order, a debate session hosted at the UNESCO meeting, some countries argued over whether the advancement of transnational media flows would be positive. According to Marwan Kraidy (2002), Western countries, which had more advanced media industries, argued that the free flow of information should be seen as positive, while the other nations did not agree and were afraid that liberalization of the flow of information would benefit only Western countries (McBride 1980). Even today it is argued that there is an imbalance in the transnational flow of information, especially since media content tends to flow from developed nations to developing ones.

There have been several attempts to define the term “transnational media.” For example, Leo Gher and Kiran Bharthapudi (2004) defined it as “communication, information or entertainment that crosses international borders without the regulatory constraints normally associated with electronic media.” Other scholars have explained the different types of transnational media. Michael Brüggemann and Hagen Schulz-Forberg (2009) categorized it into four types: (1) national media that has a cross-border mission, (2) international media, (3) pan-regional media, and (4) global media as illustrated in Table 1.


Table 1 Types of Transnational Media



Diplomatic Relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia

The diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia has existed for several decades, since the time of Malaya’s independence in 1957 (Muhammad 1964; Malaysia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2015). However, this relationship has not always been stable and is bittersweet. When Malaysia was formed (through the amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak) in 1963, Indonesia, led by President Sukarno, was not happy with the idea. The Indonesian government’s opposition to the formation of Malaysia led to a violent conflict, better known as Konfrontasi, that lasted three years—1963–66. According to James Mackie (1974), this diplomatic dispute was an undeclared war, with most of the action occurring at the border between Indonesia and East Malaysia in Borneo; it included restrained and isolated combats and was most likely driven by Sukarno’s political purposes. However, Konfrontasi ended with Indonesia finally acknowledging the formation of Malaysia.

In more recent times, tensions between these two countries expanded to issues of territorial boundaries, Indonesian illegal immigrants, ill treatment of Indonesian workers in Malaysia, human trafficking, and the infamous annual forest fires in Indonesia that resulted in a terrible haze over Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore for more than a decade from the mid-1990s (Kanapathy 2006; Kompas 2007 in Heryanto 2008; Killias 2010; Elias 2013). There were also several disputes between these countries over ownership of items of cultural heritage, such as the Pendet dance, folk songs like “Rasa Sayang” and “Terang Bulan,” and wayang kulit shadow puppetry (Chong 2012). However, despite the endless conflicts between these two countries, governments on both sides worked hard to arrive at a better understanding and a more stable diplomatic relationship. This could be seen through the efforts by both governments to strengthen bilateral ties. In 2018, during a diplomatic visit to Indonesia by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, he and Indonesian President Joko Widodo pledged to improve the relationship between their countries and focus on resolving outstanding border issues, enhancing protection and welfare for migrant workers, and potentially reviving the old plan of an ASEAN car project (Chan 2018).

Media in Indonesia and Malaysia

As in many Southeast Asian countries, the broadcasting system in Indonesia was introduced during the colonial period. Under Dutch colonial rule, radio was used to relay messages from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies as well as provide entertainment for colonial elites (Kitley 2014). When Japan took over, radio became a propaganda tool for the colonizers, with Japanese programs delivered to local audiences. When Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, radio eventually became the primary tool to broadcast nationalistic and revolutionary messages around the country. Once the national radio system became more established, the Indonesian government set up a national television network, Televisi Republik Indonesia (TVRI), in August 1962 through the Decree of the Minister of Information No. 20/1961. The initial reason for this was that Sukarno, the Indonesian president at the time, wanted to deliver the image of Indonesia as a modern country to the whole region (Kitley 2003). As the host of the Asian Games in 1962, Indonesia wanted to broadcast this sporting event to other Asian countries transnationally. However, after the Asian Games TVRI suffered a lack of funding, which resulted in the discontinuation of the network (Kitley 2014). Consequently, TVRI was overwhelmed by American television programs: it was much cheaper to broadcast those than to produce local programs.

Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, who overthrew Sukarno in 1965, enjoyed his control over the country’s broadcasting system. He exercised powerful control over the media in general, mainly through “licensing mechanism, media ownership regulation, paper distribution, media associations, Press Council membership and so on” (Agus Sudibyo and Patria 2013, 258). He prohibited broadcast media from delivering political messages, which in turn encouraged the growing popularity of entertainment content. Music, both local and Western, dominated radio shows at that time. While Suharto still allowed national television to broadcast limited transnational programs, such as American TV shows, he prohibited TVRI from airing advertisements over concerns that television commercials might promote consumerism (Ade Armando 2011). The Indonesian government tended to be permissive with imported programs due to business reasons. However, on some occasions government officials still warned the public not to be influenced by Western cultures that were promoted through foreign television programs.

Indonesia’s first private television network, Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia (RCTI), was introduced in the late 1980s. One of the reasons why Suharto permitted a private television network was to distract Indonesian viewers from foreign broadcasting (Ade Armando 2011). It seems that the increasing use of satellite dishes at that time encouraged local audiences to access international broadcasts illegally. Through shared signals from a satellite dish, even people in a small village could watch overseas television programs that were not available on local broadcasting channels. Unable to prohibit the use of satellite dishes, the government issued an “open skies” policy and legalized the use of parabola satellites, but many people still used them to access foreign channels (Sen and Hill 2006). Therefore, rather than further control the use of satellite dishes, which was seen as impractical, the government tried to attract local audiences by introducing private television channels.

The strict Suharto government finally fell after the countrywide Reformasi protest movement in 1998. In the aftermath of Suharto’s defeat there was media liberalization, which allowed the growth of press freedom and creativity (Kakiailatu 2007). Films that were deemed as sensitive or critical of the government were publicly broadcast, and various new creative products could be shared with international audiences. However, some critics argued that although there were improvements in terms of cultural expression, some media content was still heavily censored (Sen and Hill 2006), such as pornography, extreme violence, and content deemed too critical of the Indonesian government or its policies.

In Malaysia, too, the media was tightly controlled by the ruling power. The government or its affiliated companies owned broadcasting stations, especially during the Barisan Nasional (BN) government and its predecessor Parti Perikatan government from the country’s independence in 1957 until 2018. This resulted in minimal media freedom in the country and not much variety in media content available to the public (Kim 2001; McDaniel 2002; Mohd Sani 2004; George 2006; Iga 2012; Willnat et al. 2013). It also led to media monopoly. In addition to free-to-air (public) channels such as RTM1, RTM2 (operated by the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia), TV3, NTV7, 8TV, and TV9 (operated by the government-affiliated Media Prima Berhad), the other media giant in the country was—and is—the sole satellite television service provider, Astro, owned by Astro Malaysia Holdings Berhad. Unlike free-to-air channels, Astro satellite service offers 170 television channels and 20 radio stations that include all free-to-air channels along with international channels such as HBO, Cinemax, and Fox (Astro 2019).

Over the years Astro has received multiple criticisms not only from subscribers but also from local politicians, even though it provides so many interesting channels (Khairil Ashraf 2014).1) Subscribers’ complaints usually concern what they consider unnecessary fees for the average service that Astro provides, with constant disruptions especially during the monsoon season. Other complaints involve excessive advertising—showing Astro’s obvious capitalistic motives rather than a desire to provide excellent service to customers. Despite the negative feedback about Astro since it began broadcasting in 1996, the satellite service provider has never had serious competition in the market. With strong demand for a variety of channels, the people have only one legal option for satellite service—although many, especially in the rural areas, have opted to purchase unregistered illegal satellite dishes. Using such satellite dishes, they can receive multiple channels from outside the country without having to pay monthly fees; plus the content is not filtered by any government body, which allows users to enjoy original uncensored content.

Malaysia has always been strict when it comes to filtering media content from foreign countries, particularly content originating and produced in Western nations. Media content that is seen as inappropriate, especially opposing Eastern and Islamic cultures and values, is banned from public viewing. The Film Censorship Board of Malaysia under the Ministry of Home Affairs plays a vital role in deciding what content can be broadcast in the Malaysian media. Film censorship laws, specifically the Film Censorship Act 2002,2) not only filter and oversee exported content but also oversee the production and showing of local films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). According to Wan Amizah Wan Mahmud (2008), the censorship system in Malaysia was not initially created by the Malaysian government per se but was one of the effects of British colonization. The British, according to Paul O’Higgins (1972), introduced such a policy in order to uphold and defend their dignity as masters in the occupied territory—which at the same time instilled the idea of censorship among local leaders as one of the ways to maintain their own status as the highest class in the societal hierarchy. It is believed that the main legacy of the British Empire in the field of media was not the craft of producing films, but the outline of the censorship system (Van der Heide 2002), which can still be seen today. It is also important to note that the Censorship Board reviews not only films but also trailers, newsreels, posters, advertisements, and short comedy films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). Hence, in order for local and international producers to have their content nationally broadcast, it is crucial for them to follow the guidelines provided by the Censorship Board.3) If they fail to follow instructions, their content is banned from national broadcasting; and extreme content can also be charged under the Film Censorship Act (2002). Some of the media laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that could be used to oversee transnational media content can be referred to in Table 2 below.


Table 2 Media Laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that Could Be Used to Oversee Transnational Media Content*



Although Indonesia’s censorship laws are not as strict as Malaysia’s, Indonesia also pays careful attention to content that is considered to be against Islamic values. For instance, in 2014 both countries banned the Hollywood film Noah claiming it went against Islamic beliefs (Nathan 2014). With Islam being the official religion in both countries, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments pay extra attention to any content that can affect Islamic values. In 2019 an Indonesian filmmaker, Garin Nugroho, received death threats for his film Memories of My Body, which portrays a male dancer exploring his sexuality and gender identity. In Indonesia there is no specific law to oversee content related to the LGBTQA+ community except in Acheh. However, for the majority Muslim population in Indonesia, such “Western” content is not acceptable (Malay Mail, May 11, 2019).

Transnational Media Flow: Indonesia and Malaysia

Historically, in many countries uncontrolled media flow has been viewed as a threat to national sovereignty and has shaped media policies (Hardt and Negri 2001; Flew 2012). Information flow from developed countries into Third World countries threatens the latter as foreign media content effectively surpasses the jurisdiction and authority of nation-states, eventually challenging the notion of national sovereignty and its effectiveness. Therefore, according to scholars like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, government and politics “come to be completely integrated into the system of transnational command” (Hardt and Negri 2001, 307). In this section, we highlight some examples of how media content flows between Indonesia and Malaysia, with a specific focus on broadcast materials such as films, TV dramas, radio, and music.

Transnational media content flows between Malaysia and Indonesia mainly through two modes of transmission: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, including, especially at the national borders, the availability of illegal satellite dishes and DVD dealerships to accommodate local demand for foreign content; and (2) legal and intended media exchange (refer to Fig. 1). The intended media exchange discussed here focuses on content from Malaysia and the island of Java, where the Indonesian capital—Jakarta—is located and extensive use of the official Bahasa Indonesia rather than the Javanese language is recorded (Poedjosoedarmo 2006). Due to the diversity of languages in the Indonesian archipelago (Goebel 2013; 2016), media consumption in the country also varies (Sen and Hill 2006). Most media companies and government agencies are located in Java, but there are some also in Bali and Sumatra (Nugroho et al. 2012).



Fig. 1 Transnational Media Flow in Indonesia and Malaysia


In Indonesia and Malaysia, one of the catalysts facilitating transnational media content was satellite TV. With limited TV channels provided by the state, the use of satellite dishes was deemed necessary to increase options for media content. However, for many Indonesians and Malaysians, especially in the 1990s, satellite dishes were considered a luxury. Nonetheless, transnational satellite TV was a concern for both governments since content from the Western world was deemed a threat to the Asian values upheld by both nations (McDaniel 2002). For example, the introduction of Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV in 1991 was received differently by audiences and governments in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Many media policies were set up to handle the transnational flow of media content enabled by this new media technology.

The common view of upholding Asian values was not exclusive to Indonesia and Malaysia. In many other Southeast Asian countries with authoritarian regimes, the discourse on media policies was also centralized in censorship.4) Censorship was deemed necessary to prevent unwanted foreign media content. In the late 1990s, using the argument of preserving Asian values, Southeast Asian governments’ efforts to maintain censorship—to protect the public from “unsuitable” materials—faced an unlikely dilemma (McDaniel 2002). In Malaysia, for example, thanks to advanced media technologies—from satellite dishes to videocassettes—people living near the national borders in particular could easily access media content from neighboring countries without having to be concerned with the government’s censorship policy (McDaniel 2002). Why government policies concerning the cross-border flow of media content were ineffective during that time is yet to be fully understood.

Radio and Music

The history of the infiltration of Malaysian media content into Indonesia can be traced back to the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts in both countries in the post-independence period. Due to geographical proximity, broadcast signals from Malaysia are relatively easily received by Indonesian audiences, and vice versa. As a result, it is common for Indonesian listeners to tune into Malaysian radio stations. In West Kalimantan, for example, 18 Malaysian radio channels—including Muzik FM, TraXX FM, Klasik Nasional FM, Hot FM, Hitz FM, ERA (formerly Era FM), and Cats FM—are available for free to Indonesians living near the Malaysian border. To attract Indonesian listeners, Malaysian radio plays Indonesian pop songs.

In comparing the Malaysian music industry to the Indonesian one, it is safe to say that the latter is more advanced and prominent than the former (Heryanto 2008). Indonesian bands such as Peterpan, Sheila on 7, and Cokelat, among others, are well known among Malaysians. And in 2007, instead of choosing a local Malaysian band, Celcom—Malaysia’s largest and oldest telecommunications company—officially appointed Indonesia’s best-known music group, Peterpan, as the company’s new “power icon” as part of its marketing strategy (Heryanto 2008). Malaysia’s warm reception of Indonesian music is not recent: it goes back several decades to the success of artists such as Titiek Puspa, Lilis Suryani, and Vina Panduwinata (Sartono 2007, quoted in Heryanto 2008). In contrast to the success of Indonesian musicians in Malaysia, only a few Malaysian artists—such as Search, Siti Nurhaliza, and Sheila Majid—have managed to penetrate the Indonesian music industry (Tribune News, July 2, 2013).

The Indonesian and Malaysian governments have tried to cooperate in making collaborative broadcasts (McDaniel 1994). In the case of radio, Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) has long collaborated with Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) in broadcasting programs to reach audiences in both countries. One of the most famous such programs was Titian Muhibah (Bridge of harmony), broadcasting Indonesian and Malaysian songs to listeners in both countries. Similar programs were later introduced on television; TVRI broadcast a program with the same name in the 1990s. The television program was discontinued after Suharto resigned and the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia became troublesome. In 2013 RRI made an unsuccessful attempt to work with RTM to produce a similar show, with the primary aim being to reach out to audiences living near the national borders of these neighboring nations, including areas like Pontianak, Sintang, Entikong, and Sarawak (Tribune News, July 2, 2013). Many of the programs co-produced by RRI and RTM were cultural shows, and one of them—Bermukun Borneo—continued until 2019. Intentional or legal transnational flows of media content were considered inconsistent and profoundly influenced by the internal political conditions in each country as well as the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

TV Dramas and Films

Unlike scholarly articles on the development of Indonesian cinema, little has been written about the history of Malaysian cinema (White 1996). Scholars have suggested that Indonesian media content has long been accepted by the Malaysian public (Van der Heide 2002; Heryanto 2008). This can be traced all the way back to the 1930s through the overwhelming popularity of media content such as the film Terang Boelan (Bright moon) in Malaya and Singapore. The success of Terang Boelan inspired the production of Malay films. This could be seen through the establishment of an Indonesian film house in Singapore in 1938 to cater to local demand for Malay media content (Norman Yusoff 2019). The popularity of Terang Boelan also inspired Shaw Brothers in Singapore to set up Malay Film Productions, which became one of the successful film companies in the region.

According to William van der Heide (2002), the popularity of the Malayan movie actor P. Ramlee in the 1950s beyond the Peninsula was regarded as having the potential to boost the export of Malayan movies to Indonesia. But Indonesia reacted negatively by imposing a strict protectionist policy—demanding that three Indonesian films be screened in the Peninsula for every Malayan movie exported to Indonesia—which resulted in a limited number of Malayan films being circulated in Indonesia (Latif 1989). Despite little success, some strategies, such as inviting Indonesian directors and actors to produce Malayan movies, were used to ensure the smooth distribution of Malayan films in Indonesia (Alauddin 1992).

The introduction of television in the early 1960s also contributed to the declining popularity of Malaysian movies among local audiences. Meanwhile, due to the technical superiority of Indonesian films, Malaysian viewers became more interested in their neighboring country’s films. Providing Malaysian audiences with Malay-language content, Indonesian movies of various genres—from action to dangdut musicals—became more popular in the 1970s (Sirat 1992). Even Perfima—the film company set up by P. Ramlee and a few others—initially imported popular Indonesian films before it produced local content (Van der Heide 2002).

In the 1980s Indonesian films could be accessed via state-owned channels operated by RTM, through programs such as Tayangan Gambar Indonesia (Indonesian film show) on TV1. At the same time, locally produced media content was shown on programs such as Tayangan Gambar Melayu (Malay film show). Due to the lack of local media products, RTM had to purchase rights to Indonesian films for RM3,000–5,000 from local distributors. The cost to purchase Indonesian content was considered reasonable to fill in the vacant slots on RTM TV channels. The same approach was taken by TV3, a private TV channel that was established in 1983 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). TV3 at that time, aware of the trend, also featured Indonesian films alternately with Malay films through its program Malindo Theater (Norman Yusoff 2019).

In the early 2000s, some of the Indonesian films popular in Malaysia were Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s up with love, 2002), Eiffel I’m in Love (2003), Heart (2006), and Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of love, 2008). Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, which was released in Malaysia in 2003, received positive feedback, especially from young adults. Observers of the local art scene posited that the film contributed to the emergence of a subculture centralized in Indonesian poetry in Malaysia. In 2016 a prequel of the movie, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2, was released in the Malaysian market, 13 years after the release of its predecessor. Recorded as the highest-grossing Indonesian movie in Malaysia, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 reaped more than RM2.5 million in box office takings within a week and surpassed RM4 million revenue after its 12th day of screening (Chua 2016a; 2016b).

Indonesian TV dramas, better known as sinetrons, also became popular in Malaysia. According to Josscy Aartsen (2011), the popularity of Indonesian media content as an official import to Malaysia was initially due to cheaper copyrights compared to Western media content, especially during the financial crisis in the 1990s. The overwhelming acceptance of Indonesian sinetrons led to the establishment of exclusive slots on Malaysian TV networks. For example, in 2006 TV9—a channel under Media Prima, one of the largest media agencies in Malaysia—dedicated a daily slot to broadcast Indonesian TV dramas (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). This was seen as an effort to compete with other TV stations that were also actively broadcasting Indonesian sinetrons. Some Indonesian dramas were hugely popular among Malaysian viewers: for example, Kiamat Sudah Dekat (The end is near, 2003) had a viewership of over 1 million. And Mutiara Hari (Pearl of the day), which was initially released on SCTV in Indonesia in 2005, had a viewership of 1.6 million on TV9 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). Tabulated in Table 3 above are some of the Indonesian sinetrons and films broadcasted in Malaysia over the years.


Table 3 Some Indonesian Sinetrons and Films in Malaysia



Unlike the penetration of Indonesian films into Malaysian media, Malaysian media content was not well received in Indonesia (Van der Heide 2002). This could have been due to a few factors, such as the plethora of choices within Indonesia and slower development of the entertainment industry in Malaysia. According to Khairi Ahmad (1988, 9), at least in the 1980s, Indonesian audiences found that Malaysian films were not as attractive as local content or other foreign films. Some Malaysian films that succeeded in breaking into the Indonesian market were those by P. Ramlee, such as Seniman Bujang Lapok (The three bachelor artists), Nujum Pak Belalang (Pak Belalang the necromancer), Bakti (Services), among others (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Bakti, which was released in 1950, received a particularly overwhelming response from the Indonesian public due to the widespread publicity provided by newspapers in Singapore such as Utusan Melayu, Utusan Zaman, and Mastika (Sahidan Jaafar 2019; Abdullah Hussain 2003):

The Oranje Theater was a first-class stage that usually showed only big movies from the West. At the time the film Bakti was aired on the Oranje Medan Medan stage in the 1950s, some of the main streets around the theater were jammed with vehicles and humans. (Abdullah Hussain 2003, 17)

Other than films by P. Ramlee, in the 1990s other films also managed to break into the Indonesian market. One was Fenomena (Phenomenon). The success of this film was catalyzed by the popularity of the lead actor, Amy Search, who was also a member of the popular Malaysian rock band Search. In 1989, a year before the film was released in the Indonesian market, the rock band released its album Fenomena, which received overwhelming support from Indonesian audiences—over 2 million copies were sold (Raja 2017).

Various efforts to co-produce movies between the two countries were initiated after the formation of ASEAN in 1967, but they materialized only in the late 1980s. Eventually several films were produced, including the popular Irisan-Irisan Hati (Shreds of the heart) (Lim 1989). There were also successful attempts by filmmakers to incorporate celebrities from Indonesia and Malaysia in their films. For instance, Isabella (1990) was directed by the Indonesian director Marwan Alkatiri and featured the Malaysian actor Amy Search and Indonesian actor Nia Zulkarnain. Other collaborative films included Gadis Hitam Putih (The black and white woman, 1986), directed by Wahyu Sihombing, and Gelora Cinta (The surge of love, 1992) by Aziz Sattar (Norman Yusoff 2019). While such collaboration was applauded by the Malaysian film industry, it gained little interest from its Indonesian counterpart (Said 1991).

Unlike successful Indonesian sinetrons in Malaysia, only a small number of Malaysian TV shows managed to penetrate the Indonesian market. In the late 1980s there were only two notable Malaysian television shows popular in Indonesia: the soap opera Primadona (Primadonna, 1989) and the variety show Titian Muhibah (1990). One of the best contemporary examples of Malaysian media content popular in Indonesia is the animation series Upin & Ipin, by Les’ Copaque Production. The children’s show has been broadcast on the Indonesian TV channel MNCTV since 2007.

Media Piracy in Indonesia and Malaysia

Audiences in both countries also enjoyed relatively easy access to transnational media content through pirated media. In Indonesia, for example, the government found it difficult to eliminate media piracy. The development of videocassettes in the 1980s is viewed as having kickstarted media piracy in Indonesia (Rosihan Anwar 1988). Locals made copies of videocassettes in order to meet the demand for a variety of films without having to spend much money going to the cinema. The booming piracy business led to a decline in the production of Indonesian movies in the early 1980s (Rosihan Anwar 1988). New films were recorded as soon as they were available in theatres, and videocassettes of the films were promptly distributed by video rental shops. Many of the recordings were made illegally and disseminated without obtaining video rights from the producers. Efforts were made by the Indonesian government to eliminate piracy and exert more control, but no significant success was achieved (Khairi Ahmad 1988).

In the 1990s, pirated media content in most Southeast Asian countries was distributed via counterfeit VCDs or DVDs due to the lack of access to online media. Even though pirated media is illegal in Indonesia, 90 percent of the VCDs distributed in the market were pirated copies (Van Heeren 2012). Most pirated media offers relatively cheap access to transnational content. Hollywood box office movies were “often for sale on the streets before they even premiere in local theaters” (Baumgärtel 2007, 53). Pirated VCDs and DVDs also offered pornographic materials, Western music albums, and computer software and games. The only regulation that could be used to eradicate the practice of media piracy was Copyright Law No. 28/2014. However, the issue was more law enforcement than regulation.

Following the increasing penetration of the Internet in Indonesia, this newest medium has provided an alternative way for Indonesians to access transnational content. While it is true that a variety of media content from many countries is now easily available to Internet users in Indonesia, there is also a tendency to utilize this relatively cheap medium to access and distribute pirated media content. Even though the government tried to minimize online piracy through the implementation of Information and Electronic Transaction Law No. 11/2008, the government’s efforts to prevent the distribution of online pirated content seemed to focus mainly on blocking pornographic websites.

Even though censorship has been in place in Malaysia since the country’s independence in 1957, citizens can bypass bans through illegal Internet downloads. Banned media content can also be purchased from pirated VCD/DVD dealers (Yow 2015). Thus, it is not surprising that even though the Malaysian Censorship Board banned 50 Shades of Grey in 2015, people in the country are able to get their hands on an illegal copy of the movie through the ever-free Internet and illegal VCD/DVD dealers. The introduction of Malaysian Copyright Act 1987 proved that the government took piracy seriously and eventually hoped to put an end to it. Unfortunately, although illegal VCD/DVD dealers have been subjected to numerous raids by the authorities, their numbers are unlikely to decrease as the demand for illegal content is very high among Malaysians. For those who have slow Internet speed, it is more practical to buy illegal copies of VCDs or DVDs from unlawful dealers at prices starting from RM10 each, with discounts available for bulk purchases. The existence of illegal VCD and DVD dealerships not only raises questions about the relevance of stringent censorship but also explains one of the ways in which transnational content can be exchanged between countries.

Satellite Dishes and Antennae to Access TV Shows and Films

As in the case of radio, which was discussed in the previous section, Indonesian television owners in Northern Sumatra and West Kalimantan were able to access Malaysian television programs due to leaks of the broadcasting signal. In the late 1980s, television programs from the Malaysian channel TV3 were so popular in Sumatra that most Indonesian audiences were not aware they were enjoying programs from another country (Sen and Hill 2006). Other than TV3, two other mainstream Malaysian TV channels were also available for free beyond the Malaysian border in West Kalimantan—RTM1 and RTM2. Malaysians living near the border also have access to a few Indonesian television channels. In Johor, for example, residents can easily watch the three oldest Indonesian channels for free without having to subscribe to any cable or satellite service. Johor is located near Singapore and Indonesia. Hence, Singaporean and Indonesian channels are easily transmitted beyond the Malaysia-Indonesia and Malaysia-Singapore borders. By purchasing a standard outdoor antenna, viewers can enjoy TPI, RCTI, and SCTV from Indonesia as well as television channels from Singapore (Mohammad Faiq 2007). This can be considered as an unintended or unintentional transnational flow of media content, since the content comes via either illegal or unofficial transmission.

Likewise, the use of parabolic antennas in rural areas is seen as an essential unofficial medium for audiences in Indonesia to obtain transnational programs, including television programs from Malaysia, and vice versa. Compared to before the early 1990s, these days the numbers of satellite dishes in the country has decreased remarkably. In 1991, to control information flows from outside the country through alternative means such as privately owned satellite dishes, the Malaysian government announced a ban on all privately owned satellite dishes. The ban was described as highly necessary and a matter of highest national unity and security and also one of the ways to preserve Malaysian morals and values (Davidson 1998). With the ban in place, the Malaysian government aimed to control the massive flow of foreign media content into the country, worrying that without censorship, “dangerous” media content could easily influence Malaysians and not only jeopardize Malaysian culture but also threaten national harmony. However, as previously discussed, by the mid-1990s Astro Holdings was given the exclusive rights to provide satellite broadcasting services in the country. Ownership of satellite receivers other than Astro’s is considered illegal without a license—and owners of such receivers without the proper documentation and permits face confiscation of equipment as well as a hefty fine if discovered.

Private enterprises attempted to further encourage cross-border content broadcasting between Indonesia and Malaysia. One of the most prominent examples was the establishment of Astro Nusantara in 2006. As Malaysia’s sole satellite television service, this company signed an agreement with a local Indonesian company to establish its business in the Indonesian media market. Unfortunately, due to a stock dispute between the two majority shareholders, Astro Malaysia and Lippo Group, Astro Nusantara was dissolved in October 2008 (Malaysia Today, May 1, 2012). There was another reason why the Indonesian government supported the disbanding of Astro Nusantara. Indonesian Member of Parliament Dedy Malik argued that the Malaysian broadcasting company violated the broadcasting rules set by Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information, especially the reciprocity clause (Tempo, March 3, 2006). Astro Malaysia was given a license to broadcast Malaysian content to Indonesian audiences, but this Malaysian satellite service did not transmit Indonesian content to Malaysian viewers.

Better Acceptance of Indonesian Content

We found that there were several reasons for the better acceptance of Indonesian media content in Malaysia than vice versa. Audiences in Malaysia found that Indonesian radio and television programs shared similar cultural values as their own; thus, it was easy for them to accept Indonesian content. Researchers such as Latifah Pawanteh et al. (2009) observed that at least for Malaysian media audiences, Asian media content such as Indonesia’s had relatable storylines and was relevant to their daily lives. The use of relatively identical language in the two countries in addition to Muslim-friendly content facilitated better acceptance of Indonesian content in Malaysia (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Moreover, since the majority of the population in both countries is Muslim, that further facilitates the flow of media between the two countries, mainly from Indonesia to Malaysia. Our analysis of media laws in both countries found that their regulations outlawed content that was deemed to be against Islamic values, such as explicit sexual content and gambling. In the case of Indonesian audiences, local media content is more popular than Malaysian content since Indonesia has a more advanced media industry and there are diverse options to choose from. Local media content is more popular among Indonesians also as it reflects Indonesian values. Some of the local media content is even produced in indigenous languages such as Javanese and Sundanese (Goebel, 2013), which makes it more appealing to local audiences (Sen and Hill 2006).

The entertainment industry in Indonesia is seen to be a step ahead of Malaysia’s. In 2017 Indonesia was the world’s 16th-biggest film market and the largest in Southeast Asian (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018). Unlike Malaysian media products, Indonesian content is not only widely accepted by a global audience, but much of its profit is derived from the local market. With a population of 241 million in 2018 (Freedom House 2019), Indonesia undeniably has a larger talent pool than Malaysia. Due to Indonesia’s large population, its media market has greater potential for distributing local products. Its large population also makes Indonesia one of the most promising markets for the entertainment business in Asia (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018; Chan 2019).

Low English proficiency among Indonesians is also deemed to be one of the factors contributing to the flourishing media industry in Indonesia. According to Itje Chodidjah, (2007) the dispersed geography of the Indonesian archipelago made it difficult to spread an English education. Low English proficiency led Indonesian audiences to prefer local rather than foreign content. Although Indonesia has diverse ethnicities and different languages, Bahasa Indonesia is the state’s officially mandated lingua franca (Rahmi 2015). Malay was used as an official language of Indonesia in 1918 (Moeliono 1993), primarily because colonial officials were concerned that if Dutch was extensively used, Indonesians would have easy access to political ideologies from abroad (Alisjahbana 1957; Lamb and Coleman 2008). In the 1920s, during the nationalist uprising in Indonesia, the nationalist movement declared Bahasa Indonesia as the language of solidarity for all Indonesians (Lamb and Coleman 2008). All these factors led to better acceptance of local media products than foreign materials and eventually contributed to the ever growing local media industry. Also, among the working class in Indonesia, local content was viewed as more relatable as it was imbued with familiar daily Indonesian values; this further contributed to the thriving entertainment industry in the state. Since the Indonesian entertainment industry was deemed good enough for Indonesians, foreign content—including that of Malaysian origin—was deemed inferior. The flourishing media industry in Indonesia provided better opportunities for the production of diverse media content than Malaysia. This was especially true after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, ending stringent control over media in Indonesia. The liberalization of the press in Indonesia resulted in the production of colorful media content that is still well received by international audiences, including Malaysians.


Our findings revealed that the Indonesian and Malaysian governments paid more attention to the flow of Western media content than to content from neighboring countries that shared the same religion and cultural values. As illustrated previously, hostility toward Western content could be seen through a more stringent body of laws in both countries prohibiting—often through censorship—materials that went against local norms (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). At the same time, there is no record of an aggressive approach having been taken by either government when dealing with the illegal transmission of media content between these two countries, particularly near the border. Other than concerns over different religious and cultural values, governments were also concerned about the introduction of a consumer culture and liberal political ideologies from the West. Therefore, Western media content was more closely monitored and controlled through stringent media laws and policies (Ade Armando 2011). Such media content was viewed not only as an economic threat but also as a potential threat to national security.

As for the transnational flow of content between Indonesia and Malaysia, minimal documentation has been found to indicate that there were extensive official media exchanges between these two countries. In fact, scholars such as Van der Heide (2002) posited that scholarly discussion on the film industry in Asia often overlooked the Malaysian context. Based on our exploratory analysis, there was a lot of Indonesian entertainment content in Malaysia but minimal Malaysian content in the Indonesian media space. This was due to factors such as a better-developed entertainment industry in Indonesia, and a freer media environment in Indonesia, particularly after the fall of Suharto. Indonesians were found to prefer local rather than Malaysian content due to factors such as language and the sense of familiarity with Indonesian values depicted by locally produced broadcast media.

Also, minimal records have been found to indicate that either country paid close attention to media flows, especially the illicit transnational media flows in border areas. Not much action was taken to control the cross-border flow of content. It can be assumed that content from both countries was considered “safe” due to the countries’ common shared cultural and religious values; also, illegal content could flow transnationally only near the national border areas, and no significant amount of exchange was reported. Illicit cross-border broadcasts and content are believed to spread not much farther than the border areas of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Since the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has been somewhat unstable for several decades, media exchange may be seen as one way to rekindle the relationship. It is surprising that although several efforts have been made to improve the relationship, especially through strategic agreements, minimal efforts have focused on extensive media exchange. In the 1990s the two countries tried to work together on programs like Titian Muhibah, but since then no similar efforts have been made. Increased media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia can serve the diplomatic purpose of improving the bittersweet bilateral relationship between these Nusantara countries.

Since this study was conducted through historical research, it is exploratory in nature. Minimal resources were found about official media exchanges between Indonesia and Malaysia. The issue can be further explored through interviewing media providers from both countries to see whether there are any bilateral agreements on broadcast media content. Research can also focus on interviewing diplomats from both countries to better understand the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia. Through these interviews, researchers will be able to gain updated information on Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s media exchange initiatives and better understand how media exchange can serve as a diplomatic approach. Since there is also minimal proper documentation on unintended transnational media flows near the national borders, it would be best to explore this topic by interviewing and requesting official documentation from the relevant authorities in both countries.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


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1) Khairil Ashraf (2014) mentions Bung Mokhtar, a local politician from Sabah.

2) The first Act to be adopted was the Cinematograph Films Act 1952 (Amendment 1966), followed by the Film Censorship Act 2002 (Act 620), which is still in force today (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

3) Decisions are made based on rules and criteria stipulated in three basic documents: the Film Censorship Act, Censorship Guidelines, and Specific Guidelines Censorship (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

4) Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, and the Philippines also have media policies focused on censorship, due to their respective authoritarian governments (see Sen and Lee 2008; Slater 2010).


Vol. 9, No. 3, Fujita Wataru


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

The Rubber Boom Assemblage and Internalized Friction: Attitudes of the Government, NGOs, and Farmers in Northeast Thailand

Fujita Wataru*

*藤田 渡, College of Sustainable System Sciences, Osaka Prefecture University, 1-1 Gakuencho Naka-ku Sakai, Osaka 599-8531, Japan
e-mail: watarufujita[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_381

Northeast Thailand experienced a rubber boom that began in the 2000s with a sudden swing away from the trend toward sustainable forest management that had been widely accepted by society in the 1990s. The rapid expansion of rubber cultivation caused various ecological changes in the farmers’ living environment. Faced with environmental issues, various actors in society were reluctant to take the measures necessary to stop these changes, even when there were legal provisions to do so. Among the bureaucracy, agriculture agencies were indifferent to deforestation and, in some cases, gave subsidies to non-titled lands despite regulations against this. Conservation agencies hesitated to regulate illegal cultivation strictly in the forestlands. At the study site, the Tambon Administration Organization stressed the importance of forest conservation but never criticized or prevented rubber cultivation. Villagers reached no consensus on regulating forest clearing or herbicide use but changed their customs to allow the enclosure of non-timber forest resources in private forests. Various actors, without mutual communication, perceived a political atmosphere in which poor people’s hopes of a socioeconomic upgrade via rubber could not be denied under the conditions of electoral politics, despite environmental degradation. These were all elements of the rubber boom assemblage. The friction arising from rubber cultivation combined with anxiety regarding environmental degradation became internalized in the actors because the forces driving the rubber boom were so powerful. Therefore, at a glance, all actors suddenly seemed to become optimistic about rubber.

Keywords: Northeast Thailand, rubber boom, assemblage, social process

I Introduction

Northeast Thailand experienced a rapid expansion of rubber cultivation beginning in the 2000s. This was due mainly to the increase in the price of rubber in response to the growth of the automobile industry in emerging economies such as China and India, and the subsequent demand for tires. This rapid expansion occurred not only in Thailand but also elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as Southwest China, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Despite differences in the acquisition and holding of rubber farms and the distribution of profits by country or region, a common factor in all of these areas was that previously self-sufficient areas became connected directly to the network of the global economy and industry via rubber (Fox and Castella 2013).

This rapid expansion of rubber cultivation resulted in ecological changes. The villagers acknowledged this, but they made no institutional arrangement to prevent the changes; and almost none of the environmental NGOs took action. Until extremely strong forest conservation policies were put in place by Thailand’s military government in 2014, no governmental agency took effective measures in this regard, hesitating to exercise their legal authority. All actors were seemingly optimistic about the trend of the rubber boom. A social consciousness of sustainable natural resource management grew during the 1990s, after the logging ban. Optimism about the rubber boom and ignorance of the ecological degradation caused by the expansion of rubber cultivation suddenly swung the pendulum of opinion in the other direction.

Considering the trend since the 1990s in which the government, NGOs, and local communities had been seeking sustainable forest management and usage, this sudden swing by all sectors to prioritize rubber, in disregard of the law, seemed strange. This article analyzes the rubber boom as an assemblage. The world is being ceaselessly shaped and reshaped by assemblages consisting of heterogeneous elements, either in the direction of “territorialization”—making order from the center in a segmented structured way like a state—or “deterritorialization”—deconstructing the order into a multiplicity of linear movements (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, ch. 1). Assemblages are continuously rearranged in this process (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, ch. 11).

The formation and rearrangement of heterogeneous assemblages can explain social change. In her case study of a community forestry project, Tania Li (2007) reveals the process of power formation by which outsiders intervene in local communities with a “will to improve,” by analyzing how various elements are assembled into a concrete project scheme. Michiel Köhne (2014) argues for the opposite, bottom-up direction of assemblage formation. According to him, the governance of an institute of a multi-stakeholder initiative for palm oil is formed through an assemblage of practices in a number of places, with variations somehow contradicting each other. In these ways, elements at different geographical scales interact, and these assemblages transform society as well as the assemblages themselves. Such assemblages not only exist in terms of what can be physically observed, like field-level projects, but can also be formed by human and non-human actors on a global scale (Collier and Ong 2005; McFarlane 2009).

These studies assume a human actor to be a subject or agent holding a consistent idea. However, an individual human actor can also be an assemblage of heterogeneous elements. In this article, I analyze individual human actors as assemblages, as well as social events and phenomena, including those observed in local communities and those developing on broader geographic scales. In doing so, I explain the sociological mechanism of the rubber boom.

II Rubber, the Forest, Living Environments, and Assemblage

II-1 Rubber in the Context of Forest Conservation

Until the end of the 1980s, Thailand experienced serious deforestation as a result of commercial logging and farmland expansion. The gap between forestland in a legal sense and actual forest cover increased (Uhlig 1988; Pasuk and Baker 1995, ch. 2; Fujita 2003). In the 1990s, the government took measures to resolve the problem of this gap. Although the forest department enclosed core natural forests with high conservation value in terms of biodiversity and watersheds as protected areas, patches of secondary forest near local communities where the locals exploited natural materials for subsistence were to be managed and utilized by the local communities as community forests. Degraded forestlands were transferred to the Agricultural Land Reform Office in charge of giving cultivation rights certificates to local inhabitants. Through the implementation of these policies, especially the negotiation of community forests, the significance of sustainable forest management appeared to be widely accepted within society.1)

Studies on the sociopolitical aspects of natural resource management have usually assumed that people are in a state of tension or conflict, and have analyzed the negotiations between them. Peter Vandergeest and Nancy Peluso (1995) and Peluso and Vandergeest (2001) view the history of forest policy in Thailand as “territorialization” of the forest by the state, excluding people’s access to resources.2) Thus, the forest has been a place of conflicting interests between the state seeking forest enclosure for development or conservation and the people depending on forest resources for their livelihoods, or what they call the “political forest.” Colonialistic forest policies and legal institutions sometimes caused physical conflicts, including the violent eviction of people by the government or guerrilla-like counterattacks against the state by the people. More often, however, the implementation of these policies and institutions were compromised by the decisions of field-level officers or through negotiations with local residents. Regardless, criticisms of colonialistic forest policies led to community-based natural resource management becoming a global standard and reduced conflict over resources between the state and the people.

Case studies have revealed that community-based forest management projects are crafted by outside actors via governmentality (Agrawal 2005; Li 2007). Unlike these studies, there are many cases in Thailand in which locals spontaneously initiated and practiced de facto community forest management. They later received assistance from NGOs, local academics, and forest officers to organize and institutionalize community forests with clear demarcation, written regulations, and management committees. It is true that in the process of establishing such community forests in a formal or institutionalized way, the actual design of community forests was affected by the power relationship—there were unequal amounts of expert knowledge between the locals and NGO workers or forest officials; NGO workers and officials were friendly with the locals in giving necessary advice. However, the expansion of community forests in Thailand since 1990 was fueled by the demands of locals facing resource scarcity and the necessity to protect their rights, and was approved by the Forest Department, influenced by the global trend to promote community-based resource management for sustainable use (Fujita 2011).

In the 2000s, contrary to this trend of sustainable forest usage, forests were invaded for rubber cultivation, especially in nontraditional cultivation areas such as the northeast region. The last remaining forests were converted into rubber gardens. Herbicide use in the rubber gardens polluted surrounding areas. Despite this, there were very few voices from government agencies, NGOs, or local entities demanding a halt or limit to the expansion of rubber. Society as a whole seemed to accept the rubber boom, with few conflicts between the state and rubber-growing communities.

II-2 Rubber and Agrarian Change in Northeast Thailand

Farmers in Thailand have been committed to a market economy for longer and more deeply than farmers in many other countries and areas. In Northeast Thailand, in particular, upland cash crops such as kenaf, cassava, and maize have been widespread since the 1960s (Pasuk and Baker 1995, ch. 2). Prior to the 1990s, however, cash-crop cultivation did not raise the socioeconomic status of poor Thai farmers (Rambo 2017). High volatility of crop prices, accompanied by a poor—or lacking—social safety net, kept farmers socially marginalized and economically vulnerable (Hirsch 1990). Instead, as many previous studies (Rigg and Salamanca 2011; 2015; Rigg et al. 2014; Rigg et al. 2018) have argued, migrant work in Bangkok and other urban areas, as well as various non-farm activities, were long the main sources of cash income, while farming decreased.

Since the 2000s, due to the growth of global market needs, prices of industrial crops such as rubber and cassava have remained high. I observed in this study that rubber cultivators have become rich; they are able to purchase cars, tractors, and electrical appliances as well as daily food materials. Their children are able to attend college. They have never before experienced such an economic boom. The statistics also show that the average income in Ubon Ratchathani Province, where this study is located, almost reached the national average in 2011, but the gap subsequently widened following a decline in the price of rubber (Figs. 1 and 2).



Fig. 1 Average Income: National and Ubon Ratchathani Province

Source: Thailand, National Statistical Office (1996; 1998; 2006; 2007; 2009; 2011; 2015); Ubon Ratchathani Provincial Statistical Office (2002).



Fig. 2 Price of Rubber, 1997–2015

Source: Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics (2015b).


Many previous studies that argued for agrarian change in Northeast Thailand dismissed the impact of the rise in crop price, probably because those studies were conducted in Khon Kaen and Maha Sarakham Provinces, where there was no remaining frontier land for upland crop expansion in the 1980s (Rigg and Salamanca 2011, 557; 2015, 300). However, other case studies in Khon Kaen Province reported a significant contribution of rubber cultivation to villagers’ income, for both owners of rubber gardens and hired laborers (Patarapong et al. 2011; Uraiwan and Aran 2013).

Thus, the spread of cash-crop cultivation and its economic impact have not been uniform. The study site of this article was one of the most peripheral in terms of cash-crop cultivation. Cassava cultivation spread in the 2000s, at the same time as rubber. Before that, villagers’ cash income derived mostly from migrant work in urban areas or miscellaneous wage labor around the village. Therefore, relatively rich natural forest resources were preserved, which allowed for a self-sufficient mode of life. Rubber, with its significant economic impact, not only replaced existing crop fields but also destroyed the scarce remaining natural forests.

II-3 Assemblage

These changes in rural areas of Northeast Thailand can be explained in terms of assemblages as follows: Since the 1990s, when the drastic policy change took place favoring sustainable forest management, including the establishment of community forests, the assemblage of farmers’ livelihoods involved major factors such as unstable, insufficient crop prices; non-farming activities and migrant work in urban areas; and sustainable natural resource management. In the early 2000s, this assemblage was rearranged into the rubber boom assemblage, with the increase in rubber prices. In the cultivable areas in the Northeast, many farmers planted rubber seedlings, which began to provide their main income six or seven years later and allowed the farmers to avoid migrant work. Natural resource management remained within the assemblage, but as a less important element. In this process of assemblage rearrangement, did friction arise between conflicting elements, and if so, how was it resolved? Below, I examine actors’ performances in detail, as part of a study in a village in Ubon Ratchathani Province.

III Study Site and Methodology

The arguments in this paper basically depend on field research in N village in Ubon Ratchathani Province and in surrounding villages. I have made regular visits to N and neighboring villages since 1997 and carried out ethnographic research on relationships between villagers’ livelihoods and natural resource use. The description and arguments used in this article are based mainly on ethnographic data from participant observation prior to 2015, as well as questionnaire surveys conducted in 2012 and 2015, interviews with key informants in both Bangkok and the area around N village, and analyses of documents such as newspapers and websites.

Most villagers in N and surrounding villages are Isan people. N village is located adjacent to Pha Taem National Park, established in 1991. Around the village, the land is gently sloped. The lower lands are occupied by paddy fields, while the hilly area was once cultivated for upland rice by a form of shifting cultivation that had been abandoned for decades because of reinforced forest patrols against swidden practices after the establishment of the national park. The main form of subsistence has long been paddy cultivation, while various resources for daily living have been extracted from the surrounding natural environment, such as bamboo shoots and mushrooms from the forests, fish from the streams and paddy fields, and wild animals hunted in the forests. Unlike many other villages in the Northeast, cash crops such as cassava, maize, and kenaf had seldom been cultivated until cassava cultivation began in N village and the surrounding area in the 2000s. In 1997, to secure the natural forests for sustainable use, the villagers designated the hilly forest area in the village as a community forest and institutionalized regulations and organization for its management.3)

Rubber cultivation began to expand rapidly in the village in the early 2000s, in line with the general trend in Northeast Thailand, although some farmers had practiced it before. Large parts of private forests were cleared and converted to rubber gardens as well as cassava fields.

Countrywide, about 90 percent of newly planted rubber gardens from 2003 to 2014 were converted from low-vegetation areas, probably crop fields, while only about 10 percent were converted from natural forests (Hurni and Fox 2018, 209). Sorat Praweenwongwuthi et al. (2017) reported higher percentages: 827 ha out of a total of 1,353 ha of rubber gardens planted in Mueang District between 2006 and 2010 were converted from natural forests, as were 1,312 ha out of a total of 5,498 ha in That Phom District, Nakhon Phanom Province. These data show that in some areas, conversion to rubber gardens caused much more severe deforestation compared with the general trend. Only 10 percent was enough to damage the last remaining natural forests, including rich natural ecosystems, in some protected areas.

According to a questionnaire survey in N village in 2012, 59 of 109 households had rubber gardens occupying 664 rai within the village, while in 2015, 131 of 144 households had 973.3 rai.4) In 2012, only 17 of 109 households still maintained secondary forests adjacent to farmlands, called pa hua rai plai na, of their own, totaling 88 rai. Fig. 3 shows the years of cultivation and planting of rubber seedlings, covering 417 rai out of 664 rai in 2012. Forest clearing preceded the planting of rubber seedlings, because the villagers tended to cultivate cassava for several years before planting rubber. Both clearing of secondary forests and planting of rubber seedlings increased markedly after 2003.



Fig. 3 Clearing and Planting of Rubber Trees

Source: Questionnaire survey, 2012.

Note: Unshaded bars show the area of clearing that is current rubber gardens. Shaded bars show the area of rubber planting.


The community forest was well conserved, partly because the villagers respected their own regulations and partly because a large part of the community forest was located on rocky land that was unsuitable for cultivation. The expansion of rubber gardens accompanied various changes in the environment. On the one hand, it pushed people into a more convenient, consumption-based lifestyle by providing cash income; and on the other, it discouraged them from natural resource extraction, such as fishing and wild mushroom gathering, due to chemical pollution and decreases in natural resources. There were also changes in villagers’ daily lives. Some of them may have once considered preventing resource degradation by regulating herbicide use; in the new reality, however, they tried instead to adjust their social and customary order of open access to natural resources regardless of landownership to the new conditions brought about by rubber cultivation in which landowners could prohibit access to natural resources.

Indeed, a large proportion of the rubber gardens and cassava fields did not have any land title, with the exception of enduring farmlands that had So Po Ko 4-01 titles or those recently investigated by forest officers and qualified to be given So Tho Ko titles.5) In fact, the recent clearing of forests was mostly illegal. The land was all located outside the national park. Thus, the park guards did not monitor the villagers’ agricultural activities. The forest protection unit (nuai pongkan raksa pa) located near the village, and other forest authorities in charge of managing national forestlands outside the park, overlooked the villagers’ clearing of the forests, as the officers understood the need for them to do so to generate a livelihood. NGOs, including one that had committed to promoting the establishment of community forests in this area and to assisting the villagers, also did not publicly alert the authorities or rubber cultivation smallholders to the environmental damage. In that sense, the governmental authorities, villagers, and probably NGOs all supported the rubber boom. In the following sections, I will examine in detail the context of the rubber boom and the responses of each actor to it.

IV Development of the Rubber Boom

IV-1 Rubber Promotion Policy

In the past, rubber cultivation was limited to the southern and eastern parts of Thailand. Except for a negligible number of people who had experience working as rubber tappers in the South and had begun to cultivate the crop earlier, major cultivation in the Northeast did not begin until 1989, when the government initiated a rubber promotion policy. Arak, an officer at the Rubber Research Institute, under the Department of Agriculture, reported that the government began to consider promoting rubber in the Northeast and North in the late 1970s. During that period, Malaysian plantation companies decided to switch from rubber to palm oil (they executed these plans in the early 1980s) due to the continuing low price of rubber. However, the Thai government anticipated a shortage in rubber supply and sought new areas for rubber cultivation in the North and Northeast. First, an experimental plantation was started in the newly established Chachoengsao Rubber Research Center.6) Seeing the successful results of the experiment, the government started a rubber promotion policy in 1989, the first phase of which continued until 1996 and resulted in approximately 280,000 rai being brought under cultivation in the Northeast. The promotion of rubber in this phase aimed at reforestation as well. The following phase, from 1997 to 2001 (and then extended), targeted an additional growth area of 200,000 rai and a total cultivation area of 800,000 rai (Phu chat kan rai wan, March 10, 1997; Matichon, April 4, 2001). Two further phases, in 2003–6 and 2011–13, set more ambitious targets of an additional 1 million rai (700,000 rai in the Northeast and 300,000 rai in the North) and 800,000 rai (500,000 rai in the Northeast, 150,000 rai in the North, and 150,000 rai in the central region) respectively (Khao sot, June 14, 2003; Deli niu, October 8, 2009; Krungthep thurakit, January 15, 2011; Yuphin 2013). In each phase, the promotion project provided participating farmers with rubber seedlings at no cost and low-interest loans to support expenditures until rubber began to be harvested.

IV-2 Difficulties in the Initial Phase

The rubber promotion policy was not effective, especially in the initial phase. For example, the second phase, 1997–2001, targeted a 200,000-rai increase in cultivation area. Because the target was not achieved within the planned period, the project phase was extended (Matichon, April 4, 2001). The rubber price was as low as 20 baht per kilogram until around 2002–3. More important, most farmers in the Northeast were skeptical that rubber could grow in their region, where natural conditions such as weather, moisture, and soil differed significantly from those in the South.

Panya Woraphithayaphon, who had been working to promote rubber cultivation as a staff member of the Office of Rubber Replanting Aid Fund in the Northeast since 1987 and was the director of the Ubon Ratchathani branch office in 2013, reported that it took five years (1987–93) for him to convince farmers to cultivate rubber. Farmers in this region tended to think in the short term. They were also likely to be easily convinced by rumors without verifying facts for themselves. Thus, in the initial period, a rumor was spread throughout the region that said “If you plant rubber trees, what comes out is tears (nam ta), not latex (nam yang),” metaphorically saying that rubber could not grow well in the Northeast and that farmers would suffer. Actually, latex was harvested in the research center in Nong Khai, demonstrating that rubber could grow well in the Northeast. However, farmers at that time were not easily convinced.7) In the same way, a newspaper reported that a village headman in Mukdahan Province who planted rubber and tried to encourage other villagers to do the same was called a fool (Suchat 1998).

IV-3 Rubber Boom

Farmers in the Northeast began to plant rubber enthusiastically around 2002–3 (Fig. 4), when the Thaksin government adopted the accelerated rubber promotion policy often called the “1 million rai project.” It is true that the government made a significant policy shift to boost the target to an additional 1 million rai of cultivated area and that the Thaksin government needed to revoke a previous cabinet resolution that limited the rubber cultivation area in the whole country to not more than 1.2 million rai (Khao sot, May 9, 2003). Expecting the project to lead to improvements in living standards, many people formed long queues to join the project (Phu chat kan rai wan, July 12, 2007; Krungthep thurakit, January 15, 2011). However, the government’s project was not the main driving force behind farmers planting rubber. Farmers planted many more rubber trees without any support from the project. Of the 4 million rai increase in rubber cultivation area between 2003 and 2009, 3.2 million rai were planted spontaneously through farmers’ own investments (Saran 2011). The government’s project was so problematic that it did not fully benefit farmers. The production of seedlings could not keep up with demand. Seedlings arrived too late in the season for planting, in insufficient numbers, and were of poor quality. Additionally, corrupt politicians were involved in the process (Saran 2011; Phu chat kan sut sapda, April 23, 2011).



Fig. 4 Expansion of Rubber Cultivation Area by Region

Source: Khana Kamakan Nayobai Yang Thamachat (2010); Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics (2010; 2012; 2015a).


Northeast farmers’ attitudes during this period were reported in the mass media. For example, a daily business paper reported that in one village in Nong Khai Province, migrants from the South purchased land from local inhabitants for rubber cultivation. However, in another village in Loei Province, villagers refused to sell their land to outsiders because they wanted to plant rubber themselves. Farmers in the Northeast “woke up” to rubber in 2002–3 (Krungthep thurakit, December 24, 2005). Furthermore, in the following years, seeing a sharp increase in rubber price—up to nearly 100 baht per kilogram (Fig. 2)—farmers formed long lines to join the project. The project could not provide enough seedlings to distribute to participating farmers, while other farmers obtained informal loans at high interest rates to pay the initial costs of rubber cultivation (Phu chat kan rai wan, July 12, 2007).

The research site also followed this trend. Rapid expansion of rubber cultivation began in 2003. Rubber was first cultivated in this area in 1989, when a few retired teachers migrated to P village, next to N village. In 1990 about 10 more P villagers began cultivation, with the support of a project by an NGO, the Progressive Farmers Association. N villagers began to cultivate rubber around 2000. From 2003, following the rubber price increase, rubber cultivation increased. N villagers made their decision to plant rubber not only due to the price in the market; they also saw that those who had planted rubber before them were doing well. They learned that rubber grew well in the area and could reward them with enough income to support a livelihood without working in Bangkok, to buy a pickup truck and a tractor, and to build a new house. Such firsthand learning about the success of their neighbors effectively pushed the villagers into rubber cultivation.

It was not only farmers who rushed into rubber. Noi, a policeman at the nearest police station, bought land from a local farmer in 1995 and planted rubber in 2005 and 2009. He managed his rubber garden by hiring labor from neighboring villages. In fact, most of the staff at the police station had rubber gardens. This was true of other public officials, such as school, forestry, and district office personnel. Moreover, many from the South purchased land for rubber gardens. The community forest of C village, next to N village, was cleared illegally by a man from another district to plant rubber. A young girl in N village, whom one of my friends knew, was married to a rich man from the South who managed rubber gardens.

The following were all elements of the rubber boom assemblage: experimental plantations in Northeast Thailand, the fact that rubber could grow in Northeast Thailand, the rubber promotion policy of the government, increases in the price of rubber, and the economic success of the growers. In this context, empirical events such as seeing neighbors rush to plant rubber and their improved living standards were core elements that directly affected farmers, with the result that they wanted to plant more rubber.

The price dropped after 2012, as shown in Fig. 2, to around 40 baht per kilogram. However, in 2013 I still observed N villagers planting rubber; and, as reflected in questionnaire surveys, there was a higher percentage of rubber-growing households in 2015 than in 2012, as shown in Section III. In 2014 and 2015 villagers no longer planted rubber, and most of the seedling suppliers near the village disappeared or ceased to do business. Villagers who had already begun to harvest latex reported that they could tolerate the low price.

The rubber boom has passed. Rubber is at the center of farmers’ livelihoods. The rubber boom assemblage has transformed into a more stable assemblage.

V Ecological Changes due to Rubber

V-1 Damage to Protected Areas

The rapid expansion of rubber cultivation was inevitably accompanied by ecological changes. As discussed above, the promotion of rubber cultivation was aimed initially at rehabilitating degraded forestlands. Northeast Thailand in general had experienced severe deforestation until the 1980s due to agricultural expansion, which involved both self-sufficient paddy cultivation and cash-crop cultivation of plants such as maize, cassava, sugarcane, and kenaf. Replacing the fields with rubber was considered much better because rubber gardens could cover the surface of the land so that soil erosion could be prevented and moisture preserved (Wichit n.d.). In fact, in some places rubber did come to replace existing crop fields in the way that the project originally assumed. For example, in Loei Province many farmers converted swidden to rubber gardens, which was reported as a shift to sustainable agriculture (Khao sot, June 8, 2000).

However, it was revealed that rubber cultivation caused much more deforestation than forest rehabilitation in some areas. National forestlands, including protected forests such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, were illegally encroached on and cleared for rubber cultivation. In the Northeast, probably the biggest deforestation case was that of 1,250 rai in Thap Lan National Park, in Nakhon Ratchashima Province, while in Ubon Ratchathani Province a case was exposed in the Buntharik-Yot Mon Wildlife Sanctuary (Phongphon 2011). It was not only locals who were engaged in the illegal cultivation of supposedly protected forests. Businessmen, mostly from the South, bought land that the locals cleared. A case in Loei Province involved businessmen buying local people’s land with So Po Ko 4-01 deeds, which could not be legally sold, by formally claiming them to be “rentals.” Other businessmen who could not buy So Po Ko 4-01 land employed local inhabitants to clear the forests illegally. The fee for the land clearing would be paid about two years after the planting of rubber seedlings. In the event of subsequent official exposure, the businessmen insisted that they bought land that had already been cleared by the local population. In this way, businessmen invaded protected areas step by step (Wichai 2006). A similar problem was reported in Nong Khai Province (Krungthep thurakit, December 24, 2005). Destruction of protected areas by rubber cultivation was not limited to the Northeast. Even in the South, where rubber had long prevailed, cultivation expanded further in ways that endangered the final enclaves of the Sakai hunter-gatherer people in the remaining patches of protected areas (Krungthep thurakit, June 9, 2011).

V-2 Degradation of the Living Environment

N villagers did not have conflicts with the national park, as they were not adjacent to it, although farmers near the boundary and in the inner villages allegedly practiced illegal cultivation of rubber and other cash crops within the protected area. However, even outside the national park, degradation of the living environment was a serious problem.

Most of the rubber gardens, 973.3 rai according to the questionnaire survey in 2015 (as shown in Section III), were converted either directly from secondary forests called pa hua rai plai na—literally meaning forests fringing paddy fields— owned by individual villagers or following some years of cassava cultivation. Thus, that total area of forest disappeared, mostly in the last 15 years. Many villagers naturally pointed out that due to the conversion of pa hua rai plai na forests to rubber gardens, the source of natural food materials had declined and they had to rely more on the community forest that was still conserved by the villagers.

Some villagers attributed the flooding of the Huai Se—a small river running through the village—that affected the village almost every year after 2010 to the loss of forests due to rubber cultivation. There was an argument against this, however: according to some elders, there had been more severe floods in the past, when rubber was not planted, before the river was ever dredged to prevent floods—so the floods were not necessarily caused by deforestation.

What was more shocking, and more talked about by the villagers, was contamination by herbicides. In rubber gardens weeds proliferate, especially in the five years between the planting of seedlings and the closure of the crown. Weeding in this period is thought to be critical for growing the rubber seedlings and is reflected in the harvest. Villagers, therefore, sprayed herbicides once or twice during the five years. One application of herbicides could keep a garden free of weeds for a few years. At the same time, however, the herbicides widely contaminated the villagers’ living environment. After being sprayed in the rubber gardens, they flowed into neighboring land with rainwater. In the early 2000s, the villagers were shocked by an incident in which an old woman was killed by herbicide poisoning after eating wild mushrooms that she collected from the villagers’ own secondary forests adjacent to the rubber garden. Previously, the villagers had not been familiar with chemical contamination. However, after this incident they became nervous about herbicides. Now, the middlemen who buy wild mushrooms that the villagers collect accept only mushrooms from the community forest, located on higher land and thus thought to be free from contamination. Some villagers reported that they had seen many dead fish in the stream. Others said that they could no longer collect edible plants along the side of the street and eat them as they had done before the expansion of the rubber gardens. Even though the villagers felt threatened by herbicides, they could not regulate them. Thus, a general and broad anxiety prevailed regarding their living environment as a whole.

Additionally, a number of resources are disappearing due to the chain of changes in livelihood ecology. For example, phak kadon, the shoots of the Careya sphaerica, which were among the most popular wild vegetables in Northeast Thailand, are now difficult to find. The kadon is a tree that typically grew on the dikes of paddy fields. Villagers were likely to conserve kadon trees that naturally grew from seeds. However, recently it has become common for villagers to use large tractors in paddy fields. These tractors plow too deeply for kadon seedlings to germinate. Cow manure is also hard to find in the village now. The villagers once raised many cows and buffaloes. However, the expansion of rubber gardens has made it difficult to herd cows and water buffaloes that might eat or fell young rubber trees. Since most villagers have abandoned cattle grazing, they have to buy manure to make organic fertilizer. Such a causal chain of events related to rubber has been transforming the living world of the villagers, step by step. It is also changing their lifestyles, as shown in the next subsection.

A similar situation was reported in the Dong Khum Kham and Dong Phu Kham forest area, in the same district as N: rubber cultivation destabilized the villagers’ subsistence basis, leading to conflicts among villagers over natural resources (Samakhom Pa Chumchon Isan n.d.). In the Dong Saramoen forest area, also adjacent to N village, rubber cultivators even destroyed the community forest.8) In both areas, villager groups had been making efforts to encourage sustainable resource use. However, they did not prevent the cultivation of rubber.

V-3 Changes in Lifestyle

Income from rubber cultivation in N village was estimated at 10,195 baht per rai in 2014, after the sharp drop in rubber prices.9) Although initial investments and costs until the beginning of harvesting must be considered, this income would be enough to support basic everyday consumption. In fact, in past years the price was as high as 100–180 baht per kilogram, which was more than two to four times the current price. Thus, some villagers could buy new cars and tractors and build new houses. Their children were able to receive at least a high-school education and, if they wanted, college. In parallel with the degradation of villagers’ living environments, as shown above, the high price of rubber caused the villagers’ lifestyles to change.

The increasing penetration of a cash economy is apparent in both daily consumption and livelihood work. Villagers hire more labor and use machines for farmwork, buy more food materials, and use less resources from the surrounding natural environment. The continuing high price of rubber has partly facilitated their change of lifestyle to one oriented to a market economy.

Regarding the hiring of labor, some villagers reported that they currently hired much more labor for paddy cultivation, such as transplanting and harvesting, so as to finish it in the shortest time and minimize the loss of rubber harvesting time. However, the results of the questionnaire survey in 2015, containing questions on expenditures for paddy cultivation, were not consistent with this. The average expenditure for hired labor per rai of paddy cultivation in 2014 was 540.7 baht for the 38 households who answered that they had rubber gardens to harvest, whereas it was 636.8 baht for the 72 households who did not (the other 34 households did not answer). This contradicts the villagers’ explanation that those who had rubber to harvest put more effort into finishing other farmwork.

Regarding sources of food materials, many villagers reported that they bought more daily food materials than in the past because, as they explained, those who had rubber gardens to harvest did not have the time or energy to go hunting, fishing, or gathering after finishing the tapping and harvesting of rubber at night. In the past, especially before there was much rubber cultivation, few foods were purchased; most were extracted from the natural environment or planted/raised. The questionnaire survey in 2015 contained questions about sources of daily food materials other than rice, asking about the ratio extracted from nature versus planted/raised and purchased, both in 2015 and in 2000. The answers were not intended to show the real sources of foods but rather to explore the villagers’ understanding of the subject. The results (Table 1) simply do not support the villagers’ explanations.


Table 1 Villagers’ Perceptions of Food Sources in 2000 and 2015



In 2000, the three households that had already begun to harvest rubber showed higher ratios of purchased and planted/raised food with a lower dependence on nature.

In 2015, those who had started to harvest rubber depended more on the market economy than did those who had not yet begun to harvest rubber. Additionally, not only the former but also the latter showed a higher percentage of purchases in 2015 than in 2000. In other words, dependence on the market economy increased as a general trend regardless of villagers’ engagement in rubber cultivation. Rubber provided income opportunities not only for cultivators but also for those who did not have their own harvest, because more labor was required either for paddy cultivation or for work in rubber gardens.

These negative or controversial events are also elements of the rubber boom assemblage, causing ecological degradation on the one hand and making lifestyles more market dependent and separated from nature on the other. The rubber boom proceeded.

VI Outside Actors

VI-1 Government Policies and Implementations

The continuing high rubber prices created the conditions for a rubber boom, in which people were influenced by the rich consumer lifestyle enjoyed by others who had profited from rubber cultivation. As an almost inevitable side effect of this rubber boom, forest destruction and other related environmental changes occurred. Many actors, government authorities, NGOs, and local entities were involved in this process. However, all of them tended to adapt to the rubber boom, except for occasional strong measures to violently evict farmers from forestlands by forestry officials.

With respect to government authorities, the development and extension of rubber cultivation is the responsibility of the Rubber Research Institute, the Office of Rubber Replanting Aid Fund (ORRAF), and partially the provincial/district agricultural office. The Office of Agricultural Economics is also involved in policy making, especially as Khana Kamakan Nayobai Yang Thamachat (Natural Rubber Policy Committee) is headed by the vice prime minister.

Those authorities, directly committed to rubber policy in terms of agricultural development, seemed little concerned about environmental issues. Basically, the government’s scheme of support for rubber cultivation in the Northeast, planned and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and implemented mainly by ORRAF, officially required that only lands having legal title were eligible for support. The Progressive Farmers Association, the first organization to carry out a rubber promotion project around the research site in 1989, also had the same regulation. However, according to an ORRAF officer in the Ubon Ratchathani branch, the district/provincial agricultural office implemented part of the promotion project, in which, despite the official guidelines, it granted support to lands without legal title, which might also have included recent illegal, encroached lands. The ORRAF officer further reported that ORRAF had also endorsed lands without titles to be supported by the project, under pressure from a parliament member petitioned by the farmers. Once planted, supported by the project or not, having land title or not, rubber gardens could all be registered with ORRAF, so that replanting could be funded by ORRAF.

There remains the view, although it is not widely held, that rubber contributed to environmental improvement. Montri Kosalawat, secretary-general of the Progressive Farmers Association, stressed that rubber gardens provided fuelwood that could substitute for timber from the forests.10) Sukhum Wong-ek, the director of the Rubber Research Institute at the end of 2007, also stated that rubber could substitute for green forests because it could create a moist environment and enrich the land much more than many other crops (Phanphichaya 2007). Officers in charge of rubber at the Office of Agricultural Economics were astonished when I told them that many natural forests had been converted to rubber gardens, because they thought that rubber had replaced other annual crops, not natural forests. A ranking officer of the Rubber Research Institute was of the opinion that rubber should be planted on suitable land that did not include previous paddy fields, steep slopes, or national forest reserves. He did not want villagers to burn the forests and believed degradation of forests through rubber cultivation was not beneficial to villagers.

VI-2 Foresters’ Dilemmas

Conservation of natural resources is the responsibility of the Royal Forest Department for land outside protected areas, and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (National Parks Department) for protected areas. These departments did not effectively prevent the conversion of forests to rubber gardens. As shown above, even protected areas were invaded. As organizations, they were caught between their legally required task of conservation and favoring a social climate geared toward rubber. In 2007 it was revealed that the National Parks Department was ready to submit a report on the illegal occupation of national forest reserves to the minister; the director general of the department pointed out that the government’s rubber promotion policy had caused illegal occupation and cultivation of national forest reserves. He added that officers felt pressured because the initiation of legally correct measures would have gone against government policy, and therefore they could not strictly control and protect the forests. Because of this situation, many officers resigned. The director general questioned whether society would accept the disappearance of protected forests. He stressed that society should make that decision, otherwise the department alone could not conserve the forests (Matichon, July 13, 2007).

There is no clear evidence that the government prioritized the expansion of rubber cultivation over nature conservation. However, as the director general pointed out, the officers perceived such a sentiment spreading through society and believed that the government would favor it. Forest clearing was overlooked also in N and surrounding villages, as shown below, mainly due to local officers’ sympathy with the villagers. It was also reported that some corrupt officers took part in illegal encroachments. In a case in Kanchanaburi Province, brought to light in 2011, it turned out that officers, including some from the Royal Forest Department, the Department of Land, and the Department of Local Administration, had illegally “sold” national forestlands to investors from the South for rubber cultivation. After an investigation, the Royal Forest Department decided to transfer 12 officers and established a hearing committee (Chanchira 2011). Apart from this scandal, a forestry officer working in Ubon Ratchathani, a close friend of mine, told me that officers in the Forest Protection Unit accepted bribes from farmers to overlook illegal clearing of forests for rubber cultivation. More than simply bowing to social sentiment, some forest officers positively took advantage of the rubber boom.

However, there were eventually several campaigns against illegal encroachments of national forestland and, in particular, protected areas. The most well known was during 2011–12, when Damrong Phidet was the director general of the National Parks Department. As well as physically destroying resort hotels that were illegally constructed and operated by powerful businessmen in Khao Yai National Park, Damrong ordered strong measures against illegal rubber gardens in a way that had rarely been done under previous directorships. In Buntarik District, Ubon Ratchathani Province, villagers cultivated rubber in a wildlife sanctuary. They resisted officers by blockading roads. Finally, the director of Samnak Borihan Phuen Thi Anurak Thi 9 (Ubon Ratchathani) (Protected Area Management Office 9 [Ubon Ratchathani]), under the National Parks Department, sent the officers under his control out at dawn to destroy all rubber gardens as quickly as possible and to return before the road was blockaded.11) In 2015, the current military government also ordered that all rubber trees in the protected areas must be removed by the end of July. Otherwise, the officers in each protected area—national park or wildlife sanctuary—would destroy them. As I observed in a village in Pha Taem National Park, this order was implemented. However, such strong measures were not taken on a regular and systematic basis and so did not change the social sentiment generally supporting the rubber boom.

VI-3 Local Administration and NGOs

What was remarkable when considering ecological changes due to rubber, especially in comparison with previous local environmental movements—such as those concerning anti-logging efforts and community forests—was the lack of commitment by environmental NGOs, both national and local. In previous times, they had supported local movements seeking sustainable natural resource usage. However, in the face of apparent threats to local environments, as shown above, almost all the NGOs kept quiet. On the other hand, at the research site there were some local initiatives toward more balanced resource use, although none of them disallowed rubber. Officially, local municipalities, Tambon Administrative Organizations (TAOs), adopted policies that called attention to the environment and supported conservation actions by villagers. Both NT TAO, to which N village belongs, and NP TAO, of the adjacent subdistrict, had presidents with a background of working in local community forests. Both supported villagers’ activities regarding the maintenance of community forests in terms of budget allocation. However, this was a small part of the total budget, and both presidents naturally had to respond to the various needs of the people. NT TAO also organized a training course on rubber cultivation for the villagers.

A more evident and concrete initiative was the “family forest” project, pa khropkhruea, largely carried out by Lom, ex-president of NT TAO. He undertook this project before he was elected as the TAO president. Lom had grown up in a different province. After graduating from university he joined a local NGO, Nature Care, as a volunteer and later became a staff member. His task was to advise local people on the establishment of community forests and to organize an inter-village network. Even after leaving Nature Care, Lom remained in the area and worked as an adviser for the villagers’ community forest network. Although the network organization became inactive for several reasons, Lom obtained funds from UNDP and implemented the project with his staff in 2008 and 2009. This project helped villagers to make parts of privately owned pa hua rai plai na, secondary forests adjacent to farmlands, into “family forests,” pa khropkhruea, with clearly demarcated boundaries and written regulations established at participants’ meetings in each village. Although the project targeted 100 participants in NT and NP subdistricts, it attracted more than 150, whose family forests totaled 1,076 rai. Throughout the project, participants seemed well aware of the importance of family forests, even though the number of participants was limited. With the exception of one household with nine participants in N village, eight households who preserved family forests in 2010 still do so. This project, as shown later, reflected a change in the villagers’ mindset regarding natural resources.

As shown above, the attitudes varied by organization due to administratively or socially assumed roles. However, one thing they had in common was that they did not act negatively against rubber cultivation. The social climate that required prioritization of the economic benefits of rubber was so strong that the director general and other officers of the National Parks Department assumed that it was an unspoken government policy and hesitated to strictly follow the laws. At the local level, officers were sympathetic toward the poor villagers trying to improve their economic status through rubber, and so did not regulate rubber cultivation. This nationwide social climate resonated with the farmers’ hopes at the grassroots level. The actors were agents of such a social climate while they simultaneously held on to the contradictory position of sustainable forest management, which was suppressed or represented only in an indirect way, as in the family forest project. In this way, conflicts between the elements within the rubber boom assemblage were internalized in each actor.

VII Villagers’ Adaptation

VII-1 Attempts to Moderate Ecological Changes

Facing the ecological changes described above, N villagers at least recognized the problems and considered ways to solve them. Indeed, the regulation of a community forest for the village, established through village meetings, contained a provision that prohibited clearing without the permission of those with private forests. This provision could be a tool to prevent the extreme expansion of rubber cultivation. However, the villagers’ understanding seems to have been vague. For example, the head of the village community forest almost forgot the rule, stating that according to the regulations of the community forest, felling trees in private forests, unlike community forest, did not require permission. However, the kamnan (subdistrict headman), recognizing the provisions of the community forest regulations, reported that villagers in the subdistrict, including N village, would inform him before clearing private forests. He would check on site to see whether there were large trees and send a report to the Forest Protection Unit so that clearing would be overlooked because the officers understood the villagers’ need to do so for their livelihood. He explained that if he found a rich forest with large trees, he would refuse to report it to the Forest Protection Unit and persuade the holder not to clear it.

From the time he took the position in January 2011 until I interviewed him in 2012, the kamnan had heard reports of more than 50 cases in the subdistrict. Some of the cases had been rejected, although he did not remember the exact number. However, in fact, not all villagers informed the kamnan in advance of clearing private forests. In the questionnaire survey in 2015, of the 36 households that had cleared forests after 2000, lands that were currently rubber gardens, 16 households answered that they had informed the kamnan, 1 answered that they had directly informed the Forest Protection Unit, 13 households said they had not made any report, and the other 6 did not respond. Furthermore, of those who answered that they had informed the kamnan, four households answered that they had cleared secondary forests with large trees or primary forests. This shows that even the kamnan’s guidelines could not be implemented completely. The kamnan himself had to loosen the standards because villagers had the idea that they could cultivate their own land in any way allowed in the local customary context. The kamnan could not enforce anything beyond the customary rules that might be maintained or modified by the villagers’ consensus. He could refuse to talk to the Forest Protection Unit and overlook uninformed cases, but he could not punish the villagers.

In this regard, any modification or addition to village custom needs majority approval, although there is no institutionalized process for this. The establishment of the community forest is a typical example. The community forest organization and regulations were established through a series of village meetings, to which all villagers were invited. The process of establishing the community forest was formally organized with forest officers’ assistance. Consensus could be promoted in informal ways. The regulation of rubber cultivation and related activities has not reached a consensus. For example, some villagers would like to regulate the use of herbicides. However, one explained it was impossible to regulate herbicide use through the villagers’ own initiatives because people from outside had bought land in the village and would not comply with group directives. However, this explanation is not reasonable because there has never been any explicit attempt to regulate herbicide use, even among the villagers, although some villagers individually made decisions not to spray herbicides because their lands were near residential areas. The villagers have overlooked the issue of contamination in the interest of convenience regarding their own rubber cultivation.

VII-2 Increasing Concern about Rights

With the rapid ecological changes, villagers’ concern about rights over resources, particularly private forests, has increased. Some have attempted to enclose their own resources and exclude others. The custom was that everyone could take wild resources from anyone’s land. For many years, extracting timber from private forests without permission from the owner has been prohibited. However, collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots, for example, has been considered open to anyone. This situation is now ambiguous.

The family forest project, described above, reflects the villagers’ conflicted attitudes. Each participant was given signboards to place at the entrance of the family forest, showing the regulations for family forests. At a glance, this project merely encouraged owners to consider sustainable resource use, and thus, as some villagers suggested, its target seemed to be vague. However, in fact, this project contained important modifications of village customs, because the regulations—collectively established through village meetings and commonly applied to all participants within the village—included provisions that persons other than family members were not allowed to enter or extract resources from a family forest without permission. Moreover, penalties were specified. These were significant changes in custom. However, unlike the regulations for community forests, which most villagers respected because of their passage through village meetings, participants in the family forest project seemed hesitant to respect family forest regulations. The discourse and actions of the villagers in relation to family forests remain ambiguous.

When I interviewed a kamnan, Khon, in 2010, he stated that despite the regulation of family forests, collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots in others’ forests was not prohibited because all villagers were living in cooperation with each other. Sommai, a participant in the project, stressed that he had the right to conserve his own forest by himself. He stated that he could overlook his relatives freely collecting resources. However, I found that he did not put up a sign setting out the regulations. He explained that he had previously put it up at his family forest, but he kept it in his house now because he wondered whether the sign would be damaged by exposure to wind and rain. He insisted that he would put it up again when officers came to inspect it so that he could show he was conserving the forest in the way the regulations stipulated. Rin, another participant, told me that he put up the sign at his family forest. However, this was not true. In fact, no participant in N village put up the sign.

Each village operated under different conditions. For example, in Na Thoi, neighboring N village, some participants did put up signs showing almost the same regulations as those for N village, although all villagers apparently understood that, contrary to the regulations, collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots was open to anyone. One participant in Na Thoi reported that although other villagers had extracted timber from his forest before, after the project was launched they came to ask permission in advance. Thus, the project substantially strengthened owners’ control of family forests.

VII-3 Changing Customs

Regardless of the family forest project, among N villagers the idea has been spreading gradually that natural resources should be extracted from one’s own forests. When I interviewed an assistant of the kamnan at that time (and the current kamnan), Sit, in 2010, he reported that villagers collected bamboo shoots and fuelwood from their own forests, and that if they entered another family’s forest they needed to get permission from the owners. Mushrooms, however, were still open to all because mushrooms went bad quickly. According to him, this change in custom had been established since around 2002, when the community forest was formally established. Sit’s explanation was contradicted by Khon. Khon, the kamnan at that time, showed a more formal understanding, while what was actually happening was as Sit suggested. In other words, the change in custom was still too uncertain to formally enforce it among all villagers. As proof, one villager who had converted all his forests to rubber gardens did not hesitate to gather mushrooms and bamboo shoots from other families’ forests. However, nobody formally complained.

In 2013, I was astonished by the accounts of a number of different witnesses. One villager told me some villagers had prohibited others from collecting mushrooms and bamboo shoots in their forests for two to three years, because they were afraid that they would collect too many and then sell them. I asked Khon, an ex-kamnan at the time, for the truth. He revealed that most villagers had done so for five years, triggered by an incident in which a villager had guided an outside collector to extract large amounts of mushrooms and bamboo shoots from others’ forests for the purpose of selling them. However, he added, it was presumed that N villagers could collect them in others’ forests with permission from the owners. Thip, a villager present at the time, stressed that permission had to be given on request. In reality, however, there were cases in which the owner refused to give permission. This was completely contradictory to what Khon said in 2010.

Assuming that the incident that caused changes in the villagers’ behavior occurred around 2010, the custom might have changed between 2010 and 2013 and those villagers who refused others permission to collect mushrooms and bamboo shoots in their own forests gradually became the majority. There has never been any institutionalized mechanism for the modification or reinterpretation of customs in the village. The customs at each moment simply reflect the collective thoughts and actions of the villagers. The villagers, on the one hand, accepted ecological changes in exchange for the wealth they could acquire through rubber cultivation. At the same time, they came to consider the need to enclose their own forest resources, which had become increasingly scarce due to rubber cultivation. The collective attitudes of the villagers resulted in changes in their customs.

As shown above, the responses of local communities to the ecological changes caused by rubber were complex. Two kamnan tried to conserve private forests by requiring applications for clearing forests, but their attempt failed. Some villagers believed that herbicide use should be prohibited, but this was not realized. Village customs changed to admit the enclosure of non-timber forest products in private forests. Village customs can be formed and modified by informal consensus as well as through formal village meetings. Informal consensus is shaped as a collective response on the part of villagers to an action inconsistent with existing customs. Individual interpretations are shared in daily chats among villagers. When consensus is reached in this way, customs may change. Based on various events related to rubber—good and bad—individual opinions were established that could change village customs, as above. All these elements were features of a rubber boom assemblage in the village.

VIII Conclusion

As shown above, each actor’s behavior supported the rubber boom. During the rubber boom that began in the early 2000s, farmers’ spontaneous efforts, rather than government policies, played a key role. Farmers learned that rubber prices were high and profitable, and that rubber could grow as well in the Northeast as in the South. They saw neighbors who had planted rubber becoming rich. People from the South bought land for rubber gardens. Many civil servants also invested in rubber. With all these experiences, farmers were driven to rubber like a pandemic, which finally resulted in the rubber boom spreading through much of society.

This rapid expansion of rubber cultivation had ecological impacts. The mass media reported illegal cultivation within protected areas. Outside protected areas, such as the study site, patches of secondary forests that farmers had customarily occupied were also cleared. Increased floods were suspected to have been caused by deforestation. Contamination by herbicides threatened villagers. Beyond these events, indirect ecological changes related to the villagers’ environment and livelihood were also observed, such as decreased daily food resource extraction from the natural environment because rubber cultivators had to tap at night, reduced cattle raising due to difficulty in securing space for herding, and the disappearance of some wild tree-leaf vegetables around paddy fields due to the introduction of large tractors.

However, no actor was on principle negative toward rubber cultivation. Regarding the bureaucracy, agricultural agencies insisted they were not responsible for deforestation because qualified promotion projects involved land with title. However, rubber gardens without land titles were also given technical assistance and qualified to receive replanting funds when trees became old. Under pressure from politicians, officers gave funds for land without legal title, land that was unqualified for the projects due to regulations. Regarding herbicides, officers of agricultural agencies maintained a neutral position. Conservation agencies overlooked local people’s clearing of secondary forests outside protected areas. Some officers were involved in corruption as well. Even executive officers doubted whether strictly enforcing regulations might go against the government’s policies. So they took measures such as evicting illegal rubber cultivators in the protected forests only occasionally, with well-prepared operations. Local administrations attempted to disseminate the importance of forest conservation. A former NGO worker carried out the family forest project but did not discourage rubber cultivation.

N villagers did not reach any consensus on regulating private forest clearing or herbicide use by amending their customary rules, although many experienced anxiety over these issues. Instead, in response to resource scarcity, the villagers increasingly enclosed their private forest resources, resulting in changes in customary rules. However, the village’s community forest, established with the villagers’ consensus, was firmly conserved. A considerable portion of the community forest is rocky and uncultivable. However, the cultivable area has never been invaded, in contrast to private forests, where most of the land has been converted to rubber gardens. It is equally illegal to cultivate rubber in community forests and private forests. The community forest was saved for no other reason than the villagers’ strong consensus on this point. Here one can see something of the villagers’ sense of balance.

These were all factors of the rubber boom assemblage. Some factors extended over broad geographical areas, such as rubber prices, laws and institutions, the material and biological characteristics of rubber, and the cultivability of rubber in each locale. In addition, there were a number of micro-level elements, such as the various events that the farmers experienced. All these factors had an effect on each other and, assembled, constituted the social climate of the rubber boom. During the rubber boom, the importance of sustainable natural resource management was not completely neglected. Instead, it was internalized in each actor. Actors in whom multiple agencies existed in contradiction to each other and who suffered from a sense of internal contradiction declined to take any action against rubber cultivation. This differs from what Anna Tsing (2005) has described as friction between networks of conflicting values with regard to forest resources. The friction was internalized because the rubber boom took place in the context of an overwhelming desire for socioeconomic improvement in rural areas.

In fact, many actors recognized the problems of ecological degradation but felt that these problems were unavoidable and regrettable. Such an emotional atmosphere in society is thought to have reflected the political environment during Thaksin’s government, as well as that of his successors following his ouster by the military coup in 2006. The leaders owed their political power to the strength of their election based on overwhelming support in the North and Northeast of the country. Conversely, reckless measures against illegal forest encroachment were taken by the military government after the coup in 2014. Many rubber cultivators who had long encroached on national forestlands were violently evicted, prosecuted, and jailed. There was no evidence that Thaksin prioritized the expansion of rubber cultivation over nature conservation. However, the political environment during the pro-Thaksin governments was also an important element of the rubber boom assemblage.

Within the rubber boom assemblage, elements such as rubber price, improving farmers’ living standards, and democratic political environments formed a sub-assemblage of forces driving the rubber boom. These were so powerful that their friction with sustainable natural resource management and other environmental issues became internalized. Therefore, it appears that no action was taken against rubber cultivation by any of the actors, and that there was a sudden swing in support of the rubber boom.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


I would like to express my best thanks to the people in N and surrounding villages as well as officers of ORRAF, OAE, Rubber Research Institute for their friendship and cooperation to my field research. I also appreciate constructive suggestions given by anonymous reviewers.

This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number JP17K02028 and 25360031; and Grant for Environmental Research Projects from the Sumitomo Foundation.


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Newspaper Articles with No Byline

Deli niu เดลินิวส์. 2009. Dai thi dan kla yang phoem ik 1 lan rai ได้ทีดันกล้ายาง เพิ่มอีก1ล้านไร่ [Pressure for rubber seedlings for additional 1 million rai]. October 8.

Khao sot ข่าวสด. 2003. Nayok sang phoem phuenthi pluk yang nen phak nuea-isan นายกฯ สั่งเพิ่มพื้นที่ปลูกยาง เน้นภากเหนือ-อีสาน [Premier ordered to increase rubber cultivation area, putting emphasis on the North]. May 9.

―. 2003. Kho cho ko. ploi ku phoem thuenthi pluk yang phara 1 lan rai คชก.ปล่อยกู้เพิ่มพื้นที่ปลูกยางพารา1ร้านไร่ [Subcommittee for farmer support policy and measures provides more funds for 1 million rai rubber cultivation]. June 14.

―. 2000. “Loei” saeksaeng yang phara plian phaen prayat ngop ‘เลย’แทรกแฃงยางพารา เปลี่ยนแผนประหยัดงบ [Loei intervenes in rubber, changes the budget saving plan]. June 8.

Krungthep thurakit กรุงเทพธุรกิจ. 2011. Rat “khik oof”-pluk yang 8 saen rai duean na รัฐ‘คิกออฟ’ปลูกยาง8แสนไร่เดือนหน้า [Government “kicked off”: Planting 800,000 rai rubber in the next month]. January 15.

―. 2011. Nak wichai talueng ruk pa pluk yang lum nam 1 e ‘Khao Pu Khao Ya’ saen rai นักวิจัยตะลึงรุกป่าปลูกยางลุ่มน้ำ1เอ‘เขาปู่เขาย่า’แสนไร่ [Researcher is bemused over forest encroachment of 100,000 rai for rubber cultivation in “Khao Pu Khao Ya” 1A watershed area]. June 9.

―. 2005. Nayobai yang phara lan rai nai thun-phu mi ithiphon sop chong hup pa นโยบายยางพาราล้านไร่ นายทุน-ผู้มีอิทธิพลสบช่องฮุบป่า [One million rai rubber policy gives businessmen-influential persons channels to eat forests]. December 24.

Matichon มติชน. 2007. Athibodi uthayan ngong nayobai pa sanguan nun pluk yang phara tham ngan lambak อธิบดีอุทยานงงนโยบายยางพาราทำงานลำบาก [Director general of National Parks Department is confused over rubber policy that made his work difficult]. July 13.

―. 2001. Phaen ut Isan sot sai—ruk pluk yang 180,000 rai แผนอุตฯอีสานสดใส รุกปลูกยาง180,000ไร่ [Plan to assist for a bright Isan: Push planting rubber on 180,000 rai]. April 4.

Phu chat kan rai wan ผู้จัดการรายวัน. 2007. Huan “nayobai pluk yang isan 1 lan rai” lew kasetrakon siang khat thun het rat phaen rong rap หวั่น“นโยบายปลูกยางพาราอีสาน1ล้านไร่”เหลว เกษตรกรเสี่ยงขาดทุนเหตุรัฐแผนรองรับ [Worried about “one million rai rubber cultivation policy” failing, farmers make a loss if the government supports the plan]. July 12.

―. 1997. Dan tang khana ko ko. pongkan yang wikrit sam man ดันตั้งคณะกก.ป้องกันยางวิกฤฃ้ำมันฯ [Push to establish a committee to prevent a crisis in rubber like cassava]. March 10.

Phu chat kan sut sapda ผู้จัดการสุดสัปดาห์. 2011. Khrai kla dap fan “Nakhon Phanom” mueang luang yang phara ไครกล้าดับฝัน“นครพนม”เมืองหลวงยางพารา [Who dares to break the dream of “Nakhon Phanom,” the capital of rubber]. April 23.

1) In the long debate about “community forest law” from 1990 to 2007, all actors agreed upon the need to manage community forests sustainably, including the Forest Department, conservation-oriented and local-people’s-rights-oriented NGOs, and local community representatives (Fujita 2008).

2) Their use of the term “territorialization” differs from that of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987), as it is more focused on actual contested rights over forest resources.

3) The establishment of N village’s community forest in 1997 was de facto, with approximately 80 percent of villagers in agreement, while its formal establishment, with complete agreement, was in 2002.

4) 1 rai equals 0.16 ha.

5) Both So Po Ko 4-01 and So Tho Ko are limited land titles giving cultivation rights but not rights for sale and mortgage. The former title is issued by the Agricultural Land Reform Office, while the latter is issued by the Royal Forest Department.

6) Interview with Arak Chanthuma, Rubber Research Institute, March 26, 2014.

7) Interview with Panya Woraphithayaphon, ORRAF Ubon Ratchathani branch office, March 1, 2012.

8) Personal communication with members of the Dong Saramoen Forest Network.

9) The questionnaire survey in 2015 was partly unsuccessful, as many villagers were unable to quantify the cost of rubber. The calculation was as follows: In N village, 48 households of a total of 144 held rubber gardens already harvested at the time of the survey in July and August 2015; the rubber trees were eight or more years old. Assuming the annual average harvest per rai in Ubon Ratchathani Province to be 215 kg, following the latest available statistics (Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics 2015a, 98), the average price of unsmoked rubber sheet in 2014 was 53.93 baht (Thailand, Office of Agricultural Economics 2015b), and fertilizer use was 500 g per tree for 70 trees on 1 rai. In the Si Muang Mai District town where most villagers bought fertilizer, the cost of fertilizer was 700–1,000 baht per 50 kg, depending on the brand; assuming it to be 1,000 baht, the income per rai of rubber garden was estimated to be 10,195 baht.

10) Interview with Montri Kosalawat, July 29, 2014.

11) Personal communication with an officer of the Protected Area Management Office 9.


Vol. 9, No. 3, Agung Wicaksono


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Post-1998 Changes in Rural Java: The Rapid Expansion of the Middle Class*

Agung Wicaksono**

*This paper is part of the author’s dissertation, “The Rapid Expansion of Middle Class in Rural Java: A Study of Socio-historical Processes of the Middle Class Formation and Its Impacts on Rural Life after the 1998 Economic Crisis” (Kyoto University, 2019).
**Departemen Antropologi, Fakultas Ilmu Budaya, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Jl. Nusantara 1, Bulaksumur, Yogyakarta 55281, Indonesia
e-mail: agung_wicaksono87[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_351

After the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis, for the first time the rural middle-class population in Indonesia grew faster than the urban population in relative terms. This was somewhat astonishing, given that in Indonesia the middle class has historically been synonymous with the urban population. This paper asks what factors allowed such a rapid expansion and what its impacts were on rural life. It argues that this phenomenon was partly the result of good governance, which dismantled most elements of state patronage. In tandem with the structural-economic changes characterized by a shift from the formal to the informal sector, this new setting paved the way for the aspiring lower class, which has historically been marginalized by the system, to climb the socioeconomic ladder. The transition also brought about a new morality regarding material affluence. Even though this new setting might suit the wishes of the aspirational lower class following the gradual dismantling of strong state clientelism, it has been accompanied by an increase in economic inequality.

Keywords: middle class, rural areas, state clientelism, democratization of village government, high inequality

I Introduction

The implementation of Law No. 6/2014 on villages may have marked a new watershed for Indonesian villages and their dwellers. The law sets out a framework for village autonomy, particularly in villages’ capacity to manage their own budgets and resource allocations. Each village receives approximately 1 billion rupiah per year, with the central government having allocated 67 trillion rupiah to villages in 2015–16 (Republik Indonesia, Kementerian Keuangan 2018). The injection of such vast amounts of money undeniably boosted the economy of rural areas.

If more attention is paid to rural Java, a remarkable change can be seen to have taken place since the mid-2000s. For the first time, the rural middle-class population has grown faster than the urban population, albeit in relative terms. From 1999 to 2009, the urban and rural middle-class populations increased by 41 percent and 111 percent respectively (ADB 2010). The increasing size of the rural middle-class population, as reported by ADB, is not an illusion. Evidence of middle-classness can be found wherever one looks, starting with ownership of a furnished house and a car.

The research site for this study consisted of six villages. Household survey data was gathered in these six villages in 1990 and 2012. A comparison of data for the two years shows that the percentage of middle-class households grew from 6 percent to 26.7 percent in these areas.

If the evidence suggests that the circumstances are in alignment with each other, one must ask: What are the factors that allowed such a rapid expansion, and what are the implications for rural life? Although these questions beg further inquiry, the increase in the rural middle-class population has not triggered critical studies by social scholars on what factor(s) engendered this rapid expansion and how it can be precisely worked out. Based on a research study carried out in six villages in the eastern part of Pemalang, Central Java, this paper aims to explain what factors enabled this phenomenon, how the process took place, and what are the implications for village life.

The rise of the middle class has often been linked to sound economic growth (Gerke 2002; Pinches 2005; ADB 2010). This is not a novel idea in light of the success of the industrial revolution in England (King et al. 1981; Gunn and Bell 2003) and the large-scale development programs in developing countries (Goodman and Robison 1996; Robison 1996), which provide ample evidence for this claim. The recent case of Indonesia also corresponds with that postulate: the gradual economic recovery after the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 was followed by a rapid expansion of the middle class (Kurasawa 2015). However, the assumption that sound macroeconomic conditions are the sole factor affecting the size of the middle-class population can be misleading. If this was the case, rapid expansion should have occurred in Indonesia from the New Order period, when the economy grew at an unprecedented rate, reaching nearly 7 percent per annum (Booth 2016, 67).

A political approach to the question of why the rural middle class remained small during the New Order regime seems to hold more promise. Until the late 1950s, the middle class was confined to a small cohort of technocrats and bureaucrats living in urban areas (Wertheim 1955). Some might argue that there was an indigenous business class in small towns; however, they could not be classified as the rural middle class. Political turmoil, economic crisis, and Sukarno’s decision to embrace Partai Komunis Indonesia (Communist Party of Indonesia, PKI) drove this cohort in toppling Sukarno in the 1960s (Dick 1985). In the following period, the urban middle class grew quickly in alignment with the expansion of bureaucracy and private enterprises supported by easy money from the oil boom and tremendous foreign direct investment. The further question is, why did the rural middle class in Java remain small until the end of Suharto’s rule, despite rural Java also having received a substantial amount of state largesse?

The answer to that question might be found in the manner of Suharto’s governance. As articulated by Harold Crouch (1979), the stability of Suharto’s power was due to patrimonialism. Patrimonialism is a sociopolitical system in which the power of the ruler is reliant on their prowess in embracing the contending political elites, particularly through material distribution (Crouch 1979, 572). Suharto’s patrimonial state was perfected thanks to his ability to homogenize the elites’ ideology and produce politically quiescent citizens through the “floating mass” (Crouch 1979, 572). In the countryside, Suharto’s patrimonialism transformed villages into an arena of political control and development (Antlöv 2005, 200). Political control took place when the elites functioned as the guardians of political stability by promoting consensus and harmony rather than liberal democracy (Antlöv 2005, 200). This was formalized by the implementation of Law No. 5/1979 on village governance, which enabled village heads to have considerable power in rural society (Antlöv 2003, 195). Occupying a strategic position also enabled village heads to reward their allies with the facilities to embark upon new businesses and, at the same time, discourage non-state clients (see Antlöv 2005, 193–194). It was therefore no surprise that the size of the rural middle class was perpetually tiny, confined to the small cohort of dominant rural groups centered on the village apparatus.

Becoming a state client was also indistinguishable from having material affluence. As a result, common villagers viewed the middle class and their prosperity with hostility and suspicion, as symbolizing decreased morality (Antlöv 2005, ch. 7; Heryanto 2005, ch. 6). The pervasive state patronage also created an apathetic mentality among the poor. This engendered an increase in mysticism and a frenzy of lottery ticket purchasing, given that the only other way to significantly increase one’s wealth was to be a state client (Kleden 1990, ch. 13). In other words, the state’s clientelism undermined the people’s creativity.

The financial crisis in the late 1990s brought the pervasive state patronage to the brink of collapse. In addition, the global discourse of good governance quickly gained the spotlight in Indonesia, leading to the denouncement of the massive corruption, collusion, and nepotism (Thompson 2007). Lidia Schiavo and Pierre Vercauteren (2016) argue that good governance radically changed the state’s role and redefined its function from being an active economic actor to becoming a mere market facilitator by providing the right institutions under the credo of neoliberalism. Jolle Demmers et al. (2004, 2) show eloquently that technocratically, the phrase “good governance” implies efficiency, authority, and accountability of the state. This new set of institutional frameworks was assumed to stand against patrimonialism and clientelism. However, these frameworks seemed to simplify the political and economic dynamics, as the elites had proven their success in retaining or reconfiguring their power during the period of transition (Hadiz and Robison 2005).

Instead of restating the peculiarity or ambivalence of good governance, this study will look closely at the reforms that were achieved and their impacts. The political transition of 1998 brought about democratization of state institutions, including village government. It started with decentralization under the idea of good governance and yielded to Law No. 22/1999. This law not only outlined the district-level decentralization but also replaced Law No. 5/1979 on village governance (Antlöv 2003, 197). It recognized that the basis for the new regulations on village government was diversity, participation, genuine autonomy, democratization, and people’s empowerment (Antlöv 2003, 197).1)

The new law brought about significant changes. Under the scheme of autonomy, the village head was no longer positioned as the main instrument of central government. The law also limited the authority of the village head, as village officials came to be elected, appointed, or approved by the Badan Permusyawaratan Desa (Village Consultative Board) instead of being arbitrarily appointed by the village head, which was the case formerly.2) The village head’s maximum term of office was also reduced incrementally from 16 to 10 years in 1999 and only 6 years afterward.3) To refine the quality of the state apparatus, the central government also issued Law No. 43/1999, which prohibited civil servants, including the village apparatus, from engaging with political parties previously entrenched under mono-loyalty.4) This law, in tandem with Law No. 22/1999, attempted to strengthen reform at the village level by dissociating bureaucratic tasks from politics. The more democratic village institution, which was a result of the political transition in 1999, brought an end to political control and development. This led to many benefits for common villagers. The absence of political control and development meant that there was no more discrimination against non-state clients, which provided an incentive for them to improve their lives: common villagers’ past efforts at self-improvement had been hampered by village officials.

The structural-economic changes ushered in by the post-New Order regime helped to promote the rapid expansion of the rural middle class. The Indonesian economy post-1998 grew moderately. Paradoxically, the growth took place while Indonesia was dealing with deindustrialization, an economic condition in which the contribution of the manufacturing sector to both total employment and total GDP decreases (Priyarsono et al. 2010, 144). Indonesia’s deindustrialization after the 1997–98 financial crisis was proved by the high contribution to its economy of coal and palm oil exports and the service sector. Moreover, although the government encouraged the development of downstream industries from 2009, this had little overall impact on the Indonesian economy (Mizuno n.d., 1–2). In other words, Indonesia’s moderate growth was driven by the flourishing of its informal sector. The dismantling of most elements of state patronage, which eventually provided more inclusive economic opportunities, in tandem with the new structure of the Indonesian economy played a crucial role in encouraging people to climb the socioeconomic ladder through a variety of business activities. This paved the way for the rapid expansion of the rural middle class. This trajectory is in contrast with the traditional assumption that middle-classness is linked primarily to industrialization and the expansion of the formal sector.

Heavy reliance on the market has also changed villagers’ conception of morality. In the past, the rich were satisfied with being hesitant capitalists carrying out rent-seeking practices and feeling secure enough to enjoy state support through various pro-farmer policies (Hüsken 1989, 326). Nowadays, with villagers perceiving material affluence as stemming from hard work rather than connections, they no longer view prosperity with hostility or suspicion. Unfortunately, several villagers are unprepared for this new economic setting. Consequently, although the rural middle class’s growth can be attributed to economic growth, a better quality of life, and an increase in employment opportunities, the circumstances have also fostered economic inequality.

II Definition of the Middle Class

In the Indonesian context, the middle class can be defined as orang-orang mapan.5) The dictionary defines mapan as “mantap [baik, tidak goyah, stabil] kedudukannya [kehidupannya],” or a robust (sound, steady, and stable) position (life) (KBBI n.d.). In essence, a robust position is closely related to economic standing and somewhat congruent with the Javanese definition. Mapan differs from miskin (poor) or cukupan (enough or sufficient), although the former cannot be classified as hartawan (tycoons).6) To belong to the middle class, people must have a secure occupation that brings in a steady income and perform little, if any, manual labor. A steady income and the absence of manual labor imply the possession of assets.7)

Mapan is contextual rather than a fixed concept. In the past, the rural middle class was restricted to a small group of state employees or those constituting the village apparatus and, to a lesser extent, big landowners. With the asset of an organization (bureaucracy) or property (land) in hand, they had a relatively high and steady income to cover their basic needs and lifestyles. More recently, although civil servants are still considered part of the middle class, there are many occupations that produce a high income based primarily on micro and small enterprises such as those in clothing, construction, food business, or retail. In essence, skill has become a crucial asset with which to carve out wealth.

At the village level, people can easily distinguish who belongs to the middle class or lower class, even in the case of those who do not work in the formal sector. The middle class is viewed as having less anxiety about the future as they rely on ownership of assets (property, organizations, or skills). Saprani, a manual worker in Trukosari village, commented that people like Pak Bagus, who was the head of a farmer group that organized jasmine farmers for supplying to tea factories, could live comfortably as they earned a stable income from their position. Meanwhile, as a physical laborer, Saprani frequently felt insecure as he was preoccupied with finding the next job in construction or agriculture once he had finished one task.

Conceptualizing the middle class as orang-orang mapan helps this study to assess the size of the rural middle class in the six villages studied. For 1990, this study defines middle-classness in terms of the possession of consumer durables: households that owned both a motorcycle and a television are categorized as middle class.8) In 1990 these were valuable goods, and possessing them distinguished the owner from the lower class. Televisions and motorcycles also represented modern life and connected their owners with an urban—or even global—lifestyle. As argued by Solvay Gerke (2002, 137), consumerism could also be an independent standard of reference for social integration, involving the creation and communication of this identity to others by obscuring the different economic bases and facilitating social integration.

Using the same parameters to define the middle class at different times is misleading, because things that were considered valuable in the past might no longer have the same value in the present. For 2012, this study employs the income threshold, rather different from ADB’s parameter. In its special chapter “The Rise of Asia’s Middle Class,” ADB clearly noted: “This report uses an absolute approach defining the middle class as those with consumption expenditures of $2–$20 per person per day in 2005 PPP $” (ADB 2010, 6). This study employs data based on income rather than expenditure data. The low threshold as employed by ADB has been strongly criticized as an accounting trick: “the per-capita household expenditure threshold has been reduced to a very low US$2 a day. . . . Anybody not in absolute poverty is assigned to the middle class” (Van Klinken 2014, 1). Although Van Klinken’s criticisms are reasonable, one cannot deny that by rural standards a household with a per capita income of at least US$2 per day9) can be classed as being middle class. To sum up, either the possession of a television and motorcycle for 1990 or a per capita income of US$2 per day for 2012 represents middle-classness or kemapanan.

III The Research Site and Methods

Although the title seems to imply that this study discusses the growth of the Indonesian rural middle class, it does not mean that the entire region is covered. Rather, this study focuses on one particular region’s socioeconomic dynamics. By determining the socioeconomic dynamics in a particular historical range, we can analyze how the middle class emerged and expanded. Therefore, this study was carried out in a region that had previously been studied, and this is the reason why the six villages10) in the eastern part of Pemalang were chosen.

This region is a suitable social laboratory since all villages around the former Comal Baru sugar factory were surveyed by the Dutch researcher J.F.A.C. van Moll in 1903–5. In that survey, all 2,889 households in 24 villages were questioned about their ownership of assets such as land, livestock, and plough as well as house value and annual agricultural yield. Van Moll’s research provides comprehensive baseline data on the villagers’ economy in the early twentieth century. In an attempt to trace how this region had changed, two further surveys were carried out in 199011) and 201212)—this time in six of the 24 villages studied by Van Moll. The numbers of households interviewed were 500 and 1,000,13) while the questionnaire was developed to accommodate new variables such as occupation, income, migration, education, and new types of material possessions. Since I was part of the third survey (2012), I have a right to utilize the entire survey data.

Having both historical and extensive household data gathered from the same villages allowed this study to inquire into both how the middle class was formed and its size during and after the New Order regime. A follow-up ethnographical study was carried out over a period of six months (two months in 2015 and four months in 2016) to gauge people’s perception of the socioeconomic changes, the obstacles experienced historically, present opportunities, and the residents’ future aspirations. This paper provides a historical socioeconomic study based on archival research and fieldwork on six villages in Pemalang District, Central Java. It starts with a nuanced description of the socioeconomic conditions of the six villages in the aftermath of the 1965 Communist purge and during the New Order regime. It then discusses the changing landscape of the villages with the coming of Reformasi in 1998.

IV The Six Villages during the New Order Regime

Following the 1955 general election, the PKI gained 16.4 percent of the total valid votes (Mortimer 2006). The province of Central Java, where Pemalang District is located, was the main base for the PKI. This was a significant gain as the Party’s agenda prior to 1959 was limited to an attempt to show that the “PKI was the party most concerned with the villagers’ overall interests” (Mortimer 2006, 276). Although the Party’s members and sympathizers increased quickly and the Party secured its position as the biggest Communist Party in any non-Communist nation in the early 1960s (Vickers 2013), the situation changed drastically in October 1965 when the Party was blamed for the massacre of seven high-ranking Indonesian Army officials. In the absence of a comprehensive inquiry, the rumor immediately spread that the PKI had carried out a coup. There was a call for a purge of PKI members, followed by army-led massacres in Java and Bali. Many PKI members who were not killed were imprisoned without trial for years.

PKI sympathizers within each of the six villages probably made up 20 percent to 30 percent of the total population. Purges took place in Karyokasil (A), Karanggondang (D), and Trukosari (F) villages (see Map 1). Despite studies showing that many PKI members were killed during the political unrest of 1965–66,14) I have no official data on these six villages. Familial ties, to some extent, were able to protect people affiliated with the PKI from the massacre.15) In Karanggondang the village head escorted 150 PKI sympathizers to be dealt with by the Subdistrict Military Command (Hüsken 1996, ch. 8), in order to avert a brutal attack by members of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Partai Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Party, PNI). As the new climate placed the PNI and NU as winners in the political turmoil, members of these two parties ruthlessly burned the houses of PKI sympathizers, looted their assets, and in a few cases harassed their wives.



Map 1 TRI Cultivation under the Supervision of Sragi Sugar Factory

Source: Personal documentation.


The annihilation of the PKI marked the onset of the New Order regime. Aside from the removal of village heads affiliated with the PKI, as was the case in Trimakmur village, other village heads formerly affiliated with the NU and PNI immediately joined Golkar. They then encouraged the dominant rural groups to do the same, given that they were their allies. An exemplary case emerged from Trukosari when Truno, the new village head, succeeded in consolidating his power by embracing the kiyais and big farmers. He then appointed many of them to strategic positions, such as the administrator of a Koperasi Unit Desa (Village Unit Cooperative, KUD) or the head of a farmer group, which eventually led to material benefits. There seemed to be a similar pattern in other villages.

The material benefits for state clients came to fruition in various ways. After the failure of the block credit system of Bimas Gotong Rojong (mutual aid mass guidance) in the late 1960s, the government introduced low-interest loans to support new types of Bimas. However, access to such credit required not only a stringent minimum standard of irrigation and farm area but also the village head’s recommendation (Hart 1986). Through this scheme, the village elites and village apparatus, which invariably had a sizable amount of land and could thus afford to take risks, became the main beneficiaries, while small farmers and the landless received the residue. The village elites also benefited from the government’s policy to increase the floor price of rice rather than the ceiling price of fertilizer. Unfortunately, the KUDs were unable to control the floor price of rice because of their limited capacity to purchase farmers’ yields during the harvest period. The village elites exploited this niche by purchasing farmers’ yields in the harvest period and reselling them to the KUD at a higher price when the supply declined, as the cooperatives usually consisted of either rice-mill owners or rice traders (Hart 1986).16)

Another policy advantageous to village elites was launched in 1975, when Suharto issued Presidential Instruction No. 9 on Tebu Rakyat Intensifikasi (TRI). One aim of the TRI program was to increase sugarcane productivity based on the assumption that an increase in production would be accompanied by an improvement in the farmers’ welfare. The field area where the sugarcane was to be cultivated was run through a rotation system stipulated by the Satpel Bimas. A sizable amount of arable land in the village was divided into three parts; each part would be planted with sugarcane cyclically in the first, second, and third years. Paradoxically, farmers’ participation in this cultivation was based on state coercion and so was not voluntary.

Map 1 displays TRI cultivation by the Sragi sugar factory in the eastern part of Pemalang, in which the six study villages are located (A–F). Satpel Bimas’s stipulation regarding the field in which sugarcane should be annually planted originally appeared in different marks from those on the map. The implementation of the TRI program was very effective even though it was carried out arbitrarily, without farmers’ involvement. The effectiveness is evident from the survey data collected in 1990 summarized in Table 1 below.


Table 1 Household Engagement in the TRI Program



Trukosari village is worth excluding when drawing conclusions about the data collected, as this area is dominated by dry fields and fishponds, which make it unsuitable for sugarcane. With that in mind, in 1990 the percentage of landowners involved in the program was approximately 23–45 percent, while the ratio of land planted with sugarcane was similar, making up 28–50 percent of the total area. This survey data is seemingly in parallel with the stipulation of Satpel Bimas above. Under the TRI program, sugarcane was cultivated through a collective system where all activities, such as land tilling and cane milling in the factory, were undertaken by a group of farmers. The landowner would earn a net income after the processed cane (sugar) was sold and the production costs were deducted. Although the profit was far less than that from cultivating paddy, the farmers had no power to go against the TRI program apart from engaging in sabotage (Suara Merdeka 1994). The lack of transparency allowed the heads of farmer groups to engage in corrupt practices. Since these heads were mostly members of the Golkar party, who had a close relationship with the village apparatus, farmers were in no position to ask for a fairer deal. In other words, farmers’ engagement with sugarcane cultivation tended to result in a relation of “adverse incorporation” (McCarthy 2010, 823).

The heads of farmer groups were typically rural rent-seekers who used their privilege to exploit the government program. In 1992–93 the minister of cooperatives stated that the debt of cane farmers in Central Java Province had reached 100.59 billion rupiah (Suara Merdeka, January 6, 1993). The borrowers were usually big farmers who were simultaneously the heads of farmer groups, part of the village apparatus, or KUD members. Small farmers could not dare to take such loans. The big farmers also borrowed vast amounts of money from sugar factories using farmers’ sugarcane as collateral. Using their status as state clients, village officials and their allies did not hesitate to abuse their power.

The regime also invested in expanding educational services. However, the lower class faced numerous barriers due to the pervasive discriminatory practices of government officials. With a limited range of employment opportunities, the lower class were set aside since the recruitment of new civil servants always involved “connection[s]” and bribery.17) Under such conditions, the rural elites, equipped with their close connections to higher officials, invariably succeeded in taking advantage of each new opportunity (Young 1990). Consequently, the education system functioned as a form of social closure that effectively excluded the lower class.

In the non-bureaucratic and agricultural sectors, the villagers’ efforts to embark upon entrepreneurial work were also discouraged by the implementation of the “disciplinary powers of registration” (Antlöv 2005, 194). In other words, village officials could endorse their families and allies for starting a new business and, at the same time, hamper their opponents and other villagers from obtaining commensurate services. Pervasive state patronage had a detrimental impact on village life because it facilitated rent-seeking practices among state clients and apathy among common villagers. The stark social cleavage between state clients and common villagers was indicated by the socioeconomic conditions of sampled households from the six villages studied in 1990 shown in Fig. 1 below.



Fig. 1 Socioeconomic Conditions of 500 Surveyed Households, 1990

Source: Survey data (1990).


Based on the 1990 survey data, only 32 percent of household heads had finished primary school. Less than 8 percent had graduated from senior high school. Most household heads (61 percent) were farmers, although the aggregate labor force engaged in agricultural activities must have been higher. When considering that only 44.2 percent of surveyed households owned arable land—either rice or dry field—in 1990, this must mean that many villagers were working as agricultural wage laborers. The practice of land leasing and sharecropping in the six villages was less intensive than in other regions of Java (see White and Wiradi 1989, 279). In 1990, only 16 percent of landowners (37 out of 221) leased or sharecropped their land. Since the 1990 survey research focused on both rice and dry fields, the ownership and role of the home garden remain unclear. Another picture of village backwardness is reinforced by the fact that around 25.4 percent of respondents’ houses still had a thatched roof, while 56.6 percent of respondents’ houses had earthen floors. Meanwhile, only 15.8 percent and 8.8 percent of the surveyed households owned a television and a motorcycle respectively.

As mentioned earlier, for 1990, households that owned both a motorcycle and a television were categorized as rural middle class. Meanwhile, I classified households with either a television or a motorcycle as the sufficient cohort (kelompok cukupan) and families without either of these goods as the lower class. Social classification based on goods ownership is shown in Table 2.


Table 2 Characteristics of Social Class in the Six Villages Studied



Table 2 shows that in 1990, only 6 percent of the sampled households could be defined as the rural middle class; this argument has been strengthened by other variables. First, the average landownership for this cohort (4,478 m²) was almost four and two times higher than the lower class and the sufficient cohort respectively. The figure becomes even higher when landless households are excluded (7,070 m²). With this amount of land, the rural middle class were the main receivers of state subsidies in the agricultural sector. The household heads’ educational background also exposes the remarkable difference between the middle class and the lower class or—particularly—the sufficient group; the percentage of household heads graduating from primary school was 25 percent and 53 percent for the lower-class and sufficient group respectively, while it was around 83 percent for the middle class, indicating that educational services were accessed almost exclusively by the latter group. The data above contradict the pattern at the national level, where more young villagers, even from the lower class, can attain a higher level of education. Regardless of the pattern at the national level, villagers strongly believed that the promise of upward social mobility still depended on whether they had connections or not: for example, a senior teacher claimed that in 1986 he was able to easily achieve tenure because of his close connection with a higher official in Semarang.

The last column in Table 2 confirms the distinction between the middle and lower classes. Although the average landownership level was higher for the middle class than the other classes, most households (76 percent) declared that they were not farmers. This implied that most respondents must have been part of the village apparatus, civil servants, small entrepreneurs, or heads of farmer groups thanks to their strategic position as government clients.

The data from the 500 surveyed households above reinforces the argument that the middle class were the main beneficiaries of state largesse because they owned large amounts of arable land. Combined with a higher level of education and supposedly a close connection to upper-level officials, they could easily engage in non-farming sectors. On the other hand, the lower class, without sufficient levels of landownership or adequate education, mostly stayed in the low-income agricultural sector and at the same time were discouraged from embarking upon entrepreneurial activities. Consequently, pervasive state clientelism precluded the smooth social mobility of the lower class, which eventually hampered the growth of the rural middle class.

V The Gradual Dismantling of State Patronage

The political upheaval that brought down Suharto under the flag of Reformasi swept the big cities in 1998. To a lesser extent, the movement also ignited a myriad of villagers to vent their resentment both toward the government that had discriminated against them and toward their right-hand accomplices, the village apparatus. The issues of abuse of authority, repression, and corruption were consequently utilized to denounce the village apparatus. The feeling of discontent with Suharto’s policies, however, had appeared years before Reformasi. When the regime’s legitimacy and power started to recede, farmers began to abstain from the long-established practice of planting sugarcane under the TRI program.18) This phenomenon is clearly revealed by the production data of Sragi sugar factory. Under the New Order’s repression, the farmers’ sugarcane cultivation area remained stable between 1986 and 1996, at around 5,000 hectares; but it dropped abruptly after 1997 (Fig. 2). This marks the decline of strong state patronage, considering the vast area of sugarcane cultivation enabled the heads of farmer groups to both receive state largesse and exploit small farmers.



Fig. 2 Cultivation Area of Sragi Sugar Factory

Source: Production data of Sragi sugar factory.


The post-Suharto government was marked by various institutional reforms under the credo of good governance as demanded by the International Monetary Fund. These reforms were momentous for moderate Indonesian technocrats in promulgating a new type of governmentality based on decentralization. The technocrats’ argument was that the model of administrative and economic centralization had drained the central government’s energy to inquire into the dynamics of global financial and economic tendencies (Syaukani et al. 2002, 172). With decentralization, districts received significant autonomy to take proper measures in creating and implementing local policies (Syaukani et al. 2002, 172–175).

As a product of Reformasi, Law No. 22/1999 not only outlined decentralization but also made village governments more democratic (Antlöv 2003). It diminished the village head’s authority and at the same time dismantled political control and development. Previously, political control and development were employed by village heads to reward their allies and discriminate against common villagers. The more democratic state institution was perfected by the issuance of Law No. 43/1999, which prohibited civil servants, including the village apparatus, from engaging with political parties that had formerly provided them with strong legitimation to abuse their power. In sum, the disappearance of political backup combined with the villagers’ awareness of transparency under the new type of governmentality led to decreased corruption in the village apparatus. This was because the continuation of corrupt practices would otherwise lead to political exploitation via the village apparatus’s competitors.

The various institutional reforms carried out by the government to resolve the financial crisis brought about significant changes at the macro level, as demonstrated by the country’s sound economic growth since 2004 (Booth 2016). Unlike in the past, the fruits of such growth were no longer distributed exclusively among state clients, as strong state clientelism had evaporated. Evidence of the more even distribution of prosperity can be seen in the survey data collected in 2012 appeared in Fig. 3 below.



Fig. 3 Socioeconomic Conditions of Sampled Households, 2012

Source: Survey data (2012).


As the population grew, the number of landowners dropped in relative terms from 44.2 percent in 1990 to 22.1 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, household heads’ engagement in non-farming activities such as construction, small-scale manufacturing, and work in the service sector jumped from 38 percent in 1990 to more than 56 percent in 2012, although the aggregate labor force involved in this sector remained high. In general, the educational level had also substantially increased by 2012. The improved conditions of rural life could be seen from respondents’ housing conditions and their possession of durable consumer goods. By 2012 the number of houses with an earthen floor had plummeted when compared with 1990, while ownership of a television, motorbike, and even mobile phone, which used to be markers of middle-classness in the late 1990s, had become increasingly prevalent.

The ADB report (2010) notes that around 28.7 percent of the rural population could be slotted into the middle-class cohort if a loose definition was used: people with an expenditure per capita of more than US$2 per day. Using the income approach, the result of the six villages studied is congruent with this. If US$2 per day per capita is used as the lower threshold, 26.7 percent of the surveyed households belonged to the middle-class cohort. In other words, the size of the middle class had grown significantly compared to 1990. It is essential to analyze the distinction between the middle and lower classes in an attempt to discern what factors enabled many villagers to become middle class while others remained poor.

Table 3 shows that the ratio of household heads who completed senior high school was arguably low for both classes. The low educational background of household heads, particularly in middle-class families, indicates that most of them were not working in the bureaucracy or clerical jobs. Second, although there is a remarkable difference in the size of land owned between the two classes, only 32 percent of middle-class families had arable land. This result indicates that the majority of the new middle class were not big landowners. As the new middle class were neither bureaucrats nor big landowners, their source of prosperity had shifted away from land and bureaucracy, which were the main assets for becoming middle class in the past, to other assets, particularly skill, as this enabled villagers to embark on various types of entrepreneurship.


Table 3 Characteristics of Social Classes in the Six Villages Studied



At the same time, the small size of middle-income farmers raises a crucial question. The survey data in 2012 revealed that nearly 70 percent of landowners lived around the poverty line. If agricultural wage labor is added, the number of people engaged in the agricultural sector living near the poverty threshold had substantially increased. My preliminary assumption was that this phenomenon might have been shaped by the lack of cohesive political farmers—farmers who were able to ask for protection from the state or align themselves with a political group and whose ultimate goal was to work with the state government, not oppose it, as in the case of Thai farmers (see Walker 2012).

This condition, as we have seen from the previous discussion, might have been the outcome of the long-term practice of marginalization under the New Order regime, when farmers were not only tamed politically but also disadvantaged economically for the sake of national development. As any social movement by farmers to defend their rights was regarded as subversive, they tended to avoid rather than attach themselves to the state.19) When the New Order collapsed, farmers were ill prepared to take cohesive political action—which would have been provided by their newfound democratic circumstances—to lift their well-being. This condition led to the perpetuation of local institutions used to exploit farmers, such as farmer groups. As in the past, farmer groups helped their members with various activities such as cultivation, harvesting, selling, and sometimes distributing government subsidies. Since the position of the leader was inherited rather than decided through democratic election, most of the farmer group leaders from the New Order held on to their position or passed it on to their children.

Having long experience in managing farmer groups, leaders have been able to ingeniously take economic advantage through various cunning means as they did in the past,20) masked with generous acts such as lending money without interest or donating money to members when they face misfortune. Although farmer groups seem to provide social security for their members, it is the leaders’ initiative to retain their members’ loyalty.21) This creates fragmentation and estrangement amongst farmers as their main goal is to have a benevolent patron in charge rather than struggle for common interests. The sense of dependency does not only undermine small farmers’ potential political power to ask for more protection and subsidies from the government or politicians, but it also enables the heads of farmer groups to easily capitalize on their position by becoming canvassers.22)

All in all, the permeation of patrimonialism at the village level precludes the smooth socioeconomic mobility of the lower class, as engagement with non-farming activities is more or less barred for them. This is particularly so when it comes to occupations requiring a connection with the government, such as the bureaucracy. As a result, there are just a handful who have succeeded in becoming wealthy through non-bureaucratic occupations. When the New Order regime decayed in the late 1990s, most elements of state patronage evaporated. Although the majority of small or tiny farmers and agricultural wage laborers still live in poverty, many villagers have been able to carve out wealth owing to more inclusive opportunities and, as will be discussed in the following section, the strengthening of the informal sector. The fairly rapid social mobility of the lower class is reflected in the comparison between data collected in the 1990 and 2012 surveys, which show that the number of middle-class households in the six villages studied jumped from 6 percent in 1990 to nearly 27 percent in 2012. Despite the rural middle class’s statistical flourishing, the quantitative data is not enough to prove any argument that the oppression or marginality experienced by the common people during the New Order regime has been obliterated. Without resolving this issue, the impact of state patronage’s decline on people’s socioeconomic creativity remains unclear.

VI The New Morality of the Rural Population

Jaman siki sapa-sapa gelem jibaku ya akeh berhasile (In this age anyone who does jibaku [works hard and dares to take risks] is likely to succeed).23)

Pak Bagus’s statement above seems to reflect the new morality, with the lower class aspiring to work hard and climb the socioeconomic ladder. This has replaced the apathetic mentality of the past, which viewed material affluence as a sign of greed, hostility toward village harmony, individualism, and menace. The dismantling of state patronage could not have been enough to engender this new morality, for it requires an appropriate economic setting.

At constant prices, the Indonesian GDP grew moderately through 2005–14: between 4.6 percent and 6.5 percent (Booth 2016, 110). The stability of Indonesia’s economic growth is somewhat peculiar. Some scholars have observed that Indonesia underwent deindustrialization, noting the decline of the manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP (see Priyarsono et al. 2010). In 2001 the sector contributed to about 30.7 percent of GDP, while in 2012 the figure dropped to less than 24.8 percent (Mizuno 2016, ch. 2). Since this drop was compensated for by soaring palm oil and coal exports, and an increase in domestic consumption (Mizuno 2016), the Indonesian economy was characterized by the strengthening of the informal sector. As this sector requires low capital and less advanced technology, and is easy to copy, myriad people, particularly from the lower social classes, could easily engage. The policy of no illegal fees stipulated by the central government in 2016 might also have aided the flourishing of the informal sector. In this new setting, the lower class, who could invest little in education, plunged into various small businesses, while the old middle class (civil servants and members of the village apparatus), feeling culturally superior, were hesitant to take those opportunities. This is not a fairy tale, as demonstrated by the household survey of 2012, summarized in Table 4.


Table 4 Number of Workers and Aggregate Revenue for Each Type of Work



Judging from the average annual income per capita, the types of occupation listed in Table 4 generate varied amounts of revenue. Compared with other occupations, agriculture yields the lowest earnings: 2.9 million rupiah per capita per year. This sector absorbs 37 percent of the total workforce. The manufacturing sector produces a slightly higher income than agriculture. The construction sector produces a moderate revenue. Since the agricultural sector seems to produce low income, even by rural standards, villagers from the lower social layers undertake various other economic activities to supplement their household income. When the demand for labor in the agricultural sector declines (during the dry season or off season), male laborers frequently work in small-scale manufacturing, construction, brickmaking, or sand mining, while female laborers switch to the domestic sector, making, for example, palm leaf brooms. Many of the younger generation aggressively attempt to escape from this sector. In sum, the 2012 household economic survey indicates that almost all surveyed households relied on a variety of occupations.

Meanwhile, trading as well as private and public services (civil service) generate substantial income for households. Although the average income of a civil servant is higher than that of a person engaged in business (Table 4), this figure should not be taken at face value. Businesspeople tend to conceal their real income as they are afraid that the researcher will divulge their information to the tax office or competitors (Rutten in Savirani 2015, 45). Even if their figures are accepted, this cohort is tiny, making up 4.9 percent of the total workforce. All in all, the survey research from 2012 shows that the informal sector, such as manufacturing for the local market, trade (such as retail, food, and drinks), and other services characterized by informality have dominated the village economy. As shown in Table 3, 267 of the 1,000 surveyed households could be classified as middle class. If US$2 per day per capita is used as the lower threshold, 26.7% of the surveyed households (267 out of 1,000) belonged to this cohort. A new economic pattern in the villages becomes clearer when seeing the household head’s occupation in middle-class families, as shown in Table 5.


Table 5 Occupations of Household Heads of Middle-Class Families, 2012



Despite occupations such as farmer and civil servant still being important in creating middle-class families (33 percent), the new rural middle class mostly emerges from small entrepreneurs and company workers (27 percent). The latter figure is increasing because middle-class families whose household heads work in construction or as agricultural wage laborers rely on their children working as entrepreneurs. By 2016 the number of entrepreneurs had increased because many successful entrepreneurs who were relatively immature in 2012 became established, and more villagers became engaged in this sector.

Despite these quantitative measurements providing remarkable evidence of the new pattern of the rural economy, little is known about the process of becoming wealthy and its impact on rural life. Examples from Trukosari village will be used to understand the contemporary rural situation. Over the last few decades wheat consumption, including bakery products, among Indonesians has increased drastically. The high demand in this market has encouraged many young villagers, particularly from poor families, to plunge into the bakery business. This is a reasonable undertaking, given that in 2014 Asosiasi Pengusaha Bakery Indonesia (Indonesian Bakery Association, APEBI) reported that the total value of baked products reached 23 trillion rupiah, equal to US$1.24 billion (Yulisman 2014).

In Trukosari, Lantip is an example of a successful small entrepreneur in this business. After completing junior school in 1997, he went to Jakarta and worked in the construction sector. He then changed direction after a short encounter with a friend who enticed him into working as a bakery salesman. Aside from selling, he also taught himself baking, which eventually allowed him—along with his older brother and sister—to start his own business. Joint ventures based on either familial ties or friendship are commonly set up by new entrepreneurs to overcome capital insufficiency. Initially, Lantip and his siblings produced brownies and cakes and sold them on consignment in small retail shops or food stalls. The strong market allowed their business to grow quickly. Some years later, the joint venture broke up.

Nevertheless, Lantip’s business continued to grow rapidly; he employed 24 salesmen in 2012. In early 2014, the heyday of brownies ended due to the market becoming saturated, and he shifted toward other bakery products such as layer cakes and muffins. In 2014 he opened a new stall in Citeureup, Bogor. The popularity of bakery products in this area earned him a lavish profit. Just two years later, he had three bakery stalls in Bogor: near PT Indocement, near Sentul International Circuit, and in Ciluar Market. Each stall employed two or three workers supervised by one trusted employee. Though the business was lucrative, the cost of production was undeniably high. At the time of my fieldwork in 2016, the cost of renting a small stall of 12 square meters was about 30 million rupiah per annum, and Lantip spent more than 100 million rupiah in rental costs alone. Lantip modestly confessed that his gross monthly revenue could reach 200 million rupiah, though the figure varied from month to month.24)

In Trukosari, Lantip was not alone in exploiting this market; much of the younger generation were waiting to start their own businesses. In a small bakery stall near Petarukan Market, Ardi, a 17-year-old boy, bemoaned his situation to me: “I am tired of having [to work] for the boss, and I am going to embark [on] my own business.” I knew that he had been involved in the bakery business since he was 14 years old. His is not an exceptional case in light of the high dropout rate of both junior and senior high school students, particularly among the lower class. One reason for the high dropout rate is that the Indonesian manufacturing sector is growing slowly, and so the big factories in and around Jakarta, which used to be the main destination of vocational students from the area, are now inclined to use short-term contract workers. An elderly villager lamented the future of his third son, whose two-year work contract in a company in Jakarta was almost over. “Now most companies are reluctant to employ a tenure,” he moaned. Such insecure conditions have encouraged many juveniles to work rather than continue their education. Moreover, the informal sector, for instance the bakery business, has been proven to succeed in improving the lives of the lower class. Based on my fieldwork, many villagers have engaged in the bakery business, as shown in Table 6.


Table 6 Number of Bakery Businessmen in Trukosari*



Trukosari village has seven hamlets, and the distribution of bakery entrepreneurs in each hamlet is slightly different. Generally, large-scale bakery businessmen have at least 4 stalls each, totalling 68 stalls among them. If each stall needs at least two workers, the businessmen employ a total of 136 laborers. Combined with medium and small-scale entrepreneurs, these businesses have absorbed a lot of labor from Trukosari village. Amidst the fierce competition in Java, some villagers have expanded their businesses to cities on other islands such as Sumatra, Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and even West Papua. Although many of them have been able to develop their business, some have gone bankrupt. In this competitive market, jibaku and luck are viewed as the main determinants of success. Such a mentality is not confined to the bakery business but pervades throughout other sectors. What I witnessed in Trukosari, in the case of bakery businesses and other small enterprises, was people’s willingness to engage in high-risk investments.

As the villagers’ material affluence now derives mainly from the informal sector, requiring no background in higher education or connections with bureaucrats or politicians, the new morality of the aspiring villagers is largely defined by jibaku (work hard and dare to take risks). A statement by Lantip in conversation with Wiwin, his close friend who worked as a teaching apprentice, illustrates the new villagers’ subjectivity. He said to Wiwin:

I tell you, Win, if you become a state employee [teacher], even after you have worked for 10 years you may not be able to purchase a Honda Jazz, unless you get involved in corruption. But if you get involved in this [bakery] business, I can guarantee that your life will change after only two years.

The message is clear: What might have been the main avenue for villagers to gain or retain middle class status in the past is now seemingly obsolete. Small-scale entrepreneurship holds more promise for guaranteeing middle-classness, in terms of both revenue and lifestyle. Since many of the new rich come from the lower social class through jibaku, most villagers no longer view material affluence as an indicator of deficient morality. Prosperity is now something that is longed for rather than treated with derision. What villagers now reproach is the failure to adhere to this new ethic, jibaku or hard work. Dirman, a villager with a bachelor’s degree, is an example of a person who is unable to adhere to the new ethic. Some of the villagers have given him a nickname: Wiranto. The nickname does not refer to the former Indonesian Military chief but is an acronym for wira-wiri ora nggota (busy pacing back and forth without doing anything). Amidst the abundant opportunities in the informal sector, the villagers perceive Dirman as indolent.

Nonetheless, an indolent personality per se is not adequate to explain why many villagers remain poor despite the ample opportunities provided by the informal sector. Although this is a complex problem, some assessments can be made. First, engaging in the informal sector requires certain skills, and to become a skillful person requires a lot of effort. Second, as most villagers work in the agricultural sector (37 percent of the total labor force), the absence of political farmers might hamper them from having better living conditions. Third, most poor families do not have enough young and productive laborers who can easily jump into the vibrant informal sector. The survey data of 2012 reveal that poor households tend to have more family members but fewer productive laborers, while in middle-class families it is the opposite.

Although the flourishing informal sector has allowed for dramatic socioeconomic change, it has also brought about another consequence: high economic inequality (see Rosser et al. 2000). This postulate corresponds with the result of the household economic survey analysis undertaken in 2012, as shown in Table 7.


Table 7 Gini Index, 2012



During the New Order regime, inequality—measured by people’s expenditure—was stable, from 0.35 in 1964–65 to 0.34 in 1990 (Akita et al. 1999, 202). However, it rose from the early 2000s (see Booth 2016, 170). The Badan Pusat Statistik (Central Bureau of Statistics, BPS) report states that it was 0.425 in 2012, measured in terms of the expenditure approach (BPS 2020, 170). Meanwhile, the analysis of income distribution in the 1,000 sampled households revealed an astonishing result: the Gini index for the six villages based on per capita income for 2012 was extremely high (0.55). Although both measurements show the increasing economic inequality from the early 2000s, villagers’ feelings of widening economic inequality may best be represented by the income rather than expenditure approach, as this calculates rich people’s savings (see Booth 2016, 185).

The fairly low level of economic inequality during the New Order regime was a direct impact of state patronage. As state patronage begs clients’ loyalty, the New Order regime attempted to ensure an even and proportionate material distribution among its clients. At the same time, the New Order also strictly constrained clients’ economic aggressiveness. The emergence of economically aggressive and independent groups would have raised many challenges within the context of the New Order’s supremacy. In this sense, middle-classness was determined not only by one’s connections with the state but also by one’s compliance with its order. Meanwhile, the lower class were excluded from most opportunities to climb the economic ladder, although their condition was slightly improved thanks to the increase in productivity of staple foods under the Green Revolution program. The unaggressive middle class and apathetic lower class helped to reduce economic inequality statistically.

Unpredictable political and economic circumstances since the late 1990s have overturned that landscape. The fall of the New Order regime, followed by a gradual erosion of state patronage, in tandem with the strengthening of the informal sector has opened up more exclusive economic opportunities for aspiring villagers to create wealth. Under the belief of jaman duit, “the age of money” (Antlöv 2005, 195), aggressive economic expansion and accumulation of assets became the main aspirations of the middle class. This was different from years past, when the rich were satisfied with being rent-seekers. Unfortunately, the new economic creativity in the informal sector through various types of entrepreneurship has not been accompanied by a new political creativity, which would potentially aid farmers in improving their livelihood through various democratic means. This condition is a result of the New Order’s long repression, which disorganized the farmers’ movement. Although the patron of businesspeople has shifted from the state to the market, the (small) farmers’ patrons remain the same: the heads of farmer groups. However, it is worth noting that these heads no longer function as instruments of the state in controlling farmers. Along with the increase in the size of the rural middle class, the uneven political and economic processes have increased inequality rather than decreased it.

VII Conclusion

The rapid expansion of the Indonesian rural middle class, as this paper has shown from the six villages studied, is not the result of sound economic growth after the 1997–98 financial crisis per se; it is a result of the gradual erosion of the pervasive state patronage that existed under patrimonialism. Suharto’s patrimonialism tended to benefit dominant rural groups (state clients) while discriminating against the common people, thus stifling the latter’s creativity. This landscape changed with the financial crisis. The fall of Suharto encouraged the new government to adopt a model of “good governance,” which is commonly translated as transparency, accountability, and the democratization of state institutions. This did not only minimize the role of the state, rendering it as a mere market facilitator that provided to the right institutions, but also created a friendly environment for business. The more inclusive opportunities available, in tandem with a new macroeconomic situation and the flourishing of the informal sector, paved the way for the lower class to become middle class through various entrepreneurial activities. The immediate impact of this was that the size of the middle class grew rapidly—from 6 percent in 1990 to almost 27 percent in 2012.

The availability of historical and ethnographic data helps to show more precisely some (unexpected) impacts of the growing middle class on rural life. First of all, we have seen that it engendered a new moral framework centered around jibaku and a respect for material affluence. This new form of morality eroded the old prejudices that largely viewed material affluence as dependent on rent-seeking practices. Although the new middle class started to change the face of villages, it also brought about the unanticipated outcome of stark economic inequality.

What we can learn from this case is that the democratization of state institutions, such as village governance, dismantled the phenomenon of strong state clientelism. Although this boosted the villagers’ economic creativity, their political creativity remained underdeveloped. Such a situation occurs when myriad small farmers and agricultural wage laborers, assumed to be economically vulnerable, cannot rely on more democratic means to enhance their well-being. In these circumstances, despite most villagers earning their income from a variety of economic activities, the agricultural sector becomes a pool for poor households. As the Indonesian economy grew moderately with the strengthening of the informal sector, any further expansion of the rural middle class might exacerbate rather than remedy inequality. The political, economic, social, and historical assessments in this study help to elucidate what has been taking place in the rural areas post-1998.

Accepted: February 14, 2020


My sincere thanks goes to Prof. Mizuno Kosuke for his supervision. I also thank Dr. Pujo Semedi and Dr. Jafar Suryomenggolo for the critical comments and suggestions on the earlier draft and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable criticism and comments.

Research for 2015 and 2016 was funded by Explorer Program, ASAFAS, Kyoto University.


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Kurasawa Aiko. 2015. The “Pseudo” Middle Class and Expanding Consumption in Indonesia. In Consuming Indonesia: Consumption in Indonesia in the Early 21st Century, edited by Kurasawa Aiko and William B. Horton, pp. vii–xix. Jakarta: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

Luthfi, A. Nashih. 2018. Kekerasan kemanusiaan dan perampasan tanah pasca-1965 di Banyuwangi Jawa Timur [Grabbing the peasants’ land: Violence and counter-land reform in Banyuwangi, East Java, post–1965]. Archipel: Études interdisciplinaires sur le monde insulindien 95: 53–86.

Mackie, Jamie. 1990. Money and the Middle Class. In The Politics of Middle Class Indonesia, edited by Richard Tanter and Kenneth Young, pp. 96–122. Clayton: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

McCarthy, John F. 2010. Processes of Inclusion and Adverse Incorporation: Oil Palm and Agrarian Change in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Journal of Peasant Studies 37(4): 821–850.

Mizuno Kosuke. 2016. The Macro Economy, the Rural Sector, and Sustainability. In Sustainability and Crisis at the Village: Agroforestry in West Java, Indonesia: The Talun-huma System and Rural Social Economy, edited by Mizuno Kosuke and Siti S. Mugniesyah, pp. 18–27. Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press.

―. n.d. The Indonesian Economy Post Lehman Shock: Some Results of a Macroeconomic Model Simulation. Unpublished manuscript.

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Moskowitz, M. 2012. ‘Aren’t We All?’ Aspiration, Acquisition, and the American Middle Class. In The Making of the Middle Class: Toward a Transnational History, edited by A. Ricardo Lopez and Barbara Weinstein, pp. 75–86. London and Durham: Duke University Press.

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Republik Indonesia, Kementerian Keuangan. 2018. Buku II: Nota Keuangan, beserta Rancangan Anggaran Pendapatan dan Belanja Negara [Book 2: Financial note, along with draft of state budget, fiscal year 2018]. Jakarta: Kementerian Keuangan, Republik Indonesia.

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Young, Kenneth. 1990. Middle Bureaucrats, Middle Peasants, Middle Class? The Extra-urban Dimension. In The Politics of Middle Class Indonesia, edited by Richard Tanter and Kenneth Young, pp. 147–166. Clayton: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

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Suara Merdeka. 1994. July 11.

―. 1993. January 6.

1) In the following period, the government issued Law No. 32/2000 and Government Regulation 72/2005.

2) Recently, the recruitment of village officials has been done through an open test.

3) See Antlöv (2003) and Law No. 6/2014 on villages.

4) Presidential Instruction No. 6/1970 forced civil servants, including the village apparatus, to support Golkar under the idea of mono-loyalty (Antlöv 2003, 196).

5) Mapan is, to some degree, congruent with the American rhetoric for middle-class living conditions, that is, comfort consisting of common and inexpensive means of enjoyment (F. Spencer Baldwin in Moskowitz 2012, 81).

6) Solvay Gerke (2002) has a different stratification model based on consumption.

7) I derive this concept from Mike Savage et al. (1992), who argue that people can be classified as middle class based on the possession of an asset, whether property, organization, or skill.

8) For 1980, Jamie Mackie assumed that households possessing either a motorcycle or a television could be classified as middle class (Mackie 1990). Using such a definition, middle-class households made up around 9 percent and 5 percent respectively. For 1990, such indicators had become too low and were consequently no longer relevant. Thus, this study argues that for 1990, rural middle-class households were indicated by the simultaneous possession of a motorcycle and a television.

9) Exchange rate 2012.

10) The pseudonyms for these villages are: Karyokasil, A; Parigaga, B; Kidulratan, C; Karanggondang, D; Trimakmur, E; and Trukosari, F (see Map 1).

11) This was a collaborative research study by three institutions: P3PK UGM of Indonesia, IOC-UT of Japan, and Casa of the Netherlands.

12) This research was funded by the government of Japan and supervised by Prof. Mizuno Kosuke, Prof. Kano Hiroyoshi, and Dr. Pujo Semedi. All surveyors were Gadjah Mada University students.

13) The number of households sampled was around 10 percent in 1990 and 12 percent in 2012. The samples were determined through a random sampling method. I was personally involved in the 2012 survey as an assistant researcher.

14) In Banyuwangi District, the official report stated that 6,008 were killed and 50,727 imprisoned (Luthfi 2018, 65).

15) There were three PKI activists in Trukosari. Two of them were sent to Buru island, while one was imprisoned in Pemalang.

16) Kenneth Young provides an example of another trick practiced by village elites that is relevant to this issue. The KUD is responsible for buying rice, which is then to be sold at the government floor price to the local government purchasing warehouse (Subdolog). But it is not unusual for the village elites, in their capacity as elected managers of the KUD, to subcontract the entire rice acquisition process to private traders (Young 1990, 157).

17) A survey carried out by Kompas in the early 1980s on 70 respondents, consisting of top- and middle-level managers and professionals, showed how strong state clientelism was. The report concluded that 60.6 percent of respondents believed that their career was determined by “connections” or their ability to make use of connections (Kompas 1990).

18) This was eventually terminated by Presidential Instruction No. 5/1998.

19) Burning sugarcane fields was a typical example of this action.

20) In the case of jasmine farmer groups, the leader took around 20 percent of farmers’ aggregate revenue (Goto, forthcoming).

21) Feeling economically secure, most of the wealthy farmers in Trukosari do not join farmer groups.

22) Bagus, Karsono, and Karto (the heads of farmer groups) became the canvassers for Samuri (PDIP), Tarjono (PDIP), and Sumono (Golkar). All were chosen in the general election of 2014. Tarto, a chosen parliamentary member from Gerindra, also used his younger brother’s position as the head of a harvesting group to gain votes for himself.

23) Interview with Pak Bagus, September 12, 2016, Trukosari village.

24) In the production process, one small bucket of batter could be made into 12 boxed cakes (each box containing one round cake). If three or four types of cake were made daily, they sold at least 36 boxes each day. Since the average price of each box was at least 20,000 rupiah, the stall would receive 720,000 rupiah a day if all cakes sold.


Vol. 9, No. 3, Hanli Zhou and Volker Grabowsky


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Demarcation of the Yunnan-Burma Tai Minority Area in Warry’s Report of 1891–97: A Critical Evaluation against the Background of Contemporary Chinese Historiography*

Hanli Zhou** and Volker Grabowsky***

*This article is part of the research results from the project (No. 20BZS141) of The National Social Science Fund of China (Zhongguo guojia shehui kexue jijin: 中国国家社会科学基金).
**周寒丽, Asien-Afrika-Institut, Universität Hamburg, Abteilung für Sprachen und Kulturen Südostasiens, Edmund-Siemers-Allee 1, Flügel Ost, 20146 Hamburg, Germany Corresponding author’s e-mail: edicezhou[at]
***Asien-Afrika-Institut, Universität Hamburg, Abteilung für Sprachen und Kulturen Südostasiens,
Edmund-Siemers-Allee 1, Flügel Ost, 20146 Hamburg, Germany

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_301

William Warry (1854–1936) was a British intelligence officer who was sent to investigate Upper Burma and southwest China in 1889. The primary purpose of his mission was to understand the local history and society and, in particular, the Chinese influence in these areas. His report was intended to help the British government devise proper strategies for the Yunnan-Burma frontier negotiation with China. Warry’s mission should be read in the context of the Chinese tusi system of “aboriginal commission,” the imperial government’s century-long strategy of governing the mainly non-Han frontier region of southwest China, which did not require a delineated border. This eventually turned into a serious crisis with the arrival of Western colonial powers who wanted to enter inland China via the Indochinese Peninsula.

Keywords: William Warry, demarcation, Yunnan-Burma, frontier, tusi system, Tai


In 1885, after winning the last of the three Anglo-Burmese Wars, the British annexed Burma as part of British India. The British government then sent a note to urge the Chinese Qing court to sign a treaty recognizing its sovereignty. Nevertheless, the colonial control did not manage to penetrate the hill areas along the northern and eastern frontier zones of the defunct Burmese Empire, leaving states like Shan and Kayah de facto autonomous. Several Tai principalities near Yunnan, which were placed under a Sino-Burmese joint overlordship, continued to follow the prior arrangement. In the hope of curbing Chinese influence in the region, the British sent a request to the Qing court to delimit the shared border—which ran 2,000 km—with a treaty. The Chinese minister in London (1882–85), Zeng Jize, was tasked with the demarcation of the border between Yunnan and Burma. Although his suggestions were widely accepted by the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the proposed borderline was not added to the Sino-British treaty signed in 1886 in Beijing. With the issue unresolved, the British government sent William Warry, a top intelligence officer, on a fact-finding mission to investigate the border areas between Upper Burma and southwestern Yunnan in 1888.

Never published, Warry’s report1) is an original archival source. It now lies in the Asian and African Studies Section2) of the British Library under the shelfmark “Mss Eur Photo Eur 384, (1878–1903)” in the European Manuscript Private Papers section. Unfortunately, this unique firsthand report has not garnered much attention among Western scholars in the field, let alone Chinese historians.

Warry’s report carried high weight in the negotiations of the China-Burma border, which began in 1894. It provides rare accounts of the political, social, ethnographic, and economic situations in Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan during the critical period of the late 1880s and early 1890s, right before the current border was defined in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The British and the Qing court signed the Yunnan-Burma frontier treaty after Warry had returned from his journey.

Previous Western missions in Yunnan focused mainly on the facilitation of practical commercial routes from mainland Southeast Asia to Yunnan and beyond, such as the two missions in 1882 led by Cameron (Tracts, Vol. 606) and Archibald Ross Colquhoun and Charles Wahad (Tracts, Vol. 606). In December 1892, James George Scott, accompanied by Clement Ainslie, led another mission starting from Lashio (Ainslie 1893, 1). In his report, Scott described the geographic aspect of the routes running through the Shan States3) following the course of the Salween River (Tai: Mae Khong) like a gazetteer. He also noted numerous random facts on local polities without a clear focus.

The little-researched Warry report is, therefore, a valuable primary source that can help researchers understand the background and evolution of the Yunnan-Burma frontier formation. In this article, the authors compare the report with various original archival materials to give a critical evaluation of Warry’s report in the context of contemporary Chinese sources. The article also explores the very few traces that the Tai peoples in the region left in their historical records. The concluding section balances the various dissenting voices to draw a more comprehensive picture of the border negotiation, with the hope of getting one step closer to representing the historical truth.

Historical Background

Warry’s Mission

A British intelligence officer, William Warry (1854–1936) was sent to Upper Burma and southwestern Yunnan to carry out a thorough investigation to provide the factual basis for future border negotiations between the British and the Chinese. Apart from that, little is known about his life. A short description of him can be found in the British Library’s Asian and African Studies’ Catalogue,4) as well as Grabowsky (2006, 573–593):

William Warry (1854–1936), acting assistant Chinese secretary, Peking 1881–82, special service, Government of India from 1885, political officer, Bhamo, Mandalay and Schwegu (the northernmost town of Kachin State) 1887–89, adviser to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, on Chinese affairs 1890–1904; including photocopies of maps of the Trans-Salween Section of the Burmo–Chinese frontier by Warry.

The American gemologist and award-winning author Richard Hughes (1999, 15–35) quotes from Crosthwaite (1912, 355):

He belonged to the Chinese consular service, spoke Chinese well, and understood that difficult people as well as an Englishman can. He was on most friendly terms with the Chinese in Burma, and could trust himself to them without fear.

Later, in 2016, the Chinese scholar Li Yi (2016, 135–154) noted that Warry “obtained first-hand knowledge of China and the Chinese people, along with Chinese-language skills, from his work in the Chinese Consular Service.” He was an adviser on Chinese affairs who had “joined the frontier missions in India, Tibet, Burma and China” since 1885. Moreover, Sao (1965, 278–312) quotes some valuable records from Warry’s report in Chapter XIII of his book addressing the boundary with China, as Warry afforded a good deal of useful information on the Southwest Yunnan. From these snippets of information, Warry can be assumed to have been an excellent intelligence officer on the Yunnan-Burma borderline issue.

Even though we do not know much about Warry’s personal life, Warry’s report is a valuable primary source for the study of Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan in the late nineteenth century. Since the report was not published, very few know about its existence. However, it did come to the attention of one of the co-authors of this paper in the early 1990s when he was doing postdoctoral research on the history of Lan Na (Northern Thailand) in the British Library. Upon careful examination, he was stunned by its highly precise and sensitive description of the politics, society, economy, and ethnic make-up of Yunnan.

Demarcation of the China-Burma Border

Two reasons prompted the frontier negotiation between China and Britain. First, after its victory in the last of the three Anglo-Burmese Wars (in 1885), the British government urged the Qing court to sign a treaty that claimed Burma proper should become a colony as part of British India. However, in reality, the British were unable to exercise control over the whole country, especially the Shan States and the hill areas of Karen and Kachin in the north and east. Some of these territories had retained a tributary relationship between the Shan princes and the Qing court.5) The British were afraid that the Chinese might interfere by claiming these territories under this pretext.

To incentivize the Qing court, the British Foreign Office offered concession as leverage for a durable borderline and trade relations. In 1885 Zeng Jize (曾紀澤 1839–90), the Chinese minister in London thus wrote a memorial proposing a solution to the Yunnan-Burma border issue. However, this particular concession did not find its way into the Burma Terms, which were signed in the 12th year of the Guangxu reign (July 24, 1886) in Beijing. Zeng’s, as well as Britain’s potential concessions, were kept in Zeng’s memorial, which Xue Fucheng (薛福成 1838–94) (compiled, 1975, 9) made public when he took over Zeng’s position of the Chinese ambassador in London on 25 Month 1st Guangxu Year 17 (March 5, 1891).6)

The Burma Terms stipulate in the third convention “the frontier between Burmah and China to be marked by a Delimitation Commission” (British and Foreign State Papers [1885–1886], Vol. 77, 123). As mentioned above, Warry’s mission was sent to Upper Burma in 1888. Three years later, Yao Wendong (1853–1929) was sent to southwest Yunnan according to the Burma Terms, known in Chinese as the Peking Convention (Bei jing tiao yue 北京條約).7)

The China-Burma borderline was to be fixed after a survey of the boundary from both sides. Therefore, the still unresolved frontier issue was the main objective of Warry’s mission. This crucial background is reflected in Warry’s report, which emphasizes:

It would no doubt be inconvenient to admit China to the sole possession of a country affording so excellent a base for intrigue and indirect operations against us. We should be undertaking a heavy task and incurring a large responsibility. We should have to maintain order, to punish aggression, and to protect, single-handed, several trade routes leading from Burma to China. The Kachins are a savage race of mountaineers, without civilization or law, recognizing no common Chief, turbulent and warlike by nature, and living to a large extent by plunder and blackmail levied on trading caravans. They need to be sternly repressed, and they will only be kept in order by constant pressure both from the Chinese and the Burmese side. (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Burmo [Burma]-Chinese Boundary, dated the 14th May 1888)

Warry also acknowledged Chinese influence in these parts of Upper Burma dating from the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271–1368). A considerable tract of the Shan country appeared to have acknowledged, for several centuries, the suzerainty of the Chinese Empire. These Shan or Tai polities were named Mengting, Mengyang, and Mupang.8) However, Warry also conceded that Chinese influence in the region had declined since the middle of the Qing Dynasty, i.e., since the late eighteenth century (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Burmo-Chinese Boundary, dated the 14th May 1888). Thus, additional important purposes of Warry’s mission were to investigate the local history and society, the rubber trade issues, and the Chinese influences in this area. His report aimed at providing the British government with vital information to devise proper strategies for gaining control over Upper Burma and negotiating the Yunnan-Burma frontier with China.

The second reason that prompted frontier negotiations between China and Britain was that the Pacification Commissions (in the frame of the so-called tusi system 土司制度) caused border issues between China and Burma. Foon Ming Liew-Herres explains the Chinese tusi system:9)

The tusi system can be traced back to the so-called “prefectures under loose reins” established during the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) periods, to integrate the “foreigners or barbarians”, namely tribal peoples, of the southern border regions into the Chinese system of rule.

The tusi or so-called “Pacification Commissions” system was established in the Yuan period (1271–1368) and lasted until the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1636–1911) periods. The tusi’s places were inhabited predominantly by non-Han Chinese, the minority people. In Yunnan and upper Mainland Southeast Asia, the local rulers and princes were called cao fa or cao mòm in the local Tai language. In Chinese sources, their names were prefixed with zhao or dao or tao. . . . The local administration of the domain under the tusi, i.e., where internal affairs were concerned, was not under the direct control of the provincial governor. The local Tai rulers called cao fa were allowed to rule their subjects according to their own customs. They were the local kings and had authority to sentence their people to death without having to report to the Ministry of Justice under the Ming court. (Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, 26)

The tusi system was an effective way for the Chinese Empire to govern the southwest frontier. It did not require a clear borderline, as the tributary system was put in place to administer the minority areas in the southwest, largely inhabited by non-Han peoples. The Qing court thus did not have the modern concept of a borderline prior to the arrival of Western colonial powers.

The tributary system, as Higgins (1992, 30) emphasizes, was a traditional Chinese system for managing foreign relations with neighbouring subordinate polities. The tributary system, the origins of which might be traced to the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220), has been called a “system of ritualized interstate relations” (Mote 1999, 383) in which ancient China was believed to be the centre of the world. To secure the safety of its Central Plains territories (comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Huanghe River), the Chinese Empire needed the provinces, vassal states, tributary states, as well as neighbouring countries to send their local products as a tribute and keep a stable hierarchical relationship. Meanwhile, the Chinese imperial court was expected to bestow official ranks to the rulers of subordinate polities and give them valuable gifts, the value of which had to exceed that of local products provided by these polities. China thus sent silk, tea, paper money, and other goods to its tributary states as was appropriate (for details, see Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, 28–40).

Since the Tang Dynasty (618–907), the tributary system had been transformed into an economic relationship. Scholars of Chinese history believe that the tributary system constituted an essential administrative feature of the Chinese Empire. Hamashita Takeshi (1999, 31) points out that the tributary system was an extension of the relationship between the central government and the administration at the local level. He designed a diagram defining the chain of government as follows: central government–prefectures–tusi or aboriginal officials–vassal states–tributary states–mutual trade relationships. This hierarchical system was an organic whole. The Chinese Empire exercised a centralized political and administrative authority: of paramount importance was local governance in the Chinese core areas, followed by the tusi system in the non-Han areas, and finally, the tributary system aimed at governing semi-independent states via mutual trade to maintain good relationships with these countries. The Chinese Empire was at the centre of the world, surrounded by a myriad of inner and outer provinces, vassal and tributary states, as well as other, foreign, countries. Within this structure of intra-state relations, the tusi system was part of the tributary system.

Since intermarriage, conflicts, wars, and the changing of tributary relationships would cause the border to change regularly, there were no fixed or stable frontiers separating the different polities.10) Even though the tributary system was an effective way to guard and maintain the Chinese Empire, the lack of a clear demarcation line among the various vassal states was a significant problem when the power of the centre court declined. Therefore, the issue of unstable and unclear borderlines between China and Burma became a serious problem only after the arrival of Western colonial powers seeking to gain economic access to inland China via the Indochinese Peninsula. The European powers, notably Britain and France, had internalized a concept of clearly defined borderlines separating the undivided and undisputed sovereignties of states since the Westphalian Treaty of 1648. This Western idea of a modern nation-state was transplanted to areas outside Europe, including Asia, by European colonial powers in the late nineteenth century, the heyday of Western imperialism. Such a concept was very different from the indigenous Asian concepts of frontier and border grounded in the historical experience of the peoples in East and Southeast Asia. The imposition of the idea of a modern nation-state on these premodern empires, therefore, constituted a big challenge for Asian countries, especially for China, as the European powers refuted the idea of shared and multiple sovereignties and overlapping frontier zones.11)

That is the main reason why the borderline negotiation became an essential task for both China and Britain. In the following sections, the authors first present the main sources pertaining to historical events. Second, they illustrate the negotiations by studying the three disputed areas between Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan highlighted in Warry’s report, while comparing his observations and statements with Chinese historical records. Third, they examine the final agreements between the British government and the Qing court.


The primary sources used for this article fall into three categories: (1) British archival documents, (2) contemporary (i.e., late nineteenth-century) Chinese government reports, and (3) written records left by indigenous Tai peoples living in the China-Burma borderlands. The principal British source, as already mentioned, is Warry’s report. Warry recorded his mission and investigation when he visited Upper Burma with his team in 1888. His perceptive observations, concrete descriptions, and analytic reflections—all considered highly confidential—reveal fascinating insights into the complex situation in Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan at the end of the nineteenth century.

Furthermore, the Yunnan-Burmese frontier report in Appendix to Memorandum on Questions of Chief Importance in the American and Chinese Department was extracted from British Documents on Foreign Affairs (Nish et al. 1989/1995). This document is another reliable source of firsthand reports. Other important British archival materials include Sir Robert Hart’s telegrams and letters (Chen 1991; 1995) about the negotiations between China and Britain. They also need to be closely examined.

For the Intelligence Department of Britain, it was a challenge to keep up with all the reports and correspondence. Correspondence was dealt with in two ways when delivered to the colonial government of Burma:

The various departments of the Government would hold weekly/monthly meetings where events would be discussed based on information received from all quarters. The written accounts of these meetings, including transcriptions of the documentation under discussion, were known as “Consultations” or “Proceedings.” These records contain much of significance for minority histories of Burma and will be dealt with more fully later in this guide. These reports could be transmitted directly to London from Burma from 1871 onwards, although they would also be sent to the Government of India.

Until Burma was given administrative autonomy in 1935, communications other than Proceedings had to be transmitted first to the Government of India at Fort William, rather than directly to London. Again, not everything that had been sent to the Government of Burma would be forwarded in this way and another process of selection would take place. Correspondence could include a wide variety of Enclosures (diaries, journals, reports, maps, etc.) which were deemed significant to the subject of the cover letter. The Government of India might discuss these communications in their own Proceedings or else they might send some of the items to London as General Correspondence. (Sadan 2008, 11–13)

This means that all correspondence was categorized and submitted step by step. Only “the most significant correspondence was chosen to be forwarded to London, where it would be registered in the correspondence files of the appropriate department” (Sadan 2008, 12). It was in this manner that the British government used Warry’s report and Scott’s papers as well as the correspondence of other missions.

As for English academic studies of the China-Burma border issue, J. J. G. Syatauw (1961, 122–123) mentions that there was never any mission sent to investigate the situation in Upper Burma after the Burma Terms. He was probably not aware of the Warry report kept in the India Records Office of the British Library. Reclaimed materials that explicitly mention Warry’s report are Hughes (1999) and Li (2016), both of which point out that Warry was an expert on Chinese affairs.

Theoretical concepts of tributary relations have been developed by Hamashita (1999) and Higgins (1992), whose ideas are useful in understanding the tributary system in ancient China. Concerning the concept of “frontier” in mainland Southeast Asia, Thongchai Winichakul (1994), Andrew Walker (2009), as well as Alexander Horstmann and Reed Wadley (2006) have developed profound ideas about the frontier issues on the Indochinese Peninsula.

Chinese primary sources include official records such as the QSL (Qing shi lu 清實錄), or Veritable Records of the Qing Dynasty, an authentic record that documented the emperor’s daily life. Basically, “the ‘Veritable Records’ are based on the ‘Diaries of Activity and Repose’, called the Qi ju zhu 起居注, which are the ‘Audience Records’” (Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, 12–13). Therefore, QSL is more reliable than other documents.

QSG (Qing shi gao 清史稿), The Draft of History of the Qing Dynasty, was compiled using the Chinese traditional chronological writing system. It is called a “draft” because it had not been completed when it was published in 1927. The history of a dynasty could only be written by its successor following the traditional philosophy for writing history. Although QSG contains many mistakes and biased viewpoints, it has substantial materials that are highly beneficial to the academic world. In this article, one memorial of Xue in QSG is adopted as an important argument.

Also included in the research are the Collections of Zeng’s Telegrams (Zeng Jize Handian 曾紀澤函電), Xue (1887–94), Yao (1892), and Xue (comp., 1975). All these officials were directly involved in the border negotiations and investigations of the situation along the border. As for official records, Wang Yanwei et al. (1987) edited the historical data pertaining to diplomatic activities during the Qing Dynasty, and thus these should be considered as crucial primary sources.

Chinese studies on the Sino-Burma frontier issue have abounded since the early twentieth century. Two contradictory opinions have been expressed regarding Xue’s negotiations with the British and the clauses between China and Britain. One side, consisting of scholars such as Zhang Chengsun (1937, 50), Yin Mingde (1933, 418), Fang Guoyu (1987, 1026), and Yu Dingbang (2000, 240), heavily condemns Xue as a quisling. They mainly blame him for losing hundreds of square miles of southwestern territories. The other side, with scholars such as Lü Yiran (1995, 57–72) and Zhang Zijian (2007, 108–116), praises Xue’s efforts. Among the scholars on the latter side is Zhu Shaohua (2007, 43–51), who argues that Xue did his best to maintain the southwest territories by taking back Cheli and Menglian,12) keeping Kokang (old Bhamo), and even expanding the southwest territory of Yunnan. These articles and books were published mostly after the 1990s, based on numerous primary Chinese and English resources. They are essential pieces of recent scholarship on the Yunnan-Burma frontier issues.

Indigenous Tai records exist mainly in the form of their chronicles. The Tai people have their tradition of recording their history, culture, and religion. It is called tamnan (ตำนาน: Chronicle) or phün/pün (พื้น), rendered into English as “chronicle.” A manuscript titled Historical Events in Moeng Laem (Lik Phuen Chao Hò Kham Moeng Laem: ลีกพื้นเจ้าหอคำเมืองแลม in Tai) records briefly: “In 1885, the British occupied Mandalay.”13) In 1890 the British came to Moeng Laem and stayed in Mang Jiang. In 1896 a British aeroplane landed in Na Lai Ang.14) In 1898 the British came to Moeng Laem and surveyed the boundary, from the Nan Ka River to Lai Sanmeng (border of Moeng Laem, Chiang Rung, and Moeng Yang).

The Gengma tusi Han Futing and the story of his family, the territory of Gengma, and its history are valuable firsthand resources. In the end, there is a brief mention of the Anglo-Chinese border negotiations in the Jengtung (Chiang Tung) State Chronicle edited and translated by Sao Sāimöng Mangrāi (1981, 277).

All in all, what was the Qing court’s reaction during the period 1885–94? What kinds of negotiation strategies did the Chinese and the British pursue? What were their goals? Where exactly were the disputed areas? What was their disagreement? The authors will briefly address all these questions.

The Qing Court’s Reaction during 1885–94 and the Disputed Areas between Yunnan and Burma

The Concept of “Frontier”

At the outset, it is essential to provide a definition of the term “frontier,” which further poses the question: What is considered the frontier of a nation-state?

Zhu (2007, 1) answers that a frontier can be seen as a symbol for a nation-state that is essential to its sovereignty. Frontiers are regarded as demarcation lines separating different countries and states. The concept of a frontier appeared when the idea of the nation-state arose in the early nineteenth century. C. Pat Giersch (2006, 14) defines a frontier “as a territory or zone in which multiple peoples meet; at least one group is intrusive, the others indigenous.” In keeping with Giersch’s observation, most parts of the frontier of China—whether imperial China or the modern PRC—are inhabited by ethnic minorities. This is particularly true for Yunnan Province, where ethnic minorities such as Tai, Mon-Khmer (i.e., Bulang and Wa), and Tibeto-Burman (i.e., Hani) have been living along the frontier for hundreds of years.15) They can be seen in this context as the indigenous group, intruded upon by Han immigrants. Integration in these areas of Yunnan Province has become an important issue.

In the case of Southeast Asia, Thongchai (1994) puts forward the concept of “geo-body.” He argues that the embodiment of a nation is not merely equal to a nation’s territory but also includes the cognitive image of a nation’s territory—which is represented through maps and images, thus making it recognizable and imaginable—in the minds of its citizens. This image of the nation’s territory is a principal source of “pride, loyalty, love, passion, bias, hatred, reason, unreason” among members of that nation (Thongchai 1994, 17). Thongchai developed the concept with Siam as a case study. He argues that in order to keep the sovereignty of its core area, Siam had to give up distant districts that were hard to administer. To an extent, because of the Mandala system, Siam did not see its borderline as an independent entity as Western countries did in the nineteenth century. After ceding the trans-Mekong territories in present-day Laos to France in 1893, King Chulalongkorn remarked:

The loss of those margins along the border of the phraratcha-anachak [the royal kingdom] which we could not look after anyway, was like the loss of our fingertips. They are distant from our heart and torso, and it is these we must protect to our utmost ability. (Thongchai 1994, 134)

Horstmann and Wadley (2006, 3) provide another perspective:

These ideas about boundaries and territoriality are particularly important in the contemporary world, where social groups aim continually to define and redefine the relations between social and physical space. People living on the fringes of the nation-state—by their very existence—question its monopoly of identification and help to transform concepts of nationalism that are otherwise taken for granted. Their routine practices of crossing international borders have important implications for our understanding of the spatial and social organization of society and culture.

There is no doubt that the conception of the boundary is essential for the functioning of a modern state. Without clear boundaries and their protection, a modern state would hardly be able to exert its undivided and undisputed sovereignty over its citizens. As many frontier areas were—and still are—inhabited by a diverse multiethnic population, of which the state often possessed only poor knowledge during the pre-modern period, many newly emerging nation-states were eager to acquire ethnographic knowledge about such peoples in order to secure and strengthen their “geo-bodies” from the late nineteenth century until the early twentieth.

In general, a frontier can be defined as the national margin, inhabited by different ethnic groups. A typical example is southwest China, which was—and is—inhabited by various aboriginal people. Intermarriage and conflicts among different local rulers could change the borderlines. Tributary relations was a useful economic strategy to help the Qing court guard its southwest territory (Giersch 2006, 13).

The Qing Court’s Reaction

From the late nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth, Yunnan faced borderline conflicts with both Burma and Vietnam, as well as parts of present-day Laos, as the indigenous ethnic groups did not integrate well into the province. The disputed area between Yunnan and Burma was located mainly in the tusi territory, which was inhabited mainly by the Tai and Mon-Khmer. As long as the tributary system was in place, the Qing court saw no need to define a clear borderline. This attitude was in line with the traditional diplomatic policy of imperial China: Gu zhe tian zi shou zai si yi 古者,天子守在四夷,16) which was translated by James Legge (1939, 700) as “anciently, the defences of the sons of Heaven were the rude (savage) tribes on every side of the Kingdom.” Thus, “all tusi and vassal states were considered properties of the Tian zi (天子, son of heaven)” (Zhu 2007, 26). Simply put, the Qing court expected its vassal states to guard the country, even though the vassal states might have carried on the tributary relationship only out of formality. Such a Sino-centric mentality played a vital role in the Qing court’s diplomatic strategy toward the Yunnan-Burma frontier issue. With this background in mind, it can be understood that even though the Qing court produced a map of Yunnan Province in 1864 (Map 1), the borderline that was drawn by no means denoted the genuine frontier.



Map 1  Yunnan Province in 1864 (Tongzhi Year 3)

Source: Library of Congress.


Two major historical events contributed to the Yunnan-Burma frontier dispute. First, after the Luchuan-Pingmian Campaigns,17) the Ming court set up eight barriers in Kachin State.18) The four barriers located on the upper banks of the Daying River (Taping River, or Ta Hkaw Hka in Kachin) were Wanren (萬仞), Shenhu (神戶), Jushi (巨石), and Tongbi (銅壁), which fall in today’s Yingjiang County, Dehong Dai, and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture. The other four, Tiebi (鐵壁), Huju (虎踞), Tianma (天馬), and Hanlong (漢龍), were along the banks of the lower reaches of the Daying River, most of which was demarcated into the Kachin State of Burma in 1960. However, Zhang (1937, 23) remarked:


All these eight barriers acted only as points of control for the tusi on the outskirts to prevent an invasion from Burma. These were not considered the frontier of Yunnan-Burma.

The second event that contributed to the border dispute was that by the end of the Sino-Burmese War (1765–69) in the reign of Qianlong, an agreement was reluctantly concluded to both sides’ disappointment.19) While the Qing court was displeased with Burma not paying tribute, Burma was dissatisfied that only the control of the tusi of Mong Kawng (Menggong) was transferred while Theinni (Mubang) and Bhamo (Bamo) still belonged to the Qing court.20) However, the two sides could not afford to fight again.21) The situation persisted until April 1788, when Burma resumed paying tribute to the Qing court to counterbalance the rise of Siam. To return the gesture, Qianlong bestowed the seals of Theinni and Bhamo on the Burmese king. This could be interpreted as ceding the three tusi territories to Burma. However:


[The Qing court] let the three Commissions be under Burmese control without any concerns. That was because Burma had already submitted [to the Qing court]. It would remain loyal and obedient for generations to come. These territories (the three tusi—Chiang Tung, Theinni and Bhamo, as well as Meng Yang and Meng Gong) became vassals of Burma, and by association, vassals of ours as well. (Li 2001, 12)

Map 2 is a modern map of Yunnan annotated by the authors with the hatched lines to show the un-demarcated area for precise comparison. The areas in sections A, B, and C are barriers alongside the Tai and Mon-Khmer inhabited areas, while sections D and E show Mengting Prefecture, Cheli Pacification Commission, and Menglian Sub-Pacification Commission. The Qing court began to lose control of these distant places in the early nineteenth century. The areas now belong to the Shan States of Burma, inhabited predominantly by Wa people.



Map 2 Yunnan Provincial Administration

Source: Xingqiu Map (2009).


QSL records on 14 Month 12th Guangxu Year 10 (January 29, 1885):


[The emperor issues a decree to] the military subjects: “Zeng Jize presented a memorial by telegraph”: The Burmese king is fatuous, and his country is plunged into chaos. There are some Chinese immigrants having taken possession of Bhamo city. . . . If [they] are conspirators, it seems better to pacify these Chinese, therefore Yunnan’s border [should] expand, to reach the [Salween] river which flows into the ocean, so that an advance border would be created. It is better to negotiate with Britain the issue of border expansion at an early date. (QSL, GX 10/12/14, 54, 837 a-b)

Nevertheless, the Qing court refused this suggestion and instead advocated a more cautious approach:


[The emperor issues a decree again]: To telegraph Zeng Jize: [His] telegraphy is already known [to me]. [Our] court has never made any effort to strategize for the affairs of distant [countries]. (Note: This means that an invasion was never on the agenda of the Imperial Court.) Isn’t it therefore preposterous to dispatch [our] army for the sole sake of broadening [our] territory? . . . If the British department refers to this matter, reply in accord to the court’s intention. Telegraph. (QSL, GX 10/12/14, 54, 838 a)

A few months later, on 14 Month 9th Guangxu Year 11 (October 21, 1885), Zeng petitioned again, advocating a more offensive stance concerning a westward expansion of the borderline:


The British have occupied southern Burma for a long time. Now [they] conspire to get Burma’s [Burma] north, to prevent the area from being seized by France. . . . [We should] take Bhamo and establish a station on the upper reaches of the Nu River (Salween River) to conduct trade. Do not allow the British to come close to our border. . . . (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 61, 16)

Later, Cen Yuying (1829–89), who was the governor of both Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces in 1873–75 and 1881–89, issued a memorial on 4 Month 5th Guangxu Year 12 (June 5, 1886):


On April 2, the tusi in Renzuo area of Burma sent ten representatives, including A Mayi and Fa Shengnong, to submit a petition letter written in Burmese. Upon inquiry, [they] claimed the British had taken the capital of Burma unrighteously. The Burmese were displaced. [They] beg [me] to draw up a memorial for the Heaven court to send troops to rescue [them] or send ministers to mediate with Britain; to [help them] sustain the Burmese King’s lineage. . . . If [they] cannot save their country, [they] would lead their people to submit to [us]. They beg to be Chinese citizens. [I] have checked [their] statement which corresponds with their Burmese petition. . . . (Huang and Bai [punctuated] [2005], 368)

From these Chinese intelligence communications, it is clear that despite the defeat of their military, the Burmese population at large still resented the British occupation. Widespread resistance to British rule was a definite possibility. The Chinese authorities were thus prompted to consider expanding their sphere of influence in Burma to push the British back as far south as possible. One month later, on 4 Month 6th Guangxu Year 12 (July 5, 1886), Cen Yuying wrote another memorial:


. . . According to the report of the [Tengyue] (today Tengchong, in the southwest part of Yunnan) Zongbing [who was named] Ding Huai (a military officer of the Qing Dynasty: the commanding officer of garrison troops of an area)/Daoyuan [who was named] Wu Qizhen (the administrated officer of the Qing Dynasty, ranking four): on April 23, . . . Mubang tusi (Burmese: Theinni, in the northern part of the Shan States) from outside the border named Zhong Wenyuan who came from Mengmao (Moeng Mao) to beg to see [the leading officials]. [He] claims that [Mubang] was once subordinate to China, [but now] it has fallen into the hands of Burma. [He] rules 49 moeng (müang). Every moeng has 2,000–3,000 households (hu). [They] choose one non-disabled man for each household; thus, they could raise over 10,000 [soldiers]. Now Burma does not have a king [any longer]. [They] decided to be [our] subordinates. If they were granted the chance to be subjects of China, they would serve as guardians of [our] borderline. . . . [I] (Cen Yuying) has confirmed that though the British have occupied the Burmese capital, [they] are resented by the population. It looks like [they] will not be able to pacify the country within a short time. Mubang is a strategic passage in northern Burma. [It] shares a boundary with the Zhefang tusi situated in the territory of Yunnan. [It] was a former Jimi22) aboriginal prefecture in the Ming Dynasty. [Then it] was transformed to be a Pacification Commission. Finally, it was conquered by Burma. In the Qianlong Year 31 (1766), its chieftain Han Songfa led his people to surrender and then integrate into Burma. Now, the Chinese and British have a good relationship. [Thus,] if we heed the request of tusi Zhong Wenyuan, [it will] probably create suspicion. If we reject it, [it is] worrying that [he] may lead his people to surrender to others, which would eventually become a threat to [our] borderline. . . . [I] beg the empress and emperor to instruct [I]. (Huang and Bai [punctuated] [2005], 369–370)

A decree on the conscription of the ministers of the council of state (Jun ji da chen 軍機大臣) was issued on 3 Month 7th Guangxu Year 12 (August 2, 1886):


Cen Yujing issued a memorial (to the emperor) about the Renzuo tusi’s call for rescue by [our] troops. . . . The governor (Cen Yuying) petitioned that the Mubang tusi was asking to be (our) subordinate. . . . The Renzuo [tusi] previously asked for military support; now, Mubang is asking to be [our] subordinate. They are treading a dangerous path out of desperation. [They] sway between rebellion and subordination. . . . Now, [I] have issued a decree to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conclude a new treaty with the British envoys; there is absolutely no reason to raise conflicts just because of one or two tusi. . . . If any Burmese come to appeal for the same issue in the future . . . refer to decree: “The Chinese and British have retained a good relationship for years, [we] are unwilling to spark any frontier disputes.” . . . These tusi should not appeal to [us] again. Pacify [them] with kind words and the Jimi will not cease. All in all . . . it is of course not appropriate to display apparent rejection nor is it to discuss subordination. (QSL, GX 12/7/3, 55, 99a–b)

Earlier, in 1884, Chen Jinzhong (a Siamese consular officer of Chinese ancestry in Singapore) advised the Chinese deputy Zheng Guanying in Singapore on June 14, 1884 (Guangxu Year 10):


If Burma perishes [because of the British], Yunnan will be plunged into turmoil that will be hard to deal with. As a Chinese officer, you should consider [all possibilities] thoroughly and devise appropriate tactics. (Xia 1982, 977)

It was not in Siam’s interest to let Britain continue to expand its colony. Chen even warned Zheng that after seizing Upper Burma, the British would quickly enter Yunnan and inland China. As a Siamese consular officer, Chen was aware of Great Britain’s territorial ambitions toward Burma and southwest Yunnan, which would trigger a boundary crisis. However, the Qing court stood firm on its traditional diplomatic strategy.

To sum up, the Qing court did not pay much attention to the affairs of these distant areas, whose primary purpose was deemed nothing more than guarding the hinterland. The Qing court even passed up on a great chance to expand the border by taking Bhamo and the Shan States. According to Zhu’s study, if the Qing court had taken advantage of protecting some Chinese immigrants in Bhamo in 1884–85, the British would have let it. That was because General Adamson Major had received an order that he should not take Bhamo if it were already occupied by the Chinese (Zhu 2007, 65). Although some Qing officers took a proactive stance, the court remained reluctant.

It was not long until the traditional diplomatic strategy was challenged by the growing presence of Western colonial powers. After its defeat in the Sino-French War (December 1883 to April 1885), the Qing court gradually realized the severity of the southwest frontier issues when China was forced to abandon its tributary relations with all of Vietnam in 1885. Without the tributary areas as buffers, there was no way to prevent the French from entering China via Tonkin in present-day northern Vietnam. That is why the Qing court insisted that Burma should continue to pay tribute. It intended to keep the tributary relationship to save face and maintain the southwest border as before. Neither Cen’s nor Zeng’s proposals could persuade the court to change its mind.

The Disputed Areas

Why did Zeng fail to come to terms with the British Foreign Office before resigning from his duty and going back to China on 19 Month 3rd Guangxu Year 12 (April 20, 1886)? His suggestions never made their way into the Burma Terms proclaimed on July 24, 1886. The first reason was that the Qing court was not concerned about the ruler being Burmese or British as long as Burma paid tribute every 10 years, a stipulation that the British felt uneasy with (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 62, 45). This condition cost the Qing court the best opportunity to negotiate with Britain (Zhu 2007, 51–62). The second reason was that Zeng had mistaken the Nu River (Salween River) for the Lu River (Irrawaddy River). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Qing Dynasty ordered him to correct this mistake before negotiating with Britain again (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 64, 18). At that time, the Qing court’s priority was to deal with the Yunnan-Vietnam frontier issue instead.

Later, when Xue Fucheng became the new Chinese minister in London (1890–94), he resumed the responsibility to negotiate with the British, who already had full control over Burma. He also aimed to understand the situation in Burma during the previous six years. Following his memoirs, we can trace China’s territorial ambitions. Xue was an educated intellectual who knew clearly that the Yunnan-Burma frontier issue would endanger the hinterland if the British kept expanding their influence in southwest China. On 25 Month 1st Guangxu Year 17 (March 5, 1891), he wrote a memorial suggesting that the emperor pursue the demarcation of the Yunnan-Burma frontier in cooperation with the British. Furthermore, he highlighted the benefits China would reap after settling the border issue with Britain (Xue 1894, Vol. 1, 73):


The British claimed [they] could offer [us] the east bank of the Lu River . . . if we could take Nan Zhang (Lan Sang, notably the northern parts of present-day Laos) and the Shan [State] as [our] subordinate or let it be [our] frontier, [then we are in] a good position to pacify the minorities and guard [our] border. . . . I have seen the latest Western map; it seems that Laos had been ceded to Siam. If we merely accept this faux offering from the British, it does not mean we can genuinely control these territories. . . . [We] should investigate whether any polities in Laos remained independent instead of succumbing to Siam. [Only then can we] decide whether to accept [the British offer] or not. (Xue 1894, Vol. 1, 73)


The Shan States that was subordinated to Burma has a territory larger than that of Laos. It is somehow autonomous and does not give in to China’s pacification. (Note: it is thus more Sinicized than Laos.) If we take the Shan States, then the border of Pu’er Prefecture and Shun Ning Prefecture would be reinforced. As for the Bhamo area that Zeng Jize asked for, although the British did not want to release it, they did give their tacit approval for [us to take the] old Bhamo area (Kokang, in the Shan State23)), which leads to Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River). If we do not fight for these areas in the future, or if we fight and fail, five concerns will arise. Under any circumstances, a person loses if he cannot gain. The discussion on border expansion was not done to enlarge the territory of China. I have heard that Burma leveraged its military strength and could not be pacified during the Qianlong Period; it annexed various regions near the border headed by rulers in Yunnan. [We have no idea about] the situation in Tengyue on the outer side of the eight barriers. The border at the southwest corner [of Yunnan] has always been unclear. If we do not seek expansion, we might let them (Britain) invade [us]. This is the first concern. If we do not leave a bit of a buffer, they will certainly construct a railway that leads to the Yunnan border. Whatever happens, our action would be limited. This is the second concern. The upper Chang Jiang River (Yangtze River) originates from the small Jin Sha Jiang (Jinsha River). The source lies in Tibet, and the river runs toward Yunnan, which is close to [our] border. Western maps call it the Yangzi River. If we expand to take the Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River), we can still keep them (Britain) slightly away from our border. If we stand still on our current border, they will notice that the river source is close. [They] might try to [induce] overflow to sailboats into the Chang Jiang River to strive for commercial profits. This is the third concern. The British are good at running commercial ports. If we expand [our] border, then the business will be conducted in Burma. We can set up a customs point and collect tax in Burma to prosper together [with the British]. If we do not expand, then the business will be conducted in Yunnan. If they request to set up a concession, or consulate [in Yunnan], it will be hard for local affairs not to be affected. This is the fourth concern. . . . Once they enter Yunnan, [they will] learn of Yunnan’s rich mineral resources, which might bring out their devious side. This is the fifth concern. . . . The British did not agree to Zeng’s proposal of making Nan Zhang (the northern parts of present-day Laos), the Shan States, and Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River) designated public areas for both buffer zones and making Bhamo a customs station. (QSG, 1977, Vol. 48, 14686-14687 [Vol. 528 Biography 315 Subordinate States 3: Burma, Siam, Nan Zhang (Laos), Su Lu (Saltanah Sulu)])

Xue made it clear that the British offer of Nanzhang (present-day northern Laos) and Shan States (present-day northeast Burma) to the Qing court did not carry much weight, as the areas were controlled by Siam and Burma, not the British. He pointed out that the frontier in the southwest region had always been unclear. If the Qing court did not seek to expand, the territory would be taken, and the situation might get out of control. The Qing court would then be put in an awkward position. In his memorial, Xue strongly suggested that the Qing court actively engages in negotiations with the British. At the same time, investigators were sent to scout the borderline according to Xue’s suggestion. The goal was to persuade local rulers in the area to defend the Qing court and keep the Western colonial powers away from the hinterland. Therefore, Xue suggested making Bhamo a customs point to collect taxes and open up the Irrawaddy River for public use (mainly for the Qing court). According to Zhu’s study and Xue’s journal, it is clear that the Qing court merely wanted to extend its frontier to include the buffer areas. It is also evident that Xue intended to garner more leverage to bargain with the British. He knew that it was impossible to ask the British to follow the agreed arrangements that Zeng had proposed six years earlier as the British had already taken control over Upper Burma. Thus, he wanted to demand more concessions to gain the upper hand in the negotiation (Xue 1985, 585; Zhu 2007, 70–74).

On July 10, 1892, Xue was sent to negotiate with the British Foreign Office on the Yunnan-Burma frontier and a trade agreement. The negotiations did not go smoothly, according to two of Xue’s journal entries of 27 Month 7th Guangxu Year 19 (September 7, 1893). The first one is titled Memorial of the Summary of the Demarcation on the Yunnan-Burma Frontier (Dianmian fenjie dagai qingxing shu: 滇緬分界大概情形疏):


Britain repudiated the previous agreement (with Zeng). Although the British explained [the repudiation] on the basis of the international treaty (the Burma Terms), the true reason is that the situation has changed. . . . Last year the British army patrolled along the border of Yunnan to investigate the border and violated our territory. . . . Zeng Jize once proposed to the British Foreign Office to make Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River) the border, with the territories on the east bank put under the control of Yunnan. But the British refused. . . . I waited for a suitable time to raise our arguments for territorial expansion. . . . [Britain] allegedly had agreed with the Indian governor to make Mengding and southwest Ganlanba, namely Kokang, a Chinese concession, which is located between the Salween River and the Nan Ding River with a total acreage of 750 square miles. Then draw a straight line from the border of Meng Mao, including (the customs point of) Han Long Guan (now in Burma), eastward until the Salween River and Mali Ba (today the capital of Kokang)—the area will be ceded to China, about 800 square miles. Then there are Cheli and Menglian, which is a large area that has always belonged to Yunnan. [We] recently have established a new prefecture, derived from Menglian, for the pacification of the border. The British [however] leveraged the fact that Menglian and Cheli had paid tribute to Burma to ask to make these shared territories. Nevertheless, now they agreed to let us have full sovereignty via a treaty and will not raise any questions on it again. (Xue 1894, Vol. 2, 22)

There are three main points raised in the above text: first, Zeng’s previous proposal was rejected by the British; second, Xue highly recommended to the Qing court to expand the territory; third, Britain recognized the full sovereignty of the Qing court over Cheli and Menglian. Xue supplemented this first memorial with a second titled Memorial of Taking Back of the Full Sovereignty of Cheli and Menglian (Shouhui Cheli, Menglian liang tusi quanquan pian: 收回車裡,孟連兩土司全權片):


In the southeast of Yunnan, in the Jimi areas, the two biggest tusi are Cheli and Menglian. In recent years, a new prefecture named Zhen Bian was established to pacify the northern border of Menglian. There is only this one prefecture. The areas of Cheli and Menglian are equal to four or five sub-prefectures in the hinterland. When the British officials and I debated on Yeren Mountain (Kachin Hills), the British Foreign Office leveraged the fact that Cheli and Menglian had paid tribute to Burma to claim control. They wanted to establish a new prefecture and designate it and the two tusi to be shared territories. I have looked up the Huidian (Code of the Great Qing Dynasty) and Yitong Yutu (Atlas of the Qing Dynasty): Cheli and Menglian have been parts of Yunnan for a long time. The new prefecture has just been established and its officer appointed. If we made these areas shared territories all of a sudden, there was no administrative system to put in place, so we stood firm on our stance. A moment later, the British Foreign Office convinced themselves to let China have full sovereignty over Cheli and Menglian. If [we] pacify and control [them] (Cheli and Menglian) suitably, [they will] guard [our] borderline and prevent spies from Britain, France, and Siam. Moreover, Lin’an and Pu’er, Simao and Yuanjiang Prefectures, could then be stabilized. Unfortunately, as soon as issues with the British have been settled, here come the French. Recently the French have forced Siam to cede the east bank of the Mekong River, and most parts of Cheli are situated there. The French requested several times to demarcate the border with us. Although they claim to have no intention to occupy Yunnan, if they know about the talk by the British, there is no guarantee that they will not follow suit. The British currently have only asked about it with empty words; they have not gained any real benefits. Now, I am negotiating the treaty with the British, claiming Cheli and Menglian belong solely to China and have nothing to do with the British. Once the treaty is signed, [I] will go as far as asking the British to be our witness to prove [that Cheli and Menglian are part of China]. The French always fear the powerful and prey on the weak. When they hear about how we spared no effort in fighting against the Russians for Pamir and the British for Yeren Mountain (Kachin Hills), it is hoped that they will proceed with the negotiation of demarcation peacefully with no arguments. Then the issue can be easily resolved without much drama. Here is my memorial, your Majesty. (Xue 1975, 22–23)

As Warry suggested in his report, the idea of ceding Chiang Rung (Cheli) might have been firmly rejected by the Qing court. Thus, he asked the British government to handle the issue with great caution. Moreover, Chiang Rung also could be a buffer area since the French had already taken Tonkin.24) That is why when Xue demanded full sovereignty over Cheli and Menglian, the British did not object. However, the British were afraid that the French would annex Chiang Rung and Moeng Laem. The condition was then written into the clause: the Qing court was not allowed to cede Chiang Rung and Moeng Laem to a third country. This clause caused a series of problems, which will be discussed later.

Taking back Menglian and Cheli was a remarkable achievement of Xue’s diplomatic career. He was praised by the Qing court. His efforts were, however, criticized by a number of scholars in the twentieth century as many believed Menglian and Cheli had been an inherent territory of China. However, now, many agree with Xue’s point of view. Although Cheli and Menglian had paid tribute to the Qing court for a long time, the areas were far from the hinterland and hard to defend and control. Xue tried his best to bargain with the British and persuaded them to recognize China’s full sovereignty over Cheli and Menglian. With the eastern borderline among China, Burma, and Laos clarified, the area became more organized, and fewer disputes occurred. Furthermore, Britain and France then had a “buffer.” A balance of powers was achieved, with Xue as the pivotal figure.

In a nutshell, Zeng proposed the following: (1) expanding the Chinese border to include the Nan Zhang (Lan Sang)25) and the Shan States, which were located outside Pu’er Prefecture; (2) designating Da Jinsha Jiang (Irrawaddy River) as a public area available to both sides for trade; and (3) establishing a Chinese customs point near Bamo (Bhamo) to collect taxes.

While his three suggestions sounded reasonable, Zeng’s downfall came about because he mistook the Irrawaddy River for the Nu River when it was the Salween River. The Qing Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Zong li ya men 總理衙門) lost its faith in Zeng as he did not seem to know enough about Yunnan. He was ordered to be extra careful before reaching a final decision with the British Foreign Office. Today, only a few records on this matter can be found in the British envoy’s office. The envoy remarked that the three suggestions were not acceptable and thus could not be part of the Burma Terms. The Qing court missed the opportunity to make the best deal.

Zeng’s successor Xue knew it was not possible to continue pursuing Zeng’s suggestions. He then tried his best to come up with the following demands: (1) make Irrawaddy River (Salween River) the border, with Yunnan taking the areas east of the river; (2) cede Kegan (Kokang), an area of about 800 square miles in the territory of Menggen (Moeng Khuen, i.e., Chiang Tung), to China; (3) let part of Yeren Shan (Kachin Hills) be included in the western border of Yunnan;26) (4) recognize Chinese sovereignty over Cheli (Sipsòng Panna) and Menglian (Moeng Laem); (5) send Burmese officers to pay tribute to China regularly, and (6) let China establish a customs point in Bhamo to collect taxes. In exchange, the Qing court would give up Chiang Tung and Mupang (Map 3).27)



Map 3 Map of the Yunnan-Burma-Siam Border

Source: National Palace Museum of Taipei, Treaties and Maps That Defined the Qing’s Southwest Bound­aries, Exhibition Room North Yard Gallery 104.


British Reaction

According to the Warry Report

With the Qing court’s stance made clear, we now compare it with Britain’s stance, which can be traced through the reports of Scott and Warry, who also drew Maps 4 and 5.



Map 4 Map Accompanying Warry’s Letter No. 9 of June 15, 1891

Source: From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 9, dated Bhamo, the 15th June 1891.



Map 5 Map Accompanying Warry’s Letter No. 9 of June 15, 1891

Source: From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 9, dated Bhamo, the 15th June 1891.


We begin with an extract from Warry’s report:

First, on the Trans-Salween section (Map 6) of the Bhamo-Chinese frontier of the 13 Trans-Salween Shan States, three only, namely, Mainglingyi, Kiangtung, and Kianghung have a frontier facing that of Yunnan. Before proceeding to trace the boundary line it will be useful to give a short account of the relations of these three States to China.



Map 6 The Trans-Salween States

Source: Mitton (1936, 138).


(1) Mainglingyi (Menglian in Mandarin and Moeng Laem in Tai): Mainglingyi has been influencing by China since nineteenth century. . . . This small Shan district, usually called Myenlyin, which lies a march or two to south-east of Kengma (Gengma). But be this as it may, it is clear that the Chinese have exercised no interference whatever the affairs of Mainglingyi for at least a century. On the other hand, Mainglingyi has in recent times often been under the authority of Kiangtung when Kiangtung paid tribute to Burma; the present Sawbwa (Tai: Chaofa, literally “Lord of Heaven”) of Mainglingyi was appointed by King Mindon, and this State may be properly classed among Burmese dependencies.

(2) Kiangtung (Jingdong in Mandarin, Chiang Tung in Tai): This State was undoubtedly tributary to Burma. Its Chiefs were appointed by Burma, and in troublous times the Burmese Kings held a military come at its capital.

(3) Kianghung (Jinghong in Mandarin, Chiang Rung in Tai): It is in respect of Kianghung that questions are most likely to arise when the question of delimitation is under discussion. Historically, . . . troops from Burma or Kiangtung have occasionally invaded western Kianghung and compelled a temporary recognition of Burmese suzerainty; and that on one occasion at least (1878) a Sawbwa of Kianghung was nominated by Burma . . ., from 1730 onwards for many years Kianghung was under the direct administration of the Chinese Prefect at Pu-erh. In more recent times Kianghung has been practically independent. . . . Its Sawbwas hold a high-sounding Chinese title the institution of which dates from the year 1387 A.D.; they refer important questions to the Ssu-mao (Simao) official from arbitration; and according to Mr. Bourne, who visited Ssu-mao in the winter of 1885, they still suffer the Chinese Sub-prefect at that place to exercise a concurrent jurisdiction over the eastern portions of their State. (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888)

According to both Chinese records and Warry’s report, it is certain that Moeng Laem, Chiang Tung, and Chiang Rung paid tribute to Burma. Chiang Tung was even occupied by the Burmese several times. Warry also mentioned that Chiang Rung benefited from the Chinese allegiance through support against Burmese or Siamese invasion. As Foon Ming Liew-Herres et al. (2012, 49) points out, Moeng Laem and Chiang Rung were influenced by China and Burma for centuries: the “Chinese-Burmese condominiums were established since the sixteenth century and prevailed until the late nineteenth century.” That is expressed in the Tai metaphor ฮ่อเป็นพ่อ เมียงเป็นแม่ (Hò pen pò man pen mae: The Chinese [Hò] are [our] father, the Burmese [man] are [our] mother). Imperial China was uneasy about allowing its vassal states to pay tribute to Burma. However, when the Burmese influence increased while the influence of the Qing court was still limited in this area, the imperial Chinese court had to make a compromise with Burma and the frontier polities (Liew-Herres et al. 2012, 49–56). This historical background must be taken into consideration when it comes to demarcation issues.

Warry’s colleague Lieutenant H. Daly further reveals:

In both Meung Lem and Kaing Hung the expression “China is our father and Burma our mother” is a stock diplomatic phrase, and it appears certain that for a considerable period prior to King Mindon’s death no Chief of either State was regarded as duly and finally installed until he had been confirmed in his position by both Burma and China.

So far as I am aware there are no reasons for advocating the inclusion within our limits of any of the Border States which owe undivided allegiance to China. (Warry’s report: From Lieutenant H. Daly, Superintendent, Northern Shan States, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, -No. 6F., dated Bombay, the 12th June 1891)

Speaking about the Chinese influence in this region, Warry mentions that the rubber trade in the north of Kamaing28) was run mainly by Chinese or Burmese agents of Chinese (From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, No. 15, dated Shwegu, the 18th May 1890). He was worried that was not only the rubber trade business influenced by the Chinese, but also considerable areas in the Shan States acknowledged the suzerainty of China:

These districts owning allegiance were termed under the Chinese Ming dynasty the San Fu (三府) or Three Prefectures, and under the present Chinese dynasty. (From W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Mandalay, to the Chief Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, No. 11, dated the 15th July 1888) (Fig. 1 and Map 7)



Fig. 1 世襲木邦宣慰司鈴記 [The hereditary wood seal of Mubang Pacification Commission. Some seals issued by the present Chinese dynasty are still hidden away in Upper Burma.]




Map 7  Nineteenth-Century Map, Including the Chinese Shan States

Source: “The Shan States,” Wikiwand.


However, he was also aware of the dwindling Chinese influence after the Qing-Burma wars at the end of the eighteenth century. In the end, the Mubang districts were absorbed into the Burmese kingdom, and the Chinese influence dwindled.

In considerable detail, Warry describes how China tried to pacify these recalcitrant Shan States:

For the last eight or nine years, however, the Chinese have devoted much more attention to their frontier dependencies, and all the Sawbwas (Chaofa, “Lord of Heaven”) now complain that they cannot raise enough money to meet the demands made upon them. Nowadays a Chinese official expects handsome presents from all Sawbwas in his charge when he takes up his appointment, when he visits the State when any cases connected with it come before him. The exactions of military officials are even more oppressive and capricious. For instance, the Kangai Sawbwa, who is the proud possess[or] of a long black beard kept carefully wrapped up in a silk bag, told me last year that this ornament had cost him tales 2000. He went on to explain that this was the sum which General Ting had fined him for having presumed to wear a beard when paying an official visit, this being held to be a disrespectful action in a subordinate. No wonder that the old Sawbwa desired incorporation with Yunnan, when such tyranny would no longer be possible, or that, failing this, he longed for the old times, when the States were free from Chinese inference. Not very long ago Mengmao and Chefang were at war for several years; many lives were lost, much property was destroyed, and general disorganization prevailed. “Why did you not step in and stop the fighting?” I asked the Deputy P’eng when he was travelling with me last year. He hesitated a moment, and then said “Well, to speak the truth, our officials never heard a word about it.”

Warry first reminded the Chinese would actively resist the British government that attempts to claim any part of Chiang Rung on the farther bank of the Mekong. He highlighted that this extension of territory would bring the British into direct conjunction with the frontier in Tongquin (Tonkin), the borders of which were thought to match with those of eastern Kianghung (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888). Nevertheless, he suggested ceding Moeng Laem as it paid tribute to Burma as Chiang Rung did. Second, he said Kiangtung (Chiang Tung) was undoubtedly tributary to Burma, and Burmese appointed its chiefs. Burmese military forces guarded its capital on many occasions.

Historically, Chiang Rung paid tribute to both Burma and China. Warry addressed the issue of Chiang Rung, which was most likely to arise during delimitation. In more recent times Chiang Rung was practically independent, despite having a strong leaning toward China (Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888). Liew-Herres et al. (2012, 55) point out those Tai polities “had the advantage of playing the ‘father’ (China) and the ‘mother’ (Burma) against each other and of gaining a maximum of autonomy.” In some cases, the “father” and “mother” could come to an agreement. In 1838 both sides reached an agreement to force these Tai polities—Chiang Rung, Chiang Tung, and Moeng Laem—to accept a peace convention (Liew-Herres et al. 2012). In a traditional patriarchal family, the father is deemed superior to the mother. Therefore, as the “father,” the Chinese spoke louder than the Burmese.

Reports from Other British Missions

Besides Warry’s report, we can trace the British frontier strategy through a number of missions sent during the 1860s to 1890s to investigate the border between Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan. The other British missions were deployed to open up a practical and direct commercial route. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the British Chamber of Commerce had urged the British government to investigate Upper Burma and western Yunnan as soon as possible. Memorials No. 32 and 33 stated the following:

No. 32 . . . the third from the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, dated 30 August 1866, and addressed to the . . . Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the other Lords of the Treasury; thus concluded:—The British government to “take all necessary measures for a survey of the country between Rangoon and Kiang-Hung (Chiang Rung, namely Sipsong Panna), with a view to the opening of a practical and direct commercial route to Western China.”

No. 33 . . . the second from the Bradford Chamber of Commerce, dated 30 November 1866, and addressed to the Earl of Derby, K.G., First Lord of the Treasury; thus concluded:—That your Lordship’s will please forthwith to authorise and direct a proper official survey, by a competent civil engineer of this country, of the best route for railway communication from Rangoon, via Kiang-Tung and Kiang-Hung, to the south-western provinces of China. (Tracts Vol. 606, Direct Commerce with the Shan States and West of China, by Railway from Rangoon to Kiang-Hung, on the Upper Kamboja River, on the South-west Frontier of China. Memorial No. 48 Thereon. From the Wakefield Chamber of Commerce. To the Lords of her majesty’s treasury, 15th of November 1868, London: 1869 [Parliamentary Paper, “Rangoon & Western China,” 28, A. Sess. 1866, Pa. 12 and 14])

After emerging victorious in the Sino-French War, France conquered the north and central Vietnam, leaving the British wondering whether the French would get ahead in exploiting the benefits from the commercial competition in mainland Southeast Asia and China. The reporter “R.G.” pressed the British government not to wait, otherwise “the Frenchman would make a way to China for us” (Tracts Vol. 606. Overland Communication with western China. A brief statement of how the matter stands at present by R.G. with a map. Liverpool: Webb, Hunt & Ridings, 9, Castle Street. Overland communication with China. The Chambers of Liverpool and Manchester).

Later, on July 23, 1882, Cameron was stopped at Seumao (Simao, today Pu’er Prefecture) because the local authorities refused to issue him a permit to pass through Kiang Hung.29) Meanwhile, the other mission, led by Colquhoun and Wahad, yielded fruitful results. The men departed from Canton (now Guangdong) on February 5, 1882, and went through Pe-se (today Baise, Guangxi Province) to South Yunnan through Kwang-nan (Guangnan), Linan (Lin’an), and Puerh (Ning’er County today) to Sao-mao (Simao). However, they had to depart from Simao to Dali, because Chiang Rung was in an unstable situation (Tracts Vol. 606, Overland China Mail, March 7, 1882; Times of India, August 8, 1882). Following are excerpts from Colquhoun’s record:

. . . [We] traversed the whole of South Yun-nan by . . . Puerh to Ssu-mao, the last south-western military and administrative centre of the Chinese Government in Yun-nan. . . . From Ssu-mao it was intended to pass through the Laos countries, either east or west of the Mekong to Zimme or Xieng-mai (the northernmost Siamese Laos state), and thence to South-Eastern Burmah. . . . The neighbouring state of Xieng-hong was in a disturbed condition, and civil war reigned there owing to a question of succession. . . . Mr. Colquhoun did not consider it prudent to enter the Xieng-hong territory. . . . I-bang is a Laos district tributary to China, situated seven stages south-east of Ssu-mao, and supplies most of the so-called Puerh tea; hence it is a Laos and not a China tea.

From the above reports, it seems evident that before the third Anglo-Burmese War British missions were sent with a primary interest in opening a practical commercial route. The purpose of the following missions then switched to surveying the borderline in order to get more benefits from the frontier negotiation. Warry’s and Scott’s missions then visited the northern Shan States and the Burma-Yunnan boundary successively from 1889 to 1904.30)

Tracts Vol. 727 (Diary of Events of Military Interest in Burma for January 1894 Bhamo and the North) recorded the following: “Captain Davies was after all permitted to accompany Mr Warry to Manwaing. On January 8th (1894) Mr Warry, accompanied by Captain Davies and with a small escort of a corporal and four men of the Yorkshire Regiment, left Namkham with the Chinese officials.” We can see that Warry accompanied Scott on his mission after he had finished his mission in 1889. Together they made a record of the Chinese military forts and the attitude of Chinese officers toward foreigners. It is reported that the viceroy of Yunnan (Songfan 崧蕃 [1895–1900]) was very amicable and favourably inclined toward the British. Warry and Scott also investigated the military posts in the Chinese territory. This was a clever manoeuvre on the part of the British government to get as much useful information as possible before signing the treaty on March 1, 1894. Unlike imperial China, Britain was savvy at frontier negotiations, with plenty of experience under its belt. Thus, China found itself in a passive position in the borderline negotiation during the 1890s.

The Reaction of Moeng Laem and Chiang Tung during the Late 1890s

The border negotiations between Britain and China should have left some traces in the collective memory of the Tai ethnic groups living on both sides of the border between British Burma and the Chinese province of Yunnan. One might, in particular, expect some reflections on these negotiations in the indigenous historiography of Moeng Laem and Chiang Tung, the two Tai polities most severely affected by the border agreement. The Chiang Khaeng Chronicle, composed in 1905, gives much prominence to the Anglo-French border treaty of 1896, which led to the division of the small Tai Lue principality of Chiang Khaeng (with its capital at present-day Müang Sing) along the course of the Mekong River. The chronicle describes in detail the strategies employed by the local elites to prevent this border treaty as well as the local reactions to the final disintegration of the Chiang Khaeng polity (Grabowsky and Renoo 2008, 43–46).

Looking at the various extant versions of the Moeng Laem Chronicle, transmitted on mulberry paper manuscripts by Pò Saeng Sam, a prolific scribe from Moeng Laem with connections to the former ruler’s court, we found no mention of the Anglo-Chinese border negotiations of the 1890s. For the second half of the nineteenth century, the Moeng Laem Chronicle deals with the conflicts between the lowland Tai and the intrusions of the Lahu (Musoe) hill tribe since the 1840s, which caused considerable political and social unrest in this small Tai polity. In the 1880s Moeng Laem was threatened by military intervention from Chiang Tung (soek khoen), which aimed at enforcing the extradition of a prince from Chiang Rung to Chiang Tung (in 1882), and by the fighting between Moeng Laem’s ally Chiang Rung with its rebellious district (panna) of Moeng Cae (in 1888). Nowhere is Britain mentioned as a political player affecting the security of the local Tai polity in Moeng Laem.

The historiography of Chiang Tung, however, provides a different picture. The Jengtung (Chiang Tung) State Chronicle (CTSC), translated and edited by Sāimöng Mangrāi (1981), pays a great deal of attention to the British victory over Burma in 1885. The defeat of Burma is described with a certain amount of satisfaction as it brought Chiang Tung some relief from Burmese military pressure, which had increased over the previous year. The British conquest of Upper Burma created a temporary power vacuum in the Shan areas, which enabled Chiang Tung to establish itself as a de facto independent polity during 1885–90 and expand its political influence deep into areas on the west bank of the Salween River. This situation abruptly ended in 1890, when “the Gāla Ingalik entered the state,” as the CTSC states in a very brief entry for the year CS 1252 (AD 1890/91). Though the British now considered Chiang Tung a protectorate, the CTSC gives the impression of Chiang Tung as an autonomous though small kingdom, as is reflected by the ostentatious Sanskrit-derived title of Prince Kònkaeo, who ascended to the throne of the Tai Khuen polity in 1896. In early 1899 the boundary between China and the British protectorate of Chiang Tung was settled. The chronicle describes these negotiations in a way that gives the Chiang Tung ruler and his officials’ disproportionate prominence as part of the British delegation:

In the year 1260, Month Three (Dec. 1898/Jan. 1899) the prince, accompanying the commissioner [of Burma], went out to demarcate the boundary with China. On the Chinese side there were Taudhāy, as the head, and Denpīn. [The boundary line] began from the Namhlak, Hlabhuk, along the boundary of Möngphaen, Möngyāng, to Dā-āng, down to Latīp, going out to Bānnôy, Kāngbengnāng, Moengva, Jengkhāng, Bānjhô, Bānfāy, Mönghlōy, along the Namṅa until the Mekong was reached. On the British side there were the commissioner and the prince heading the officials; on the Chinese side there were Taudhāy and the Prince of Svaenhvīfā heading the officials, and they went to have a conference at Mönglōng [a substate of Jengtung]. When that had been done the prince returned to Jengtung City during Month Eight of the year 1261 (May/June 1899). (Sāimöng Mangrāi 1981, 277)

It is evident here that the Tai Khuen elites of Chiang Tung did not consider the Anglo-Chinese boundary demarcation of 1899 to be detrimental to their interests. The fact that local rulers and their high-ranking officials were allowed to become part of the British delegation refurbished the rulers’ image as local actors in the borderlands of upper mainland Southeast Asia.

The Final Treaty

There were no objections from either China or Britain against Mupang (Theinni), Moeng Khuen (Chiang Tung), and Manmo (Bhamo) being absorbed into British Burma. The controversial parts in the frontier negotiation remained the territories of Yeren Mountain (Kachin Hills, in Mengyang, namely Kachin State), Menglian, Cheli, and Kokang, and access to the upper Irrawaddy River.

On 20 Month 12th Guangxu Year 19 (January 26, 1894), Xue presented the final proposal (Map 8): China would cede territories east of the Irrawaddy River in exchange for expansion on the original frontier of an extra 20 miles. The northern section of the frontier would be temporarily demarcated, except Cheli and Menglian would become a definite part of Chinese soil. A straight line would be drawn from Moeng Mao (Namkam) to Maliba (Kokang), with the east and north sides belonging to China (Xue 1975, 5).



Map 8  This Atlas was the Final Demarcation Report in Xue Fucheng’s Memorial in 1894.

Source: Xue (1975, 5).


Instead of 20 miles, Britain agreed to an expansion of only 5 miles. Additionally, a clause forbidding Menglian and Cheli from being ceded to a third party was demanded by France. The Resumption Treaty of China-Britain on Yunnan-Burma’s Border and Trade in Services of the Clauses (中英續議滇緬界務商務條款) was finally signed on 24 Month 1st Guangxu Year 20 (March 1, 1894) in London. There were 20 clauses in this treaty. As a Chinese record notes:


[Guangxu] In the Year 20 (1894), in the first month of the lunar year, [we are] formulating a new Dian-Mian (Yunnan and Burma) treaty. This new treaty has a total of 19 [sic] stipulations. [The new border] is designated to reach Jian Gao Mountain (Teng Chong) in the north. In the southwest, the border runs from Jianghong (Chiang Rung, south of Sipsong Panna) to Mei Jiang (Mekong River). It allows Chinese ships to sail in the Irrawaddy River at any time, but the issue of establishing a customs station in Bhamo is deleted. Thus, the borderline issue between Yunnan and British Burma is roughly resolved. (QSG 1977, Vol. 48, 14689 [Vol. 528 Biography 315 Subordinate States 3: Burma, Siam, Nan Zhang (Laos), Su Lu (Saltanah Sulu)])

The treaty defined the middle and southern frontiers of Yunnan-Burma, but the north was defined as an undetermined frontier. The territories of Sipsong Panna, Menglian, and Mengding were demarcated. Thus, the first stage of the Yunnan-Burma frontier issues was concluded.

Xue did an excellent job for China’s interests. This treaty not only kept Cheli and Menglian within China but also slightly expanded the southwest territory. Nonetheless, Zhang (1937), Liu (1946), and Yu Dingbang (2000) point out that Xue failed to negotiate over the loss of many territories, such as Bhamo, Mupang, and Chiang Tung. In contrast, Zhu (2004) holds that Xue tried his best to hold onto the southwest territories by taking back Cheli and Menglian, keeping Kokang (old Bhamo), and expanding the southwest territory of Yunnan. For the British, it was a successful treaty as it gave them what they wanted. The English version of the “1894 Convention between Britain and China” illustrated the frontier (Map 9), which perfectly corresponded with the Chinese version:



Map 9  Map Illustrating the Convention of 1st March 1894.

Source: Treaty Series, No. 19, 1894.


. . . leaving to China the State of Kokang . . . and Meng Ting which belongs to China. . . . It will still continue to follow the frontier between those two districts, which is locally well known . . . and will then follow the line of water-parting between the tributaries of the Salween and the Mekong Rivers . . . leaving to China the Tsawbwaships (lordships) of Keng Ma, Mengtung, and Mengko . . . leaving Munglem to China, and Manglün to Britain. It will then follow the boundary between Munglem and Kiang Hong, which is locally well known; It will then follow the boundary between Kiang Tong and Kiang Hung. . . . His Majesty the Emperor of China shall not, without previously coming to an agreement with Her Britannic Majesty, cede either Munglem or Kiang Hung, or any portion thereof, to any other nation. (Treaty Series, No. 19, 1894, 4–7)

Map 2 shows that of sections A, B, C, D, and E, only sections B and E were settled, with a clause in section E determining that Cheli and Menglian could not be ceded to a third country. Section C (Moeng Mao) became a perpetual lease area, and sections A and D were un-demarcated areas.

Evaluation of the Clause

The authors believe that Zhu (2004) made an objective assessment. Even if China had obtained more territory in this treaty, it would not have been able to guard it as the country was too weak at that time. China lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1894–95, marking the failure of the Westernization Movement (Yang wu yun dong 洋務運動). China was deemed as an old, weak, and frangible nation that any powerful country could get a piece of. Moreover, Mupang, Bhamo, and Chiang Tung had already been subordinated to Burma for over a century, with little Chinese influence left in these areas. It was therefore not practical to ask for the return of these areas.

Its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War compelled China to cede Moeng Vu (U) and U De (U-Tai) to France in 1897 (Map 10). That was because earlier, on April 17, 1895, after the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed between China and Japan, France managed to force Japan to return the province of Liaoning (northeast China) to China and then demanded that one of the 12 panna, Moeng Vu (U) and U De (U-Tai) in northern Phongsaly in Laos today, be ceded to France as a reward.



Map 10  Annotated from Tan et al. (1982, Vols. 6, 7, 8)


France’s demand, however, forced China to violate the treaty it had signed with Britain. In order to achieve a beneficial supplemental agreement with China for additional trade benefits, as well as curbing French colonial ambitions in mainland Southeast Asia and the Chinese hinterland, a new mission led by Scott was sent again to Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan. In 1895–96, Scott’s mission submitted another confidential report in which he argued:

We should be only a few miles distant from Puerh and Sumao, two of the most important towns in the south-west corner of Yunnan, and, should the trade of Yunnan fall short of expectations, we should be in a better position and have a better chance of creating a trade, being on the Mekong, than if we limit ourselves to the Kong Ming Shan range. . . . There remains the western part of the province, and whether a great trade will eventually be created there or not, we are running a commercial race with France, the prize being the possession of that trade. If the retention of Mong Lem and Kèng Hung be a commercial advantage to us in the race, then let us keep these provinces. . . . France regards Yunnan as the “natural Hinterland” to her Tonkin possessions, and she will sooner or later make a bid for a further advance northwards. Should this ever come to pass and Mong Lem (Meng Lian), Keng Hung (Jing Hong), and Chen Pien (Zhen Bian) remain Chinese territory, there will be a tongue of China between us and the French which, in the event of an alliance between the two powers ever becoming au fait accompli, would bring their forces very close to the Salween. . . . On the Mekong we should be far more favourably situated, for we should then be on the direct flank of the French in the event of any further extension on their part taking place towards the north. (Property of the Government of India. Issued by the Intelligence Branch, Q.M.G.’s Department. This report is transmitted for the personal information of the Chief Secretary Chief Commissioner Burma by direction of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief in India and is to be considered Confidential. Supplement to Report of the intelligence officer on Tour with the Superintendent, Northern Shan States, 1895–96, 3)

Scott strongly recommended that the British government extend the frontier to include Pu’er (Ninger County, administered by Pu’er Prefecture today) and Sumao (today’s Pu’er Prefecture), which meant annexing Mong Lem (Moeng Laem) and Keng Hung (Jinghong/Chiang Rung), if commercial benefit could be generated. On the other hand, he was worried about sharing a direct border with France. Therefore, this confidential report suggested that the British government carefully consider whether it was worth it to expand its territory toward Pu’er.

The British were also cautious about triggering military conflicts because they believed the Yunnanese probably possess higher fighting qualities than the Chinese who inhabit the sea-board and dwell in the valleys of the great waterways. They are well armed and, if properly led, it is not improbable that they would fight well. (Property of the Government of India. Issued by the Intelligence Branch, Q.M.G.’s Department. This report is transmitted for the personal information of the Chief Secretary Chief Commissioner Burma by direction of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief in India and is to be considered Confidential. Supplement to Report of the intelligence officer on Tour with the Superintendent, Northern Shan States, 1895–96, 3)

The British government thus hesitated to claim Menglian and Cheli.

Zhu (2007, 99) stresses that the British government insisted on compensation for the breach of the treaty for two reasons: first, Britain felt offended; second, it was afraid that France would take advantage of the commercial and strategic competition in the Upper Mekong Basin and enter the Chinese hinterland via Yunnan. According to the collection of original documents Siam, France, and China. British Documents on Foreign Affairs (Part I, Series E, Vol. 23, 159), Zhu also concludes that Moeng U and U Tai did not mean much to the British (Zhu 2007, 101). She reveals that the British could have asked for less territory in the Yeren Mountain area if they could have opened a commercial port in Xi Jiang (西江), from Yunnan to Guizhou/Guangxi and then Guangdong.

Therefore, when the Qing court refused to cede Cheli and Menglian to the British, the latter did not insist on it. As the Qing Ministry of Foreign Affairs memorialized to the emperor on 15 Month 11th Guangxu Year 21 (December 30, 1895):


[I] have looked into opening a commercial port in Xi Jiang. Although there will be a loss in the lijin (a local business tax that was utilized during the late Qing Dynasty), the customs taxes could offset [the loss]. Yeren Mountain is the barrier of Yunnan. Moreover, the British Foreign Department claimed not only Yeren Mountain but also the southwest [Yunnan], and sought to extend [the border] to Cheli. [Yunnan would] thus lose the [barrier] terrain. The lesser of the two evils should be chosen. Currently, [I] am afraid [if we] delay the decision, things would be unpredictable. It would be even more difficult to deal with. [We] have discussed together secretly, and plan to approve the opening of the commercial port in Xi Jiang, and the frontier of Yeren Mountain will be negotiated [with Britain] with strength. (Wang et al. 1987, Vol. 119, 5)

Finally, the Renewed Burmese Treaty between China and Britain (中英續議緬甸條約) was signed on February 4, 1897. China was willing to give up Kegan (Kokang) and the north of Danni (Theinni, part of Mupang), and the British were allowed to set up a new commercial port in Xi Jiang. This was the last official negotiation between China and Britain, bringing an end to the border dispute.

The two powers had tested each other’s bottom lines to maximize their benefit for the past 10 years. Both sought ways to garner trade benefits amid the demarcation of the Yunnan-Burma boundary. It is hard to say which side won the bargain. Britain had to abandon its territorial claims on Cheli and Menglian, while China also had to abandon some of its historical territories.31)

Besides, China was forced to face an increasingly serious boundary crisis. The Qing court was prompted to retire its traditional diplomatic strategy and embrace being part of the modern world, in which China no longer stood in the centre. It was a hard pill to swallow. That was why many scholars in the early or middle of the twentieth century regarded Xue as an incompetent traitor who sold out on many of China’s historical territories.


William Warry was a British intelligence officer who led a mission to investigate Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan during the years 1889–91. The main purpose of the mission was to obtain knowledge about the situation in these areas, such as ethnic groups, topography, and border issues; and then offer useful insights to the British government on matters such as handling the rubber trade and peacefully expanding business with India, Burma, and China, and ways to negotiate with the Qing court to maximize benefit in the frontier negotiation. Warry also promoted a railway extension from Burma to Yunnan. There is not enough information to gauge to what extent the British government adopted his suggestions, but the government in London did conclude a treaty with the Qing court a few years after the mission. The treaty was to define the border between southwest Yunnan and Burma. On March 1, 1894, both sides signed a treaty with 20 clauses, including those recognizing China’s sole sovereignty over Moeng Laem and Chiang Rung, as part of Cheli, as Warry had suggested.

In the final days of the Qing Dynasty, from the late nineteenth century—when the tributary system had collapsed—the Qing court had to face a serious frontier crisis. This crisis was fueled by the rise of Western colonial powers internationally and the rise of Chinese nationalism domestically. Imperial China had to adjust itself to the rapidly changing world dominated by the West.

Thongchai (1994) suggests that boundary issues were a concern mainly of the British, while the Siamese did not find the existing boundary to be an issue and thus did not feel the need to do anything about it. In this case, Western colonial powers invaded the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, causing several frontier problems. The traditional tributary system, for which some Western scholars coined the concept of Mandala in Southeast Asian polities, was challenged by the new international rules, which were determined by Western colonial powers. China could not avoid being part of the world. After that, most Asian countries had to accept the modern rules formulated by the Western world. By giving up distant, multiethnic areas at the periphery of the empire and at the same time keeping their core areas intact, these Asian countries—such as Siam—were able to survive. As a result of this process, the geo-body of a modern nation-state emerged. States such as China and Siam knew clearly that the multiethnic areas along their borders were difficult to administer and integrate into mainstream society. Sacrificing these less important places and strengthening sovereignty over the Chinese and Thai core areas proved to be a wise strategy for the weaker Asian countries during the colonial period.

The only difference between China and Siam in this regard was that China held onto the idea that it was the centre of the world until the early twentieth century. China was afraid of losing face when it had to negotiate the Yunnan-Burma frontier with Great Britain. That was why it insisted on maintaining its traditional tributary system at the expense of giving up many practical benefits. However, Siamese policy was more flexible and pragmatic. As Rama IV, King Mongkut argued, the most important goal was to save and protect the Siamese Empire and to prevent it from being colonized. His successor, Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn, continued his father’s policy. He ensured that Siam did not get involved in the colonial system of Western imperialist powers. Unfortunately, China did not have a wise ruler of comparative standing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The boundary is part of the concept of a nation-state and helps the latter to distinguish itself from other authorities. For local people who lived along the newly drawn borderlines, in many cases, the boundary existed only on a map, not in their minds. Based on geographical proximity, people in the border areas always retained intimate economic or emotional relationships across national borders, especially when they came from the same ethnic group and shared the same language, culture, and even identity.

One such border area was Yuesong (岳宋鄉) in Ximeng County, which was inhabited by members of the Wa (of Mon-Khmer stock) and Tai ethnic groups. The county was located in northwest Menglian on the right bank of the Salween River. The territory of Ximeng bordered the Burmese Wa State, which is marked as section D on Map 2, to the south of the un-demarcated line. On October 1, 1960, the Frontier Convention between China and Burma (中國人民共和國和緬甸聯邦邊界條約) was signed. Through this agreement, the frontier issue between China and Burma, which had lasted for 70 years, was finally resolved. The territory of Ava Mountain was split into two parts: one went to China and the other to Burma.32) Thus, the Wa people became another one of the main transborder ethnic groups. Their national awareness is an interesting case study, which has attracted scholars since the 1960s (Guo 2012, 20–28). Wa people who live on both sides of the border still retain close relationships with one another. In 2008, one of the authors of this paper went to do fieldwork in Yuesong. She interviewed several Wa people from Burma who admitted that they frequently crossed the border to visit their relatives. The borderline marks administrative boundaries but does not serve as a partition wall for groups of the same ethnicity. The Wa people represent a common social phenomenon in southwest Yunnan and probably also mainland Southeast Asia. Yunnan is one of the most complicated areas in China. That was one of the reasons why Warry had to investigate Upper Burma and southwest Yunnan personally.

Between the Burmese territory and inland China, along the upper Mekong River and the Irrawaddy River, multiethnic groups have lived independently for hundreds of years. However, the rise of British colonial ambitions and China’s growing awareness of frontiers changed the destiny for these multiethnic, distant areas.

The borderlines were formed after fierce negotiations between China and Britain. This demarcation defined most of the areas caught in the border dispute between Yunnan and British Burma. For Britain, the demarcation of borderlines was a successful expansion into the Indochinese Peninsula; for China, it was a big challenge to its century-old diplomatic strategy in dealing with “barbarian polities” at its southern periphery; for local polities, it was a life-changing event that was decided for them without much of their involvement. The truth is that preferential diplomacy would never be offered to a weak state.

Accepted: July 4, 2019


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1) The full name of this confidential document kept in the British Library is: “Photocopies of Selected Official and Private Papers of William Warry (1854–1936), acting assistant Chinese secretary, Peking 1881–82, special service, Government of India from 1885, political officer, Bhamo, Mandalay and Shwegu 1887–89, adviser to the Chief Commissioner, Burma, on Chinese affairs 1890–1904; including photocopies of maps of the Trans-Salween section of the Burmo-Chinese frontier.” For the sake of convenience, this article will refer to this document as “Warry’s report” in an abbreviated form.

2) Previously known as the Oriental and India Office Library, or the British Library: Asia, Pacific and African Collections (APAC).

3) The Shan States were under the jurisdiction of the colonial power, namely Great Britain. Moreover, “the single Shan State within the Union of Burma, including the former Wa States, was formed in 1948.” For more details see Maring and Maring (1973, 223–224). Therefore, the term of Shan States will preferably be used in this article, because this term relates to the administrative and political context during the time of British jurisdiction. However, the footnote 23 is an exception, as Kokang is now part of the Shan State of present-day Burma.

4) The British National Archives have a description of Warry in the catalogue Photocopies of Selected Official and Private Papers of William Warry (1854–1936),, accessed August 4, 2019.

5) All 18 dynasties in the history of the Chinese Empire may be regarded as the imperial court or Chinese Empire. In this article, the authors use “Qing court” to refer specifically to the last dynasty in the history of the Chinese Empire. Otherwise, “imperial court” or “Chinese Empire” is used.

6) Ancient Chinese calendar, also known as the lunar calendar. The Gregorian date is in parentheses.

7) The original convention paper is now kept in the National Palace Museum of Taipei: The Green Borderlands: Treaties and Maps that Defined the Qing’s Southwest Boundaries; Dates: 2016-12-10–2017-06-18; Gallery: (Northern Branch) Exhibition Area I 104,, accessed August 4, 2019.

8) Mengting: Mengding Tribal Prefecture (Meng ding yu yi fu 孟定御夷府) was established in 1382 during the Ming Dynasty. It was first established during the Yuan Dynasty in 1294 as Mengding Lu (the same rank as prefecture). For details, see Dao (1989, 271–278).

Mengyang, Yunyuan Prefecture, was established in Moeng Ying (in Upper Burma) in 1382. It was renamed Mengyang Prefecture in 1384, and the Mengyang prefectural administration was abolished in 1449. For details, see Liew-Herres and Grabowsky (2008, 27).

Mupang: Mubang Military-cum-Civilian Pacification Commission (Mu bang jun min xuan wei shi si 木邦军民宣慰使司) was established in 1289 by the Yuan Dynasty. Mubang Prefecture was established in 1382. For details, see Dao (1989, 317–338).

9) The tusi system was “a mechanism of territorial control and expansion, which was used by Chinese polities over a period of approximately 2,000 years” from the Western Han Dynasty (Wade 2015, 74). “The tusi system is actually a generic name for a variety of systems that successive Chinese polities used to control and exploit polities that bordered them,” and it had various names over time. It “was a common phenomenon under many empires, Asian and Western.” The tusi system was an attractive but also controversial topic. The authors believe it was a formal and strict bureaucratic system that was utilized to manage and expand the territories of the south and west non-Han districts (it was set up in seven provinces in the Ming Dynasty, while the expansion occurred mainly in Yunnan/Guangxi and Guizhou) from the Yuan until the Qing Dynasty.

10) Even though several maps of the Qing Dynasty clearly show the borderlines between China and Burma, the demarcation had not been defined under international law. See Maps 1 and 2.

11) The clash between European and indigenous Southeast Asian concepts of sovereignty and border has been elucidated by Thongchai Winichakul (1994), using Siam (Thailand) as a case in point.

12) Menglian refers to 猛璉 or 孟璉 in Chinese historical documents; 孟连 is the Chinese name in modern times. The pronunciation of Menglian in the Tai language is Moeng Laem. To clarify, when referring to Chinese documents, the authors use Menglian as the pinyin pronunciation in Mandarin. But when referring to English or Tai documents, they use Moeng Laem. As for Cheli, Chinese classic documents write 車裏 or 撤裏. It is located mainly in present-day Sipsong Panna Tai Autonomous Prefecture (Xishuangbanna dai zu zi zhi zhou 西双版纳傣族自治州). In Warry’s report, he used Khiang Hung to name the capital of Sipsong Panna. This was Chiang Rung in Tai, Jinghong (景洪) in Mandarin.

13) The collector and oral translator is Bo San (Tai: Po Saeng Sam), a famous scribe in Moeng Laem. As Volker Grabowsky (Goldston and Stuart-Fox 2019, 311–312) transcribes, “Po Saeng Sam wrote his short biography on a sheet of mulberry paper, the traditional writing material, on the first day of the Buddhist New Year: ‘In 1948, [I] was ordained as a novice until 1955. I married in 1959 and became a local administrative official in 1981. I started to work for the Buddhist religion in 1985. And then, I made up my mind to transmit [these scripts] to the generations of my children and grandchildren.’ Throughout the Tai minority areas, Po Saeng Sam possesses one of the largest private collections of manuscripts, the vast majority of which he wrote himself.” The manuscript is written in the Tai Lue version of the Tham script on mulberry (sa) paper. This manuscript records historical events from the years AD 1488 to 2001. The manuscript, copied in 2006, comprises 22 folios. This manuscript has been collected also in Yin et al. (2010).

14) Of the airplane that appeared in Menglian in 1896, there is no reliable evidence other than the Tai script records. The authors presume the manuscript may have mistaken the specific date. Such mistakes are common in Tai chronicles.

15) For details on the ethnic groups in Yunnan, see Ma (2014, 25–51), Unger (1997, 67–76), and Michaud (2009, 25–49).

16) Zuo Zhuan, Lord Zhao Year 23 (左传,昭公23年).

17) See Liew-Herres (1996).

18) The Ming court set up three Sub-Pacification Commissions and six Pacification Commissions (San xuan liu we 三宣六慰) around southwest Yunnan, Upper Burma, and the northern parts of Thailand and Laos. The three Sub-Pacification Commissions were named Nandian, Longchuan, and Ganya, while the six Pacification Commissions were Cheli, Miandian, Mubang, Babai Dadian, Mengyang, and Laowo.

19) Burma started the war because of the dissatisfactory tributary relationships with Mengding, Gengma, Menglian, and Cheli (see Zhang 1937, 77–80). But the underlying reason lay in the territorial ambitions of the Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885) toward Siam. Cheli and Menglian were important passages for the provision of materials. See Harvey (1925, 241, 253, 261) and Giersch (2006, 4–6).

20) For more details, see Dai (2004, 145–189).

21) Burma became involved in the Burmese-Siamese War, while the Qing soldiers could not bear the subtropical climate.

22) Jimi, also named the Jimi fuzhou system (羁縻府州制), was a system of “prefectures under loose reins.” Like the former tusi system, it was an autonomous administrative and political organization system used in China between the seventh and tenth centuries. See Peng (2004, 104–108).

23) Kokang now is in the Shan State of Burma.

24) This will be discussed in later sections. Note by W. Warry, Esq., Political Officer, Bhamo, on the Trans-Salween Section of the Bhamo-Chinese Frontier, dated Mandalay, the 20th September 1888.

25) The Lao kingdom of Lan Sang (literally, “[the kingdom of] one million elephants”) had split between 1707 and 1713 into the three kingdoms of Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center, and Champassak in the south, each of which claimed to be a successor state of Lan Sang. After 1778–79, all three Lao kingdoms fell under Siamese suzerainty and became vassal states of Siam. Following the ruthless suppression of a failed attempt by King Anu, the vassal ruler of Vientiane, in 1826–28 to restore Lao independence, only Luang Prabang—which had remained loyal to Bangkok—survived as a semi-autonomous vassal kingdom. Whenever Chinese sources refer to Nan Zhang (Lan Sang), they mean Luang Prabang, whose ruler also acknowledged Chinese overlordship. For details, see Stuart-Fox (1998, 99–141).

26) Kachin Hills belonged to both Burma and China. According to international practice, both countries were entitled to equal sovereignty.

27) This map was probably used as a source of reference by Xue Fucheng, the Qing envoy to Britain, in the negotiation over border demarcation between Yunnan and Burma with British Foreign Secretary Archibald Philip Primrose, Fifth Earl of Rosebery (1847–1929).

28) Kamaing is a town in the Kachin State of the northernmost part of the Union of Myanmar. It is also named Kamine.

29) Tracts, Vol. 606, under the catalog “Colquhoun Expedition into Burmah, Opinions of the Press London, 1882” and the sub-branch “The Times of India, 8th August 1882” (from our own correspondent). Cameron was refused by the local authorities because the French Mekong expedition arrived at Kiang Hung and tried to pass Simao through threat the local authority. The local authorities believed the mission’s intention was too troublesome (Tracts Vol. 606).

30) Sir George Scott Correspondence on the Burma-Chinese Boundary during 1894–96. The documents are kept in the British Library under the Shelf Mark Mss Eur F278/88/89/90.

31) Historical territories were tributary states that had close relationships with the Chinese court or were under the indirect control of the court, for instance, they paid tribute regularly and bestowed gifts and official ranks as appropriate. These tributary states were regarded by the Chinese as historical territories. For further details, see Perdue (2015, 1012).

32) For details of the Demarcation Convention between China and Burma in the 1960s, see Feng and Qi (2006, 55–60).


Vol. 9, No. 2, Carola Erika LOREA


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 2

Contesting Multiple Borders: Bricolage Thinking and Matua Narratives on the Andaman Islands

Carola Erika Lorea*

*Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
e-mail: aricar[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.2_231

In the liquid borderlands between South and Southeast Asia, where refugees from East Bengal were resettled after the massive Partition-induced displacement, the god Ram is narrated as a great model of filial piety but also as the murderer of a low-caste ascetic. The Vaishnava saint Chaitanya is a divine character but also a reproachable renunciate who abandoned his mother and forced her to beg from door to door. The crocodile is an ideal devotee who caught fish to bring as offering for the religious congregation, justifying the introduction of an otherwise forbidden substance on the altar. Drawing on both ethnographic and literary sources, I use recurrent “bundles of stories” such as these, transmitted and performed by the Matua community on the Andaman Islands, to discuss narratives as a way of knowing and to describe “bricolage thinking” in borderland selves. I interpret the aesthetics and the literary devices used in these narratives as strategies to shape borderland community values. These rely upon past memories and provide for present articulations of resistance. This article suggests that Matua narratives contest political borders by traveling between and connecting fragmented sections of the displaced community through the voices of itinerant preachers, performers, and pilgrims. At the same time, they trespass onto other kinds of borderlands, such as those created by unequal positions of socioeconomic power and those marking the center and periphery of religious hegemony.

Keywords: Bengali, refugee, Dalit, Vaishnava, Chaitanya, avatar/incarnation, gender, resistance


The stories discussed in this article, which I collected during fieldwork in the Andaman Islands in early 2017 and December 2018–January 2019, derive from a community known as Matua (Matuẏā) which originated in rural East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in the nineteenth century. They are shared regularly as oral narratives among Bengali-speaking Matua communities in India and Bangladesh. They are also performed as sacred songs, recited during ritual gatherings, as well as printed in canonical scriptures and affordable vernacular magazines. They operate on both a religious and a social level, consolidating both a religious identity and a politically active caste-based movement.1) They represent a traveling archive of shared knowledge for a large part of the Bengali community of post-Partition settlers on the archipelago.

Located at the junction of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, in the eastern Indian Ocean, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands constitute a union territory under the Republic of India, although they are geographically much closer to Burma and Thailand.2) The capital city of Port Blair is separated from the Indian mainland by 1,300 kilometers of water. An oceanic borderland between South and Southeast Asia, in a crucial node of maritime trade (legal and illegal—see GOI 2011; Allana 2015) and transport, the Andamans are home to a mosaic of people occupying, with various degrees of legitimacy, spaces in and between towns, marketplaces, coasts, outskirts, and dense forests (Mukhopadhyay 2016). Descendants of convicts from different parts of the British Empire today live side by side with repatriated Sri Lankan Tamils, old communities of indentured and contract laborers from Burma and North India, indigenous people pushed increasingly to the margins of a shrinking forest, and post-Independence refugee settlers from East Bengal. This last group is the main repository of the stories across borders presented in this article.

After Independence and the Partition of India (1947), the Andamans were identified, together with other regions of the subcontinent, as a strategic location to rehabilitate a portion of the overwhelming and continuous flow of refugees from East Bengal (Basu Ray Chaudhury 2000; Biswas 2009; Sen 2011; 2018). Chosen mainly on the basis of their caste and traditional occupation, the agriculturist refugee families selected for resettlement on the Andamans were mostly Namashudra, a low caste that constitutes almost in its entirety the social composition of the Matua religious movement. Namashudra refugees from East Bengal migrated to the Andamans bringing along Matua rituals, ethics, and myths. The Matua religion has enjoyed consistent and increasing popularity on the Andaman Islands—as well as in many other regions where low-caste refugees from East Bengal were rehabilitated. At the same time, Matua practitioners became borderland dwellers because of a long and often violent history of displacement, which compelled them to shift from the riverine plains of (present-day) southern Bangladesh to other regions of the neighboring, Hindu-majority, Republic of India. While these migrants constitute a gradually larger share of the Andaman population, their presence, after the end of the British colonial regime, has contributed to the demographic consolidation of the Andamans as an Indian territory.

Drawing on both ethnographic and literary sources, I use Matua stories to discuss narratives as a way of knowing and to envisage a process of “bricolage thinking” in borderland selves. Although the longue durée of the term “bricolage” in anthropological literature dates as far back as Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962), later critically revised by Jacques Derrida (1967), I build particularly on Jean Comaroff’s (1985) usage of the term in the anthropology of religion. In this context, the literal meaning of bricolage as a creation from a diverse range of available things, achieved by using whatever comes to hand, is applied to religious creativity during colonialism, in order to explain appropriation and subversion of cultural elements borrowed from the oppressors’ repertory of symbols. Hence, far from signifying something amateurish, playful, or half-baked, bricolage has come to represent ontologies and creative patterns which are critical of a dominant culture.3)

In this article, I use concepts and frameworks developed in the literature on South Asian borderlands (van Schendel 2005; Gellner 2013; de Maaker and van Schendel 2014; among others) and within narrative theory applied to social movements (Davis 2002; Selbin 2010). Drawing on the former, I contextualize the Andaman Islands as an epicenter of liquid borderlands, and I adopt a perspective privileging flows and exchanges of people and cultural expressions in a transnational manner to rethink the “local,” rather than sanctioning fixed geopolitical entities and the indisputability of the nation-state. Drawing on the latter, I interpret the aesthetics and the literary devices used in the narratives as strategies to shape borderland community values. These rely upon past memories and provide for present articulations of resistance.

I focus on oral narratives as richly complex, multivocal phenomena that are reflective of culture, adjustive responses, expressions of social needs and pressures within a social structure, as well as models for mediating unwelcome contradictions (Blackburn 1975, xx). Narratives, as Richard Bauman has pointed out, are doubly anchored in human experience: they are keyed both to the events that are told and to the events that they recount (Bauman 1986, 2). This enables them to be a privileged source allowing us to study the way in which people create alternative histories, as well as their politics of cultural representation. My interlocutors for the ethnographic material presented in this paper are mainly Matua practitioners and performers, village gurus—often seen as pivotal storytellers and human repositories of folk narratives in the Indian context (Narayan 1989)—and disciples. These are story-keepers “who know the local tales and memories and make it their task to remember and recite” (Singer 1997, xii).

Matua narratives reflect the community’s beliefs about the body, the family, a theology of salvation, and a social theology of liberation from oppression on the part of its low-caste members.4) Matua stories from the Andaman Islands result from a tension between preserving unchanged stories perceived as coming from the ancestral homeland, from “back there” and “back then,” and adapting these stories to the requirements of a new society and a different environment. This article suggests that Matua narratives contest political borders by traveling between and connecting fragmented sections of the community through the voices of itinerant preachers, performers, and pilgrims. At the same time, they trespass onto other kinds of borderlands, such as those created by unequal positions of socioeconomic power and those marking the center and periphery of religious hegemony.

The ethnographic material used for this article is the result of two fieldwork periods (winter 2016–17 and winter 2018–19). Non-directive, unstructured interviews and group conversations were recorded on a voice recorder, on a sound recording device, or in fieldwork notes, depending on the sonic environment and the medium that would make my interlocutors most comfortable. My fieldwork area was predominantly North Andaman (especially the villages around Diglipur, Kalipur, Radhanagar, Ramnagar, Gandhinagar, and Paschim Sagar), which can be reached by a painfully bumpy 12-hour bus journey from the capital, Port Blair, or by ferry, with an 18-hour journey via Mayabunder. In South Andaman, I worked with Matua preachers and performers around Wandoor (Ghumai and Hasmatabad) and on Havelock Island. Apart from Havelock Island and Diglipur, which are fairly well equipped for tourists, accommodation facilities were not available. I stayed most of my time in the huts and homes of local Matua families, leaving donations for their annual festivals or sweets and food items as repayment, when this was considered acceptable, for their time and overwhelming hospitality.

Liquid Borders and Islands as Borderlands

The borders conventionally dividing South and Southeast Asia owe much of their existence to colonial state making and to a rapid, often violent, decolonization, which left people fragmented and territories disputed (de Maaker and van Schendel 2014). The end of the British Empire, the Partition of India (1947), and the newly imposed—and often hastily drawn—borders in the second half of the twentieth century triggered massive flows of forced migration and transformed “centers” into state “peripheries.” Since such peripheries are strategically important for the maintenance and consolidation of the state, South Asian borderlands became increasingly militarized. Mobility became restricted and heavily monitored.

Recent studies of Asian borderlands have pointed out that the sovereign power of the postcolonial state is in its most manifest form at its borders (van Schendel 2005; Gainsborough 2009). Much of the related academic work concerning South Asia has been concentrated on mainland borders (especially between India and Pakistan) and on high-level politics regulating borders, focusing on state actors, border officials, and formal authorities. There is still relatively little knowledge of local perspectives on borderland discourse (Baud and van Schendel 1997) or of how borderland peoples cope with and resist borders. This article responds to this lack of balance. It focuses on borderland people surrounded by maritime borders, physically distanced by the barbed-wire borders of the mainland. It offers a reflection of borderland voices from below and of their strategies to contest political borders and consolidate cultural identity across borders by maintaining cross-border linkages and connections.

People inhabiting the borderlands of South Asia are often viewed with suspicion from the perspective of those inhabiting geographical and social centers of power. In mainstream narratives borderland peoples represent threatening and subversive “others,” readily conspiring against the state, its unity and integrity (van Schendel 2005; Evans 2010). Those inhabiting the peripheries are often the object of subtle—or even open—accusations of being less civilized, less proper, less “citizens” than members of the dominant culture (Scott 2009; Bonnin et al. 2015; Andĕlová 2017). Thus, the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, distant enough from the Indian peninsula to justify exotic accounts and stereotyped descriptions of “the locals,” have been subject to a range of accusations, applied not only to indigenous people but also to later settlers. Premodern sources maliciously inform us of the existence of wolf-headed man-eating natives (Vaidik 2010, 18–20). Post-Independence accusations are, by contrast, more subtly crafted. Reports and popular media depict the Andamans as a pluralistic and multireligious “melting pot” which challenges the moral and cultural caste-based structures of the mainland, especially in terms of connubial and commensal restrictions (Biswas 2009, viii; Zehmisch 2012; Abraham 2018). These descriptions tend to represent a homogeneous “island culture” where different ethnicities coexist peacefully, disregarding caste-based differentiations, freely intermarrying, and happily participating in each other’s cultural and religious festivals. Such depictions serve the purpose of “Indianizing” the public image of the Andaman Islands by representing the islands as the mosaic miniature of a modernized, egalitarian, and secular mainland India (Abraham 2018). This responds to anxieties and suspicions awakened by the islands’ borderland-ness, the presence of potentially dangerous “foreign” elements—be they Bangladeshi infiltrators or Burmese poachers—and the increasing Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal.5) The romantic and nationalist tone of the homogeneous-casteless-progressive mini-India narrative truly applies only to a very small part of the urban inhabitants of South Andaman, where higher education and the infrastructures of modernity are concentrated.6) Recent empirical research on the contemporary communities inhabiting the Andamans has started to deconstruct the myth of the Andaman Islands as a casteless “Mini India” (e.g., Zehmisch 2012; 2017), revealing instead the presence of tensions and competition among communities.

Presenting the oral narratives of a Bengali religious community in the Andaman Islands, this article contributes to the ongoing conversation by adding specificity and contextualization to an otherwise flattening description of Andamanese society as a single, though multicultural, cauldron. The histories shared in this article, by contrast, present a community that resists “melting in the pot” and instead holds on to past values, rituals, and traditions. Tenaciously preserving and performing an imagined homeland through the use of the Bengali language and the reproduction of soundscapes and religious narratives, the Bengali community of low-caste Matuas on the Andaman Islands7) questions dominant representations of society on the islands. Inhabiting mainly remote and isolated areas of the archipelago, the Matuas are looked down upon and despised by other communities as well as by educated urban Bengalis. I remember vividly my surprise when an older member of the Bengali community in the capital city of Port Blair, a well-traveled retired music teacher and himself a successful folk-music performer, referred to Matua devotees as ek murkher dal—a band of idiots. A similar contempt was implied when a professor of Bengali language at the main college of Port Blair, with whom I was tentatively discussing the richness of Matua literature, emphatically said that he would never participate in any Matua festival, because “they are not bhadralok.”8) It is in such situations that the homogeneous-casteless-secular paradigm shatters, opening a space where a critical investigation of the segregation and marginalization of subaltern communities on the Andaman Islands becomes clearly necessary.9) At the same time, Matua narratives from the borderlands tell us how subaltern communities create their (hi)stories in a dialogic response to criticism from the dominant culture, constructing low-caste myths and reshaping memories of subjugation and displacement in order to challenge their supposed deficiencies: their being “less bhadralok,” less Bengali, less Indian.

Critically considering spaces in between the macro regions which have been described as South and Southeast Asia, inspired by recent innovative articulations of such areas,10) I take the Bay of Bengal and its liquid, maritime borders as a fulcrum, rather than considering the area as being at the margins of both South and Southeast Asia. In doing this, I look at the Andaman Islands as a borderland of South Asia but also as a center and cultural hub from which people, items, and ideas flow and seasonally circulate. Privileging liquid borderlands as opposed to solid borders in a political, social, and also religious context provides a vantage point from which to question reified demarcation lines, such as those drawn by the politics of cartography or by modern religious institutions (Kassam and Kent 2013), while taking into serious consideration interactions, porousness, and contradictions across borders. It is in these multiple and liquid borderland trajectories that the narratives laid out in this article are situated, taking on a role as traveling archives crossing, connecting, and challenging binary notions—of homeland and diaspora, of mainland Bengal and insular Bengaliness, of high-caste Hindu narratives and Matua mythopoiesis.

The Andaman Islands are absent from most discussions on South Asian borderlands, where mainland borderlands are given more space and emphasis while the isolated islands remain at the margins of academic thought. Scattered exceptions can be found in adventurous travelogues (for example, Damodaran 2017) and in political studies of military history, Indian borderlands, and the Sino-Indian maritime competition (e.g., Upadhyay 2009; Orton 2010; Ward 2017). Despite being at the margins of scholarly literature, because of their strategic position in terms of access to the Malacca Strait, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have not been at the margins of military thought; they have been heavily militarized and inscribed in a strong and insistent nationalist rhetoric.

With the islands being geologically part of the extended mountain range of mainland Myanmar, their political status after the independence of India was heavily debated. Under the British Raj the islands were developed as a dreaded penal settlement and were a mine for natural resources at the expense of the aboriginal people (Sen 2000; Vaidik 2010; Uditi Sen 2017). When the islands became part of independent India, a popular idea envisaged them merging with the state of West Bengal (Biswas 2009, 72). Finally, in 1956, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were redesignated as a union territory of India (Higgins 2016). They are proudly acknowledged as the first Indian land liberated from British rule, as the place where the anticolonial leader Subhas Chandra Bose planted the first independent flag of India; but nevertheless, the Andamans are geographically closer to Burma than to Indian shores. They are within reach by boat from Burma, Thailand, and Aceh (Indonesia), and until 1986 the maritime borders between South and Southeast Asia remained blurred, with Burma claiming sovereignty over some of the peripheral islands, although these were later annexed and came under India (Charney and Alexander 1998, 2372). The majority of the prisoners detained in the jail outside of Port Blair—the urban capital in South Andaman—are not Indian: fishermen and “poachers” of Thai and Burmese origin are often detained after entering into Indian waters. It is not uncommon to hear about stranded Bengali fishermen from the Andamans rescued on Myanmarese shores, waiting for complex bureaucratic processes to be completed so that they can eventually be repatriated (Roy, Indian Express, October 2, 2018), or about boatloads of Rohingya refugees seeking shelter on the Andamans (The Hindu, February 11, 2011). The Andaman Islands’ liquid borders are trespassed and challenged by a multiplicity of ethnicities and nationalities. This, however, is not the only dimension that explains the borderland-ness of Bengali Matua residents and how their stories contest a larger and more nuanced understanding of borderland self.

Multiple Borderlands: Refugee Settlers and the Matua Community

In this section, I will discuss how the Matua community came to inhabit Asian borderlands and how we can consider Matua practitioners on the Andaman Islands as inhabiting multi-layered and overlapping notions of borderland-ness in between the physical, the social, and the religious. First, I will give some historical background to explain how and since when Matua devotees have been dwelling in these remotest borderlands of India. Second, I will locate Matua practitioners as borderlanders within the society of the Andaman Islands, where they constitute a rural population, between the sea and the cultivated fields on the one hand and between the village and the dense forest on the other. Third, I will explain how Matua people on the Andaman Islands perceive themselves as inhabiting a borderland of the Matua faith, being located at the margins of a Matua cultural world, whose authenticity is seen as firmly anchored to mainland Bengal, where the descendants of the founding guru Harichand Thakur live.

After Independence, in order to sustain the new state apparatus and an increasingly heavy military infrastructure, the Andaman Islands needed to be developed and to produce increasing quantities of food. The expense to be borne by the central government to cover subsidies and imported goods would otherwise have become unsustainable. The administration struggled to find laborers willing to settle on the remote, jungle-covered islands, infamous for their dreaded prison and “savage” natives. A solution was found in exploiting India’s post-Partition refugee crisis (Uditi Sen 2017, 952). After the 1947 Partition, millions of Bengali migrants from East Pakistan crossed the border and entered the small and overcrowded state of West Bengal as refugees. The Indian state opted for a “policy of dispersal” (Chatterji 2007, 1012), aiming to scatter them far from the political center of Kolkata to contain the potential for dangerous political mobilization. Low-caste and economically disadvantaged refugees were persuaded to accept rehabilitation and resettlement in distant and unfamiliar areas, such as the Dandakaranya region and the Andaman Islands (Kudaisya 1997; Mallick 1999; Mandal 2011). Refugee camp officers, unsurprisingly, found thousands of low-caste agriculturist families willing to enlist in “Colonization Schemes,” which after 1949 offered a plot of land, manure, cattle, construction material, and other benefits to settle on the Andaman Islands (Biswas 2009; Sen 2011). The Andamans thus became a postcolonial dumping ground for some of the unwanted citizens of independent India. This community and their descendants are known to the islands’ administration as “Bengali settlers.” Bengali-speaking inhabitants, whether legitimate or contested “encroachers,” represent the largest linguistic group inhabiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.11) After their arrival, many more people, connected to those who had already settled by relations of kinship, district of origin, guru-disciple circles, and other networks, migrated independently from East and West Bengal to the Andaman Islands, neither approved of nor assisted by the government. These people, a large proportion of whom make up the Matua community, often settled on squatted land; they are known in the local parlance as people “without.”

Governmental plans for the resettlement of refugees were based on discriminatory caste lines (Sen 2014). The families selected for resettlement on the islands were mostly Namashudra (namaḥśūdra), a formerly untouchable group with a long history of oppression and exploitation from high-caste Hindu landlords (Bandyopadhyay 1997, 20–25). They were landless farmers and fishermen in East Pakistan who for complex historical and political reasons became borderland people. Namashudra people, who fled East Pakistan as “riot-refugees” (Rahman and van Schendel 2003, 566–569), are now scattered around many borderlands of India: not only the Andamans but also West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura, with major “branches” of the Matua Mahasangha extending as far as Odisha, Maharashtra, and Uttarkhand. On the Andamans they represent, according to unofficial estimates, 80–85 percent of the Bengali population (Mazumdar 2016, 173).

The Dalit12) novelist Manoranjan Byapari writes:

Prior to 1947 almost 90% of them [Namashudras] lived in East Bengal in the districts of Khulna, Faridpur, Jessore and Barishal. . . . The fear of communal violence drove them away from their villages. In the darkness of night they crossed the border, leaving behind their land, houses and all material possessions. Year after year they lived under trees, on pavements, on railway platforms, in refugee camps—existing at a subsistence level. In the name of rehabilitation, some were sent to uninhabited islands in the Andaman region, some were packed off to the forests and the unproductive terrain of Dandakaranya in Madhya Pradesh and other barren pockets of the country. Thus an organized and cohesive community got fragmented and lost its strength. (Byapari and Mukherjee 2007, 4116)

Byapari’s last statement underlines the fact that the cohesiveness of the Matua community was disrupted by Partition and the creation of new nation-states. But the fragmented pieces of the Matua whole have created a strong and interconnected network of sacred places, stories, and songs, and their unity is maintained by cross-border flows of pilgrims, preachers, singers, and their tales. From the second half of the nineteenth century the Namashudras of East Bengal united around the charismatic figure of Harichand Thakur (1812–78) and his son Guruchand Thakur (1847–1937) and created a distinctive religious as well as social identity, the Matua sect (Matuẏā sampradāẏa).13) The Matua leaders Harichand and Guruchand Thakur proposed a religion akin to other unorthodox lineages of Bengali Vaiṣṇava devotionalism, while stressing the need for literacy, education, social advancement, and equality. While the gurus’ ancestral home is located in Orakandi, now in Bangladesh, the most powerful Matua headquarters is situated in the newly created refugee town of Thakurnagar, in West Bengal, which functions as the Matua cultural capital (Bandyopadhyay and Basu Ray Chaudhury 2016, 75–78), providing a model shaping religious consistency between the scattered branches of the sect. The Matua community is possibly the strongest Dalit movement in West Bengal, where it has consolidated into a powerful political institution called Matua Mahasangha (Sinharay 2016). On the Andaman Islands, as well as in other borderlands, the religious and cultural identity provided by Matua doctrines, rituals, and narrative repertoires has united Bengali refugees and their descendants, offering a source of dignity, status, and symbolic capital (Mazumdar 2016; Lorea 2018).

According to the Matua Mahasangha’s estimate (although this may be exaggerated), there are 50 million followers of the Matua sect, about 12 million of them residing in West Bengal (Chowdhury 2014, 188). When the revered Matua leader Gopal Maharaj, a displaced East Bengali guru resettled in Uttarkhand, goes to visit his disciples on the Andamans, enormous gatherings of devotees assemble to listen to his speeches, and local politicians offer him garlands, publicly seeking his blessings (Andaman Sheekha, December 5, 2012; December 10, 2012). The major Matua festival of the year (Bāruṇī) celebrated on the Andaman Islands, at Tugapur, is the “prime folk festival of the Andamans” (Roy Chowdhury 2004, 152). However, a newspaper article covering the event in 2017 reported that despite the incredible number of people, the local authorities did not provide any facilities—such as special transportation services, sanitation, or drinking water—apart from basic traffic management (Andaman Sheekha, March 26, 2017). This reflects the lack of visibility of the Namashudras and the Matua sect on the Andaman Islands; while a majority, they perceive themselves to be both marginalized and silenced.

The borderland inhabited by Matua devotees is not only physically and politically an Indian borderland, representing a strong Indian state presence in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, but also a social and a religious borderland. In this social borderland, Bengali practitioners negotiate their lives with neighboring linguistic and ethnic communities with different degrees of visibility and power: urban educated elites, Tamil entrepreneurs and businessmen, Ranchi laborers, illegal migrants, indigenous Jarawas, and other groups. As members of a depressed caste previously marked by the stigma of untouchability,14) they carry the double burden of being outcastes and also refugees. Time and distance have set them apart from their imagined communities, who have largely forgotten about the outcomes of the “policy of dispersal.” In mainland Bengal and Bangladesh it is now largely unknown that more than one-fourth of the Andaman Islands’ population is Bengali. The flattening effect of popular media, portraying a romantic and monolithic unity in diversity in Andaman society, cancels the separate voices of marginal identities, subsuming the Bengali Matua community under the homologating violence of the “melting pot.” A similar discourse has affected low-caste selves both on the mainland and at its borders. Distinct and polyphonic cultural autonomies belonging to diverse low-caste groups in South Asia have been subsumed under the flattening effect of Dalit identity scholarship, portraying a distinct and singular “untouchable mode of thought” (Deliège 1993, 534) and reducing the multiplicity and creativity of low-caste narratives to a monolithic “untouchable myth of origin” (Deliège 1989, 110).

In local society, Matua devotees are seen by other communities—but also by other Bengalis who are well educated and have salaried jobs in the city—as living at the borders of civilization (Lorea 2018). Especially in the villages of North Andaman, where I conducted most of my research, Matua practitioners have lived in dramatic isolation and lacking basic facilities for decades since their migration. Settled in remote rural areas, apart from a few educated members of the community who found governmental employment, the people I worked with are agriculturists, farmers, vegetable sellers, fishermen, conch-shell divers, deer and wild pig hunters, and itinerant singers. Some families have rights over the land that they cultivate; some have illegally cleared a piece of land in the jungle and occupy a space from which they could be evicted at any point in time. The latter, living in “forest encroachments” (Biswas 2009, 22), have started to receive access to basic facilities—drinking water, transportation, health care, education, and so on—only in recent years. Several settlements of Bengali refugees, particularly those established in 1952–56 around Rangat and Kadamtala in Middle Andaman, have been placed at the edge of the forest inhabited by the indigenous Jarawa population, provoking competition for use of the same natural resources, a series of violent encounters, and ultimately the forced displacement of the Jarawa people (Uditi Sen 2017). Later resettlements in Little Andaman have compelled the indigenous Onge community to share local resources with the new population of displaced Bengali as well as Sri Lankan Tamil settlers (Heidemann 2016). None of this displacement of indigenous people occurred in the areas of the Indian archipelago where I worked. Here, Bengali Matua settlers are located in culturally homogeneous areas, relatively far from the political and physical border that runs through Andamanese society, dividing settlers from indigenous people (Pandya 2010; Uditi Sen 2017). For my participants, knowledge about indigenous people dwelling in reserved tribal areas is indirect and inferential. The common opinion is that Jarawa people are wild (jangli) and non-human until “we” have civilized them (amra manuṣ karechi). Most Bengali settlers concur with the mainstream racist attitude that deprives the aboriginal people of the qualities that make a cultured human being (manuṣ). Some informants described Jarawas as having venomous saliva just like wild snakes, because they do not add salt to their food; hence, they can make their arrows lethally poisonous just by licking them before shooting.15) Whereas in mainland Bengal the Matua religion has spread beyond the ethnic community of low-caste refugees to include tribal groups,16) on the Andaman Islands interaction between these groups is minimal and mainly takes the form of an unequal competition for natural resources, or of straightforward exploitation. While Matua myths include many legendary encounters with the wilderness in the forests and rivers of East Bengal, the uncomfortable border between indigene and settler is absent from local Matua narratives.

The religious borderland which Matua followers inhabit both separates them from the other religious communities living on the Andamans—mainly orthodox Vaiṣṇava, neo-Hindu and Hinduizing forces, Muslim minorities, and proselytizing Christian missions—and places them in a peripheral position in relation to the imagined powerful core of the Matua movement. This split, transnational core is constituted by an imagined homeland—the birthplace of the Matua founders Harichand and Guruchand Thakur, in Orakandi; and a displaced cultural capital and administrative center, located in Thakurnagar, West Bengal, just on the Indian side of the India-Bangladesh border, where one of the descendants of the Thakur family migrated right after Partition (Bandyopadhyay and Basu Ray Chaudhury 2016). After I presented my paper at a conference in Dhaka, one attendee commented that a study of the Matua community had no value unless it was based on research in Orakandi or Thakurnagar. Matua devotees on the Andaman Islands constitute a small and distant fraction of the larger and highly scattered Matua religion, which gravitates around the two poles of Orakandi and Thakurnagar. It is perhaps because of such distance and perceived marginality that local practitioners cherish Matua myths, rituals, and cultural expressions with particular tenacity.

The stories across borders shared and performed among the Matua followers of the Andaman Islands have to be contextualized in this “multiple borderland” scenario. These stories fulfill manifold purposes in the diasporic and borderland consciousness of their tellers and listeners as social coagulants of diasporic identities, as religious stories of ethics and faith, and as narratives of contestation and social mobility.

“Local” Narratives

The bundles of narratives17) that I use for this article are “local” only in a very limited sense of the term. While they were collected in a particular site within the Andamans, they are far from being exclusively pertinent to this locality. They are shared in various regions of South Asia, among all Matua followers, with local variants and adaptations. Some of the narratives are part of a larger set of beliefs and systems of knowledge recurrent throughout rural Bengal and shared among many esoteric lineages. They can be seen as “local” although they come from the opposite shore of the ocean, from East Bengal, and perhaps from somewhere else before that. They are traveling archives of stories which have become local, in the Andaman Islands, and yet remain extremely mobile, fluid, and itinerant: using as vehicles a regular transnational and trans-regional circulation of devotees, singers, preachers, books, VCDs, and magazines, they move between the Andamans and many other borderlands, at times settling down and at other times disappearing. Preservation and reiteration of such pan-Indian Matua narratives on the Andamans attests to a strong desire for unity and consistency with the larger, widely scattered Matua faith and a desire to connect diasporic lives to Matua cultural capitals and ancestral places of worship on the mainland. On a collective level, they are “movement narratives” (Benford 2002, 54), the collectively constructed stories and myths that participants tell about the movement itself and the domains of the world it seeks to affect. Yet on a broader level they may represent what James Hunter and Joshua Yates call “world-historical narratives” (Hunter and Yates 2002, 128, 146): myths and legends that interpret and configure overarching historical transformations and developments, and contest competing sociohistorical narratives on the same scale.

The borderland location of the Andaman Islands, where Bengali refugees have been living for 70 years, and its environment and social structure profoundly inform the ways in which Matua participants have created, consumed, and reproduced pan-Indian Matua narratives. A mechanism of familiarization (Honko 1981, 19–29) has permeated recurrent myths and tales and the manner in which they are selected, expanded, invented, or totally removed. Some stories are told only on the Andaman Islands.18) For example, the recurrent story of a pious crocodile, which I have transcribed in several variants, justifies why on the third and last day of Matua festivals (mahotsab) fish is cooked and served to all devotees, whereas the first two days are strictly vegetarian.19) On the other hand, stories and visual representations which connect Harichand Thakur to the Buddha are completely absent on the Andamans.20) The stories I present in the following sections are not found exclusively on the Andaman Islands; these are narratives that are particularly stressed, valued, or related as most important by Matua devotees in the Andamanese frontier, as compared with other areas densely populated by Matua members, where they feel less—or differently—peripheral.

In order to select significant bundles of narratives, I chose the most commonly told stories which I heard, noted down, and/or recorded during my last two fieldwork periods on the Andamans. I also looked at the distribution of these oral narratives in printed texts, in the corpus of Matua literature, as well as in Matua periodicals, magazines, and booklets for religious practice, found throughout the Andamans and in many other areas.

We Come from a Mother and a Father

The first narratives on which I focus here are a set of stories which will sound familiar to any reader acquainted with the doctrines of esoteric Bengali Tantric lineages. They relate to a local knowledge system called mātāpitātattva, which refers to “the truth or the doctrine of the mother and the father.” When I enquired about the sādhanā (practice for self-realization, both spiritual and body-centered) of Matua practitioners, the first thing that my interlocutors talked about was the necessity to know about “the mother and the father.” Ideas about the mother and father are not only linked to parenthood: they are about conception and offspring, reproduction and ontogenesis; but more broadly, they are inextricably part of a sophisticated understanding of cosmogony, anatomy, sexuality, and soteriology, translated into ethical norms. It is maintained in these narratives that at the first stage of practice, a person should learn how to answer the questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? The answers to these questions suggest that we come from the union of a mother with a father. As a myth of origin, this sounds strikingly straightforward. But this apparently banal statement is enclosed within a wider ontology. The mother and the father are not only our biological parents; they are a principle, a fundamental couple, a husband and a wife, sexual types, as well as cosmogonic opposites. They represent two principles that underlie the entire creation, and they stand for their essential properties, which are called pitṛdhan (literally the wealth of the father, patrimony) and mātṛdhan (the wealth of the mother). The essence of pitṛdhan is semen, but it also stands for the bodily constituents that are inherited from the father: bone, marrow, brain, and seed. The fundamental substance of mātṛdhan is uterine blood, but the wealth of the mother can also represent the four substances of the body that are given by the mother: flesh, blood, skin, and hair.

The substances of pitṛdhan and mātṛdhan are part of a doctrine of the body, relating to the “subtle” body and to health, known as dehatattva.21) According to the basic tenets of dehatattva, men are dominated by six vices (chaẏ ripu), particularly by the king of the six, which is kām (a multilayered concept meaning lust, passion, or sensual and selfish desire). To conduct a happy life in a happy household (saṁsār), men (and women, to a lesser extent) should learn how to restrain kām and bring the vices under control, and they should worship and respect their mothers and fathers, who are regarded as being, simultaneously, their bodies, their essential substances, and their gurus, which are first and foremost represented by one’s biological parents. Sexual desire is to be restrained not through abstinence and renunciation, but through a regulated and disciplined sexual life with one single partner of the opposite sex, recreating the fundamental pair of opposites represented by the mother and the father. Therefore, mātāpitātattva is also the basis of Matua social structure. Matua religion is called gārhasthya dharma, the religion of conjugal life: a religion for married couples, presumably with children. Conjugality is seen as the main characteristic of this social system, and it is systematically and sharply opposed to celibacy, asceticism, and renunciation, interpreted as negative ideals perpetrated by high-caste Hindus.22) Therefore, important prescriptions, attributed to the guru and sect founder Harichand Thakur, are often directed to the husband and wife, to be practiced by the couple, while other explicit instructions are addressed to both men and women alike.23)

These narratives are perceived by Matua devotees to be extremely innovative and revolutionary, as they are diametrically opposed to the Hindu and orthodox Vaiṣṇava ideal of sannyās, renunciation, which in most cases means single male asceticism. Matua ethics is, instead, focused on the dignity of manual work,24) and it glorifies the sexually productive couple and their (controlled and limited) progeny. These regulations can be seen as providing a family structure and (heterosexual) normative discipline in a frontier space where sentiments of anxiety in relation to the loss of traditional structures of social control are often displayed. According to recurrent tropes and popular imaginaries—sometimes justified by academic research (Chakrabarty et al. 1998)—for Bengali settlers on the Andamans social taboos count less (Sen 2018, 149) and rules of endogamy are more relaxed, leading to more frequent intercaste and inter-community marriages (Zehmisch 2018, 77). Ubiquitous rumors, which also contribute to identity formation processes (Kalmre 2013), report that people could not “really” get married for the lack of Brahmins (high-caste officiating priests), and that Bengali women on the Andamans do not have any qualms about abandoning their husbands and children to run away with their lovers (Roy Chowdhury 2004, 173–174, 186). The emphasis on the mother and the father as the underlying foundation of gārhasthya dharma counteracts such anxieties and also reproduces and justifies, in a religious domain, the administrative criterion of providing rehabilitation and relief to post-Partition refugees on the basis of the patriarchal nuclear family as the fundamental social unit; this unit was, and still is, the recipient of allotted plots of land granted to Bengali settlers’ families by the Indian government.

According to Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2004, 96–97), strict sexual discipline and family values are so insistently and overtly stressed because they are intended as a response to criticism from the dominant culture. Bandyopadhyay argues that social mobility and equal rights could only be achieved through respectability and by creating a distance from the allegations of sexual promiscuity and polygamy often leveled against Matua followers and other rural unorthodox sects. Without contesting the validity of this argument, I also interpret the Matua stress on conjugality as mirroring popular ideas on decency, marriage, and particularly companionate marriage, diffused in nineteenth-century Bengali print and in the public sphere as a result of a long and close relationship with Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century in Faridpur District (Bandyopadhyay 1997, 56; Sarkar 2002, 73–74),25) and as a coherent development of the emphasis on the cosmological as well as social importance of a male-female pair promoted in several low-caste Bengali lineages springing from a common Tantric Vaiṣṇava substratum. The soteriological dignity provided through the emphasis on family and manual work made the Matua faith particularly suitable in a “frontier” environment such as the Andaman Islands, where isolated farming families needed to transform uncultivated land into productive crops, and to recreate a home space, a sense of belonging, cultural identity, and solidarity, based on shared values and memories. This hypothesis would also explain why in several Matua temples in mainland Bengal, apart from the fundamental Harichand–Shanti Mata couple, many icons of (male) saints are displayed without their married partner, whereas on the Andaman Islands Harichand–Shanti Mata as well as Guruchand–Satyabhama are always displayed in pairs (see Fig. 1). Moreover, in several Matua congregations on the islands a different guru bandanā (praise to the founding gurus, the first song that opens a kīrtan session of congregational singing) is used. Instead of the more standard invocation (found in the holy book Śrīśrīharilīlāmṛta; Sarkar 1916), praising Harichand Thakur, his ancestors, and male disciples, the guru bandanā sung on the islands starts with praising Harichand’s mother and father.



Fig. 1 Harichand Thakur (Centre) Surrounded by Previous Incarnations of Vishnu

Source: Cover Image of the monthly Matua magazine Yugadiśā August-September issue 2006


Among the many oral testimonies on the fundamental importance of mātāpitātattva which I collected during Matua gatherings, festivals, personal interviews, and group conversations on the Andaman Islands, I report and discuss here only a few sentences from a long exchange with Ambarish Biswas, a local practitioner in his 60s whom the other members of the community considered to be particularly knowledgeable, since he was able to read and discuss the scriptures of the Matua corpus proficiently. Chatting in the quiet morning after adhibās, the opening day of a Matua festival, characterized by the worship of Harichand, Guruchand, and their wives; communal feasting; ecstatic ritual dancing (mātām); and a whole-night music session (kīrtan), Ambarish Biswas said:

In the lowest stage of religious practice you have to learn dehatattva; you learn about your gross body. The guru you recognize and worship in this phase is your mother and father. This is the main teaching of the Ramayana: pitṛbhakti (filial piety). . . . Otherwise you try to climb a tree from halfway up! You have to start from the base.26)

It is worth mentioning that the Ramayana provides the main motifs for the folk genre known as rāmāyaṇ gān, a theatrical singing of Ramayana stories. Many of the singers, gurus, and preachers of the Matua community are professional folk singers of this genre. Ambarish Biswas explained something obvious to those familiar with the main story of the epic poem: he stated that the whole plot of the famous Ramayana and its main events—he mentioned the exile in the forest, the abduction of Sita, and “the suffering she had to go through”—occurred only because Ram had to abide by his duty as the king’s son. Filial piety, obedience, and respect toward one’s parents are all that Ram can teach us from the point of view of correct behavior: all the rest is just a story.27) These values are the basics, like the roots of a tree. Though foundational, however, they can be surpassed and higher truths can be found. Open criticism of the values and models projected by the Ramayana and its orthodox readings are further explored in the other “bundles” of narratives discussed below.

A Genealogy of Incarnations: Subverting Familiar Tales

A second set of narratives on which I will focus here relates to the divine ancestry of the Matua gurus Harichand and Guruchand. This is a recurring theme among Matua devotees, recited orally during performative occasions as well as printed in books and periodicals published by Matua presses. Histories of the gurus, as suggested by Aditya Malik, cannot be separated from the actions and words of their devotees, whose deep concern for justice in their own lives or in their post-memory (Kabir 2004) is a mirror of the example set by their divine leaders, and the power that they possess (Malik 2016, 5). As clearly portrayed in Fig. 1, Harichand Thakur, who occupies the center, is inscribed in a frame of avatars (Bengali: abatār) of Vishnu. The saint Chaitanya, who popularized ecstatic devotionalism toward the Radha–Krishna couple throughout Bengal in the sixteenth century (Kennedy 1925), stands above Harichand, closest to him, as the last divine descent recognized by orthodox Bengali Vaishnavism. On either side Harichand is flanked by Ram and Krishna, possibly the most popular incarnations of Hari (another name for Vishnu) as worshipped in devotional Hinduism. Giving authority and legitimacy to his sainthood and superhuman character, Harichand is depicted as the final incarnation of Vishnu—who has rightly been described as an “inclusivity tool” in South Asian religious literature (Appleton 2017, 83)—while Guruchand, his son, is described as an avatar of the god Shiva. Their epithet is patita pāban: saviors, messengers of freedom, for the oppressed and the downtrodden. A considerable part of the Matua scriptures is dedicated to explaining why the world needed another avatar and for what purpose God had to come back to Earth. This is clearly summarized by the narrator voice of Ambarish Biswas:

In satya, dvāpara, tretā, and kali yuga [the four cosmic eras] no avatar could do anything for us.28) Narayan [Vishnu] in satya yuga [the first cosmic era] did not do anything for those like us. Ram [the avatar of the second era] killed with his sword Śāmbuka, a Śūdra who was performing austerities, because the Brahmins were not happy and were not allowing this, so he had to punish him. In kali yuga [the fourth and ongoing cosmic era] Gaurāṅga [an epithet of Chaitanya] did not do anything for us. So he had to come back again, in the northeastern land,29) as Harichand Thakur. Harichand came for the low castes, for the powerless people. Brahmins divided the Śūdras in castes according to their occupation. . . . We were their slaves. We used to work for them, and they gave us food. We could not read their texts. If we tried to recite them, they would cut out our tongue. If we listened to them, they would pour lead in our ears.30) But Harichand and Guruchand gave us literacy and education. Since then, we can read.

Narratives of the succession of avatars unanimously emphasize the birth of Harichand as the culmination of the divine incarnations, accomplishing what the previous saviors could not:31) empowering low-caste devotees and providing them with dignity and the instruments for not only spiritual but also social liberation, through literacy, education, awareness of their rights, and participation in political power. Much of the long biographic poem dedicated to Guruchand Thakur (Haldar 1943) is focused on Guruchand’s social work and his ability to negotiate with government officers and Christian missionaries in order to provide schools and governmental jobs for members of the Namashudra community (Sarkar 2002, 34, 72, 236). The founding gurus are inserted in the cosmo-history of avatars: divine figures who provide the necessary guidance at critical points of time when divine intervention is needed in the human realm to restore dharma. Matua myths, in this sense, can be regarded as conscious reproductions that replicate the shared narrative universe of Indic religious literatures. Similarly, in the history of Bengali literature, the Prophet Mohammad has been “translated” as an avatar of Vishnu,32) while Indian Christian theologians have employed the concept of avatar in their Christological explanations (e.g., Chakkarai 1926). Adopting the concept of avatar, in all these instances, also means that the new avatar can be presented as the ultimate and greatest one.

There is a dimension of dissent and innovation inscribed in the act of “reproduction” (Dumont 1970; Moffatt 1979). Borrowing and re-utilizing the Brahminical narrative model does not imply compliance or complicity with the system that it represents; rather, it expresses dissent toward the hegemonic narrative and assertion of an alternative one. The Dumontian idea that low castes do not have an autonomous culture and that they replicate the system (and stories) of the higher castes, thus tacitly accepting them, is strongly contested by Matua and other Dalit narratives. It is a common trait of several Dalit communities to create countermyths and reverse discourses based on the stories of the “big Hindus” (baṛo hindurā; Zene 2002, 38), especially building on the great epics, for example tracing their origins back to Ram (Narayan 2006, 19), claiming descent from Valmiki (the legendary composer of the Ramayana; Narayan 2006, 65), or transforming marginal figures into their central, iconoclastic heroes (Zecchini 2016, 66). This process of dialogic and narrative identity constitution (Benhabib 2002, 16) cannot be explained as a mere replication of the ideas or beliefs of the dominant castes. It is not “mimesis” simplistically interpreted as passive imitation and as an expressive form of submission. As other empirical studies of low-caste communities have clearly demonstrated (e.g., Karanth 2004), far from bearing witness to an acceptance of a subordinate status and consensus, these kinds of oral narratives and mythological reconstructions aim to express resistance. That the creation of a separate cultural identity for the low castes often relies upon characters and symbols borrowed from hegemonic narratives is perhaps due to the fact that the oppression of Dalits has resulted in a denial of cultural specificity and a lack of awareness of their own culture, as Kancha Ilaiah has famously argued (Ilaiah 1996). Or, in other words, it may be because, as a South Indian untouchable community informs us, “only Hindu Gods are available” (Moffatt 1979, 268).

Ambarish Biswas’s (hi)story-telling revolves around a memory of exploitation and slavery, a social memory that is transmitted through oral as well as printed sources among Matua followers. It forges a view of the past, and it provides for a vision of how the future ought to be. The necessity of Harichand as a final avatar is a pan-Indian Matua narrative provided and justified in detail in the earliest Matua poems (Sarkar 1916). However, the fact that the caste-based revolution initiated by Harichand figures so prominently on the Andaman Islands also serves more topical purposes. The promise of education and social upliftment brought forward by Harichand is still a significant story in a place where only low-caste refugees found resettlement, carefully selected from mainland refugee camps as young, illiterate, hard-working bodies. The memory of this reproduction of pre-Partition structural inequalities and caste-based discrimination is still vivid in second- and even third-generation Matua followers. Equally vivid is the memory of the hardships, intensive labor, physical exhaustion, and dramatic isolation that the Bengali refugees had to face for decades after their migration.

In Ambarish Biswas’s narrative, the fundamental values of equality, social awareness and mobilization, caste consciousness, and action are unfolded through a traditional Hindu narrative scheme and time line, which is the succession of avatars in the cosmic eras.33) This concept is a profoundly important literary topos in Matua oral as well as written narratives. It follows a well-established marketing strategy: introducing a new religious leader as an old and famous divine character who has returned to Earth. Chaitanya himself came to be known as the incarnation of the divine couple of Radha and Krishna together, in one single body, so that they could finally enjoy love in union. Following the same narrative stratagem, the mysterious fakir who founded the Kartābhajā movement, Aul Chand, is none other than Chaitanya himself: according to legendary accounts (Cakrabarti 1989, 60; Banerjee 1995), Chaitanya did not die in Puri but simply disappeared. Afterward, he came back and reappeared as the fakir Aul Chand, because the high-caste religious leaders in charge of leading the community of Chaitanya’s Vaiṣṇavism had replicated caste-based inequalities and placed too much importance on the ideal of sannyās (renunciation). In a very similar manner, in Matua poetry it is said that the Lord had to come back as Harichand because of the decadence of dharma among the Vaiṣṇavas and because their ideal of devotion to pure love (prem bhakti) had deteriorated.34)

Matua hagiographies and oral narratives create a parallel and alternative mythological universe where the Hindu narratives of the so-called Great Tradition35) are adopted and subverted: they are accepted and appropriated as suppliers of authority and prestige, but then they are also surpassed and creatively expanded. At times they are overtly criticized, as is the case with the story of the low-caste renunciate Śāmbuka, a Dalit martyr in the reconstruction of Hindu epics from the borders (Narayan 2006, 65–66). Together with Eklavya, the low-caste archer of the Mahabharata, they are emblems of Dalit “political orality” (Narayan 2006, 50). In the Matua case, this reiteration of Hindu mythology as a “shared narrative universe” (Appleton 2017, 18) with a Dalit twist is applied not only to Harichand and Guruchand, but also to all the major figures of the Matua religious sphere. For instance, the saint-composer Tarakchandra Sarkar (1847–1914), who composed an important part of Matua sacred songs (1900) and the versified hagiography of Harichand Thakur (1916), is said in his previous lives through earlier cosmic eras to have been none other than Vyasa, the legendary sage who compiled the Mahabharata, and then Valmiki, the sage who is said to have authored the Ramayana.36)

Aswini Kumar Sarkar, known as Aswini Gosain, a disciple of Tarakchandra and himself a revered saint-composer of Matua sacred songs (Sarkar 1915), was blind in one eye.37) Fascinating oral (hi)stories from Matua singers on South Andaman recount that he was, in his previous life, none other than Jaimini, the world’s most ardent devotee of Krishna, who offered both his eyes to his Lord when he heard that the latter had an eye illness.38) Krishna, who was merely testing the human world to see who deserved his grace, gave back one of his eyes to Jaimini, while he kept the other so that Jaimini could gain supernatural vision and partake in the spectacle of Radha and Krishna’s divine play whenever he wanted to. There are many parallel examples of the main motif of this story in the Bengali repertoire of religious tales as well as in other Indian myths. Offering one’s eyes as a sign of great devotion is a topos often found in South Asian devotional literature. For example, in the Bengali retelling of the Ramayana depicted on nineteenth-century painted scrolls (paṭ), Ram counts all the blue lotus flowers that he is going to offer the Goddess Durga; since one flower is missing—another trick of the deity to test the devotee’s fervor—he zealously takes his arrow and plucks out one eye in order to complete the offering of 108 flowers (Ghosh 2003).39) Familiar motifs and recognizable tales are borrowed, adopted, and creatively reinterpreted in order to formulate new and persuasive stories. Thus, the one-eyed saint-composer of the subversive Matua movement is directly linked to his more ancient, famous, and orthodox saintly antecedents (Jaimini and Ram). This is one of the stratagems by which, through narratives and (hi)story-telling, political, social, and religious borderland voices get closer to the center, capturing previously elaborated and well-known stories, reshaping them for revolutionary purposes, and feeding them out to the peripheries.

Coming back to Earth to Respect Women: A Gendered Agenda for Reincarnation

The third set of narratives on which I want to focus relates to the position of women. Democratizing devotional Vaiṣṇavism and uplifting depressed classes was not the only purpose of Harichand’s return to the mortal realm. The other reason why a new avatar of Vishnu was needed after Chaitanya is closely related to a specific Matua stance on religion and gender. The Matua discourse on gender is elaborated in juxtaposition to what is perceived as high-caste patriarchy and is shaped in response to derogatory caste stereotypes and criticism from the hegemonic culture. However, Matua ideas on the position of women can also be understood in the context of a certain reformist discourse on modernity linked to the emergence of new gender roles. Influenced by British colonialism and Christianity, in the nineteenth century Indian elites and social reformers started to disseminate ideas on the education and emancipation of women, companionate marriage, and conjugality (Walsh 2004, 51–60), which were widespread in early-twentieth-century popular culture and entered, in a reinterpreted and often subversive manner, into Dalit discourse on gender.

As already noted, Matua ethos is centered around family and conjugal life (gārhastha dharma). Unsurprisingly, in the Hari Mandir, the shrine located within a household, Harichand and Guruchand are worshipped with their wives, as couples: Hari–Shanti and Guruchand–Satyabama (see Fig. 2). Like the divine couple of Shiva and Durga, equally popular among Bengali Hindus, they represent the ideal of a married couple with children. However, in the collective imagery, Shiva is both the ideal husband and the irresponsible ganja-addicted ascetic who neglects the family and related duties. Revolving around this tension between (re)productive engagement in saṁsāra and an ascetic detachment from it, traditional narratives of cosmic eras and reincarnations adopted and reinterpreted by Matua devotees become counter-narratives.



Fig. 2 Radharani Shil Performs the Evening Worship in the Hari Mandir of Pahargaon, South Andaman

Source: Photo taken by the author (February 2, 2017)


In the outskirts of Wandoor, South Andaman, an old singer of Matua songs and rāmāyaṇ gān lives on squatted revenue land. Although non-literate, Paresh Mondal regularly travels, together with his stories and countless songs, to perform for diverse festivals. His wandering narratives are performed in various corners of the islands; seasonally in West Bengal, where part of his family settled after Partition; and in Bangladesh, his homeland, which became to him a foreign country for which he now requires a visa. To suit his itinerant lifestyle, he used his ingenuity to devise a portable, deconstructable ektārā, a traditional single-stringed instrument normally made of gourd and bamboo (see Fig. 3). He explained the origin of his sect as follows:



Fig. 3 The Talented Singer Poresh Mandal and His Ingenious Deconstructable Ektārā, Sitting in His Veranda in North Wandoor, South Andaman

Source: Photo taken by the author (January 30, 2017)


Harichand is an avatar of our dark age: first Ram, then Gaurāṅga. Ram’s mother reincarnated as Gaurāṅga’s mother. Because of her, Ram had to leave the kingdom and was exiled to the forest. So in her next life, as Chaitanya’s mother, she was left alone. Her only son became a renunciate and left home, and she had to beg from house to house. Next came Harichand and Shanti Devi! He had to come back, because Chaitanya had hurt his mother too much.40)

It is not only important leaders who have famous personalities as their previous incarnations; their mothers, too, are inserted in the revised history of metempsychosis. In the opening section of the rhymed hagiography of Harichand Thakur, a dialogue between Chaitanya and his mother, Śacī, expresses the sorrow of a mother left alone by her son when he opts for solitary renunciation: “If you leave me now, who will ever respect mothers?” Chaitanya replies that for this reason he will have to come back to earth again.41) The talented storyteller thus framed the appearance of the first Matua leader as an inevitable result of karmic deeds accumulated by his predecessors era after era: Ram’s stepmother forcing the king’s son into exile, which resulted in Chaitanya’s mother being left miserably alone, without the economic support of a working son, and finally the coming of Harichand, whose choice of a holy life within the household structure repaid the emotional debt of the previous avatars. The motif of maternal grief emerges as a recurrent topic in religious literature across South Asian traditions (Appleton 2017, 129). Its emotive value is grounded in the tension between the feelings and responsibilities associated with the life of the family and the household, on the one hand, and the lure of renunciation on the other. This is an underlying dichotomy—characteristic of much Indian religious literature—which Matua narratives systematically address, with an obvious standpoint in favor of the first way of life, saṁsār. Local perspectives on Matua historiography reinforce core values and beliefs by framing them in a cyclical time frame and an etiology based on karma. Similar notions emerge from another narrative on avatar genealogy and gender. The local guru Manik Gosain, a long-white-bearded man in his 70s, narrated the following during a gathering in Radhanagar, at the extreme tip of North Andaman:

They [Vaiṣṇavas] follow Chaitanya; we follow Harichand Thakur. It is the same, the One is just one, Bhagavān [God]. But Harichand had to come to Earth because of something his previous incarnations could not do. Mainly, because . . . they could not honor (sammān deoẏā) the woman. . . . Women have been abused and mistreated in a way that cannot be expressed through words. So Harichand came. In dvāpara yuga, Ram could not respect Sita. In the next yuga, Krishna could not respect Radha: look what he did with all the cowherd girls! All that pain in separation! Chaitanya left his wife Vishnupriya alone, to become an ascetic. Then Harichand came to teach us religion within family and worldly life (saṁsārer dharma).42)

It is not my intention in this article to analyze gender roles within Matua society, nor to judge the kind of empowerment that is offered as a solution to a cosmic history of female subordination. However, it is worth pointing out that honoring and respecting women obviously means, according to the oral narratives discussed in this section, giving them a happy life as married women and mothers, in other words, a “new patriarchy” (Chatterjee 1989). This teaching, addressed to men,43) reminds them that mothers should not be abandoned and women should not be left alone and without financial support, as prestigious saints of the past left their own mothers. The point that I wish to remark upon is that these narratives are crucial for identity making and community building, creating distinctions between the Matuas and others, as well as a certain sense of superiority on the part of the Matuas vis-à-vis surrounding communities. Matua values include (a certain) independence for women, in comparison with high-caste and neo-Hindu institutionalized valorization of sannyās. Among several Dalit groups, sympathetic narratives expressing pity for the condition of women among high-caste Hindus, in order to assert the superiority of one’s outcaste community, are often underlined through countermyths: for instance, by glorifying paramount enemies within the high-caste tradition. The demon Ravana, in these kinds of stories, is presented as a virtuous king who treated Sita with respect, in contrast with Ram, who repudiated her unjustly (Jaoul 2007, 185).

In Matua narratives, this sense of distinction, permeated by views on gender, relates first and foremost to an opposition between themselves and the Vaiṣṇavas (Chaitanya left his wife and his mother in desolation and misery), and between themselves and orthodox Hindus (Ram mistreated his pious wife, Sita). These two groups inhabit adjacent and overlapping social and territorial areas in the Matua borderlands. This open criticism clearly emerges from an article titled “Matuẏā dharme nārīr sthān” (The position of women in the Matua religion), which appeared in one of the inexpensive Matua periodicals, circulated widely:44)

The Matua religion takes shelter in conjugal life. It is built on the husband-wife relationship. Their effort makes life happy. And that happiness is the aim of life. . . . In Hinduism, women are described as a gateway to hell (nārī naraker dvār), a thorn on the path of devotion. This is a great offense. . . . Lord Gaurāṅga got married, but did not create a saṁsāra [a household]. He rejected his mother and his wife, and pursued spiritual realization for himself, preaching the name of god. Ramakrishna got married and stayed far away from his wife. . . . There are only two castes among humans: men and women. Among the two, there is no bigger one or lower one. . . . The Matua religion, which is the refined sanātan dharma,45) has given to women utmost respect and dignity. The Matua cult does not only recognize women as Mothers, but also as inspiring, empowering, glorious figures. . . . In the Matua religion, polygamy and child marriage is forbidden. . . . During singing sessions of sacred music [nām saṁkīrtan], men and women both, together, meld in the ecstasy of love. This is a proof of women’s independence. . . . In Hinduism, women are merely slaves: they cook, serve and raise children. They have to obey whatever the husband says: they are not given the opportunity to contribute their opinion. They are only fit to be objects of enjoyment. . . . On the contrary, among Matuas the authority of women is of utmost importance. (Bagchi 2008, 19–20)

This counter-narrative, opposing the position of women in conservative Hinduism and asserting the superiority of the role of women among the Matuas, is articulated by retracing the (hi)story of incarnations and reminiscing about a past of injustice and disrespect: Chaitanya got married and then selfishly abandoned his family; the well-known Śākta saint Ramakrishna abhorred women and their sexuality.46) Hence, in the present yuga, Harichand had to bring back justice and restore to women the right to participate in family life and religious practices. Narratives on Harichand’s and Guruchand’s social and miraculous deeds, simplistically discarded by some as personality cult stories (Das 2014, 173), establish these Dalit leaders as counter-elite idols encompassing both bhadralok-dominated politics and the Ambedkarite discourse on low-caste struggle.

Parameters of modernity and development are not confined to the awakening of caste and class consciousness. Highlighting the intersectionality of caste and gender, Matua myths relate very significantly to women’s roles, advocating for the value of (a certain) independence for women. Such narratives are present in many Dalit contexts throughout South Asia, finding echoes in the construction of the image of the Dalit woman orally and in print. Such an image paints Dalit women and wives as enjoying greater freedom and dignity compared to their caste Hindu counterparts (Ilaiah 1996, 27; Ucko 2002, 103; Nubile 2003, 78). This trope represents the flip side of a coin, the coin of colonial reformist and Indian upper-class narratives portraying Dalit women as sexually promiscuous, moving suspiciously freely, and accused without fail of having a dubious sense of morality (Gupta 2016, 28–42; Christy 2017, 25). The criticism of Dalit women from the viewpoint of high-caste morality and aesthetics has resulted in contrasting reactions from the Dalits themselves. Some Dalit communities purportedly adopted the moral system of the dominant castes in order to secure a better status, while others appropriated part of the slanderous attacks and converted them into a matter of pride and superiority. Matua codes of behavior and myths of origin perfectly reflect this complexity, as they demonstrate a situationally appropriate adoption of both types of reaction. Like the Matua author of the above-mentioned article (Bagchi 2008), Ilaiah reports that a Dalit woman in his South Indian village in Telangana is “very much a political being, a social being and an economic being. Whereas a Brahmin woman is not,” because “their [Hindu women’s] existence is subsumed into their husbands’ existence” (Ilaiah 1996, 27). It should be noted, however, that a large proportion of these criticisms of “patriarchal sexist” Hindu Gods and customs (Ilaiah 1996, 33), advocating that “we” Dalits treat our women much better, are written by men. Women’s voices often contradict such cultural representations, highlighting a Dalit woman’s “triple burden” of caste discrimination, economic deprivation, and gender bias (Sabharwal and Sonalkar 2015, 46).

The complex discourses around gender, caste, and class and their reflection in low-caste myths become particularly complex in the oceanic borderlands where the Andaman Islands are situated. The karmic plot culminating with the final Matua incarnations bears a gendered agenda: imbibing modern notions on women’s empowerment, it supports dignity and respect toward women. This assumes a more radical rationale, relevant to the borderland context of the Andaman Islands. Where nuclear families were the unit of measurement for governmental plans of resettlement, and the male workforce was not large enough to fruitfully put under cultivation large and distant plots of land, women needed to contribute with arduous manual labor, and they needed to find an ethical and religious foundation for their roles. When they first arrived on the Andaman Islands, Bengali refugee families suffered from a lack of manpower in a context where a good deal of labor was required in order to clear vast, distant plots of land of stumps and bushes to build huts, to protect the crops from wild animals, to hike for entire days through the forest in order to access basic facilities and provisions. Women would normally contribute, taking responsibility for tasks that were not necessarily part of their gender role “back home.” Apart from husking, boiling, and drying rice, women started helping in the fields, protecting the crops, fishing in ponds and on the seashore, watering vegetable gardens, and harvesting vegetables in thick, frightening forests. Most of these activities are still carried out by Matua women on the Andaman Islands—together with the numerous activities linked to farming of the ubiquitous supari (betel nuts), a more recent and most remunerative cash crop—while in their ancestral homeland, in southern Bangladesh, the role of women is relegated to a much more conservative position and confined to the realm of domesticity. The composition of the Bengali diaspora on the islands led to more relaxed rules for marriage between members of families belonging to different subcastes and districts of origin (Singh et al. 1994, 35–38), as well as a simplification of marriage rituals. The distance from traditional patriarchal structures loosened the patterns regulating marriage unions and gave ample space for semi-arranged, companionate marriage (Zehmisch 2017, 101). This is mirrored in local gossip and malicious literature maintaining that Bengali women on the Andaman Islands are prone to eloping with lovers, and to adulterous relationships, and that due to the lack of Brahmins on the islands—especially in the early days after the resettlement of refugees—Bengalis did not “really” marry (this is on the basis of the assumption that a wedding’s authority and authenticity can be guaranteed only by an orthodox Hindu ritual officiated by a Brahmin). In this scenario, it becomes even more evident why the conjugality-centered gārhastha dharma of the primordial Matua gurus, their emphasis on sexual control, and the centrality of the father-mother doctrine (mātāpitātattva) found a prominent place in the oral narratives of the Andaman Islands. Retracing the mythological (hi)story of avatars, avatars’ female partners, and avatars’ mothers, Matua narratives at the borders address these composite dimensions, responding to old and new challenges, justifying claims of gender equality, and encouraging action, both “at home and in the world,”47) under the aegis of Harichand’s grace.

Stories of Change: The Narrative Foundation of Resistance48)

In one of the limited number of academic articles available on the Matua movement, Abhishek Das writes that the Matua faith, which emerged as a reformist movement against inequalities, ritualism, and superstitions grounded in religion, is now “stuck in the quagmire of superstitions” (Das 2014, 173) and that the religious texts of the Matuas

became mere books of myths, legends and claims of mythic antecedence was [sic] disconnected from the new realities whereby the erstwhile namashudras from predominantly rural Bengal were struggling in the alien and alienating urban culture. . . . [S]ectarianism further weakened the movement along with their later insistence on perpetuating a personality cult. (Das 2014, 173)

This very secularist and rationalist understanding of myth, invoking terms like modernity, reality, and struggle, implies that myths and legends are seen as opposed to, and totally detached from, the real struggle of low-caste practitioners. Envisaging mythmaking as an innocuous, apolitical process, this view fails to take the political implications of myths seriously. However, the rationalist attitude toward myth has been systematically dismantled in several studies that portray the transition from “being Untouchable to becoming Dalit” (Zene 2007, 260) as a mythopoeic process.

This secularist bias explains why Matua cultural expressions, which started to be disseminated in print as early as 1900, have failed to be considered in the larger field of Dalit literature.49) It is only quite recently that the sharp divide between religious texts and South Asian literature, deeply entrenched in the approach of literary scholars and critics, has started to be debated as questionable, and new perspectives on a post-secular methodology in literature have begun to be embraced.50) In her book chapter, Sipra Mukherjee (2016) has revised the secularist bias of literary scholars of Dalit literature and advocated that this kind of religious literature should be given the recognition it deserves. She argues that the aesthetics of Dalit literature have often been criticized for being self-pitying, overtly ideological, narrowly propagandistic, closer to “testimonies rather than works of imagination” (Kannan and Gros 2002, 24, cited in Mukherjee 2016), representing “material more suited to the study of anthropology rather than the renewal of the literature” (Kannan and Gros 2002, 24, cited in Mukherjee 2016). Implicitly accusing subaltern narratives of lacking creativity and artistic value, such statements reinforce the hiatus between two scholarly fields that could have a lot to say to each other, as well as misrecognizing local aesthetics and culture-specific rhetoric devices that shape the narratives of resistance. Dalit literary criticism has contributed a deep understanding of a kind of “alternative aesthetics” which cannot continue to be ignored by the canons of literary scholars (Paniker 1994).

As is the case for many subaltern groups in South Asia,51) a clear-cut separation between the religious and the social cannot represent an appropriate premise to study the Matua community and its narratives. If we embrace local categories as more suitable analytical tools, and take into serious consideration local exegeses and oral literary criticism (Dundes 1966), the struggle for liberation emerges as simultaneously twofold: inward and outward, soteriological as well as social. As explored earlier, Matua “bundles of narratives” present human beings as enslaved by the six vices and dominated by kām; the resolution of this condition is to be realized through knowledge of the gross body (sthūl deha), its “mother” and “father”: we come from a male-female couple, we are made of male-female substances, and we achieve freedom from desire and liberation from the vices through the spiritual and embodied path for self-realization (sādhanā). Simultaneously, humans are exploited on a socioeconomic level by oppressors and unfair power relationships. The origins of this condition are explored in Matua narratives through a (hi)story-telling of past oppression perpetrated by high-caste landlords and religiously justified by Brahminical tyranny over the downtrodden and backward castes (patita, pichiẏe paṛā mānuṣ). Liberation from such conditions means freedom from powerful exploiters, through literacy, education, and social mobility. For both conditions—inner slavery and outer marginalization—the key is liberation from ignorance. It starts from one’s own gross body and continues by rectifying the social unit of the family, all the way up to the larger political structure. The social movement and the religious movement, the inward fight for liberation and the outward struggle of social awareness and mobilization, necessarily go hand in hand. Both find their place in the myths, sacred songs, and genealogies of the Matua community and should not be dismissed as an apolitical “quagmire of superstition.” As Guruchand Thakur eloquently declared, according to one of the “books of myth” (Haldar 1943), “there is no strength unless there is a united group” (or party: yār dal nāi tār bal nāi) and “there is no upliftment without political power” (rājśakti binā keha baṛa nāhi haẏ).

Traveling stories and cross-border narratives of the Matua community cannot be understood simply using the top-to-bottom notion of Sanskritization52) or acculturation, focusing on the ways in which elements from the dominant Hindu culture are accommodated. Some elite members of the mainland Matua community have begun to reject some of the traditional narratives as irrational and contaminated by Brahminization.53) Taking into account the broader use of narratives for resistance and social mobilization, it is clear that the borrowing of plot elements, of familiar terminologies, and of prestigious characters associated with higher status is a very common subaltern strategy to build community and to articulate resistance.

The idea that popular repertoires of stories sustain conscious political action was admirably developed by Joseph Davis in Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements (2002) and taken up later by Eric Selbin in Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story (2010). I build on some of their reflections to argue that Matua counter-narratives do not imitate familiar stories and narrative patterns borrowed from the so-called Great Tradition because of a lack of creativity, acculturation, or an essential Indian carelessness for originality.54) To recycle old stories and to build upon a familiar set of images, symbols, and worldviews in order to create new stories is not something peculiar to South Asian subaltern narratives. We all copy and imitate familiar stories, because mimesis is a fundamental way of knowing (Selbin 2010, 68). Cultural emulation and replication in Dalit oral traditions have often been seen as the product of a subaltern fascination with powerful others, or the sign of a lack of cultural authenticity, sincerity, or charisma. The Matua adaptation, incorporation, and transformation of Hindu mythological and epic episodes into their own narratives of resistance and upliftment can be better understood by rehabilitating the power of mimesis and by considering Matua composers and storytellers’ agency in a process of “cultural re-editing”55) across borderlands. Like the Puerto Rican witch healers discussed by Raquel Romberg (2016), through the imitation of hegemonic symbols and gestures on the margins Matua composers have resisted the exclusionary power of such symbols. Like Comaroff’s South African bricoleurs,56) they take the available material—a toolbox of symbols, characters, conceptualizations of time—and creatively use all this equipment to produce a new cultural expression that responds to contextual needs. This helps us to navigate through the ambiguous Matua approach toward powerful religious establishments in their environment—Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam57)—from which it has consciously included some things and rejected others, adopting elements and subverting them. Deploying cultural loans for specific purposes, Matua mythopoiesis actualizes a creative process of subversive bricolage-thinking. In Matua narratives, Ram and Krishna, the orthodox incarnations of God, do not appear as honored special guests projecting dignity upon a Dalit group from their high heavenly seats. Rather, they are kidnapped and showcased as captured bearers of an alien power (Comaroff 1985, 197) which is constantly debated and contested. Charismatic characters of “the big people” (baṛolok), such as the same Ram who killed the low-caste ascetic Śāmbuka, are appropriated and reproduced without asking for permission, engaging in a form of cultural piracy (Romberg 2005), subverting the same symbols of power which had been intended to exclude and vilify the practices of people at the margins.


I have presented a limited and selected set of extracts from stories collected on the Andaman Islands from the extensive oral and written production of the Matua community. Through an analysis of narratives of the cosmological mother and father, the king of vices, the ultimate godly incarnations and their gendered agenda, I have underlined how these stories are shared, preserved, and valued in order to shape an alternative Bengali identity in a diasporic context and in a borderland environment where uprooted Namashudra people from a culturally more homogeneous rural East Bengal have been living adjacent to other communities for 70 years. These stories have served the purpose of generating cohesion and building community in an extremely isolated place, both when the first batches of refugees were working hostages on remote islands, and more recently when mainstreaming forces with tremendous social and economic power, such as neo-Hindu institutions and Christian missions, have a strong presence (Zehmisch 2017, 214, 278). Stories have a powerful and pervasive role in articulating the past into collective memories. Accordingly, they forge a collective image of the future, providing the tools to imagine transformation and conceive of how the community ought to be; therefore, they also provide a structure to take decisions and actions in the present.

With their power of trans-regional and transnational connectivity, Matua myths and legends contest the rigidity of postcolonial borders: they maintain unity and bind communities scattered around the Bay of Bengal and in different corners of the subcontinent through governmental policies of “dispersal,” “rehabilitation,” and “colonization,” which drew subaltern agricultural castes and contracted laborers into new forms of exploitation. They are a traveling “archive of feelings” (Cvetkovich 2003, 7), and they constitute the basis of people’s conscious resistance and social mobilization aimed at overcoming other kinds of borders, such as those marking out the territory of religious and social marginality which they inhabit.

The stories I have explored are bricolage narratives that expand on familiar characters, worldviews, and sets of beliefs in order to assert a distinct cultural consciousness, imagining a new world order and a distinct sense of righteousness. Through ethnography and literary studies in the borders between South and Southeast Asia, such bricolage narratives emerge not just as a finished cultural item but as a process of bricolage-thinking in borderland ontologies, by which narrators retrospectively frame the past and mobilize present action. In the multiple borderland in which Matua history makers are located, bricolage is an eclectic process of creation and restoration. On the one hand it employs, recycles, and rereads old material; and it uses familiar tools to create a new cultural identity at the margins, often in response to criticism and accusations put forward by the dominant culture. On the other hand, it expressly employs the tools it has at hand for restoration, in order to repair and bring back to life a fallen institution of pre-existing cultural and religious importance. Hence, the new and distinct religious identity asserted to be “Matua” is at times overtly non-Hindu or anti-Hindu, while on other occasions it is presented as a refined and superior version (sūkṣma sanātan dharma) of a deteriorated, unjust, and chauvinistic Hinduism (sthūl sanātan dharma). In this sense, the idea of bricolage-thinking as an epistemological and compositional tool is reflected in the local discourse on dharma and its restoration: as our storytellers recounted, and as the general repertoire of Indic mythology tells us, dharma is a transient and dynamic order; its religious institutions’ adherence to truth and righteousness periodically reaches the brink of collapse and needs avatars who periodically return as champions to restore it.

As a confluence of myth, memory, and mimesis shaping the everyday art of resistance (Selbin 2010, 48–73), Bengali Matua stories from the heart of the Bay of Bengal mirror an overlapping borderland and diasporic self, characterized by multiple, ambiguous, and situational identities. They provide, for their tellers and listeners, a symbolic capital enabling them to trespass borders, to connect with imaginary homelands, and to link up with imaginary fellow countrymen and countrywomen who share a similar, ever-changing, itinerant reservoir of stories, in many distant borderlands of South Asia.

Accepted: December 10, 2019


The material used in this article derives from the following: (1) a research project on the post-Partition migration of oral traditions from East Bengal, supported by a research fellowship at the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden (2016–17); (2) a DAAD research grant at Südasien-Institut, Modern South Asian Languages and Literatures, under the supervision of Professor Hans Harder, University of Heidelberg (2017–18); and (3) a research project on the Matua community and its soundscapes in relation to religious identity and displacement, supported by a research fellowship at Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore) and by a fieldwork grant offered by ARI for the period December 2018–February 2019. This article was possible thanks to the valuable comments of the editors and reviewers and, most important, the time, kindness, hospitality, and helpfulness of members of the Matua community in North and South Andaman. A special acknowledgment goes to Amarit Biswas, Paresh Mondal, Manik Gosain, Tarak Dutta and his extended family, Anadi Ranjan Biswas, Mahananda Gomostha and his extended family, Jyotsna Biswas, Unnoti Malakar and her daughter, Biren Sardar, Uttam Samaddar, and B. K. Talukdar, among many others.


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1) Sekhar Bandyopadhyay has written on the early history and institutionalization of the Matua movement (Bandyopadhyay 1997). The caste-based religious movement formed an influential political entity—namely, the Matua Mahasangha—that has represented, particularly for the last 10 years, the strongest aspect of Dalit politics in West Bengal (Sinharay 2016). In the Bengali language, significant work has been authored by Manosanta Biswas (2016). Practitioners and participants refer to Matua as a religion (dharma), a sect or community (sampradāẏ), as well as a movement (āndolan). The term “Matua” (related to matta and mātoẏārā in standard Bengali) means intoxicated, inebriated, beside oneself. Although it was once a derogatory name used by outsiders, practitioners have claimed this epithet and use it to define themselves as those drunk and maddened by divine love (nāme preme mātoẏārā).

2) Two edited volumes on the history and society of the Andaman Islands have recently been published (Anderson et al. 2016; and Heidemann and Zehmisch 2016).

3) A theoretical analysis of the term and its usage can be found in Mary (2005, 284–286).

4) Little attention has been given by scholarly literature to the cultural productions of Matua practitioners. An extensive corpus of verbal arts, performative traditions, and literature has been composed by Matua gurus and devotees. For an overview, in Bengali, see Bairagya (1999).

5) While this article was being written, the Indian Army operated a simulation on a massive scale: a military exercise to recapture and “liberate” the Andamans in the event that they were seized and claimed by China (Sudhi Ranjan Sen, India Today, November 24, 2017).

6) The portrait of a multicultural society is exploited not only for nationalistic goals (Abraham 2018) but also for commercial purposes. The Andaman and Nicobar administration organizes an Island Tourism Festival every year. According to the official website for the festival: “This festival attracts participation from people belonging to different religious groups and cultures. A vivid reflection of the cosmopolitan culture of the region . . .” (Andaman Tourism 2017). In an online article, the local teacher Raisuddin Gayen states:

Andamanese society is different. Andamanese culture does not pay heed to castes and religious differences. Here we celebrate Christmas, Eid, Pongal, and everybody is welcome. In North Andaman there is a community of Bengali Christians: they pray to Jesus in the church and they sing praises to Hari participating in the Harisabha [the Matua religious congregation]. (Gayen 2016)

This statement was written in response to the book Āndāmāne Bāṅālī (Bengalis in the Andamans) by Bandana Gupta (which I was not able to locate), in which the author apparently says that the Andamans come across as a sort of Bangladesh recreated by numerous settlers from untouchable groups; however, because of the lack of high-caste Hindus, Gupta argues that they have not been able to create a healthy and “decorous” society.

7) As far as I am aware, there is only one previous study of the Matuas on the Andaman Islands, authored by Madhumita Mazumdar (2016). Focused on oral histories from South and Middle Andaman, the chapter brilliantly underlines the role of Matua moral order, singing sessions, and shared religious values as crucial place-making devices for these Bengali settlers.

8) The bhadralok in colonial Bengal represented a class of urban educated Hindus, mainly upper caste, serving professionally in the British colonial system as lawyers, higher civil servants, doctors, etc. Literally meaning “gentleman” or well-mannered person, the term is still widely used to communicate the notion of a person who has bhadratā, the perceived quality of gentleness and of being “cultivated,” inextricably related to the dimensions of class and caste.

9) Recent anthropological work has uncovered in a remarkable way the histories and negotiations of one such community, the so-called Ranchi, who arrived on the islands as contract laborers and are infamously known for encroaching on forestland and providing cheap manual work. See Zehmisch (2017).

10) Particularly important for my area of study is Sunil Amrith’s work on colonial migration, economies, and environment across the Bay of Bengal (Amrith 2013). An interesting formulation has been proposed by Itty Abraham, who envisages the Andaman and Nicobar Islands union territory as a “sea of islands” that have long-standing relations with the coastlines and communities of both Southeast Asia and South Asia (Abraham 2018, 5).

11) According to the Census of India 2001, out of a total population of 356,152, Bengali speakers amounted to 91,582, representing the largest linguistic community (almost 26 percent), followed by Hindi speakers (18.23 percent) and Tamil speakers (17.68 percent) (see GOI 2014, 138).

12) The word “Dalit” means, in a number of Indian languages derived from Sanskrit, “broken” or “oppressed.” It refers to formerly untouchable communities that were seen as impure and polluting by high-caste Hindus because of their traditional occupations. Dalits remain significantly disadvantaged in relation to the rest of the Indian population and are, moreover, routinely subject to violence, sometimes of extreme forms (Sikka 2012, 45–46). Not all “untouchable” groups refer to themselves as Dalit, which is a loaded term, emerging from a precise political context. Members of the Matua community on the Andaman Islands with whom I interacted never referred to their group as Dalit. Their caste awareness and its related struggle, based on shared memories and religious narratives, resists the pan-Indian Dalit formation constituted through the Ambedkarite discourse. Some well-educated urban Matua members of West Bengal employ the term for self-ascription. However, scholars have often written about Namashudras in general, and Matuas in particular, as the Dalits of West Bengal (e.g., Bandyopadhyay and Basu Ray Chaudhury 2016; Sinharay 2016).

13) On the Matua community’s literary production and institutionalization, see Mukherjee (2014; 2016) and Sinharay (2016).

14) Notwithstanding their caste background, Bengali settlers on the Andaman Islands are not categorized in the local administration as Scheduled Caste (whereas the Namashudras of West Bengal can access affirmative action programs and the corresponding reserved quotas as Scheduled Castes). Since 2011, they have been able to compete in the reservation system as Other Backward Classes, a category that they share with four other communities residing on the Andamans: Local Born, Bhantu, Karen, and Moplah. The low-caste Bengali community has interpreted this decision as an injustice (Biswas 2013).

15) Fieldwork recordings, N. Karmakar, Subhash Gram, Diglipur, North Andaman, December 18, 2018.

16) In my last fieldwork trip in interior West Bengal I met Santal families initiated into the Matua religion and skilled in the practice of Matua religious songs (kīrtan).

17) Gary Alan Fine proposed conceiving of a social movement as a “bundle of narratives” (Fine 1995, 128) that, when expressed within an interactional arena by participants, strengthens the commitment of members to shared goals and status-based identities.

18) At least I have never heard (nor read) such stories in other places where Matuas live. Apart from the Andaman Islands, I have conducted fieldwork with the Matua community mainly in West Bengal and southern Bangladesh.

19) It is believed that at the time of Harichand Thakur a disciple traveled from village to village to invite devotees to gather at the mahotsab. When he had to cross a river at night, he sat on a crocodile, which he mistook for a tree log, and the crocodile, also a pious devotee of Harichand, transported the disciple safely to the other side. When he understood what had just happened, the disciple extended the invitation to the crocodile. Every participant brought to the mahotsab the best produce or the most precious thing that they could provide as an offering: rice, fresh vegetables, expensive sweets, and so on. The crocodile was concerned that it would not be able to offer a prestigious donation. After much thought, it caught a very big fish and decided to bring that as an offering. But by the time the crocodile arrived at the festival, it was already the third and final day. Harichand reassured all the participants, who were terrified by the arrival of the enormous crocodile carrying a huge fish in its mouth. Together with all the other customary donations offered by the devotees, that day the fish was also cooked, sanctified as a divine offering, and then shared by all devotees. Since then, on the third day of the festival the final and most important meal has included fish. The use of fish on a ritual occasion is scorned by orthodox Hindus and Bengali Vaishnavas. They view it as an unsophisticated practice which violates norms of ritual purity. On the Andamans, the story of the pious crocodile responds to these contemptuous statements and stresses shared values of inclusivity and equality.

20) These are fairly common among educated urban Matuas living in West Bengal, where some have joined the pan-Indian Dalit trend of reconstructing an exalted history of Buddhism for the low castes. In their homes and temples Buddha images abound, either alone or in posters side by side with Harichand Thakur, who is said to be a reincarnation of the Buddha. Parallels of Harichand and the Buddha are sparsely present in the oldest Matua scriptures (Sarkar 1916, 15), but they assume a particular importance in contemporary Matua narratives and politics within urban West Bengal.

21) Dehatattva—the doctrine of the body—operates on the premise that liberation is achieved with and through the body. Based on the assumption that the body works as a microcosm that contains and mirrors the macrocosm, dehatattva songs and teachings reflect a Bengali esoteric stream which has been referred to as “sacred biology” (McDaniel 1989) as well as “cosmophysiological soteriology” (Hayes 1989). Ethnographic insights relating to the set of beliefs on mātāpitātattva and dehatattva can be found in Cakrabarti (1990) and Jha (1999), both based in West Bengal. On the Andaman Islands, dehatattva practices and specific theories are restricted to initiated practitioners and are hard to find in printed literature. There are, however, explicit discussions of dehatattva and mātāpitātattva in some booklets distributed among practitioners and disciples. Songs in printed collections discuss mātāpitātattva with a typically metaphorical code language. In a song by the famous Matua saint-composer Tarakchandra Sarkar, for instance, the doctrine is expressed in the following verses: pitṛdhan mātṛdhan dhani sabe sei dhane / pitṛdhan sayatne rākhli nā man bholā / tor mātṛdhane yatna yata / yadi pitṛdhane kichu hato / tabe tor haẏe yeto / thākto nā saṁsārer jvālā (Sarkar 2009 [1900], 73). This translates as follows:

the wealth of the father, the wealth of the mother: all are wealthy because of those gifts. Reckless mind, you did not look after your father’s wealth with care! If you put as much care into your father’s wealth as you do into your mother’s—that would be the day! You wouldn’t be burning after worldly matters.

22) The Bengali bhadralok reevaluation of asceticism in nineteenth-century Hindu reformist and institutionalizing endeavors left underprivileged working classes out of the modern religious discourse, largely inspired by neo-Vedantic perspectives (see Sardella 2013).

23) For example, Nara nārī ye bā hao mityā balibe nā, which translates as “Whether man or woman, you must not tell lies,” and Pati patnī ek sāthe hariguṇ gāo, which translates as “Husband and wife, sing together the songs of praise of Hari” (Bairagya 1999, x).

24) Hāte kām mukhe nām is a persuasive and omnipresent proverb of the Matua community, which means “Work with your hands, chant the holy name with your lips.”

25) According to Eliza Kent, elite Indian Christians were the first group to actively appropriate companionate marriage as the conjugal ideal (Kent 2004, 180). The Christian missions of Faridpur have been living side by side with Matua followers for several decades. The suggestion that Matua leaders and disciples in East Bengal nurtured a lively dialogue with a strong nearby Christian community is justified by Matua scriptures (for instance, the name of the Baptist missionary Cecil S. Mead, who worked in Faridpur in the early twentieth century, appears extensively in Śrīśrīgurucāṃdacarita) as well as by other practical considerations. Matua teachings and norms of behavior have been consolidated in the “Twelve Commandments” (dvādaś ājñā). It is legitimate to suspect that such systematization was inspired by the proximity of Christian missions. The 12 saint-composers of the Matua sect have similarly been systematized as “the 12 holy madmen,” dvādaś pāgal. One of the 12 commandments prescribes honoring one’s mother and father, a familiar biblical commandment that perfectly reflects local concerns for mātāpitā as parents as well as cosmo-physiological entities. One of the commandments prescribes treating another person’s wife as one’s mother, reminiscent of the Christian commandment not to covet a neighbor’s wife. Furthermore, Harichand as the father, Guruchand as the son, and Hari as the supreme and absolute godhead are supposed to be one and the same, reflecting a vernacular elaboration of the Christian concept of the Trinity that echoes familiar parallels in Vaishnava theology.

26) Fieldwork recordings, Krishnapur, North Andaman, February 8, 2017.

27) Studies of eastern Indian versions of the Ramayana seem to concur that Bengali and Oriya retellings of the epic are critical of Ram’s moral standards and are particularly concerned with Ram’s mistreatment of Sita (Bose 2004, 107–118). Ambivalence—if not outright subversion—has characterized the response to the Ramayana in Bengal since the nineteenth century. Matua preachers, who are very often also professional performers, trained and experienced in Kabigān (a genre of oral musical-rhetorical poetry) and rāmāyaṇ gān, openly discuss these concerns with their audiences.

28) The definitions that Ambarish Biswas and other Matua followers use when they speak of their own people as “us” are pichiẏe paṛā mānuṣ (backward people), nimna jāti (low caste), and choṭa mānuṣ (literally little people, as opposed to the “big people,” baṛolok: important, affluent, and educated people occupying positions of power in society).

29) Matua participants state that in the orthodox Vaiṣṇava scriptures it is written that Chaitanya will be reincarnated and will appear again in the land of Iśān (the cardinal direction of northeast). This land is interpreted as Bangladesh, where Harichand was born.

30) In Brahminical Hinduism, according to the doctrinal scriptures (śāstras), women and low-caste people are not allowed to read, learn, recite, or even listen to the Vedas.

31) For a history of the narrative concept of “avatar” and the theology of hierophany, see Jones (2015).

32) I am referring especially to the opus of Saiyid Sultan; in the sixteenth-century Nabī-Baṃśa he identified the Islamic notion of prophet (nabī) with the Indian notion of avatar (Eaton 1993, 288).

33) The narrative logic of karmic causality, cyclical time, and the periodic restoration of dharma (religion, cosmic order) through the intervention of divine incarnations are not confined to Hindu mythology. As a narrative scheme and as a set of cosmo-historical patterns, they are widely shared with Jain and Buddhist literature (characters and mythical episodes are also shared between Brahminic, Jain, and Buddhist mythological literatures; see Appleton 2017). In the case under analysis, though, storytellers have consciously borrowed, and critically addressed, Hindu mythological characters and their deeds.

34) In the initial section of the hagiography of Harichand Thakur, composed by Tarakchandra Sarkar and published long after the guru’s demise, we read: Kṛṣṇabhakta śauca ācaraṇ khuṃṭināṭi / śuddha prem bhakti baiṣṇabete paṛe truṭi, which translates as “Krishna devotees being very particular about purity norms / devotion to divine love in Vaiṣṇavas declines” (Sarkar 1916, 8).

35) The controversial categories of “Great Tradition” and “little traditions” have been used by many anthropologists of South Asia. Introduced by Robert Redfield (1956), they are meant to distinguish between the major, continuing components of a Sanskritic religious tradition developed by high-caste elites regarded as more prestigious, and the plethora of popular religious practices and their narrative foundation at the local or village level.

36) Tarakchandra Sarkar’s divine genealogy of previous lives also appears in some songs, according to the verses of the composer Prafulla Gosain from Jessore: Kabi rasarāj Tārakcāṃdare / śatakoṭi praṇām jānāi āj tomāre [. . .] / tumi Bālmiki chile tretāẏ, Rāmāẏaṇ likhle amar bhāṣāẏ / tumi dvāparete Bedbyās, sudhījaner biśvās, kabi rasarāj ebāre (Bairagya 1999, 156), which translates as follows:

Oh Poet Tarakchandra king of rasa / let me offer you hundreds of salutations [. . .] / you were Valmiki in the Third Era, in the immortal language you wrote the Ramayana / in the Second you were Ved Vyasa, faith of the erudite ones, and this time you’re our king of rasa.

While some low castes trace their myths of origin back to Valmiki (Narayan 2006, 65), other Dalit spokespersons and activists sharply criticize the casteist narratives of the Ramayana by addressing its legendary composer, as is the case in Daya Pawar’s poem:

Oh Valmiki [. . .] One Shambuk of your own blood / Caught fire, rose in ager. / [. . .] Singing the praises of Ramrajya / Even there the icy cliff of inhumanity towered up / [. . .] How then should we call you a great poet? (Jaideva and Paswan 2002, 63)

37) A folk theater (pālā kīrtan) troupe staged the miraculous life story of Aswini Gosain; the pālā kīrtan rendition is available on YouTube, and the physical appearance of the saint-composer is explicitly represented (Lifeline4u 2017).

38) This may have a folk etymology explained by the fact that one of Krishna’s affectionate epithets in Bengali is Kānāi; kānā means one-eyed, or blind in one eye.

39) Similarly, according to the legendary life of the saint Kannappa (Hudson 1989, 383), the saint, when he saw that the eyes painted on top of a Shiva-linga stone were bleeding, plucked out both of his eyes to place them on the stone.

40) Fieldwork recordings, Wandoor, South Andaman, January 30, 2017.

41) The verses from Śrīśrīharilīlāmṛta relate:

Śacī bale tumi yadi more cheṛe yābe / e brahmāṇḍe tabe ār mātā ke mānibe / e samaẏ Gaurāṅga karilo aṅgīkār / tomāke chāṛite mātā śakti ki āmār / śodhite nāribo mātā taba ṛṇ dhār / janme janme taba garbhe ha’ba abatār / [. . .] ār ek janma bāki Prabhūr / ei sei abatār Śrī Hari Ṭhākur (Sarkar 1916, 3)

which translates as:

Śacī says, if you go and leave me alone / who will ever respect mothers again on this earth? / At this point Gaurāṅga promised / Do I have the power to leave you, mother? / Incapable of repaying my debt toward you, mother / Birth after birth I will descend again into your womb / [. . .] And one more birth was left to the Lord / That is this avatar, Harichand the God.

42) Fieldwork recordings, Radhanagar, North Andaman, February 11, 2017.

43) There are also separate teachings for women, called nārītattva, and a spiritual practice (sādhanā) addressed to women, which revolves around the control and discipline of sexual life and devotion to one’s husband.

44) Produced in the mainland, such periodicals have one or more offices on the Andaman Islands: for example, Matuẏā Darpan, published in Burdwan (West Bengal), with one branch on the Andamans, in Neil Island; and Yugadiśā, published in Kharagpur (West Bengal), with two offices on the Andamans, one in Port Blair and the other on Little Andaman.

45) Whereas Hinduism is referred to as the eternal order, or sanātan dharma, Matua followers refer to their creed as sūkṣma sanātan dharma, where sūkṣma means primarily “subtle” but also sharp, refined, appropriate, just, in juxtaposition to the “gross” (sthūl) religious order of the Hindus. With this formulation, Matua believers can justify their connections with the ancient and prestigious Hindu past, while rejecting it as surpassed and unrefined. In this ambiguous and negotiable relationship with Hinduism, the new dharma of the Matuas is presented as a superior, more evolved form of the same, perennial (sanātan) dharma.

46) This is at least what most critical writers have related about the personal life of Ramakrishna (see Kripal 1995).

47) The quote refers to the title of a famous novel by Rabindranath Tagore (1941), often used as an allegory for domesticity and political engagement, and more broadly as encapsulating the polarity between the private and public spheres.

48) Resistance as a concept is something that has preoccupied anthropologists since the 1970s. Critiques have been addressed at social scientists’ obsession with finding and celebrating resistance wherever it is palpable. Some have argued that scholars have a tendency to romanticize and fetishize any form of resistance (Abu-Lughod 1990). In the case analyzed in this article, the vocabulary of resistance is consistent with the vernacular expressions of the people that I have worked with. Local terms that translate as “revolution,” “opposition,” and “protest” (biplab, pratibād) are interspersed in oral as well as written accounts of Matua spokespersons. For example, a particularly eloquent statement by one of my interlocutors emphasized the fact that Guruchand Thakur paved the way for the community’s access to education because “without literacy there can be no movement, no protest, no revolution!” (Fieldwork recordings, Joydeb, January 16, 2017).

49) Regarding Dalit literature in Bengali, the contribution of Matua literature has been acknowledged in the writings of Manoranjan Byapari. As he rightly pointed out: “Before talking about Bangla Dalit literature today, we need to look back to a phenomenon called Matua sahitya [Matua literature]” (Byapari and Mukherjee 2007, 4118).

50) Post-secular views affected a number of disciplines, including international relations and political sciences. On the “post-secular turn” in literature, see Paul Corrigan’s exhaustive article (2015).

51) The approach sustained by Subaltern Studies has highlighted the way in which the rebellions of peasants, tribal people, or forest-dwellers in India have frequently been expressed in a religious idiom. For instance, Ranajit Guha (1988, 78–79) argued that religiosity was central to the Santal rebellion.

52) The term “Sanskritization,” introduced by M. N. Srinivas in his study on the Coorgs of South India in 1952, has been adopted by various anthropologists to describe social phenomena within and beyond the tribal, low-caste, and subaltern context. For an analysis of the concept and its legitimacy, see Simon Charsley’s article “Sanskritization: The Career of an Anthropological Theory” (1998).

53) Sudhir Ranjan Haldar, a Dalit writer who also authored several works on Matua history and doctrines, stated:

A greater number of diseases were cured . . . by Harichand Thakur and mostly for that reason he gained a good standing as a deliverer of the poor and the Patit [downtrodden] people. So, superstitious people of that time, influenced by the Vedic religion regarded him as an Avatar of so-called God. (Haldar 2015)

54) Orientalist writers and Indologists have often lamented, using Eurocentric paradigms, what they believe to be a lack of originality on the part of Indian authors. According to this perspective, in the absence of the idea of individual creativity and authorship there is no new work which departs completely from past tradition. An example of this attitude can be found in Allardyce and Allardyce’s “The Calcutta Natives” (1874, 447). Echoing the same orientalist discourse, some literary critics deny originality or any innovative contribution to Dalit literature.

55) Cultural re-editing has been discussed as referring to one culture’s integration of another’s story or symbol into its own (Selbin 2010, 37). I prefer this expression as opposed to more hierarchical terms, such as “Sanskritization” and “acculturation,” because it still allows us to discuss issues of legitimacy, authority, and authenticity without presuming a one-way movement between cultural material of high and low status.

56) Studying the postcolonial South African Zionist movement, Comaroff suggested that colonized societies deploy and deform imperial institutions; they actively appropriate, transform, and turn to their own advantage a number of key symbols drawn from the dominant culture. The result is a kind of “subversive bricolage” which adapts strategic elements of colonialist discourse as “captured bearers of alien power” (Comaroff 1985, 197).

57) Islam is often interpreted by Matua interlocutors as the quintessential “other.” In southern Bangladesh, where the Matua community is surrounded by a Muslim majority, narratives of the Matua faith in relation to Islam abound, while these are missing in other areas where the Matua community lives in a predominantly Hindu environment. Stories about the Muslim devotees of Harichand Thakur, their offerings of beef—which gets miraculously transformed into sandeś (traditional sweets)—and the Hindu-Muslim marriage celebrated by Guruchand Thakur are recurrent in Bangladesh but are not common in other Matua diasporic contexts where there is little contact with Muslims.


Vol. 9, No. 2, Valerie MASHMAN


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 2

The Story of Lun Tauh, “Our People”: Narrating Identity on the Borders in the Kelabit Highlands*

Valerie Mashman**

*I have been associated with this village and the Kelabit community for over 30 years through marriage. Fieldwork took place through participant observation and unstructured interviews during visits to the Long Peluan area and related settlements from 1998 to 2000 and from 2010 to 2016.
**Institute of Borneo Studies, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 94300 Kota Samarahan, Sarawak, Malaysia
e-mail: mashmanval[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.2_203

This article shows, through a historical narrative set in precolonial times in Sarawak, Borneo, how people think of themselves in two contrasting ways, one fluid and one more fixed. The first is lun tauh, which means “our people.” This presents a fluid, inclusive identity through the course of warfare, alliances, and migrations across watersheds and borders. It differs from the second way in which the narrative presents people as thinking of themselves—with the ethnic label “Kelabit,” which came into use with the colonial state. The article goes on to investigate how the relational concept of lun tauh and the reified notion of “being Kelabit” coexist with and interrogate one another and contribute to the identities of peoples who transcend national borders and undergo processes of division and separation across natural boundaries, be they rivers, rapids, or ridges. The notion of lun tauh shows that alternatives to bounded exclusive ethnic identities are particularly evident in the borderlands, demonstrating that cultural identities transcend ethnic constructs and territorial borders. This leads to a different way of looking at ethnicity, which is focused less on discrete groups and more on the construction of social identities on the basis of context. The two forms of identity—the fixed reified notion of “being Kelabit” and the wider inclusivity of lun tauh—coexist as strategies for survival for a marginal people, operating at different levels. The narrative demonstrates how local perceptions of ethnicities and identities are bound up with ways for creating larger groups, creating allies, remembering kin across borders, and struggles to claim territory.

Keywords: borders, ethnic identity, Sarawak, Kelabit, historical narrative


The Kelabit are about to forget their history. This is because they have made a “break with the past” (Lian-Saging 1976/77, 211) and are reluctant to talk about warfare and belief systems from the time prior to their embracing Christianity in the late 1930s. So it was a great surprise when, in 2006, I was offered—and accepted—three narratives about the past which included details of warfare, by Malian Tepun, the headman of the longhouse of Long Peluan in the borderlands of Sarawak. Here I will examine the first of these narratives.

The narrative, set in precolonial times, shows how people think of themselves in two contrasting ways, one fluid and one more fixed. The first is as lun tauh, which means “our people,” rather than in terms of component ethnic groups, such as being Kelabit, Ngurek, and Sa’ban. In terms of the meaning of identity and ethnicity, this contrasts with the second way in which the narrative presents people as thinking of themselves—with the apparently primordial ethnic label “Kelabit.” This is a term that came into use with the colonial state. A label such as Kelabit defines and reifies ethnicity, while the idea of lun tauh is much more fluid, relational, and inclusive.

This article will investigate how the relational concept of lun tauh and the reified notion of “being Kelabit” coexist with and interrogate one another and contribute to the identities of peoples who transcend national borders yet undergo processes of division and separation across natural boundaries, be they rivers, rapids, or ridges. The concept of lun tauh demonstrates that, in the context of a borderland, alternatives to bounded exclusive ethnic identities are particularly evident. This fits in with the discourse of the deconstruction of the nation-state, particularly through the subdiscipline of borderland studies. As Alexander Horstmann and Reed Wadley (2006, 16) note from the perspective of borderland studies in Southeast Asia, “the border concept serves to question the very notion of a bounded culture.” Taking the idea further, Rozanna Lilley highlights the need to redefine ethnicity as “a changing alignment of social groups with neither fixed boundaries nor stable internal constitutions” (Lilley 1990, 176). This process of redefinition should override any preconceptions regarding cohesion and boundedness, because cultural identities transcend ethnic constructs and territorial borders and consist of “a choice of identifications and affiliations that are picked up upon because they seem advantageous.” This leads to a different way of looking at ethnicity, which is focused less on discrete groups than on the construction of social identities on the basis of contexts (Lilley 1990, 176).

Narratives on Borders

This article fills a gap by utilizing indigenous historical narratives to provide local insights into perceptions of identities across borders. The demand for this is highlighted by Michiel Baud and Willem van Schendel (1997, 238), who call for oral history to be used as a conceptual tool and as a means to explore new sources of knowledge to redress the balance away from the dominant view located at the center—often taken from the documented archives on one side of the border which deny an active role to borderland populations—to the periphery. This is particularly pertinent in Southeast Asia, where in many cases language groups and ethnic identities are shared across borders. As this article illustrates, peoples have long memories of histories of political alliances, trading partners, shared farmlands, and family networks that existed across their own territories, before political borders were imposed with the emergence of the nation-state, when peoples living within the locality of borders came to be split up and marginalized (van Schendel and de Maaker 2014).

It is beyond the scope of this paper to survey in detail the literature on Asian borderlands, which is richly interdisciplinary, encompassing political geography (Newman and Paasi 1998), international relations (Migdal 2004), history (Baud and van Schendel 1997; Thongchai 2003; Tagliacozzo 2005; 2013; Scott 2009; Aung-Thwin 2013, 94), and anthropology (Horstmann and Wadley 2006) and including cross-disciplinary anthologies such as those edited by Doris Wastl-Walter (2012) and Thomas Wilson and Hastings Donnan (2012). Van Schendel and de Maaker (2014, 4), in reviewing the subdiscipline, note, however, that ethnographic studies have been scarce—although Borneo is probably something of an exception here, as the implications of porosity of borders in Borneo have been explored in the work of a number of anthropologists. This includes the work of Ishikawa Noboru (2010), Reed Wadley (2000; 2001; 2004), and Michael Eilenberg (2012; 2014) for West Borneo; I Ketut Ardhana, Jayl Langub, and Daniel Chew (2004) for the Lun Bawang-Kerayan highlands; and Poline Bala (2000; 2001; 2002) and Mathew Amster (2005; 2006) for the Kelabit-Kerayan highlands.

Two themes relevant to this article emerge from studies based in the Kelabit highlands. First, the Kelabit borderlands is a place where local agency can shape and articulate local meanings of “stateness” and forms of “governmentality,” as the Kelabit have managed to utilize the power of the state to assert their own dominance in interactions with their neighbors (Amster 2006, 224). This is linked to the way in which the Kelabit use their reified ethnic construct of “being Kelabit.” Second, Bala (2002, 26) identifies mobility and hybridity of populations as crucial factors in the context of Borneo. I will explore these topics more fully when I go on to analyze the Long Peluan narrative. However, it is first necessary to contextualize the setting, to review local notions of ethnicity and identity, and to set the background for the narrator who related the narratives.

Long Peluan and the People of the Kelapang River

The basis for this article, a narrative which provides a window into shifting views of ethnicity, comes from the longhouse of Long Peluan in Sarawak, a state belonging to the federation of Malaysia, situated on the island of Borneo. Long Peluan is remote; the area is served by a twice-weekly rural air service from the coastal city of Miri. The alternative is to hazard an eight-hour journey along a logging road. Before the road was constructed, the journey involved a three-day hike across mountainous country and a six-day journey by motorized longboat down the Baram River.

Long Peluan is located by the Kelapang River, and the people from the longhouses in the Kelapang area call themselves Lun Kelapang (“people of the Kelapang”). The people of Long Peluan recall another place, Long Di’it, far up the Di’it River (Pa Di’it), as a former village of origin, although no one lives there anymore. The identification with the Kelapang River echoes the importance of rivers in generating identity in the interior of Borneo. Both Long Di’it and Long Peluan are located close to the political border with Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, and genealogies originating from Long Di’it recall kinship ties through marriage with both the Sa’ban and the Ngurek who used to live on the Bahau River and with the Lundayeh or Lun Krayan along the Krayan River in Kalimantan.

There are other groups which are historically related to the longhouse of Long Peluan in the same river system: the Penan, who are settled upriver at Long Beruang on land that was cultivated by ancestors of the village of Long Peluan; and the Sa’ban and Lepo’ Ke’, who live at Long Banga, over the hills on the Puak and Balong Rivers. Farther downriver, the Ngurek live at Long Semeyang.

Long Peluan, then, is surrounded by diverse neighbors with whom in many cases its inhabitants share kinship ties (see Fig. 1). The effects of this on the longhouse are discussed in the next section.



Fig. 1 Map Showing the Location of Long Peluan, the Source of the Narrative, and Political Borders (map by Lee Guan Heng)


Heterogeneity in Long Peluan and Beyond

The Long Peluan community is, in fact, heterogenous; it does not consist only of Kelabit, despite the primary identification of the community as Kelabit. This is reflected in the use of numerous languages within the longhouse, something that is typical of central Borneo. For example, when charting genealogies, I find Kenyah, Ngurek, and Sa’ban as well as Kelabit names. So when I ask whether a person is Kelabit or Sa’ban, people are sometimes uncertain and hesitate before answering. It is as if they do not immediately think of categorizing people into ethnic groups. I witnessed another instance of this ethnic fluidity when a pastor started preaching sermons in the church in Long Peluan in Kenyah, her mother tongue. As this had not happened previously, it was commented on after the service. One longhouse resident reacted: “It’s no problem. In Long Peluan we understand Kelabit, Sa’ban, Malay, Penan, Kenyah Lepo Keh, Lepo Tau.” Another observation was: “Yes, we’re very mixed (plamud) here.” A further visible example of heterogeneity is that Kelabit women wear Kelabit-style bead hats, but some have Sa’ban tattoos on their arms, following the style and custom of their Sa’ban husbands, and all speak both Kelabit and Sa’ban (Fig. 2).



Fig. 2 Kelabit Women from Long Peluan; Sina Eo (center) Has Sa’ban Tattoos (photo by Valerie Mashman)


Openness and fluidity reflect a characteristic lack of concern for ethnic categories in daily life, which is common in Borneo, as Kenneth Sillander notes: “Ethnicity isn’t so important, and why should it be? In everyday affairs ethnicity is only rarely an issue; neighbors mix and are both culturally and structurally similar, and no benefits or interests are distributed on ethnic lines” (Sillander 1995, 81). This was something already realized much earlier by Tom Harrisson, curator of the Sarawak Museum after World War II. He concluded that people in Sarawak “cannot think of themselves as named, tabbed, static, classified groups” (Harrisson 1958, 295).

Ethnicity and the Malaysian State

The flexible concept of ethnicity in Borneo is similar to other parts of the Malay world, where populations are continuously shifting, with new migrants coming into communities (Carsten 1995). In the past, people “were at home in a diversity of places at different times in their lives. And particular localities were either impermanent or flexible, continually being made and remade” (Kahn 2012, 64). This changed with the politics of colonialism and the administration of the census, which had the “capacity to erase and deny the legacy of cultural borrowing and cross fertilization that had taken place” (Noor 2010, 78).

An example of the way in which perceptions of identity became more fixed is the way in which the idea of “Malayness” changed: “Malayness is purged of a migratory history and is portrayed with a sedentary settler imagery describing those who own and live on Malay land (tanah Melayu)” (Hoffstaedter 2011, 39). Thus, Malayness has become a fixed ethnic category relating to identity, territory, and the Islamic religion. For Malays, this was linked to the idea that they were bumiputera, or sons of the soil, a category which provided for affirmative action for their benefit under the New Economic Policy (1971), intended to remedy the perceived poverty and “backwardness” of Malays. Malays were “assigned a more or less fixed, stable modern identity anchored in a particular territory through the suppression of the possibility of alternative narratives” (Kahn 2012, xxiii). The “authority-defined” concept of Malayness masked their mixed ancestry and migrations and gave them advantages over the Chinese and Indians, who were perceived as pendatang or newcomers. Thus, a newspaper in 1941 stated in response to other groups lobbying for Malay political rights, “Malays have rights not because they were born here but because they belong to the Malay bangsa and are the first bangsa that own the land” (Ariffin 1993, 18, quoted in Reid 2004, 17). A similar dynamic can be observed within the narrative, as will be seen below, in relation to the definition of Kelabit ethnicity and Kelabit’s occupation of the highlands.

At this point, it is useful to ponder what is meant by ethnicity, and to consider how it contrasts with the notion of cultural identity. Ethnic classification, which can be defined in the Malaysian context as “authority-defined ethnicity” (Shamsul 2004, 147), is rooted in the colonial census (Anderson 2006, 184) and is imposed by the state for the purpose of governance. This is set against the “everyday defined reality,” which is how people experience the processes of cross-ethnic interaction on a daily basis (Shamsul 2004, 148). The importance of this “everyday defined reality,” of the fact that on an everyday level people live in a situation where their identities are not fixed but fluid, can be seen regularly in studies of ethnicity in Sarawak. For example, the concept of moving in and out of identities is further investigated with subtle exegetical nuances by Liana Chua (2007) as “fixity and flux” with reference to the Bidayuh in Sarawak. Similarly, Shanthi Thambiah highlights the importance of inclusivity in a concept of identity which embraces diversity, among a very small ethnic minority of close to four hundred people, the Bhuket. Yet this is set against the ethnic category of “Bhuket” bestowed by the state, which is based on exclusiveness and boundaries (Thambiah 2009, 339–340). These examples show that a notion of bounded ethnicity contrasts with a broader reality of fluid cultural identity. Victor King’s definition of cultural identity is useful here:

[P]rocesses of cultural construction and transformation and the various forms and levels of identity can never be taken to be complete and firmly established. They are always in the process of “becoming” . . . (King 2012, 17)

Here, cultural identity is seen as the fluid processual way that people actually identify themselves on an everyday basis, which is linked to the performative actions of shared experience.

Both the concepts of cultural identity epitomized by the idea of “our people” and a fixed notion of ethnicity, “the Kelabit,” interrogate each other through an analysis of the Long Peluan narrative. However, before going on to this, it is important to understand the history of “the Kelabit” as an ethnic category.

Kelabit Ethnicity and the Kelabit Highlands

The Kelabit came to be so called, supposedly, through a misunderstanding on the part of Charles Hose, a Brooke administrator, who was told through an interpreter that they were “Lun Pa Labid,” and he heard “Kalabit.” Thus, they came to be labeled and classified as Kalabit, in line with the Brooke administration’s policy of identifying the tribes under its jurisdiction by name (Lian-Saging 1976/77, 4). When Kelabit leaders came to Marudi to seek allegiance to the Brooke government in the interests of security, they accepted a common identification as Kelabit. However, they actually represented groups speaking a common language with mutually intelligible dialects from different river systems flowing out of the highland plateau, some of which were in what was then Dutch Borneo. This common identity was a convenient way for them to come together in larger groups to negotiate terms of peace with the Brooke government. They inherited from Brooke-era cartography the convenient equation of being Kelabit with occupying the highlands. This began when the term “Kalabit Country” appeared on the first map of the area by R. S. Douglas (1912) and the phrase “the Kelabit Highlands” became a legacy. This meant that being Kelabit was synonymous with living in the highlands as their territory.

In the same way that within Malaysia “Malayness” has become a fixed category, equated with owning and living on Malay land and enshrining preferential rights as bumiputera or sons of the soil, the Kelabit’s relationship with their territory, the “highlands,” is synonymous with their identity. Today, Kelabit differentiate themselves and their territory from their neighbors, the Lun Bawang in Sarawak and their Brian and Krayan cousins over the Indonesian border, all of whom speak dialects of the same mutually intelligible language. This differentiation is illustrated in narratives by educated Kelabit, who describe their history in terms of isolation and confinement to their ecological niche. Together with the notion of inaccessibility and separation from their neighbors is an emphasis on “their exclusive occupation of their ancestral territory” (Bulan 2003, 19) and the idea “that they have roamed the highlands from time immemorial” (Talla 1979, 13). The claim is that only the Kelabit have lived in the highlands since the beginning of time. Thus, the Kelabit now see themselves as a bounded ethnic group, defined against the outside world and their neighbors. Historically, this notion of being Kelabit was consolidated as disparate longhouses came together with the Australian forces during the Japanese occupation to fight to expel the Japanese from the highlands within Sarawak and the river systems beyond the border in Dutch Borneo. Subsequently, through their association with military leader and museum curator Harrisson, the first Kelabit trained as teachers, museum staff, and health assistants, and their identity as Kelabit came to be known to the outside world.

Being Kelabit as a Strategy, Conflict, and the Headman-Narrator

The next generation of Kelabit are said to have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit during the revival of Christianity in the 1970s, when they were students in Bario. Many went on to obtain tertiary qualifications and created a legacy of success, which had previously been measured in terms of size of padi harvests. This success is measured today by the number of Kelabit of this generation who have attained prominent positions in the fields of education, government, the oil and gas industry, and corporate affairs. Some urban Kelabit have petitioned for the gazetting of remnants of virgin and partially logged forest as a national park, the Pulong Tau National Park, which covers about one-tenth of the highland area. The name of the national park, Pulong Tau, means “our forest” in Kelabit. This is in line with the Kelabit perception that all land in the so-called Kelabit highlands belongs to the Kelabit. Megalithic graves and other cultural sites have been documented through recent archaeological and anthropological research projects (Barker et al. 2008; 2009; Hitchner 2009; Lloyd-Smith et al. 2010; Lloyd-Smith 2012; Lloyd-Smith et al. 2013). This research has recently been drawn on to reinforce the notion of the ancient occupation of the highlands by the ancestors of the Kelabit.

Logging in the highlands, which began in the 1990s, provided the impetus for action on the part of the Kelabit to prevent outsiders from gaining possession of the land and resources, although logging was also regarded as a means of gaining greater access to metropolitan centers through the use of logging roads and the building of strategic bridges. Conflicts did, of course, come about within and between communities in the wake of the allocation of logging licenses and the assertion on the part of the state that the land in the highlands did not belong to those who lived there but was state land. While in the central part of the Kelabit highlands, inhabited only by people who considered themselves Kelabit, conflicts arose among Kelabit, things were more complex in the Long Peluan area. Here, the community negotiated together with the local Sa’ban and Penan and with logging companies to strategize the best route for the road to optimize access to their villages and to install new water supplies due to the lack of reach of the state to this frontier area. The logging company provided jobs and opportunities to sell farm produce in the logging camp. However, access to bulldozers meant that individuals could grab parcels of land to farm without going about the traditional consultation with the elders. This created considerable conflict within the community, which was heightened by the disparities that came about through cash coming into the village. These new sources of tension were beyond the capacity of Malian Tepun, the headman-narrator, to dissipate. This is the background to Malian Tepun relating the three narratives to me.

Borders, Longhouses, and Oral Narratives

In the same way that longhouse populations are dynamic and fluid, with migrations and intermarriage, oral narratives change as they are retold, depending on the context and audience. As a genre, in Borneo, they often describe the origins of a group and major episodes which relate to their earliest times. These relate to customary laws, the institution of leadership, and the history of migrations and territory and are part of the collective identity of the community at the core of the very existence of a longhouse. Moreover, even as they comment on the present and are shaped by this, Borneo narratives typically contain “the system of traditional values that are often expressed in the conceptualizations, which the group has about its own past” (Maxwell 1989, 168).

The narrative analyzed here works on two levels. First, it tells of origins, migrations, and events in the history of the group; and second, it outlines the group’s conceptualization of this, how the community makes sense of the past, and what gives meaning to them in the present. Often such meanings relate to tenure of land, just as they do among the Punan Bah: “the oral tradition is seen as ‘the truth’, as a proof of the legitimacy of their claims on a number of traditional rights within their territory and is by them described as a weapon” (Nicolaisen 1976, 91). Thus, the significance of a narrative set in the past is often related to claims to land, demonstrating its potentially partial and political nature. Implicit in this is the paradox that ethnic groups can often live side by side, each with differing and conflicting narratives regarding origins and rights to territory that can be described as “oral ways of knowing” (Tuhiwai Smith 2004, 33). Discussion and contestation of narratives in everyday life are often muted, given the need for peoples and their histories to coexist side by side.

Thus, the way in which the Kelabit of Long Peluan see the history of their area at any moment is quite different from the version of that same period of history of their Penan, Sa’ban, or Ngurek neighbors. However, people get on with their daily lives, work on one another’s farms, trade game and fish among themselves, and rely on each other for labor, cash, and food supplies in order to survive. The longhouse has endured as a consequence of such interactions, and this is because in everyday life ethnicity is not an issue.

This alternative, everyday identity is expressed using the term lun tauh, “our people.” This term is extremely important. Kelabit use this term so much that at one point it was considered an alternative name for them (Amster 1998, 30). However, it is notable in that it does not refer only to the Kelabit themselves; it can refer to related groups over the border, political groupings along a river, or even the broad concept of the unity of church district (daerah) which embraces multiple ethnic categories. Its core meaning can be said to be “to have a unity, to be different from people who are not lun tauh” (Janowski 1991, 212). I will consider the way in which this lun tauh identity is expressed at different stages in the historical narrative.

The Long Peluan Narrative: The History of Lun Tauh, “Our People”

The narrative I am exploring here is set in the era of warfare and headhunting, and describes the alliance between the Ngurek, Sa’ban, and Kelabit at a place called Long Moyo, during a conflict with another group called the Lepo’ Tepu. The coming together, separation, and dispersal of these communities to thwart their enemies is recounted in the narrative. The narrative also describes the feats of an ancestral hero, Telen Sang, who was endowed with supernatural charisma (inan lalud) and led lun tauh to migrate upriver. The community then separated—some went to the Bahau River, in Dutch Borneo, and some stayed at Long Di’it, the place of origin for the Kelapang people. “Marks” (edtu) on the landscape, including in particular megaliths, are identified in the narrative; these offer tangible evidence of the presence of Ngurek and Kelabit in the area of the Baram around Long Peluan. The narrative concludes, however—paradoxically—that menhirs, dolmens, and stone mounds on the landscape are the exclusive work of Kelabit ancestors.

A Summary of the Long Peluan Narrative: Understanding Lun Tauh

The story laid out in the narrative suggests a more dynamic and heterogeneous history of population in the Kelabit highlands than indicated in the narratives of contemporary Kelabit cited previously (Lian-Saging 1976/77; Bulan and Labang 1979; Talla 1979; Bulan 2003). A time is recalled when there was a close and dynamic relationship, a unity, between the people on the Kelapang River, which is now in Sarawak, and those on the Bahau, which is now in Kalimantan, due to the absence of territorial borders; the inclusive idea of lun tauh denotes this unity. An example of this dynamism is that Belawing Tungang, a Lun Kelapang from Long Di’it, the community of origin of Long Peluan, became paramount chief of several predominantly Sa’ban longhouses on the Bahau River at Pei Atang in Dutch Borneo in the late nineteenth century. Thus, the community of Long Di’it was multiethnic in the same way as Long Peluan, and this is supported by genealogies from both Ngurek and Sa’ban ancestors.

The narrative opens: “We want to know our relationship, our history of being together with the Ngurek” (Tauh la’ kali’ idih atur tauh, sejarah tauh, peruyung ngan Ngurek). The emphasis is on inclusion, through the use of the word tauh, referring to our history. The formulation peruyung ngan, “together with” the Ngurek, suggests a shared history. The narrative explains that there is Ngurek ancestry in many households in Long Peluan through a Ngurek ancestor, Bilong Salo’, and his son, Araya Ajin, who was one of the founders of Long Peluan together with his three sisters. The story then recounts the migrations of the Ngurek from Bawang Ipong to Long Upun on the Bahau in Dutch Borneo, where they lived with the Sa’ban of Pa’ Nar, who, according to the narrative, “are considered as ‘our people’ (lun tauh).” Lun tauh is thus an inclusive term that conveys the idea of “us”—Kelabit, Ngurek, and Sa’ban—as a group of people made up of subgroups, each with its own identity but related to the others. The Kelabit term lun tauh is used today in everyday life by Kelabit themselves to denote relationships not just within the Kelabit community and with their immediate neighbors but extending, depending on context, to include people on the same river system and others regarded as kin (lun ruyong) who are related not only through blood ties but also through ties created by marriage or adoption. The context for the use of the term is relational, and its features are fluid and flexible.

The flexible relationships denoted by the term lun tauh come about because kinship is recognized cognatically. When a couple marry, the parents of the two spouses are regarded as iban, a title which indicates their status in relation to the new family—regardless of their ethnicity. The new web of family relationships, lun ruyong, through marriage stretches to ruai (aunts and uncles of the married couple) and lango’ (brothers, sisters, and first cousins of the married couple). The adoption of children is a further way kinship is extended. In Long Peluan Kelabit children have been adopted into Sa’ban households and vice versa. For instance, the Long Peluan headman’s daughter Remat Murang was adopted by Tama Lalo and her cousin Ngalap Ayu by Tama Apoi, both in Long Banga. Such adoptions are made if there is illness in the family, or inauspicious omens are observed, or to give children to childless couples to provide an heir to the family’s land and property. The child, in turn, provides extra hands for the sustenance of the household and security for the adoptive couple’s old age. In some cases, the children move in and live and eat with their adoptive families, and in other cases they stay with their natal families. This extension of the family group provides support for labor exchange in padi fields, and reciprocity of assistance for celebrations and funerals.

Thus, there is the historical precedent of a fluid, inclusive attitude to kinship in the form of lun ruyung as outlined above, which is based on intermarriage and adoption. This can permeate to the wider grouping of lun tauh, which consists of whoever should be included at the time of speaking. It is a quintessentially relational term, which can relate at the first level to the longhouse, at the next level to Kelabit, and at higher levels to speakers of other related languages, to Sa’ban neighbors, or to the Lun Bawang or the Kerayan and Brian over the Indonesian border—or even to the Orang Ulu groups, which are dominated by the Kayan and Kenyah.

This inclusive concept of identity, lun tauh, denotes an outlook that has been passed down from a time when Kelabit, Ngurek, and Sa’ban were small groups forming alliances against common enemies on a river system, when they intermarried and shared resources, culture, and languages. They formed work parties, hunting groups, and trading groups utilizing resources within their territory (Fig. 3). Such openness was necessary because they needed to keep their population at a viable level for shifting cultivation, warfare, and trading journeys. Longhouses survived over time through these open relationships. Thus, lun tauh refers to “our people” as people who have come together in multiethnic villages and settled with heterogeneous families and relatives as lun ruyung, “people together”—kin.



Fig. 3 Work Group Harvesting at Long Peluan (photo by Valerie Mashman)


The Long Peluan Narrative: Creating a People, Alliances, and Conquests

There is an episode in the narrative which describes the attack on the Lepo’ Tepu, which is a good example of how alliances in warfare reinforce group bonds and of how loyalty works to create a common identity, of a people united against their enemies. The Lepo’ Tepu were thwarted because they were betrayed by the Sa’ban, who alerted the Ngurek and Kelabit to the real nature of their purportedly friendly visit. Thus, each allied group on the river played its part in defending itself and its territory against a common enemy. The identity of lun tauh is reinforced by their allegiance to each other against the common enemy of the Lepo’ Tepu. The Lepo’ Tepu are distinguished from lun tauh by the use of feathers in their headdresses, and the carriage of their leader above the group by his followers, emphasizing a cultural difference which creates a boundary between “us” and “them” (Barth 1969, 14).

This kind of loyalty was grounded in the fact that survival depended on each longhouse defending its locality and its river system, and its allies could be of mixed ethnicities, often strengthened by marriage ties. Allegiance was not mandatory for people who spoke the same language. For example, the Kelabit went in two separate groups to the Marudi peacemaking in April 1898, and care was taken to keep them apart lest antagonisms surface (Hose 1898, 122). This suggests that the longhouse was the primary source of loyalty, rather than the wider group speaking the same language, who might live quite far from each other. Locality-based alliances were stronger than ethnic allegiances:

Despite ethnic differences, the members of a central Borneo river-based grouping have a consciousness of kind: they are not simply neighbours, but a people . . . proximity is the basis of commonality. Throughout Borneo, river-based groupings theoretically avoided headhunting amongst themselves. (Rousseau 1990, 117)

Thus, the alliance of Ngurek, Kelabit, and Sa’ban enabled them to be more than neighbors: they were “a people,” lun tauh. The identity of lun tauh is best understood in terms of a “consciousness of kind” as described above.

The Long Peluan Narrative: How Communities Change

In the aftermath of the attack by the Lepo’ Tepu which is part of the narrative, mentioned above, it became clear that the allied groups of “our people” had to move from Long Moyo, as the Lepo’ Tepu had threatened to return to attack again:

So the Ngurek suggested, “Let us all move downriver.” But the Kelabit said, “We cannot go downriver. We are not used to handling boats, so we shall go up into the headwaters.” They were unable to agree. . . . And so they went their separate ways. The Ngurek went downriver, and the Kelabit went up into the mountainous country of the headwaters. That is how we have Ngurek ancestry. (Extract from Long Peluan narrative)

In response to the threat of a retaliatory attack, Southeast Asian upland groups have often split up and “moved out of the way” (Scott 2009, 209). The episode recounted above accounts for the separation of the Ngurek and Kelabit based on their aptitudes for different terrain, and how they went in different directions, highlighting different cultural attributes, no longer neighbors, yet having at some point in the past common ancestors. The split came about because the Kelabit were unable to handle boats but had the strength and physique to negotiate the rugged mountainous country of the interior, beyond the reach of navigable rivers. Their lack of proficiency in using boats is, in fact, reported by Douglas (1907, 53), who says they had no idea how to paddle boats and that they started crying at the sight of the volume of the Baram River at Marudi. This illustrates how Kelabit came to be identified as highlanders, occupying the niche of the highlands in the narrative, and how their identity came to be shaped by this territory. The rapids of the upper Baram provided a protective boundary for them, creating difficulty in access for outsiders from lowland and coastal centers. By contrast, the mountains between Sarawak and Dutch Borneo were not a barrier, because Kelabit were adept at negotiating the mountainous terrain. This would account for their ready alliances in the Bahau area, to which they could retreat if necessary.

The alliance between the Ngurek and the Kelabit continued down the generations, with Ngurek transporting Kelabit by boat to the administrative center of Marudi or on trading expeditions to the Bahau. There were reports that Kelabit was spoken as a second language in Ngurek longhouses on the Baram River in the 1940s (Bolang and Harrisson 1949). Such networks were crucial for trade, ritual, and the maintenance of local cosmologies, as prestige items such as jars, beads, and commodities were sent upriver and exchanged for forest products. This was typical of social ties deriving from migration patterns in Central Borneo, where relationships continued between families still connected across vast distances. What this episode demonstrates is that Ngurek and Kelabit had lived together as one community, allied against a common enemy, yet they made a decision to split and separate according to their own aptitudes and survival skills in different types of terrain. This was, according to the narrative, determined by their own agency, an example of how “Kelabit have been active agents and subjects of their own history” (Bala 2008, 83). The decisions about whether to stay put or move on, retreat to the hills or go downriver, are all presented in the narrative as examples of choices that Kelabit made, in important measure out of a desire to maintain their autonomy.

In the narrative, the Kelabit communities are said to have later split further and come to be identified with two separate territories—in the upper Baram in Long Peluan and at Long Di’it on the Kelapang River. This exemplifies the continuously changing nature of longhouse communities, which are often rebuilt by ethnically diverse populations, as described by Peter Metcalf: “Whatever categories colonialists thought they had discovered, longhouse communities were founded, grew, went into decline, and dispersed, in a process of formation and reformation that paid no attention to ethnic ‘boundaries’” (Metcalf 2010, 313).

The alliance between Ngurek and Kelabit is similar to partnerships in Burma between Pa’O and Burmese. Here, as in Borneo, relations are not based on ethnolinguistic allegiances “but [are] between villagers and partners, whose exchanges and networks contribute to the establishment of social cohesion, albeit an unstable cohesion, in a multi-ethnic landscape” (Robinne and Sadan 2007, 304). At this point the Long Peluan narrative presents a focus which is less on cultural difference and more on the dynamics of political networks and social interaction, which are continually reshaped in creating the stability necessary to forge the identity of lun tauh.

The Long Peluan Narrative: A Further Separation

People were on the move at this time to avoid enemy attack and had to build houses in defensive locations, as well as in areas where land was fertile.1) Longhouses were built to be easily dismantled so that communities could move quickly and easily; roofs were made of leaf thatch; walls and floors were of bamboo. One part of the narrative, which is told in many versions in the highlands,2) explains why Kelabit have relatives among Bahau:

They couldn’t decide where to go. They were on the move against enemies. Some people wanted to go back to the Bahau River. They went out and dug a ceremonial ditch on a ridge. They split into two groups, one on each side of the ditch. A piece of rattan was laid across the ditch. Those who wanted to stay grasped the rattan from one end while those who wanted to go to the Bahau grasped the rattan on the other end. The people on the lower part of the ridge couldn’t be seen and those on the higher side were more numerous, so the leaders asked those on the higher side to join the people on the lower side. When the groups had split up and those in the valley left for the Bahau, the Kelabit realized they had been tricked, as they were fewer in number. (Extract from Long Peluan narrative)

From this it may be concluded that Kelabit in the highlands have a tradition of mixed ancestry with the Ngurek and Sa’ban of the Bahau and that there was a movement of people who migrated out of the highlands to the Bahau. Some of the Bahau population went to Pa Ibang and eventually to Tang La’an in the Krayan. The story is retold within the community so that bonds are maintained among kin on each side of the border, reinforcing the porous nature of this division. It is in the interests of people on each side to keep up with each other for the purposes of maintaining kinship ties and trade contacts, as Jerome Rousseau points out: “After migration to another river basin, relations are kept for a long time with relatives remaining in the original area, especially if visits are an opportunity to trade” (Rousseau 1990, 119). In Long Peluan, contacts have been maintained across the numerous paths and tracks which provide access across the border, through mountain passes and across watersheds. Relatives from the Krayan left marks on the landscape around Long Peluan during extended visits. There is a rock called Batu Bayo’ in the middle of the Bale River which commemorates the place where a Krayan named Bayo’3) capsized. Moreover, it is said in Long Peluan that padi bunds and fields for farming wet rice in lati baa’ were perfected by Yakup Pangot and Titus Paran, cousins from the Krayan who came to give technical help when people started to diversify to wet-padi cultivation in the 1970s. Then, there is a type of durian with a fleshy fruit, the seeds of which were originally brought over from Kalimantan by the people of Pa Sing, who brought baskets full of fruit for sale.

These bonds between communities as lun tauh are present on the landscape and in conversations and are recreated through narratives in people’s imaginations on each side of the border. They are reinforced through the sending over of gifts and invitations to feasts, as tokens of value. For instance, when I gave birth in Kuching to my son Joel Jallong, whose father is from Long Peluan, a cockerel and a hen were delivered to our house from a cousin, Sina Somo,4) who lived in Long Layu on the Krayan River, Kalimantan. In the past, in pre-Christian times, such gifts would have been used at the ceremony to initiate a child. A few years later, I received a string of heirloom beads, again from Sina Somo, delivered through an intermediary to our Kuching house. Eventually we managed to visit her and reciprocate her kindness.

At a wider, more public level, lun tauh were brought together in the past at the major feasts, irau, marking deaths and sometimes, in the case of high-status families, at the ritual initiation of a child. Nowadays, irau are held to commemorate the adoption of new names by parents and grandparents at the birth of children, and at Easter. As Monica Janowski notes, “This overarching community of lun tauh is represented and generated at irau” (Janowski 1991, 212).

The Long Peluan Narrative: Signs on the Landscape—Location, Territory, and Ethnicity

The narrative describes places within the territory of Long Peluan and Pa Di’it, creating for listeners a common identity relating to place as the narrator shares his knowledge, thus indicating his authority and standing. A chronology of movement evoking, for example, the name of the site of a previous longhouse in both the Ngurek and Kelabit languages—Lulau Terong (Ngurek) or Long Moyo (Kelabit)—demonstrates the hybridity of populations living side by side in the same area.

Within the Long Peluan narrative there are references to “marks” (edtu) that are evidence of previous occupation of the landscape:

As our people moved upriver, one can see stone mounds and standing stones that they built along the river, and stone graves at Long Nonar. These are the signs (edtu) left by them. Another example is the row of trees on the bank of the Kelapang downriver from the Ramudu River. These trees are still there today. They were harvesting and as they sat down to rest in a row they planted the seeds from the fruit they ate. (Extract from Long Peluan narrative)

The identification of places as signs or edtu on the landscape informs the audience that their ancestors are believed to have ceremonially buried their dead in megalithic cemeteries, indicated by stone graves (Fig. 4), and that their ancestors previously cleared land and planted fruit trees, which could be claimed by the descendants of those who planted them (see Janowski and Langub 2011). It follows that the process of Malian Tepun’s telling the narrative in 2006, recalling places of occupation, trees, and cemeteries, transmits to listeners crucial knowledge of the land and becomes a vehicle for the mapping of territory for the community, at a time when this has become particularly urgent as elders are unable to take younger members of the community out to show them the significant features of their land because of changes in the landscape, or because the younger members of the community are away earning money offshore or in coastal cities.



Fig. 4 Stone Graves at Long Peluan (photo by Valerie Mashman)


It is noteworthy that Malian Tepun stresses Kelabit occupation of the land. The cemeteries and stone mounds in the area are regarded as signs of previous Kelabit settlement: “In every place where the Kelabit have lived, there are standing stones and stone graves where human bones are buried . . . this land in the headwaters of Kelapang belongs to . . . the Kelabit people” (Extract from Long Peluan narrative). Thus, the narrative is not simply about Kelabit and Ngurek, who, together with Sa’ban, shared the sejarah (story) of the lun tauh; it is also about the land in the headwaters of the Kelapang River, and it emphatically functions as a declaration that this is the territory of Kelabit, although it also, somewhat contradictorily, states that Ngurek were the first people in the area, even before Kelabit.

Significantly, what the narrative does not consider is the association of the Ngurek with the stone culture of the area; nor does it allude to Ngurek narratives about the stones (which I have touched on elsewhere [Mashman 2017]) and which state that it was the Ngurek who placed the stones. In the 1980s, when I first visited Long Peluan, people said that the stone sites were linked to the Ngurek, who had previously lived in the area. People now say they do not know who created the stone graves. They forget that one of the ancestors of their founder, Araya Ajin, was Bilong Salo’, a Ngurek. Ngurek leaders from Sarawak readily recognize these stone monuments, which feature in Ngurek oral history as places where they lived as they migrated to the main Baram River (Jalong 1989), and visit such sites associated with their ancestors in Indonesia, which have been systematically excavated and documented (Arifin and Sellato 2003). Thus, parallel narratives by Ngurek exist alongside the declaration by Kelabit that their ancestors built the stone monuments. There seems to be little discussion of the existence of these differing narratives because circumstances have not caused them to be evoked alongside each other. This is characteristic of the “oral ways of knowing” of indigenous communities mentioned earlier (Tuhiwai Smith 2004, 33).

The Long Peluan Narrative: Inclusion and Exclusion

Within the narrative there is both a history of an inclusive group, “our people”—lun tauh—set in a period of alliances in warfare, and at the same time an assertion of sole tenure of land in the present. The land is defined as belonging to the Kelabit, and this is explicitly an exclusive notion. Thus, there are two models of identity which come through in the narrative. The first is set in the past and consists of the inclusive fluid “everyday reality” of the heterogeneous lun tauh, who had shared histories, were interrelated across borders, and had an inclusive mixed identity; and the second is “the Kelabit,” the fixed “authority-defined” ethnic group, which derived its identity through the classification of peoples by the Brooke administration, with an exclusive claim to territory. This recalls and indeed echoes the exclusive notion of identity, related to tenure of land, which is narrated by Kelabit elsewhere: “These cultural landmarks are revisited as indications and proof of the occupation of the highlands by the Kelabit . . . Quite clearly they lived and exclusively occupied the highlands as part of their ancestral homeland for generations from time immemorial” (Bulan 2003, 45).

These claims assert Kelabit sovereignty over the land, to the exclusion of their neighbors, but overlook histories of neighbors such as the Sa’ban and Ngurek who also have narratives which relate to building stone monuments, as well as overlooking the time they spent together as lun tauh with the Sa’ban and Ngurek. This argument for Kelabit sovereignty over the land implies that no one else could have lived in the highlands before them. It also ignores the fact that their ancestors in a previous time may have assimilated a people who were there earlier.

This is part of a process that is recognized in mainland Southeast Asia by James Scott: “Those who successfully stake a claim to resources on this basis acquire a powerful reason for embracing the new identity. By the same token, they exclude others from access to these same resources” (Scott 2009, 263). Scott has noted that ethnicity is embraced and reinforced with exclusive claims to resources, something which is very relevant to the statement in the narrative that the land of the upper Kelapang belongs to the Kelabit people. This comes at a time when land available for forest resources is very much reduced to a limited area of community forest, due to forest fires in 1997 and logging activities in the area. Further to this, the people of Long Peluan are facing conflicting claims with their Penan neighbors at Long Beruang. When the Penan settled in 1961 they did so with the consent of the Long Peluan community. Gradually, they started to farm on land that had been previously cleared by Long Peluan, on the understanding that this land was being loaned. However, memory of this agreement has been lost in time, and in Long Peluan there is resentment that the younger generation of Penan and new migrants to Long Beruang do not acknowledge the previous history of the land. Consequently, Kelabit feel insecure regarding their sovereignty over what they regard as their own territory, a common feeling throughout the highlands, due to issues similar to those experienced at Long Peluan. It is arguable that this may be one reason why the narrative concludes with an exclusive model of Kelabit identity, reinforcing their relationship with the land through the stone culture, distinguishing themselves from their neighbors.


The Long Peluan narrative presents the oral history of people whose history spans the border, providing very relevant insights into the social cohesion created by the acceptance of mixed fluid identities of lun tauh, which has enabled multiethnic communities to survive in Borneo across the difficult mountainous terrain which now forms political borders. Lun tauh as a form of cultural identity is reinforced by the act of performing of the narrative, as listeners become united through shared histories of alliances across river systems and across borders and survival in warfare against enemies, with migratory journeys across the landscape. Association with marks on the landscape becomes part of the process of recognizing and memorizing territorial boundaries, which define the cultural identity of “our people,” as people remember their ancestors’ migrations and dramatic separations in the precolonial era. This demonstrates a form of common identity based on past alliances, across borders, which contributed to the endurance of longhouses. This fluid concept is used today contextually to embrace inclusive groupings, be they at the kinship, longhouse, or wider multiethnic levels necessary for small minority groups in a district. These and other forms of socialities create heterogenous identities which can be embraced by lun tauh. The term creates a unity for a group, and its fluidity accommodates the necessary expansion in numbers to make the group viable. It is a relational concept and part of the “everyday-defined” reality of daily life, based on inclusion which enables day-to-day transactions to take place.

Simultaneously, a more fixed model of homogenous ethnicity—“the Kelabit”—comes out of the narrative, a category originating with the Brooke state but taken up by the people who have taken on this label and used it to assert exclusive ownership of land and resources. This comes together with the message that the land in the Kelapang belongs to the Kelabit people, despite the parallel history, given in that same narrative, of coexistence with the Ngurek and the fact that the Ngurek had the stone culture which led to the monuments which the Kelabit claim as their own. This fixed notion of Kelabit identity excludes other people with whom identity and allegiances were shared in the past (and still are in the present). The fact that Kelabit themselves in Long Peluan and indeed elsewhere have taken up this identity can be understood as a response to contestation of their territory by logging companies and neighboring groups.

The ethnic construct of “the Kelabit” has become a bounded common identity aspired to by people who wish to be politically represented by their own leaders, like other ethnic groups in the nation-state. As stated earlier, the Malays have gone through the same process, leading to a forgetting of earlier histories of migrations.

Scott, in his analysis of state making in mainland Southeast Asia, discusses this taking on of an ethnic identity and denying past identities in terms of “the standard mode of claim-making by stateless people who interact with states.” He recognizes this process as the interaction between stateless people and states, as they make claims to resources and territory. This leads to stateless people forming new identities for themselves and excluding others (Scott 2009, 263). In a similar manner, Kelabit have begun to claim their land, their history, and their resources to the exclusion of their neighbors. This has led to the creation of the Kelabit highlands; and Kelabit maintain its physical and metaphorical borders. Kelabit identity can, in fact, be seen as carrying the seed of nationalism. As Scott says:

The point is, once created, an institutional identity acquires its own history. The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism. Over time such an identity, however fabricated its origin, will take on essentialist features and may well inspire passionate loyalty. (Scott 2009, 265)

“Being Kelabit” has been embraced out of a desire for recognition to create a niche for themselves as a minority group within the Malaysian state (Amster 1998, 28) and has “grown to a sort of patriotism to the tribe” (Lian-Saging 1976/77, 10). “Being Kelabit” is a source of pride associated with success, due to the early educational success of a number of young Kelabit in the 1960s and 1970s, and this identity is utilized to negotiate contemporary government policy which does not readily acknowledge the existence of customary lands.

Both forms of identity—the fixed exclusive notion of “being Kelabit” and the wider inclusivity of lun tauh—coexist as differing strategies for survival for a marginal people, operating at different levels. How this complexity works beyond the longhouse in the multi-sited settings of communities, schools, workplaces, and housing areas and across the border merits further attention. The Long Peluan narrative demonstrates how local perceptions of ethnicities and identities are bound up with strategies for creating larger groups, creating allies, remembering kin across borders, and struggles to claim territory.

Accepted: December 10, 2019


Many thanks to Monica Janowski and Eric de Maaker for inviting me to take part in the “Stories across Borders” panel at the Fifth Conference of the Asian Borderlands Research Network in Kathmandu in December 2016, and for their subsequent reviewing of this article. The article came about through the process of the writing of my PhD in social anthropology at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. Many thanks to my supervisors, Poline Bala and Peter Nwanesi Karubi, and to friends who have supported and encouraged my work, including Ann Appleton, Oliver Claycamp, Oliver Venz, Jayl Langub, Stephanie Morgan, and John Walker. The research was funded through a Zamalah Graduate Scholarship and a DPI investigation grant. Thanks go also to Kenneth Sillander and Jennifer Alexander, who read and commented on an earlier version of this paper. I must also acknowledge my debt to Malian Tepun, who performed the narrative, to the people of Long Peluan and surrounding villages, and to my husband, Ose Murang, who has accompanied me on this research journey.


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1) Another reason for moving in the nineteenth century was the frequency of epidemics (Lian-Saging 1976/77, 46).

2) See Lian-Saging (1976/77, 27). This story was also told to Monica Janowski by the people of Pa’ Dalih, near Pa’ Diit (Janowski, pers. comm.).

3) Bayo’ actually was by birth a Long Di’it Kelabit who married into a Krayan household at Pa Sing.

4) Her father was named Paran Jalong. At the time we named our son we did not realize that both her father and our son were named after the same ancestor, Jalong.


Vol. 9, No. 2, Klemens KARLSSON


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 2

A Place of Belonging in Myths and Memories: The Origin and Early History of the Imagined Tai Khuen Nation (Chiang Tung/Kyaingtong, Myanmar)

Klemens Karlsson*

*Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
e-mail: klemens.karlsson[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.2_181

This study is about a borderland between three dominant cultures: the Burmese, the Chinese, and the Siamese/Thai, i.e., the former Shan State of Chiang Tung. The region of Chiang Tung (also transcribed Keng Tung, Kyaingtong) lies in the Eastern Shan State of Myanmar/Burma in Upper Southeast Asia and borders on Thailand, China, and Laos. The majority of the people living in Chiang Tung are called Tai Khuen. This paper explores the origin and early history of the imagined Tai Khuen nation in Chiang Tung through myths and memories recorded in the Chiang Tung Chronicle (CTC). Myths and memories may be used to tell us something of what a people has held and holds to be of lasting value. Important for a common imagined community is a myth of common ancestry. The CTC narrates the way in which the Khuen people understand the origin and early history of the place where they live— the “imagined Khuen nation.” The myths and memories recorded in the CTC express a sense of place and belonging for the Tai Khuen people.

Keywords: borderland, narratives, Chiang Tung, Kyaingtong, Myanmar, imagined nation, Tai Khuen, Upper Southeast Asia


The region of Chiang Tung (also transcribed Keng Tung or Kyaingtong; its classical names in Sanskrit are Khemaraṭṭha and Tuṅgapūri) lies in the Eastern Shan State of Myanmar/Burma in Upper Southeast Asia, between the two great rivers Salween and Mekong, and bordering on Thailand, China, and Laos. Considering its exposed situation in a borderland between larger and more powerful nations, it is no surprise that myths and memories of the origin and early history of Chiang Tung evoke a sense of place and belonging for the Khuen people. Legend is a powerful force for binding people together in a sense of shared origins. Myths and legends may give an indication of what a people has held and holds to be of lasting value. A sense of belonging to a specific geographic place, the place of domicile or place of birth, and the sense of belonging to a group of people who have something in common are essential for many people in engendering a sense of their own unique identity. Central in this paper is a specific geographic place, and the people who consider it to be their place of belonging.

Following the influential writings of Benedict Anderson (2006) and others, we can see a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves to be part of that group: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson 2006, 6). There is reason to consider Chiang Tung to be such an imagined nation in the minds of the Khuen people. Central to an imagined community is, arguably, a myth of common ancestry. Therefore, this paper will focus on the myths and memories that narrate the origin and early history of Chiang Tung, which the Khuen people consider to be their place of belonging.

The myths, legends, stories, and historical narratives1) we will use in this study are taken from a Tai-language chronicle, the Chiang Tung Chronicle (CTC), translated by Sao Saimong Mangrai into English and called by him the Jengtung State Chronicle (Sāimöng Mangrāi 1981, 208–279).2) Tai chronicles (tamnan) are of two general kinds: a secular mueang chronicle, which is primarily about the history of a royal line, dynasty, or kingdom; and a more sacred narrative, which concentrates on the history of Buddhism or local Buddhist temples or sculptures (Sarassawadee 2005, 3–5). The CTC is a mueang chronicle about the history of the city-state of Chiang Tung, but it includes a number of mythological, sacred, and Buddhist elements, especially in the first half of the text, which deals with origins and early history.

A Borderland

In the map from 1918 pictured in Fig. 1, the exposed location of Chiang Tung, lying between the powerful cultures of the Burmese, Chinese, and Siamese/Thai, is evident. This location, in between more powerful empires, has made the whole Chiang Tung area a borderland from a historical point of view. Since ancient times, it has been a crossroads for trade connecting Yunnan/Chiang Rung in the north, Taunggyi/Ava/Mandalay in the west, Luang Prabang in the east, and Chiang Rai/Chiang Mai in the south. The ethnic majority living in Chiang Tung are called Tai Khuen and consider themselves to be an ethnic group comparable to the Tai Yuan, Tai Lue, Tai Dam, and others within the larger group of Tai-speaking peoples.3)



Fig. 1 Fig. 1 Map of the Eastern Burmese Border and Yunnan, Siam, and French Indo-China

Source: Enriquez (1918)


The principality of Chiang Tung was established during the late thirteenth century, when King Mangrai of Chiang Rai/Chiang Mai conquered the area from the Lua ethnic group and populated it with Tai-speaking people. The defeat of the Lua people and the establishing of Chiang Tung by Mangrai is a myth of Khuen common ancestry, a myth that has been repeated during its long history and is still repeated today in oral and written narrations.

It is clear that the Khuen people in Chiang Tung have always been aware of its exposed situation in a borderland between larger and more powerful nations. Their vulnerable, exposed location, with major powers on all sides, makes the whole area a borderland with frontiers with China, Laos, and Thailand as well as a natural frontier—high mountains and the Salween River—with the rest of the Shan States in Myanmar. This study is therefore not a study of borders between nation-states. It is instead about a borderland between three dominant cultures: the Burmese, the Chinese, and the Siamese/Thai, i.e., the former Shan State of Chiang Tung.

The History of Chiang Tung and Its Position vis-à-vis Larger States

During its long history of being situated between the more dominant cultures of the Burmese, the Chinese, and the Siamese/Thai—and, from the nineteenth century, the colonial powers—the Tai Khuen of Chiang Tung have experienced both cultural highs and disasters. Ever since its origin in the thirteenth century, Chiang Tung has been part of a political power game.

The aim of the Tai people in establishing Chiang Tung in the north was to create a buffer against China (Sarassawadee 2005, 100). From the thirteenth century onward, Chiang Tung was part of the northern Tai cultural area called Lan Na, which consisted of a few large and many smaller autonomous or semi-autonomous principalities or city-states (mueang). These ancient mueang were, of course, not the same as a modern “nation-state,” nor was Lan Na itself a nation-state. They were connected via intricately knitted relationships with one another and with the central and most important city-state, Chiang Mai. Two or more mueang could overlap with one another and possessed multiple loyalties and identities. For more details about the historical characteristics of these city-states, see Grabowsky (2004, 31–40). Thongchai Winichakul calls the border between different mueang a “border without boundary line,” and he also points out that small city-states paid tribute to bigger ones, and that it was not uncommon to pay tribute to two competing ones (Thongchai 1994, 75, 97). The borders between nation-states in Upper Southeast Asia today owe much of their existence to colonial state making and have divided people who share much of the same culture and language. The toponym Lan Na is today often used by Thai scholars to refer only to the eight provinces of what is today Northern Thailand, namely, Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Phrae, Nan, and Mae Hong Son. But the term Lan Na can also be used to refer to a larger area, Greater Lan Na, comprising not only the eight northern provinces but also the whole region east of the Salween River, including Chiang Tung. Sometimes Chiang Rung in Sipsong Panna, Yunnan, and part of northwestern Laos are included in Lan Na.

From the beginning, relations between Chiang Mai and Chiang Tung were very close; and the ruler in Chiang Mai sent princes to rule the area, although later on the rulers of Chiang Tung established a succession of their own (Sarassawadee 2005, 100–101). The connection with Chiang Mai was never totally broken, even when the whole of Lan Na fell to the Burmese in 1558. Lan Na was under Burmese rule for more than two hundred years before it swore allegiance to Siam in 1774. However, it was not obvious that Chiang Tung should be included in the nation-state of Burma/Myanmar as it is today. Several times in the course of Chiang Tung’s history, its future was affected by political decisions or accidental occurrences. The reason why Chiang Tung was neither recognized as an independent state nor incorporated into a neighboring state can be seen as having depended on a number of political decisions during the last two hundred years.

One of these political decisions was made by the ruler Sao Mahakhanan in the early nineteenth century, when he decided to flee from the Siamese invaders and received help from the Burmese to rebuild and repopulate Chiang Tung. The conflict with Siam started in 1802 with an invasion by forces from Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang, and nearly all the members of the ruling family of Chiang Tung were relocated to Chiang Mai. The only one who escaped was a prince of the ruling family, later known as Sao Mahakhanan. He fled north to Mueang Yang and years later got help from the Burmese to drive away the Siamese and rebuild and repopulate Chiang Tung. The conflict with Siam escalated in the middle of the nineteenth century when Siamese forces from Bangkok besieged the fortified city wall of Chiang Tung several times. The attacks failed, and during the 40-year-long reign of Sao Mahakhanan Chiang Tung gradually recovered (Ratanaporn 1988, 308–311; Grabowsky 1999, 55–59, 68; Smith 2013).

Later, another political decision that had crucial significance for the future of Chiang Tung was the British decision to conquer the area in 1890. This was a decision the British made after several years of uncertainty. When they conquered Upper Burma and the Shan State in 1886, they did not at first cross the Salween River and enter Chiang Tung. Instead, they considered the Salween to be a natural border and halted at it. The Salween was a natural and cultural border between the more Burmanized Shan states in the west—Western Shan, as J. George Scott called this area (1900–1)—and the more Tai-ized Shan state east of the Salween, i.e., Chiang Tung. Northern Tai chronicles mention Salween as the western and Mekong as the eastern border of Lan Na (Grabowsky 2005, 3–4). The reasons for not annexing the trans-Salween Shan State were military, administrative, and political (Sāimöng Mangrāi 1965, 217). The ruler (saopha) of Chiang Tung, Sao Kawng Tai, had already broken away from Burmese control in 1881 and had executed King Thibaw’s envoy. The British knew that the ruler was feared, and that may have been one reason why they waited before they dared to enter the trans-Salween area.

Instead of annexing the trans-Salween Shan State, the British sent Lieutenant G. J. Younghusband as a spy to Chiang Tung. Upon his return, he recommended that the British Empire not be extended across the river:

The Kiang Tung province in the hands of the British can never be anything but a source of weakness to the integrity of the Burmese kingdom. . . . The soundest policy would appear to be to hand over the province to the Chinese; not as a possession, but as a tributary State, making certain stipulations, for trade and defence against aggression, favourable to British interests. (Younghusband 2005 [1888], 13–14)

On his recommendation the British toyed with the idea of letting China take over all rights over Chiang Tung. But, as we know, they changed their minds. And when the ruler Kawng Tai died, the British decided, for fear of the French who had settled on the other side of the Mekong, to overrun Chiang Tung and integrate it into the rest of the Shan States and the British Empire.

Another political decision that affected the future of Chiang Tung was made as late as 1947, during the negotiations for Burmese independence from the British. During the negotiations between ethnic leaders and the Burmese at the Panglong Conference, Sao Zing Zai was sent as the representative of Chiang Tung’s ruler (saopha). During the Evidence of Witnesses at Maymyo on April 21, 1947, he had the option to choose whether Chiang Tung wished to remain in the Shan States Federation or be annexed as a part of Siam/Thailand. Documents from this hearing testify that he chose the more successful Burma (Aung Tun 2009, 252–254). This decision must also be seen in the context of recent history: during the Second World War Siamese aircraft had dropped bombs on Chiang Tung, and Thai troops ruled the city from 1942. Chiang Tung become a province of Thailand as Saharat Thai Doem until the end of the war.

Myths and Memories: The Chiang Tung Chronicle

Chronicles like the CTC were inscribed by hand on palm leaves and tied into bundles, or were folded manuscripts written on paper produced from the bark of the sa tree. They were often copies of earlier manuscripts, and many versions of a given manuscript can therefore exist. The historiographic importance of these chronicles is controversial. They were not composed for purely historiographical purposes. They were recopied many times over long periods, and several were probably handed down orally over many generations. Political chronicles (tamnan mueang) like CTC have a strong hagiographic character, imagining the golden history of a specific dynasty. To separate myth from reality is often impossible, and for this study it would also be pointless.

The CTC does not deal only with the Khuen; other ethnic groups are also important in the CTC, including the Chinese, the Lua/Wa/Loi, and the Tai Yuan from Chiang Rai/Chiang Mai. Another important focus of the CTC is the way in which Chiang Tung was established as a future Buddhist center through a visit by the Buddha himself.

The main theme in the first half of the CTC is the place itself and how it became a place to live in for the Tai Khuen ethnic group. It covers the origin and early history of Chiang Tung. This theme—the origins of the place and of the Khuen people—is not only the focus of oral and written legends. It is also a central focus in the annual Songkran festival in April. In this festival, not only Khuen but also the remaining members of the original ethnic group inhabiting the area, Tai Loi people, play an important role. I will return to this later.

We should not consider the CTC to be a written literary work. It is, rather, a compilation of myths, legends, and historical events, with many parts of the chronicle probably having very ancient oral roots. The version of the CTC which we are considering here begins in ancient times and covers the period down to 1935. As Saimong Mangrai (1981, 204) points out, events before paragraph 99 are interlaced with legends and supernatural happenings. It is these myths and memories that are of central interest to us here. Donald K. Swearer holds that “myths and legends may be used to tell us something about the history of a people, but, more significantly, they give a commentary on what a people has held and holds to be of lasting value” (Swearer 1976, 4). The myths and legends in the CTC tell us what the Khuen people understand and believe about the origin and early history of the place where they live—the “imagined Khuen nation.” As Yuval Noah Harari puts it, “Every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths” (Harari 2014, 128). The imagined order of the Khuen people is a Buddhist worldview including myths and memories of the origin of the Khuen people and their place of belonging, i.e., Chiang Tung.

The myths and memories written down in the CTC do represent a living tradition, revealing a definite self-awareness on the part of the Khuen people. We should note that some rudimentary pamphlets were also produced recounting these myths. One, titled “The Four Hermits & Naung Tung Lake,” was produced and distributed by the Khuen Cultural and Literature Society of Kengtung in 1997. However, this living tradition of the origin and early history of Chiang Tung is, as far as I know, preserved and transmitted only by a number of elderly men with a particular interest in history and tradition. These are more or less the same individuals who organize the annual Songkran festival in Chiang Tung.

Should these elderly men be seen as representative? Both interest in the stories and the ability to remember and transmit them may depend on class, education, gender, and age. The fact that it is mainly older males who transmit these myths and memories does not mean that the younger generation does not have any knowledge of them, but I believe that these myths and memories are losing their importance.

Another imagined community—a Shan imagined community—now seems to be increasingly significant among the Khuen people of Chiang Tung. In recent times, due to the long struggle over more than 70 years for an independent or federal Shan State, the imagined nation of a united Shan State has had an increasing profile. Modern media and popular culture (Ferguson 2008; Amporn 2011) form a basis for such a Shan imagined community. The Shan New Year celebration in November, with Shan flags, long drums, dance performances, and traditional sporting competitions, has increased in importance since the beginning of the 1990s. This has already affected the people in Chiang Tung, and I believe that it will continue to do so even more in the future. The myths and memories of the origin and early history of Chiang Tung and the imagined Khuen nation may belong to the past and present, but maybe not the future.

It should be borne in mind, however, that an imagined Shan nation is a relatively recent concept. It has its origin in colonial times, as the “Frontier Areas” that were administered separately from “Burma proper,” but it was not until 1922, when the British administration created a federated system with a Northern and a Southern Shan State, that the concept of a united Shan State was born (Aung Tun 2009, 167–185). Before that time the administration was decentralized and diverse, without any notion of unification of the different Shan States. Therefore, the new federation was not popular among the local saopha rulers, as it reduced the traditional hereditary rights which allowed them to rule their states. This British-generated federation was the first time the different Shan States were united, and it was a step toward an imagined united Shan nation. Thus, the Khuen people in Chiang Tung have access to different and sometimes competing myths and memories and different sets of loyalties, which may change over time.

A Buddhist Sacred Place

The CTC connects Chiang Tung with the Buddhist world through an alleged visit by the Buddha himself to the region. Justin McDaniel (2002), Swearer (1987), and others have demonstrated that local historical chronicles have been used in other places to connect territory with the lifetime of the historical Buddha. According to the CTC, the place where Chiang Tung was later established was for a long time uninhabited and consisted of a huge lake with several islands that today are hilltops within the town. The Buddha is said to have stood on a hilltop in the lake and to have made a prophecy that a sacred Buddhist city would be established there:

After the Tathagata has attained Nibbana there will be a hermit coming from the north who will drain away the water of the Dammilap Lake. Six hundred and twenty-nine years after the Nibbana of the Tathagata a king will bring the Sasana and establish it in this state. (Chiang Tung Chronicle §12)

This prophecy made by the Buddha makes the place a sacred landscape, with Buddhist sites as symbolic markers of authority for the local rulers. It is also stated in the CTC that the Buddha left eight hairs of his head, which were later enshrined in the golden stupa of Wat Chom Kham on one of the hills in Chiang Tung: “Lord Buddha together with forty-nine disciples (arahant) came to the Subhasudebba Hill. There he left behind eight hairs of his head. Ananda Thera took the Lord’s iron staff and planted it in the ground” (Chiang Tung Chronicle §12).

This Buddhist geography, with a sacred relic from the Buddha himself planted in the ground and enshrined in a sacred stupa, establishes an association between the Buddha, the place of Chiang Tung, and the Khuen nation. This sacralization of the place legitimizes Chiang Tung as a Buddhist center and predicts that it will become a Buddhist sacred place—a Buddha-land (Buddhadesa).

The Chinese Impact

Following this Buddhist prophecy, the CTC establishes a connection between the place and the Chinese Empire. The CTC describes how the place was made habitable by the Chinese. It relates how 150 years after the nirvana of the Buddha, four Chinese princes came to the area and emptied most of the water out of the huge lake. It is related in the CTC that the four princes were also hermits, practiced meditation, and attained supernatural powers. The legend relates that when the four princes said farewell to the emperor, he asked them to let him know if they found suitable places for settlement. After the four princes had been to several different places, they came, it is related, to Comsak Hill,4) where they saw the writing and the mark of the staff that Lord Buddha had planted into the ground. The CTC states that a hermit was predicted to come from the north and to drain the lake dry, and that a new kingdom would arise: “Truly, in time to come, a hermit named Candasikkhatunga Rasi will come from the north and drain this lake dry, and a future kingdom will arise bearing the name of that hermit” (Chiang Tung Chronicle §22).

The legend relates that the four hermits stayed for seven years and dried out the lake. Only enough water was left for a small lake, which still exists in the middle of the town. The hermits realized that the place was suitable for the construction of a city and returned home to their father, the emperor, and told him this. The emperor gave orders to one of his chiefs to relocate and build a city there. The chief took a large number of families with him, and they started to grow rice. However, the Chinese had difficulty cultivating the soil. The rice plants produced no grain, and the Chinese people starved and many died. After three years, the guardian spirits of the place were not pleased with the Chinese people and told them to leave, which they did: “After three complete years the state’s guardian spirits were not pleased . . . saying, ‘We do not like the Chinese and are opposed to the construction of the city by them; we shall construct one ourselves in the future’” (Chiang Tung Chronicle §31).

As we have seen, this legend about how the area was made habitable includes the acts of the Chinese emperor and his princes. But it also tells us that the place was not suitable for Chinese to live. The CTC notes that the spirits of the area did not want the Chinese to settle down in the place where the Tai Khuen would later live.

The CTC (§82–86) returns later to the relationship with the Chinese and tells of an attempted and unsuccessful invasion from China. Not long after the establishment of Chiang Tung as the home of the Tai Khuen people, the Chinese emperor became aware of the new settlements. He maintained that he had instructed his son to drain the lake to establish villages and towns. He therefore asked for tribute in the form of rice and elephant tusks:

The emperor deputed a Chinese man named Yu Ve-ya to come down [to Jengtung] to demand tribute, saying, “You must give 1,000 carrier poles of rice and 1,000 elephant tusks. If that is not possible, give 10 elephants and 100,000 silver [coins].” (Chiang Tung Chronicle §82)

The CTC relates how the ruler of Chiang Tung, Namthum, ordered the elders to negotiate with the Chinese. The negotiation failed, and the Chinese besieged the town and started to dig a tunnel with the purpose of forcing an entry. However, the Chinese commander was shot dead by a crossbow. The Chinese changed tactics and started to dam up the river “to create a lake as of old” (CTC §83) and flood the people out. The Chinese, who had made the Chiang Tung valley habitable by emptying most of the water from the huge lake, were now in the process of filling the whole valley with water again. Namthum responded by sending a raft floating down the river to the place where the Chinese were damming the river. The raft (presumably through supernatural means) caused several Chinese soldiers to be struck by lightning, and many died. The rest fled. The story of the attempted invasion from the Chinese ends with a victory for the defenders. This story conveys a sense of pride for the ancient past with Chiang Tung’s successful defense against the powerful nation in the north:

At that time the braya gave orders for a raft to be made . . . and, after an invitation to the deva, the raft was floated down the river until it stopped at the place where they [the Chinese] were damming the river. Lightning struck that place, and many Chinese died; [the rest] could not stay and all fled. Henceforth the state became happy, prosperous, and stable without a break. (Chiang Tung Chronicle §86)

The CTC also tells shortly thereafter of a further attempt to make Chiang Tung a vassal of the Chinese. The emperor ordered an army to come down to defeat the kingdom. But in Chiang Tung there was a renowned warrior, Saengto, who had discovered a jewel in a hornets’ nest. He became famous because he fought with the help of an army of hornets and defeated the Chinese invaders. He chased the Chinese army all the way to the emperor, and the palace filled with hornets. The emperor was terrified. Saengto was invited to stay at the palace and marry the emperor’s daughter, and he succeeded the emperor. The legend continues that Prince Saengto and his Chinese wife had three sons who became rulers of Alawi (Chiang Rung), Bolaem (Mueang Laem), and Chiang Tung. This legend, told in CTC §89–98, narrated by Scott (1901: II, 1, 398–399), and communicated orally to me, ends with the formation of an alliance between these three city-states, in Sipsong Panna, Yunnan, and Chiang Tung. The third son became the ruler of Chiang Tung, succeeding King Mangrai and his son. In this way, power in Chiang Tung originates partly from China.

From the Chinese perspective, Lan Na (of which Chiang Tung formed part) was considered to be a vassal state called Babai-Xifu—later Babai-Dadian, abbreviated to Babai—and Chiang Tung was called Menggen (Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, xiii, 20–21; Grabowsky 2010, 205). It is interesting to note that important Lan Na chronicles mention the Chinese only sporadically (Liew-Herres and Grabowsky 2008, 23), but that in the CTC the Chinese play an important role. It is, however, likely that there were many folk stories about the Chinese in the past, but that most of these stories were removed from the official histories of Lan Na in later times. When Captain William C. McLeod visited Chiang Mai in 1837, he was told by local people about a Chinese invasion and how the people of Chiang Mai had tricked the Chinese in a competition to build pagodas. Local people had, he was told, built a high mound of earth with some brickwork on the top, to make the Chinese believe that the people of Chiang Mai were very numerous (Grabowsky and Turton 2003, 317–318; Grabowsky 2010, 201–202).

The contradictory role of the Chinese is particularly worthy of note, both as creators of the place where the Khuen people came to live and as an enemy who tried to use the same procedure in reverse as a weapon to defeat the Khuen, i.e., to fill the whole valley with water again. This is an important part of the myth and memories of the imagined Khuen nation. We have seen here how myths and memories about the defeat of and emancipation from a powerful ancient empire—whose importance is increased further by its role in the founding of the city itself—can play a potent role in constructing an imagined community and nation.

Lua: The “Earthborn” People

As early as the third paragraph of the CTC, Chiang Tung is described, among other things, as Dammilap, the land of the Damilas. “Damila” derives from the Pali language and refers to the Tamils of South India or Sri Lanka. The original inhabitants of the Chiang Tung valley were an ethnic group of Mon-Khmer origin called Lua or Lawa by the chronicles.5) They seem to be compared to the Tamils because of their darker skin and because they were not Buddhists. The CTC describes the Lua people as being autochthonous: born from the soil of Chiang Tung. They are described as the original inhabitants of the place and as having been born out of a gourd. Many years after the Chinese had left the place, the legend relates, the seed of a striped gourd took root and bore many fruits, and then:

The [seeds of the gourds] scattered and fell into the footprints of oxen, buffaloes, elephants and rhinoceroses and [from them] were born the Lvas who inhabit the country. . . . They built villages and towns and from among them came village heads and regional chiefs. The person whom they chose as their leader was called Mangyoy, and [he] came and lived at Jengkaeu as their overlord for the whole state. (Chiang Tung Chronicle §32)

The CTC relates how the Lua people constructed villages and towns all over the region and chose Mangyoy as their leader. He settled in Jengkaeu, at the place which is now Chiang Tung.

The CTC (§60–69) continues by describing how the Tai people came to power in Jengkaeu town, where the Lua people were living. It relates how one day King Mangrai, the founder of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, chased a golden deer, a stag. The stag had been created by the gods, and it lured the king into the wilderness in the north. The story narrates how the king was close to catching the stag but failed again and again. Every time the king failed to catch the stag, the place where this happened was given a name. This legend establishes names for places that would become the homeland of the Khuen people:

The stag acted as if it was lame in the leg, and the braya [ruler] chased it for seven days. . . . He reached a place where he thought he had caught up with the stag and dived to seize it, but failed. That region is now known as Mongnom. (Chiang Tung Chronicle §61)

The golden stag finally disappeared, and the king had to go back home, but he found that the places he had been to were good locations in which to settle:6)

Braya Mangrai collected his forces and returned home. There Braya Mangrai spoke to the gathering of ministers and officials, saying, “I went to hunt a golden stag and saw a country in the north inhabited by the Lvas where we can build our settlements. We shall take our forces to fight [the Lvas] and drive them all away and will create villages and towns.” (Chiang Tung Chronicle §62)

King Mangrai therefore started to fight against the original inhabitants. The legend goes that he established himself as the ruler of Chiang Rai. In order to capture Chiang Tung, he sent infiltrators to bring division to the Lua court of Mangyoy. First, Mangrai sent his two sons with armies against the Lua chief, but this attempt failed. He then chose two Lua leaders loyal to him and sent them to conspire in the Lua court. After three years they were ready to assist in Mangrai’s invasion, for by then they had come to be trusted and had been promoted to important positions at the court. They sent a message to Mangrai that it was time for him to act, and so he sent an army north to the Lua city. Mangyoy, who trusted the two spies, was persuaded that the Chiang Rai army was huge and impossible to fight. He therefore tried to escape but was captured.

The CTC thus relates how King Mangrai defeated the Lua people and established the principality (mueang) of Chiang Tung. After the Tai ruler conquered Chiang Tung, the Lua people in the region were displaced and most of them moved northward and westward. Those who escaped are today called the Wa and live farther north on both sides of the border between China and Myanmar. The CTC relates that Mangrai commanded his son Namthum to go and rule the state which was on the same spot where the Lua ruler had had his palace.

Namthum brought with him two monks and four Buddha images from Lan Na, from the old Mon (Haripuñjaya) Buddhist tradition, in order to establish Buddhism in the new city and embody the prophecy made by the Buddha. The Padaeng Chronicle (Sāimöng Mangrāi 1981, 99–147) describes in more detail how the Flower Garden (Suan Dok or Puppharam) Buddhist tradition and the Red Forest (Padaeng) Buddhist tradition later reached Chiang Tung from Lanka through Ayuthaya and Chiang Mai. Today, the monastic order in Chiang Tung is proud of its ancient heritage, with an old local Buddhist calendar and a unique tradition of Pali recitation. The Khuen monastic order has so far resisted pressure from Burmese authorities to abandon local traditions in favor of Burmese monastic traditions.

It is interesting to note that the Burmese and the rest of the Shan States are of less importance in the CTC in relation to Chiang Tung’s origin and early history. The Burmese King Bayinnaung’s military actions in the Shan States and Lan Na during the sixteenth century are obviously mentioned, but before that time the Burmese are not mentioned at all. In the CTC there is no connection made between the Bagan Dynasty and Chiang Tung. Despite this, the modern Burmese military has made great efforts to Burmanize the region and to convince the inhabitants, through art and architecture, that Buddhism was established in Chiang Tung by the Pagan Dynasty.7)

Tai Khuen and Tai Loi

The CTC continues with a story about the origin of the Tai Khuen ethnic group. Issues of confrontation and coexistence between two ethnic groups in Southeast Asian myths and legends are often resolved with a marriage between the two groups, for example, when a Tai prince married an indigenous (Mon-Khmer) woman and a new political entity came into being grounded in this marriage (Évrard and Chanthaphilith 2013, 65–66). But in our case, there was no coexistence, only a confrontation, with the victors settling down in the same place—Chiang Tung—from which the indigenous Mon-Khmer people had fled. The victors did not fuse with the indigenous people. Instead, a new group of inhabitants for Chiang Tung was formed through a political decision to populate the area with a loyal people on the part of the victors from Chiang Rai. A neighboring Tai people were persuaded to settle down in Chiang Tung, together with a group of soldiers from Chiang Rai. King Mangrai, or his son Namthum, had to populate the newly conquered town as most of the Lua people had fled. As a replacement population, they selected a group of Tai villagers called Khuen who were living south of the town. The CTC describes them as dressed in special clothes and as having their hair cut in a special way. They were given cowrie shells as payment to persuade them to move to the new town. At the same time, soldiers from Chiang Rai were commanded to settle down together with the Khuen people. The CTC relates that they had to change their clothes and hairstyle in order to integrate: “Thereupon, the braya had the gong sounded amongst the people, urging them to give up Yon dress and to cut their hair in the manner of the great Khuens” (Chiang Tung Chronicle §81).

It is interesting that the CTC mentions that the new inhabitants were to use similar ethnic markers in clothing and hairstyle. This must have been intended as a way of speeding up the integration of the two peoples, necessary because the Chinese were not far away and it was important to fortify the town quickly before Chinese troops entered from the north.

People from the autochthonous Lua ethnic group who could not escape apparently “begged to be the humble subjects of the kingdom’s hills” (CTC §69) and moved up into the mountains around Chiang Tung. They are today called Tai Loi, meaning Tai people living in the hills. They have, over a long period living in the periphery of the Khuen people, changed their cultural, religious, and ethnic identity in such a way that they are now a Tai subgroup and members of the same political-economic system as the majority Tai Khuen. During their long relations with the Tai Khuen they have also adopted Buddhism and speak a Tai language, but with a lot of substrate linguistic material from the Lua (Palaung Mon-Khmer) language. Tai Loi are called Wa Kut by Scott (1900: I, 1, 517–518), meaning “those Wa who were left behind.”

The relationship of dependence and loyalty between the Tai Khuen and the Tai Loi was established historically through symbolic actions connected with the Chiang Tung royal court and relating to rights to the land. One of these was the integration of the displaced Lua/Tai Loi into the ceremony to install a new Khuen ruler (saopha). The coronation ceremony in the Chiang Tung palace (haw) included a symbolic banishing of the Loi people. A group of Tai Loi chiefs were called down from the mountains to the palace and placed on the throne to symbolize the previous rulers. They were given a meal, but before they could finish it they were carried away from the throne. Thereupon the new Tai Khuen ruler ascended the throne and finished the meal. Thus, during the coronation ceremony the old inhabitants were symbolically driven out of the land and banished. The CTC narrates the first symbolic takeover with the following words:

. . . when the golden palace had been built, the Lva living in Bangung and Bangham were brought down [from their hills] to sit and eat their food on the gem-studded throne in the palace. While they were eating, the Lva were driven out and the braya took their place. (Chiang Tung Chronicle §80)

It would appear that this symbolic banishing was carried out during every installation of a new ruler (saopha) from the thirteenth century until the late nineteenth. The last of these symbolic takeovers occurred when Sao Kawn Kiao Intaleng was installed as saopha in 1897 at Chiang Tung palace (Sāimöng Mangrāi 1981, 284n45). Interesting similarities can be recognized in ancient Luang Prabang in the relationship between the Lao people and another “earthborn” Mon-Khmer-speaking group called the Khamu/Kasak. The opposition there was played out in an annual ritual game like hockey, which the Lao always won against the autochthonous people (Stuart-Fox 1998, 51).

The connection between the Khuen and the original inhabitants said to have been born from the soil of Chiang Tung, the Tai Loi, did not end when the coronation ritual ceased. Just as the displaced Tai Loi were made part of the ceremony to install a new Khuen ruler (saopha), the Tai Loi people were brought into the Songkran festival, and they remain part of this festival until today.8) It seems likely that Intraleng wanted to maintain a direct connection with the people of the soil of Chiang Tung living in the mountains outside the city. He chose a group of Tai Loi from a village north of Chiang Tung to perform a drumming ceremony at the Songkran festival. This was intended to increase the prosperity of the Khuen nation, and Scott wrote, “it is considered essential to the public welfare that this ceremony shall be performed every year” (Scott 1901: II, 1, 440).

The Songkran Festival

The Songkran festival in Chiang Tung is a celebration of the New Year, with clear fertility symbolism and offerings to the spirit of the town (Sao Mueang). There are also traditional recitations (known locally as Mat-recitations) to the spirit by a group of elderly Khuen men. We know that Songkran was certainly celebrated as a fertility ritual in the late nineteenth century. It is generally believed among local people that in earlier times a crafted phallus was brought to the river, a ritual which was believed to generate prosperity for the Khuen nation. Scott writes about the Songkran procession. Under the heading “Phallic Ritual,” he states that an “indecent figure is paraded and obscene antics indulged in all along the route” (Scott 1901: II, 1, 440). I have been told that the procession that today accompanies the drum to the river was once called “sending the phallus” instead of “sending the drum.” Scott also mentions that a spirit in the shape of a frog was thrown into the river and that the feast was held every year because it was believed to be essential to public welfare.9)

The reason for celebrating Songkran is laid out in the CTC. The chronicle states that the festival has its origin in preventing a serious drought that occurred more than six hundred years ago:

That year the Khuen state had a great drought and the braya asked astrologers concerning the drought and absence of rainfall. The astrologers reverenced the braya, saying, “This Khuen state is a state with the Moon nam. It is meet that a representation of Rahu with the Moon in its mouth be made, sand cetiya be constructed on the Sangkhan’s day of departure, and then men, elephants, and horses be readied to go in procession to pay reverence on the bank of the Khuen River.” (Chiang Tung Chronicle §112)

Tai Khuen believe that the festival has been celebrated every year since the great drought of 1410 CE. A group of Tai Loi people, the remains of the defeated indigenous people, are engaged in the festival, in which they play an important though subordinate role, drumming in a 24-hour-long performance during which water is splashed endlessly, believed to ensure prosperity and wealth for Chiang Tung and the imagined Khuen nation. Tai Khuen say that when the original role of Tai Loi in the coronation ceremony came to an end, Tai Loi acquired a role in the annual New Year Songkran festival. All this was probably invented by the ruler Intraleng and is believed to ensure the survival and continued existence of the nation. A performed drama about an imagined community, the Songkran festival links local people to their collective past and to their place of belonging.

Two of the main themes during the festival are fertility and the nation’s well-being. These two themes are actually one and the same, as fertility is the basis for the prosperity of the imagined Khuen nation. This is expressed when two Tai Khuen men sitting face to face at a table in front of the drum read aloud a dialogue in the Khuen language. They read questions and answers about the drum and the reason for the drumming. The dialogue makes clear, in seven points, that the drumming is performed so that the bad luck of the old year will disappear, and to welcome the New Year, bringing good luck, water for the farmers, and prosperity for the nation. The dialogue then continues by stating that the drum is beaten also to ensure good luck, good health, and the strength to fight any enemies for the ruler. In sum, the dialogue states that the Songkran festival, with its drumming by the Tai Loi people, is intended to establish fertility, sovereignty, and power for the Tai Khuen nation.10)

The Songkran festival is a performed narrative about the history of Chiang Tung and the imagined Tai Khuen nation. It is celebrated as a special local traditional event, deeply embedded in the old history of Chiang Tung and the Tai Khuen people. It is a cultural performance of sovereignty, power, and national identity but also of dependence and loyalty between Tai Khuen and Tai Loi, the original inhabitants of the place.


Myths and memories can tell us a good deal about what a people has held and holds to be of lasting value. Important for an imagined community is a myth of common ancestry. Chiang Tung, today part of Myanmar, has long been a borderland between important empires. Myths and memories about the origin and early history of Chiang Tung that incorporate its relationship with these empires therefore have an important place in the mind of the Khuen people, as we can see in the CTC.

It is possible to distinguish at least three key themes in the myths and memories of the origin and early history of Chiang Tung expressed in the CTC. First, the connection between Buddhism and Chiang Tung is recognized in the CTC when it narrates the visit by the Buddha to the site and his prophecy that a sacred Buddhist city would one day be established there. As the Khuen people see it, they have fulfilled this mission. They are today proud of the ancient Buddhist tradition they practice and believe that it is much more original than those of their neighbors, the Burmese and the Thai.

Second, the place where Chiang Tung came to be established is described in the CTC as a borderland and a buffer between the Chinese and the Tai people from Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai. The Chinese were important in making the place habitable, but they were not allowed to settle down. The Khuen people turned back an attempted invasion by the Chinese. It is believed that the Chinese failed to take over Chiang Tung because the local guardian spirits did not want them on their soil.

The third central theme in the CTC is the role in the origin and early history of Chiang Tung of the original inhabitants, the Lua/Tai Loi, born from the local soil. Both the coronation ceremony installing a new Khuen ruler (saopha), which took place up to the nineteenth century, and the Songkran festival, still practiced today, express memories of domination and dependence between the Tai Khuen and the defeated Lua/Tai Loi. They express a struggle for the rights over the land—a struggle for an imagined Khuen nation.

The myths and memories written down in the CTC today constitute a living tradition that reveals the self-awareness of the Khuen people. The CTC tells us about the way in which the Khuen people imagine the origin and early history of the place where they live—what can be described as the “imagined Khuen nation.” These myths and memories express a sense of place and belonging for the Tai Khuen people. However, it is not certain that the myths and memories of the origin and early history of Chiang Tung have a future. As discussed above, the myths and memories are preserved mainly by elderly people. It is myths and memories about a united Shan nation which may be the future. The predominant “imagined community” for the people of Chiang Tung appears to be increasingly the wider Shan community rather than the local Khuen community.

Accepted: December 10, 2019


Thanks to Monica Janowski and Erik de Maaker, who organized the panel “Stories across Borders” at the Fifth Conference of the Asian Borderlands Research Network, held in Kathmandu in December 2016. Many thanks also to an anonymous reviewer for useful comments and advice. I would also like to express my gratitude to the director and staff at the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development, Chiang Mai University. This work was supported by Helge Ax:son Johnsons stiftelse and Stiftelsen Längmanska kulturfonden.

Versions of the Chiang Tung Chronicle (CTC)

Tamnan Meuang Chiang Tung. 1981. The Padaeng Chronicle and the Jengtung State Chronicle. Translated by Sao Saimong Mangrai. Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, pp. 207–291.

Tamnan Meuang Chiang Tung. 1984. Transcribed by Thawi Sawangpanyankun. Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai University.

Tamnan Mangrai Chiang Mai Chiang Tung. 1993. Chiang Mai: Social Research Institute.


Amporn Jirattikorn. 2011. Shan Virtual Insurgency and the Spectatorship of the Nation. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 42(1): 17–38.

Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Aung Tun. 2009. History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Enriquez, C. M. 1918. A Burmese Loneliness: A Tale of Travel in Burma, the Southern Shan States and Keng Tung. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co.

Évrard, Olivier; and Chanthaphilith Chiemsisouraj. 2013. The Ruins, the “Savages” and the Princess: Myths, Migrations and Belonging in Viang Phu Kha, Laos. In Mobility and Heritage in Northern Thailand and Laos: Past and Present, edited by Olivier Évrard, Dominique Guillaud, and Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, pp. 55–73. Proceedings of the Chiang Mai Conference, December 1–2, 2011. Chiang Mai: Center for Ethnic Studies and Development, Chiang Mai University.

Ferguson, Jane. 2008. Rocking in Shanland: Histories and Popular Culture Jams at the Thai-Burma Border. PhD dissertation, Cornell University.

Grabowsky, Volker. 2010. The Northern Tai Policy of Lan Na (Ba-dai Da-dian) in the 14th and 15th Centuries: The Ming Factor. In Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor, edited by Geoff Wade and Sun Laichen, pp. 197–245. Singapore: NUS Press.

―. 2005. Population and State in Lan Na prior to the Mid-sixteenth Century. Journal of the Siam Society 93: 1–68.

―. 2004. The Northern Tai Polity of Lan Na (Babai-Dadian) between the Late 13th to Mid-16th Centuries: Internal Dynamics and Relations with Her Neighbours. ARI Working Paper No 17. Singapore: Asia Research Institute.

―. 1999. Forced Resettlement Campaigns in Northern Thailand during the Early Bangkok Period. Journal of the Siam Society 87(1–2): 45–86.

Grabowsky, Volker; and Turton, Andrew. 2003. The Gold and Silver Road of Trade and Friendship: The McLeod and Richardson Diplomatic Missions to Tai States in 1837. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Vintage Books.

Karlsson, Klemens. 2013. The Songkran Festival in Chiang Tung: A Symbolic Performance of Domination and Subordination between Lowland Tai and Hill Tai. Tai Culture 23: 50–62.

―. 2012. Material Religion and Ethnic Identity: Buddhist Visual Culture and the Burmanization of the Eastern Shan State. In The Spirit of Things: Materiality and Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia, edited by Julius Bautista, pp. 61–77. Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications.

Liew-Herres, Foon Ming; and Grabowsky, Volker. 2008. Lan Na in Chinese Historiography: Sino-Tai Relations as Reflected in the Yuan and Ming Sources (13th to 17th Centuries). Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

McDaniel, Justin. 2002. Transformative History: Nihon Ryōiki and JinakālamāLīpakaraṇam. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25(1–2): 151–207.

Ratanaporn Sethakul. 1988. Political Relations between Chiang Mai and Kengtung in the Nineteenth Century. In Changes in Northern Thailand and the Shan States, 1886–1940, edited by Prakai Nontawasee, pp. 296–327. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Sāimöng Mangrāi, Sao. 1981. The Pāḍaeng Chronicle and the Jengtung State Chronicle Translated. Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan.

―. 1965. The Shan States and the British Annexation. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.

Sarassawadee Ongsakul. 2005. History of Lan Na. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Scott, J. George. 1900–1. Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, 5 vols. Rangoon: Government Printing.

Smith, John Sterling Forssen. 2013. The Chiang Tung Wars: War and Politics in Mid-19th Century Siam and Burma. Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

Stuart-Fox, Martin. 1998. The Lao Kingdom of Lan-Xang: Rise and Decline. Bangkok: White Lotus.

Swearer, Donald K. 1987. The Northern Thai City as a Sacred Center. In The City as a Sacred Center: Essays on Six Asian Contexts, edited by B. Smith and H. B. Reynolds, pp. 103–113. Leiden: Brill.

―. 1976. Wat Haripunjaya: A Study of the Royal Temple of the Buddha’s Relic, Lamphun, Thailand. Missoula: Scholars Press.

Swearer, Donald K.; Sommai Premchit; and Phaithoon Dokbuakaew. 2004. Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and Their Legends. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Thongchai Winichakul. 1994. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Younghusband, G. J. 2005 (1888). The Trans-Salween Shan State of Kiang Tung, edited by David K. Wyatt. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

1) In this article these will be described as “myths and memories” for the sake of simplicity.

2) This translated version is only one of several preserved versions of the CTC. There are at least two more versions that have been transcribed into the Thai script, but not translated. They are published as: Tamnan Meuang Chiang Tung, transcribed by Thawi Sawangpanyankun (Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai University, 1984); and Tamnan Mangrai Chiang Mai Chiang Tung (Chiang Mai: Social Research Institute, 1993). Only the English translation by Sao Saimong Mangrai has been used in this study. He translates the name of the document as Jengtung State Chronicle, but in conformity with recent literature I will instead refer to it as Chiang Tung Chronicle (CTC). The extracts follow the English translation by Sao Saimong Mangrai but have undergone stylistic revision to make the text more readable.

3) They use the name Khuen for themselves, but the Burmese call them Shan, grouping them together with all Tai-speaking peoples in Myanmar. Thai people call them and all Tai-speaking groups outside Thailand Tai Yai (Big Tai). The Shan in Myanmar, including the Tai Khuen, often call themselves simply Tai.

4) Comsak Hill is the hill in Chiang Tung where the Roman Catholic church and the big Buddha statue stand today.

5) Lua, or Lawa, people speak a Palaungic Austroasiatic (Mon-Khmer) language. Sao Saimong Mangrai spells the name Lva in his translation of the CTC. Other names for them used in different chronicles and inscriptions are Damila, Milakkha, and Kha (slave). The Wa people living on both sides of the Myanmar/China border have their origin in the Lua people who escaped from the Tai conquerors.

6) A similar story is told about Prince Chao Luang Kham Daeng from Phayao, who chased a golden deer and came to the mountain of Chiang Dao, north of Chiang Mai. That legend establishes the names of places where the Tai people would live in the future (see Swearer et al. 2004, 63–67).

7) For details, see Karlsson (2012).

8) For a more detailed study of the Songkran festival in Chiang Tung, see Karlsson (2013).

9) According to this legend, astrologers advised the ruler to fashion a frog, Rahu, and to build cetiya (stupas) in order to prevent droughts. I have witnessed how people from Chiang Tung, on the second day of the festival, make a frog out of mud and clay by the river and put a paper moon in its mouth. The master of ceremonies also invites a spirit from the mountain to install itself in the frog. During the last days of the Songkran festival, people make sand stupas and venerate these.

10) I witnessed this dialogue in 2011, 2013, and 2016. I was also given an oral translation of the dialogue.


Vol. 9, No. 2, Frances O’MORCHOE


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 2

Narrating Loss and Differentiation: Lahu Origin Stories on the Margins of Burma, China, and Siam

Frances O’Morchoe*

*Parami Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Shwe Gone Plaza, Bahan, Yangon, Myanmar
e-mail: francesomorchoe[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.2_161

This article examines variations in Lahu oral tradition across time and space in order to understand the continuities as well as changes in how people express what it means to be Lahu. By comparing stories of ethnic origins collected in Burma in the 1890s and 1930s, in Northern Thailand and Yunnan in the 1960s, in Yunnan in the 2000s, and in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) today, this article helps us to assess the influence that past political projects of ethnic classification, regional conflicts, and ongoing Lahu experiences of migration have had on Lahu people’s self-identification over time. This article combines insights from the fields of borderlands history and folklore studies to understand ethnic identity and experience across the colonial-imposed borders which characterize this diverse region. In contexts varying from British and Chinese state encroachment in the late nineteenth century to the Baptist conversion experiences in the twentieth century, this comparative transnational analysis of Lahu stories helps us to understand the uneasy fit between nations and states in much of Southeast Asia today. Examining stories of the origins of ethnic divisions can thus show the influence of Southeast Asia’s complex borderland politics on the self-conceptions of borderland inhabitants in this region riven by conflict and territorial disputes.

Keywords: Lahu, stories, borderlands, identity, migration, ethnicity

Introduction: The Uses of Stories

“‘Puij’ comes from the sound of a white bird falling out of a tree when shot with a cross-bow. ‘Kye’ means fell down.” Peter, a seminary student in Yangon, explained to me that “Puijkye,” the name for the original home of the Lahu, is today known as Beijing. He told me how, after a period of wandering away from Puijkye, the Lahu founded their own state in southwest China. The Chinese attacked many times but were always shot. The Chinese eventually managed to trick the Lahu out of their land. The land was called Mvuh Meh Mi Meh, which means “horse-cultivated soil.” There are 54 different groups of Lahu today, Peter explained, but they all once came from this state in China.

Stories of how the Lahu people came to live in the highlands at the borders of China, Myanmar, and Thailand are numerous, and they bear similarities whether collected in Mong Hka (today Ximeng) in the 1890s, in Keng Tung in the 1930s, in Yunnan in the 1960s, or in Yangon in 2016.1) Comparing stories of ethnic origins across space and time can help scholars to understand how identities are, and become, meaningful to people over time. This transnational comparative method also allows scholars to examine the differences in the historical experiences of people divided by borders during the eras of colonialism and the formation of postcolonial nation-states. Central to this method is the need to pay attention to the voices of narrators, which allows historians to examine the effects of divergent historical experiences on how some people express what it means to be Lahu. Stories are necessarily refracted through the people who tell and record them, and as a method they offer a way for scholars to approach the history of people who lack indigenous-language written historical documents. Studying stories is a way to show how identification shifted over time in a space of complex borderland interactions, connected by transnational religious movements, the globalization of upland economies, and colonial and nation-state penetration. This article compares Lahu stories told at different times and in different places across the region, in order to understand how the complex borderland politics of the region has influenced the experience of what it means to be Lahu. Comparing stories of Lahu origins over time helps us to see the influence that past political projects of ethnic classification, regional conflicts, and ongoing Lahu experiences of migration have had on Lahu people’s self-identification over time.

This comparative historical method builds on the work of scholars who analyze shifting categories of ethnic identification over time. Among the most prominent scholars to have worked in this field was Edmund Leach. In his work on Kachin people, Leach argued that groups of Kachin people oscillated between the political models “gumsa” and “gumlao” (Leach 1954). A problem with Leach’s analysis is that he assumed that the meanings of concepts such as gumsa and gumlao were stable across time. Leach aimed to challenge structuralism—the orthodoxy among anthropologists at the time—but his mechanical explanation is problematic (Robinne and Sadan 2007). Michael Moerman takes this analysis further, providing tools for resolving some of these problems. He gives insight into how, when “objective ethnical characteristics” fail to define entities, scholars can still use “attitudes of identification and classification” (Moerman 1965). The anthropologist’s job is thus to discover what features are locally significant for determining difference. Yves Conrad (1989) likewise shows the inaccuracy of descriptions of ethnic groups as living in “splendid isolation,” with distinctive and unique languages and cultures. Strategies of identification can change as circumstances change. Charles Keyes (1995) has shown how state building and national identity formation can influence ethnic identification, while Deborah Tooker (1992) has shown how the Akha notion of exteriorized tradition enables ethnic and religious change. This article will focus on the temporal and spatial contingencies of these complex questions of ethnicity and identity. This paper aims to trace the causes of some of these changes, by studying stories told at different times and in different places by peoples who call themselves Lahu. Continuities of migration motifs reflect the continuing salience of migration to Lahu people’s self-identification, whereas changes in the central motifs of stories regarding ethnic difference point to the influence on identity of events in the twentieth century. State projects in 1950s China, Vietnam, and Thailand aimed to “scientifically” classify populations by race or ethnicity (Keyes 2002). The Ethnic Classification Project, which took place in southwest China in the early Communist period and in which ethnologists and linguists set out to demarcate the complex ethnic landscape into a precise number of ethnic categories, was one such project (Mullaney 2010). This article, by tracing changes in Lahu stories over time, argues that this twentieth-century context influenced the changing experience and expression of Lahu identity.

There are two recurring motifs in the stories told by Lahu people. The first concerns the loss of the Lahu’s original homeland in Yunnan, and the second concerns the origins of ethnic difference. The changes and continuities evident in the different iterations of these two motifs over time reflect the continuity as well as change in what it means to be Lahu, in contexts varying from British and Chinese state encroachment in the late nineteenth century through to the influence of Baptist conversion experiences in the twentieth century. Stories of the first motif, telling of the Lahu’s historic homeland in China, can be found dating from the present day back to the 1890s. Narrators, when they tell these stories of a former Lahu homeland in Yunnan, recount them sometimes as legend and sometimes as history. Despite the differences in framing, the meaning of the stories to Lahu people, as well as their mobilizing power, has been stable over time. The stories highlight the Lahu’s pride in their former state in Yunnan, where they governed themselves for many years before being defeated by the Chinese and forced to flee. The second motif concerns the origins of ethnic difference. Stories with this motif vary across time and place. Before the twentieth century, stories of this type focused on explaining the origins of the divisions within the Lahu people and the differences between Lahu and Shan people. From the mid-twentieth century, stories include a wider variety of ethnic categories and recount how God granted to all of the different groups different types of land and different skills. Both types of story hark back to an age of Lahu superiority, either when the Lahu ruled over their own kingdom (but were tricked out of it and defeated by the Chinese) or when all ethnic groups were equal until the Lahu, despite being God’s favorites, made bad decisions when God was dividing the world between the different ethnic nations.

Scholars such as Anthony D. Smith and Bruce Cauthen have noted how narrative tropes like those discussed here are universal, and how they help to unite people within a common ethnic identity. The idea of a historic golden age recurs particularly frequently. It can give consolation in times of hardship. Memories of a golden age also stimulate a sense of regeneration, through which the special origins of the ethnic group or nation have the potential to be recreated one day by the descendants of its founders (Smith 1996; Cauthen 2004). Smith and Cauthen see the presence of this type of myth, a myth of “ethnic election,” of being God’s chosen people, as one of the most important factors explaining how an ethnic community can be reproduced down the generations (Smith 1992; Cauthen 2004).

Nishimoto Yoichi, in his study of Lahu narratives of inferiority, identified this type of theme running through Lahu stories, which recount how the Lahu were once God’s favorite people but were unlucky in the loss of their kingdom (Nishimoto 2000). The Lahu’s narratives of inferiority explain their current hardship and tribulations as being a result of bad luck, despite God helping them as much as he could. This paper furthers Nishimoto’s analysis to show how the Lahu narratives changed in the context of complex border politics, reflecting the experience of living in a febrile borderland context. Nishimoto analyzes Lahu narratives as the product of a long history of ethnic relations and argues that the negative Lahu self-definition is made in binary opposition to lowlanders. This article adds to this analysis by understanding that the stories reference multiple ethnic divisions of the hills—e.g., tops and middles of hills—as well as ethnic divisions by occupation—e.g., farmers and traders—rather than just a binary of upland and lowland groups. Nishimoto studies narratives as a reflection of people’s social experience. This article deepens this analysis by comparing stories against each other to understand changes across time and space.

This paper undertakes a transnational historical study of storytelling and identity, showing how people can use myths to express their sense of an enduring identity as well as to mobilize unity among groups living dispersed across diverse borderlands. For scholars making historical comparisons, tracing changes in stories over time can explain how people have adapted to their changing environment. Examining local conceptions of ethnic divisions, contestation, and conquest of territory can show the influence of Southeast Asia’s complex borderland politics on the self-conceptions of borderland inhabitants in this region riven by conflict and territorial disputes.

Being Lahu in the Contest for the Borderlands

Looking across this border zone at a group that has confronted many different state realities—different levels and kinds of state penetration—the stories they tell show how the Lahu have negotiated what it is to be Lahu, and how they have positioned themselves in relation to lowland states. Like all the people living in this historic border zone, the Lahu have lived in different relationships with the multitude of overlapping lowland states they have encountered. The nature of center-periphery relations has long been an object of study for specialists in this region. O. W. Wolters (1968) borrowed the concept of the mandala—implying concentric circles of royal influence—from South Asian historiography to describe Ayudhya. Stanley Tambiah (1976) and Aidan Southall (1988) used the concepts of “galactic polity” and “segmentary state” respectively to denote the relations between central leaders and the populations on the periphery of their influence. Mandy Sadan (2013) preferred the term “borderworld” to connote a zone where local people were aware of the existence of multiple neighboring geographies. The emphasis on the fuzzy nature of highland governance employed by historians of Southeast Asia contrasts with the descriptions found in the historiography of the Chinese Qing Empire’s frontiers. The formalized nature of many of the types of Ming and Qing governance (such as the tusi, or “native chieftain,” system) in these borderlands means that historians of China are more likely to describe systems of tribute as indirect rule (Crossley et al. 2006). On the ground, local actors such as the Lahu had to negotiate these multiple relationships in real time (Giersch 2006).

In the second half of the twentieth century, the multiplicity of types of relationships between the Lahu and external states, and the hugely varied levels of state penetration, continued; the modern era has changed but not ended the ambiguous state position of the Lahu. After independence many parts of Burma’s Shan State were governmental gray areas, neither completely in nor completely out of the central Burmese government’s control. Some places passed between the control of the Burmese army and the control of armed ethnic groups and militias, all wielding state-like powers such as extraction, the exercise of coercive power, and the ability to manipulate the local economy (Callahan 2007). One such group was the remnants of Kuomintang (KMT) troops who fled from China to Burma during World War II. Many Christian Lahu refugees also fled over the border into Burma after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Meehan 2015). In China, Yunnan was the last bastion of resistance for the KMT, the last province to be taken over by the Communists in the 1950s. Lancang Lahu Autonomous County, supposedly Lahu-majority and Lahu-run but in reality a Han enterprise, was established in 1953, and the policy of “direct transition into socialism” was begun (Ma 2007). In Thailand over the same period many parts of the mountain border areas remained until the 1970s and 1980s outside central government control. Chinese Nationalist KMT troops, Burmese rebel groups, Thai Communists, and American CIA operatives all lived, and fought, scattered across Thailand’s northern borderland through the mid-twentieth century (Chang 2001). The multitude of Lahu endo- and exonyms hints at the plurality of their relations with lowland states. They are commonly called Luohei by Chinese, and Mussur by Thai and Shan (from whence Muhso by British colonial officials). Luohei means “black beasts” or “black savages,” while the Shan name, Mussur, means “hunter” (Walker 1977; Ma 2007; Thein Tun Oo 2013). A Lahu informant in Yangon told me that the name Lahu to them means “tiger (Lǎ) breeder (Hu̠).” As he said proudly, “Everyone is afraid of tigers except the Lahu who breed them.”

There is incredible diversity among Lahu people, along lines of language, religion, livelihood, and location. James Matisoff, the foremost scholar of Lahu linguistics, identifies a “bewildering profusion” of names for various subgroups of Lahu, although he notes that most of the distinctions between subgroups are primarily cultural rather than linguistic (Matisoff 1992, 133). Anthony Walker (1974) refers to more than 20 different subgroups of Lahu people. One interlocutor of mine estimated the number of subgroups at 54. Estimates of the number of Lahu dialects also vary widely (Walker 1974). Noel Kya Heh, a Lahu linguist, has made a comparative study of 36 different Lahu dialects (Kya Heh, personal correspondence). The Lahu Na (Black Lahu) are the most numerous in terms of population, and Lahu Na is the most commonly understood dialect (Bradley 1979). Other dialects are relatively mutually unintelligible, with some in addition being heavily influenced by the languages of the various countries in which their speakers live. Such diversity reflects in part that the region is a vast ethnic “shatter zone” (Scott 2009). Diversity is also partly a function of the environment of the highlands. Jean Michaud argues that in Zomia, “people and space always intersect, especially when geographical remoteness equates to economic and political isolation” (Michaud 2010, 199). The poor soil of the hills has necessitated living dispersed in small groups across the region and moving frequently. Historical circumstance—being caught in the middle of this politically febrile border landscape—has also scattered the Lahu. Political and economic turmoil has long caused waves of refugees and other migrants to move across the borderlands in this region (Kataoka 2011). For Lahu people the trend of migration has been broadly southward, first on the part of rebels escaping the extension of Qing administration in Yunnan, and later on the part of Christian Lahu escaping the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Other groups later moved south from Burma into Northern Thailand in the second half of the twentieth century, seeking a better life away from Ne Win’s socialist government in Burma. Economic circumstance, at first a function of eking out a living as swidden farmers in the mountains, has long caused Lahu people to lead a life on the move.

The Lahu are also subdivided along religious lines. Some are Christian, some animist, and some Buddhist. Mahayana Buddhism has a long history among the Lahu in Yunnan, influencing a series of Lahu “Buddha kings” as well as anti-Han Lahu rebellions in the late nineteenth century (Ma 2007; Kataoka 2013). Many Lahu were animist before American missionaries brought Christianity to the region. Missionaries moved to both Keng Tung in Shan State, where Baptists arrived in 1900, and Chiang Mai, where Presbyterians started proselytizing in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition, Lahu today are starkly divided by economic circumstance. Some continue to live in the mountains as swidden farmers, while others live and work in towns such as Keng Tung, Chiang Mai, and Yangon. Mapping onto this last difference, the majority of the Lahu today have very low levels of education, but there is also a highly educated minority who despair over the lack of interest in education shown by most Lahu. Despite this diversity of dialects, religions, locations, and lifestyles, it will become clear that shared histories, myths, and stories are a way through which some people express what being Lahu means.

A Former Lahu State in China

A narrative of exile and banishment from a historic homeland is a theme running through many of the stories told by Lahu people. Versions of a story of the loss of the Lahu’s lowland state in Yunnan and their subsequent migration to their mountain villages have been collected across the region, from Burma in the 1890s to Northern Thailand and Yunnan in the 1960s, Yunnan in the 2000s, and Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) today (Scott 1893; Jones 1967; Walker 1995; Pun and Lewis 2002; Ma 2007; Young 2013). The story goes that an original Lahu homeland, today known as Mvuh Meh Mi Meh, was a valley kingdom in China that the Lahu used to rule. Eventually the Chinese managed to defeat them, and the Lahu were forced to scatter. Many Lahu use these myths to identify themselves as a mobile mountain people, and to differentiate their history from those of their many neighboring ethnic groups. This story of historic migration from a vanquished former state reflects the centrality of the experience of migration in Lahu history. Migration was for a long time, and for many continues to be, a part of life for the Lahu (Kataoka 2011). A deep sense of pride in the former Lahu state, where the Lahu ruled themselves independently of neighboring powers, is central to all the stories studied here. Nishimoto (2000) has studied these myths of the Lahu country told in Thailand, analyzing their contemporary relevance in the context of Christian millennialism and the twentieth-century Lahu independence movement. This article analyzes historic changes and continuities in these stories across the region, to emphasize the effect of migration on how different people express what it means to be Lahu.

A narrative regarding the original homeland of the Lahu was passed down as oral history at least until the 1890s. Indeed, a Lahu valley state in Yunnan and the subsequent migration of the Lahu out of it are mentioned in British colonial records in 1893, not long after the first documented mass southward migrations of Lahu people from Yunnan. The Lahu chief of Mong Hka (today Ximeng), in a meeting with a British official, told a history of the Lahu in which they used to live in a valley kingdom called Mong Meu in Yunnan. A couple of centuries or more ago, he said, they were driven out by the Chinese and left in three large groups, one going down the Mekong and settling as far south as Chiang Mai, another going west and scattering themselves over the western Shan states, and the third settling at Nan Cha, whence they spread northward to Mong Lem (Scott 1893). The chief, known as the Ta Fu Ye, told the British that he was the last Lahu Fu (Buddha king) still living, and that he was acknowledged as such by all the Lahu. Telling the British the story of the Lahu’s historic kingdom in China was part of the chief’s attempt to position himself as a ruler of a unified people, and to maximize his negotiating position in the face of British and Chinese state penetration. Chinese accounts record that the Lahu chief at Mong Hka had in 1891 submitted to the imperial Chinese authorities, and that in 1891 the Qing had created a subprefecture called Chen-pien (also transcribed as Zhenbian, today Lancang), under a Chinese magistrate, out of several Lahu, Wa, and Shan states near Mong Hka (Davies 1909; Barton 1933; Fiskesjö 2000, 21). Until a few years before, Chinese rule had been only nominal and these small states had been practically independent. The extension of Qing administration into these areas, while rapid, did not completely displace pre-existing structures of authority. The Mong Hka chief in 1893, by telling the British the story of the Lahu historic kingdom in Yunnan, was trying to leverage the unity of the Lahu as a nation, as part of an attempt to preserve his autonomy in a time of accelerating state encroachment.

The historical record corroborates this chief’s story of the Lahu being expelled from their home in China. An anthropologist of the Lahu, Anthony Walker, has described some of the Lahu rebellions in Yunnan in the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the southward migration of the Lahu from Yunnan. In 1799 there was a particularly massive rebellion in Mengmeng (modern Shuangjiang County), led by a Lahu, Li Wenming, against the local Tai ruler of Mengmeng. The rebellion was defeated in 1800, and the Lahu leader was put to death. As part of the Qing policy at that time of yi yi zhi yi (“ruling the barbarian through the barbarian”), the Han monk co-leader Zhang Fuguo voluntarily derobed and was given control of three meng (muang, referring to Tai-inhabited plains) and five quan (Lahu “circles,” referring to smaller statelets in the mountains), and a title under the Qing’s tusi system. In 1883 Zhang Fuguo’s son and grandson attacked Mengmeng, were defeated, and lost the tusi-ship. The region was subsequently placed under direct Qing administration (Kataoka 2013). The severity of the Qing response was likely occasioned by fears of British interference to the south (Walker 2003). A Baptist missionary to the Lahu, William Marcus Young, in 1932 concurred in this description of the Chinese “pacification” of the Lahu rebels causing large-scale migration out of Yunnan. Young asserted that the Chinese method of subduing the Lahu was to “prune” their leaders:

In the long run the method has been effective in reducing them; by constantly pruning their leaders the Chinese gradually broke down the spirit of the Lahus, who were formerly as turbulent as the present wild Was; now those who have not emigrated are if anything to be reckoned amongst the mildest and, until we brought Christianity to them, spiritually the most depressed. (Barton 1933, 98)

What had probably reflected historical fact came in time to be blended with legend, incorporated into a story about finding the location of God’s home. In 1912 Baptist missionaries recorded a story relating to the Lahu’s original home in China, in which a place, Mun Mehn, is mentioned as a point on the journey to God’s house. This was just one year after missionaries—mostly Americans and Karen—had begun the work of committing the Lahu language to writing. Rev. Ba Te, a Karen Christian missionary, wrote in 1912 that the story was spread across the region where the Lahu were to be found (Antisdel 1911). It is a story of following the trail of God’s bees and flies in order to find and make offerings to God. Part of it goes as follows:

Going up farther and farther,
We pass over rocks and stones.
Going up farther and farther,
We come to the land where the Chinese dwell.
The large empire covering half the earth,
Taking up half the sky,
All covered with mist.
The track of the bee is almost lost,
And the trace of the green fly.
I make my eyes those of the wild cat,
The eyes of the hawk I make mine.
The trace of the bee trends eastward,
So trends the track of the green fly.
Having passed the land of the Chinese,
Having crossed their sky,
We pass onward and forward.
We come to the land Mun Mehn,
We come to her plain.
Having passed the plain of the Mun Mehn,
We pass on further forward.
[. . .]
And we find that God resides in the East,
God abides in the Land of the East.
[. . .] (Ba Te 1912)

This same place—below spelled Mvuh Me Mi Me, reflecting the variation in Lahu orthographic systems in use at the time—is also at the center of a story of banishment and exile which Saya (later Rev.) Ai Pun, an early Lahu convert to Baptist Protestantism, collected in Shan State in the 1930s. This version tells the story like a history once again and uses the idea of a Lahu original homeland to constantly emphasize the essential unity of the Lahu, even while using the idea of a historic defeat by the Chinese to explain why the Lahu are so dispersed today:

It is not known how long the Lahu people lived at Mvuh Me Mi Me. They had their own country and their own rulers. After they had lived there a long time the Chinese fought them and defeated them. The Lahu then scattered to many places. Because they scattered around like this, they could not defeat the Chinese.
 But the Lahu do not like to live under anyone. So the Lahu left the country of Mvuh Me Mi Me and moved to Sha K’ai Shi (the land of the free). But not all of them went down to the country of Sha K’ai Shi. Some of them went and lived wherever they wanted to. Those who moved to the country of Sha K’ai Shi were very numerous. But they were still under the Chinese and wore earrings to show this.
 Later when the English came and fought in Burma, the Chinese came and fought the Lahu. Since they defeated the Lahu, there were no more Lahu rulers. With no Lahu rulers to govern them, the Lahu people could not live together. So some of them went to the north, some to the south, some to the east, and some to the west. (Ai Pun 1939)

Rev. Ai Pun first published this version of the story in 1939 in a collection of stories, titled Lǎhu Kǎ puǐ kǎ lao, with the American Baptist Mission Press. His daughter, Angela Pun, together with an American missionary, Paul Lewis, translated the same collection of stories into English in 2002 and published the collection with White Lotus Press in Bangkok. In 2007 Rev. Ai Pun republished the English translation in Chiang Mai. This publication history, involving the same stories being recycled verbatim down through the generations, sometimes published jointly with American missionaries, reminds us to pay attention to the narrators and recorders of stories, and what audience they might have had in mind.

Lahu people and missionaries in the 1900s might have been both attentive to evidence of a unified Lahu people and interested in demonstrating the geographical reach of a mutually intelligible Lahu language. Missionaries often sought to find and demarcate territories containing linguistically homogenous groups (Errington 2001). This search for linguistically defined territories was especially at the forefront of the minds of the Baptists working out of Keng Tung in the early 1900s. Their interest in collecting stories of past Lahu kingdoms would have been energized by a decades-long embittered feud over territory with the Presbyterians based in Chiang Mai, in which the two sets of missionaries debated furiously as to how to divide between them the “fertile” Lahu hills (Young 1905; Kelly et al. 1913). The close collaboration between Rev. Ai Pun and Protestant missionaries in collecting Lahu stories is evident also in other stories the former recorded. Some of his stories hark directly to the Old Testament. A Lahu story about original sin is a near identical copy of the story in Genesis, complete with snakes, gendered temptation, and forbidden fruit, differing only in that the first two humans are called Ca Ti and Na Ti and the devil is a shape-shifting giant, Ca Nu Ca Peh (Ai Pun 1939, 19).

In a similar collaboration mixing Lahu legend and Baptist mission, Lahu elders who were translating the New Testament with the American missionary Lewis in the 1950s suggested the term G’ui sha mvuh mih to translate “Kingdom of God.” In an oral history interview recording, Lewis described his frustration over the Lahu translators insisting on using this translation, which implied “Country” rather than “Kingdom” of God. The Lahu elders preferred the term, they said, because it fitted in with their legends about walking to find the country of God (Lewis and Lewis n.d.). G’ui sha is the name of the principal Lahu deity, creator of the world, whom Lahu worshipped before the arrival of Buddhism or Christianity (Samuel 1998). Walker has argued that in the eighteenth-century conversion movement, concepts of Mahayana Buddhahood were blended into the Lahu’s G’ui sha, “to the extent that G’ui sha and fo [Buddha] became virtually identical in the minds of most Lahu” (Walker 2009, 325). The above episode further evidences how Lahu elders explicitly merged the concept of the Christian deity with pre-existing concepts of a creator god.

A deep pride in being Lahu, expressed through stories of former glory and historic defeat, infuses tellings of these myths today. The historical reality of the vanquished Lahu kingdom of Mvuh Meh Mi Meh is interpreted differently by Lahu people I speak to today. Some accept the story as historical, others as legend. One Lahu Baptist pastor described to me how he had just recently traveled to Yunnan and had met tens of Lahu Christian leaders and elderly persons who knew the history of the Lahu. While in Yunnan, he was able to visit villages near “the ancient Lahu state.” “Actually,” he said, “I passed by Lincang, which is Mvuh Meh Mi Meh, the Lahu state.”2) Different people have translated the term to me variously as “God-given soil” and “horse-cultivated soil.” The symbolism of an original Lahu homeland, where the Lahu people lived together under their own ruler, gives this phrase a deeper meaning. Whether the story is recounted as myth or history, it is interpreted as depicting the former superiority of the Lahu, as rulers in their own land, and their subsequent downfall at the hands of the Chinese. Stories of banishment and exile from a common homeland enable people to express a unified “Lahu” identity because of, rather than despite, a long history of migration and dispersal.

Origin Stories and Ethnic Divisions of the Hills

While the stories of migration reflect a motif which stayed constant over time, stories explaining the origins of ethnic difference changed over time and space. This section argues that upheavals in the mid-twentieth century are reflected in the changing motifs of these stories. Ethnic classification projects in China in the 1950s, together with regional migration spurred by conflict, affected ethnic identification. The stories described below see a shift in the core motif, from explaining the origins of differences among Lahu people—such as between the Lahu Na and Lahu Shi—to explaining the origins of differences between groups such as the Han, Wa, Shan, and Lahu. Ethnic categories gain more specific characteristics over time, as the Han begin to be characterized as traders and the Shan as paddy farmers wielding ploughs, in comparison to the Lahu as tillers of mountain fields. Where the migration motif of previous stories stayed constant because it retained explanatory power, these stories reflect historic changes in what it meant to be Lahu in the borderlands between China, Burma, and Thailand during the twentieth century.

Soon after the independence of the PRC in 1949, an unprecedented project of ethnic classification took place in Yunnan. Teams of ethnologists were sent into the countryside to conduct censuses and impose order on the immense complexity of the ethnographic landscape of southwest China. The Lahu were among the larger of the ethnic groups identified at the time. In the 1953–54 inaugural Yunnan census, 134,854 people self-reported as Lahu. They were one of 14 groups with over one hundred thousand self-reporting members in Yunnan (Mullaney 2010). The effect of this classification project on ethnicity in China has been immense. Thomas Mullaney has described how, since the classification, the 56 categories have become increasingly reified and ubiquitous. China has seen concerted attempts to bring the quotidian experience of ethnicity into line with the 56 minzu model. Policy making, cultural production, and artistic production have all been co-opted to realize this model.

The effects of this 1950s classification project continue to be felt in the experience of being Lahu, even today in Myanmar. A booklet about the Lahu, written recently in Burmese by Maung Maung Tun, a Lahu Christian from Keng Tung, describes the history of the PRC classification as a crucial moment (Maung Maung Tun 2017). In a summary of key dates in Lahu history, including the date of the first converts to Christianity, and the date “Lahu” first appeared in the Burmese census (as Lolo-Muhso), Maung Maung Tun explains the arrival of Chinese researchers in Yunnan and their classification of Lahu as a “national race” in China (translated as taingyinthar in Burmese).

The twentieth-century history of Lahu migration can explain how the reified and unified models of ethnicity instituted in China and Burma came to be felt across the region. Kataoka Tatsuki (2011) has described Lahu migration patterns, including the migration of Lahu people from Burma to Thailand due to the fighting in Shan State between the KMT and the Burmese army. He emphasizes that migration was not unidirectional, from north to south, but that people sometimes returned to their original homes. Similarly, in 1949, PRC persecution spurred an efflux of Lahu Christians from Yunnan, yet connections persist today between Lahu Christian churches in Myanmar and China. Continuing movement across the region characterizes the history of Lahu people. Mapping the changes in explanations of ethnic difference across the region can thus reveal the influence of events in Yunnan in the mid-twentieth century on how people have experienced ethnicity.

Comparing stories of the origins of ethnic difference from before and after these events of the mid-twentieth century can highlight the impact these events had on people’s experience of ethnicity. In a story Rev. Ai Pun recorded in the 1930s, Ca Ti and Na Ti, the first humans, were born from a gourd. This story of the gourd is a theme common to the origin stories of many different peoples in the region (Proschan 2001). Soon after God created the first humans, he created the Lahu people. Rev. Ai Pun’s 1939 narrative first explains the Lahu people’s division into Lahu Na and Lahu Shi, and second describes how the Lahu and Akha came to lose writing, and how God divided the mountains and valleys between the Shan and the Lahu:

Not long after Ca Ti and Na Ti disobeyed God, Na Ti became pregnant, and gave birth to a child. The child was not like a human baby, however. It was like a bag, with strips of cloth on it. When the mother and father saw this child they were frightened, and so they threw it away in the jungle. . . . God took the child to Ca Ti and Na Ti, and cut the cloth strips off. When he cut off one of the strips it became a baby boy, and cutting off another strip it became a baby girl. The animals all came together and took care of the two babies. . . . Because the Lahu Na group was nursed by a black dog, they are called the Lahu Na (Black Lahu). And because the Lahu Shi group was nursed by a yellow dog, they are called the Lahu Shi (Yellow Lahu). (Ai Pun 1939)

Soon after creating the Lahu, God divided the land between the different nations:

As people increased in number there were also many different nations, and arguments and fights quite often broke out among them. Therefore God came back down, and in order that each nation would have a place to farm, divided the land up among them.
 Now the Lahu people say that God loves them more than any other group. So God gave the Lahu people the first choice to pick the place they wanted to live and farm. They looked up at the mountains and ravines, and since they were so beautiful they chose those places. The Shan chose the level places.
 God was not yet satisfied. Because he wanted to give the Lahu people the level places this is what he did. He brought fire and water before the Lahu and the Shan and got them to choose again. The Lahu people looked very carefully and chose the fire. . . .
 God was not satisfied yet. Because of his great love for the Lahu people he wanted to help them. . . . So he brought a sambar deer and a horse, and he asked the Lahu people to make the first choice. . . . they chose the deer.
 . . . At this time God said to them, “Look carefully and remember this. The place where the sambar deer lives and where fire burns is the land of the Lahu. Where water gathers and where it is level, that is the land of the Shan. Oh you Lahu, this is as much as I can help you. Since this is all the luck you have, you must live on the mountains and in the ravines. So until the end of time, live on the mountains.” (Ai Pun 1939)

In stories collected after the classification projects in Yunnan, however, the emergence of ethnic groups is explained differently. In a story collected in Yunnan in the 1960s, the Lahu who emerged from the gourd were a single homogenous group. This story, recorded by Professor Liu Huihao, a Chinese folklorist, and published in 1995 by the anthropologist Walker, retains some similarities to Rev. Ai Pun’s myth from 1930s Burma. G’ui sha created the world, and the first people—Ca Ti and Na Ti—came out of a gourd (Walker 1995). Na Ti bore 18 children, each of whom was nursed by a different animal. These nine pairs of children each had a hundred children, and these nine hundred children hunted a tiger together. In this story the origins of the different ethnic groups lay in how the tiger was cooked, and where G’ui sha told each group to live. The children of Ca Ti and Na Ti were Lahu, Wa, Aini (a local name for Akha in Lancang), Han, Laomian, and Tai. (In this story the number nine simply indicates “many.”) God then divided the land between the Tai (Shan), Han, Wa, and Lahu:

G’ui-sha came to divide their habitations.
G’ui-sha called the ducks and the magpies,
He called the silver pheasant and the camel bird.
He told the birds to lead the people.
G’ui-sha said to the birds,
“You good-looking ducks, go live by the river.
You silver pheasants, go live on the mountain tops.
You colourful magpies, go live in the mid-ranges of the mountains.
You camel birds, go live on the mountain ridges.”

The Tai followed the ducks,
So the Tai live by the water.
The Han followed the magpies,
So the Han live in the middle ranges of the mountains.
The Wa followed the silver pheasants,
So the Wa live on the mountain tops.
The Lahu followed the camel birds,
So the Lahu live on the mountain ridges.
Every ethnic group was given a settlement.
Everybody was happy.
There were no boundaries between them,
They were all like brothers and sisters. (Walker 1995, 81)

At the same time in Thailand, the Chinese also feature among the ethnic groups created from the gourd. In stories collected by Delmos Jones, an American anthropologist, in Northern Thailand in 1967, Lahu informants told him that multiple other ethnic groups were created at the same time as the Lahu (Jones 1967). In these stories, recorded in villages near Chiang Rai and Me Sai in the 1960s, the Chinese, the Shan, the Red Lahu, and the Black Lahu all came from the gourd at the same time. Each was allowed to ask God for one thing. The Han man went to God and asked for writing, “and from that day the Chinese have known how to read and write, and they have had the knowledge to trade.” Then the Shan went to see God and told him his troubles. God gave him the tip of a plough, “and from that day the Shans have ploughed their paddy fields in the plains.” The Red Lahu man bowed and asked for nothing, but God gave him literature written on paper. The Red Lahu carried the paper in an old basket, and the paper fell through the holes in the basket and was lost. Then the Black Lahu went to see God. He told God he was a mountain dweller, and God gave him a hoe to till his mountain fields (Jones 1967, 86). The same themes—the Lahu’s lack of writing, their mountain dwelling place—are visible in these stories in Thailand, but the ethnic categories have stronger identifying features. The focus on Chinese as traders, Shans as paddy farmers, and Lahu as tillers of mountain fields is new.

Comparing the Lahu stories over time suggests a shift in emphasis from explaining the origins of divisions within the Lahu to explaining the division of the highlands among all the various ethnic groups. Stories highlighting the fact that the Lahu made bad choices and were unlucky at the time when God was dividing the land help to explain why the Lahu live in the mountains and have such a hard lifestyle, despite being God’s favorite people. These stories help to explain why Lahu people living in the hills are proud to live there, even though life is much harder than for Lahu living in towns. Some Lahu people in Myanmar expressed to me the idea that Lahu in Thailand are rich and lead an easy life (a common stereotype which elides the experiences of the many city-dwelling Lahu in Myanmar and mountain-dwelling Lahu in Thailand). Yet these stories show that even Lahu living in cities have a sense of Lahu identity which is centered on their people being destined to lead a tough life in the mountains. Wherever Lahu live today, stories relating the importance of their highland origins, and explaining their bad luck despite being God’s favorites, continue to be meaningful. Lahu people use common narratives of origin to maintain and continually recreate what it means to be Lahu, despite living in communities widely dispersed across the region.


Comparing stories across borders can show changes as well as continuities in people’s self-identification over time. Events of the twentieth century; the liminal and precarious situation of Lahu people living between Burma, Thailand, and China; and experiences of mass migration across the region’s developing international borders all undoubtedly had an influence on the formation of Lahu identity. Similarities between a story recorded in the late nineteenth century, which a chief used to rally people for a political cause, and stories told today about Mvuh Meh Mi Meh indicate an understanding of a common Lahu identity which draws on history, told through stories, to unify people with pride in being Lahu despite historic adversity. Nishimoto’s study of Lahu narratives of inferiority is borne out by this historical comparison. Lahu stories dating from the 1890s through the twentieth century to the present day contain a motif of the loss of a former Lahu state in China. The stories all highlight the Lahu’s benighted history and resulting marginalization. By contrast, stories about the origins of ethnic groups have evolved over the period studied here. Comparing stories collected in the 1930s with those collected later in the twentieth century reflects how the experience of ethnicity was influenced by events of the twentieth century. Over the period, Lahu is increasingly unified as a category, while attributes such as occupation are increasingly applied to describe the differences between groups. Ethnic classification projects in post-independence Yunnan marked the start of ongoing efforts in China to reify the 56 minzu ethnicities. PRC persecution of Christian minorities in the years following independence caused outward migration of the Lahu, among others, while in Burma in the same period, conflict between the KMT and the Burmese army spurred southward migration of the Lahu to Thailand. Changes in origin stories reflect the effect of these borderland upheavals on the experience of ethnicity across the region.

There are several avenues for future research. It is possible that stories of Lahu ownership of the mountains, given to the Lahu by God at the beginning of the world, grew in salience as the Lahu were denied access to their traditional swidden-farming livelihood in the twentieth century. The linked problems of natural population growth, unsustainable deforestation by logging companies in Northern Thailand, and forced migration carried out by the Burmese army have prevented many Lahu from carrying on with shifting cultivation. Lahu stories of ethnic origins, and particularly the allocation of land to ethnic groups, can perhaps be understood as alternative narratives describing subversive claims (vis-à-vis the dominant political entities) to space and territory.

Today, as the Lahu’s land has come to be at the periphery of multiple states, and even while other markers of ethnic identity have morphed over the last century and continue to differ across the region, a Lahu sense of identity continues to be based on memories of a historic homeland in China. At the same time, this article has shown how the complex events of the twentieth century, and the Lahu’s precarious liminal position at the margins of southwest China and upland Southeast Asia, are experienced and expressed in stories of ethnic difference.

Accepted: December 10, 2019


This article is based on research conducted in Myanmar and Thailand in autumn 2016, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK and the Beit Fund at the University of Oxford. I am grateful to Nathan Perng, John Htaw, Noel Kyaheh, Angela Pun, Chit Wah, and other staff and friends at the Lahu Theological Seminary in Pangwai and Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon for their help in sourcing stories. In preparing the article for publication I am grateful to the journal editors and reviewers for their helpful and incisive feedback. Finally, I would like to thank Monica Janowski and Erik de Maaker for all the work that went into bringing this issue together.


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Michaud, Jean. 2010. Editorial: Zomia and Beyond. Journal of Global History 5(2): 187–214.

Moerman, Michael. 1965. Ethnic Identification in a Complex Civilization: Who Are the Lue? American Anthropologist 67(5): 1215–1230.

Mullaney, Thomas. 2010. Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nishimoto Yoichi. 2000. Lahu Narratives of Inferiority: Christianity and Minority in Ethnic Power Relations. Chiang Rai: The Center for Inter-Ethnic Studies.

Proschan, Frank. 2001. Peoples of the Gourd: Imagined Ethnicities in Highland Southeast Asia. Journal of Asian Studies 60(4): 999–1032.

Robinne, Francois; and Sadan, Mandy, eds. 2007. Social Dynamics in the Highlands of Southeast Asia: Reconsidering Political Systems of Highland Burma by E. R. Leach. Leiden: Brill.

Sadan, Mandy. 2013. Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Samuel, Elena. 1998. The Religious and Traditional Lives of Lahu People. BDiv thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology.

Scott, James. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Smith, Anthony D. 1996. LSE Centennial Lecture: The Resurgence of Nationalism? Myth and Memory in the Renewal of Nations. British Journal of Sociology 47(4): 575–598.

―. 1992. Chosen Peoples: Why Ethnic Groups Survive. Ethnic and Racial Studies 15(3): 436–456.

Southall, Aidan. 1988. The Segmentary State in Africa and Asia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 30(1): 52–82.

Tambiah, Stanley J. 1976. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thein Tun Oo. 2013. The Myths: An Understanding of Genesis Creation from Lahu Tradition. MDiv thesis, Myanmar Institute of Theology.

Tooker, Deborah E. 1992. Identity Systems of Highland Burma: ‘Belief’, Akha Zan, and a Critique of Interiorized Notions of Ethno-religious Identity. Man 27(4): 799–819.

Walker, Anthony R. 2009. A Mahāyānist Movement in the Luohei Shan (Lahu Mountains) of Southwestern Yunnan. Inner Asia 11(2): 309–333.

―. 2003. Merit and the Millennium: Routine and Crisis in the Ritual Lives of the Lahu People. New Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corporation.

―. 1977. Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu) Rites to Propitiate the Hill Spirit: Ethnographic Notes and Lahu Texts. Études asiatiques: Revue de la Société Suisse–Asie 31: 55–79.

―. 1974. The Divisions of the Lahu People. Journal of the Siam Society 62(2): 253–268.

Wolters, O. W. 1968. Ayudhyā and the Rearward Part of the World. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (3 & 4): 166–178.

Young, Harold Mason. 2013. To the Mountain Tops: A Sojourn among the Lahu of Asia. n.p.: Xlibris.

Young, William Marcus. 1905. Young Papers, American Baptist Historical Society archives, Atlanta.

1) I use the term “Burma” to refer to the country before the name was changed in 1989, and “Myanmar” to refer to the country after that time.

2) Shuangjiang County, previously known as Meng Meng, in Lincang was the location of a massive Lahu revolt in 1799, which was defeated by the Qing (Walker 2003).


Vol. 9, No. 2, Erik DE MAAKER and Monica JANOWSKI


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 2

Borderland Narratives

Erik de Maaker* and Monica Janowski**

*Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University, P.O. Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands
Corresponding author’s e-mail: maaker[at]
**School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 10 Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG, United Kingdom
Corresponding author’s e-mail: monica.janowski[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.2_151

Stories as Histories

Orally told stories, like human beings, can be said to have histories. In the telling, they morph and change, reflecting the concerns and interests of those who tell them and those who listen to them. As such, they can help to generate cohesion within communities, as well as trauma and schism. They also move from place to place, transported by their tellers. Where stories are taken across political borders, their histories can play an important part in maintaining a sense of common identity for those who tell them and those who listen to them. This is what Carola Lorea (this issue) demonstrates has happened in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. There, low-caste Matua migrants who fled from Bangladesh into India at the time of Partition were persuaded to settle by the Indian government. Lorea shows how, through the stories they brought with them, these migrants managed to maintain a sense of continuity with their place of origin. These stories helped in the establishment and “grounding” of a Bengali settler community on the islands.

The example of Matua settlers in the Andaman Islands demonstrates well how much the narrating of stories matters in the borderlands of South and Southeast Asia. The political borders that divide the Andaman Islands from Bangladesh, albeit oceanic and hence “liquid,” have come into being as a result of modern state making. Elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia, borders are also recent, which more often than not renders them unstable and contested. Borders frequently divide ethnic communities, meaning, for example, that while some Lahu are Thai nationals, others are Burmese and yet others are Chinese (O’Morchoe, this issue). The creation of new political borders transforms people who move across them into foreign migrants, where such movement would earlier have amounted to internal mobility.

The four papers in this special issue deal with people living at the margins of the modern states that exist in South and Southeast Asia. Frances O’Morchoe analyzes the relevance of the stories of origin of the Lahu, who live along the borders of China, Myanmar, and Thailand. There is good reason for considering South and Southeast Asia in the same frame of reference here; while they are distinct areas, they are united by a shared history of colonial state making, decolonization, and consistent attempts at consolidation of the postcolonial states. Klemens Karlsson considers the narratives and performances of an upland Tai community living in the borderlands of Thailand and Myanmar. Valerie Mashman considers the significance of stories for Borneo highlanders who live in a politically comparable area: the borderlands of Sarawak (Malaysia) and Kalimantan (Indonesia). Lorea focuses on the Andaman Islands, an oceanic or “liquid” borderland that is geopolitically at the margins of India and Myanmar. Taken together, the four papers provide important new insights on how stories, legends, and myths shape, transform, and reflect place attachment and ethnicity across the margins of the modern states of the region.

The papers intersect along three analytical axes. First, they all focus on subaltern communities, whose stories, legends, and myths provide histories that are alternatives to the hegemonic discourses that dominate the state contexts in which the communities are included. Subaltern narratives can, at least in some contexts, challenge dominant narratives that take the centrality of the modern postcolonial state for granted. Second, while narratives that have a bearing on ethnicity more or less routinely become embedded in “national” referential frameworks, these four papers all take a “borderland” approach which creates a different perspective, one which is conducive to revealing and to some degree challenging such national referential frameworks. This means that they present takes on ethnicity and interethnic relationships that do not take the postcolonial states of South and Southeast Asia for granted. Third, the narratives presented and analyzed in the papers all provide approaches to “place” that differ from—even challenge—the territorial claims made by modern states. Focusing on people, their mobility, and the alliances they sustain, these narratives present alternatives to place as fixed and coherent, instead privileging flows and exchanges. We will elaborate on these three themes in the sections below.

Orality, Performance, and Eclectic Histories

The papers included in this special issue explore how stories, legends, and myths illustrate, substantiate, and challenge the ways in which people living in Asia’s borderland areas imagine, live out, and narrate their relationships with places of residence, origin, or longing. The narratives analyzed are vernacular and derive their impact from orality and performance. They present a different version of reality from that presented in more standard histories of national states, which are usually grounded in “official” archives or other government records, which almost invariably marginalize the people of the borderlands (Baud and van Schendel 1997). Narratives that are primarily “local” connect in complex ways to regional, national, and international levels. This is particularly relevant in borderland contexts, where the historical relationship between local people and the state to which they belong has typically been distant.

The four papers focus on groups that are not only geographically remote from state centers but also marginal to the social hierarchies that dominate these states (Scott 2009). The stories told by these groups both present histories and, in their telling, put forward claims—particularly claims to land, or to place in a more general sense. The stories lay out alternative histories and social categorizations that present, explain, and justify subaltern perspectives. Emphasizing oral and vernacular histories, the papers presented here provide new knowledge that can contribute to the development of theoretical models that are not self-evidently state-centric but do justice to the sociological realities in which subaltern peoples live.

Borderland Dynamics

Most studies of society, culture, and history in Asia continue to accept national territories as the natural building blocks of academic enquiry, perpetuating notions such as “Indonesian society,” the “Chinese economy,” or “Bangladeshi culture.” They imply that borders between states are not only of a political and administrative nature but also create separate social, economic, and cultural realms. This is why analytical approaches to ethnicity have more or less routinely become embedded in “national” referential frameworks. States are delineated by borders but also create conceptual realms that have inspired dedicated approaches to ethnicity, community, and nation. To counter such “methodological nationalism” (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002), scholarship on Asia is moving in new directions, and the emerging interest in borderland perspectives is one of the results.

Borders and borderlands come into existence as a result of political processes. Most of Asia’s borders owe their existence to colonial state making and the violent histories this involved. Even the borders of states that were never formally colonized, such as China, Thailand, and Nepal, are the outcome of interactions with colonial border making. Decolonization, often carried out in the form of a hasty retreat, created many borders that divide linguistic and cultural communities while restricting migrations and mobilities that were historically a given. While many borders in Asia are very recent, not having been demarcated until the second half of the twentieth century, nation-states today treat them as givens, and increasingly they invest in the policing and general hardening of their national borders (van Schendel and de Maaker 2014).

Border studies focus not only on how borders are imposed by national states, but also on how people who are confronted with the imposition of a political border engage with it. Research on borders as geopolitical boundaries has long been rooted primarily in social geography, political science, and international relations (Wastl-Walter 2012). More recent is the proliferation of border studies among many more disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology (Wilson and Donnan 2012).1) Anthropological studies of borders and borderlands can reveal how borderlands are “lived spaces challenged and inspired” by international boundaries (Dean 2012).

Border studies have so far focused primarily on how borders delineate, and less on the larger political and conceptual realms that these create. Moreover, with a few exceptions (Horstmann and Wadley 2006), border studies have focused primarily on the movement of people, goods, and ideas, neglecting the impact of the creation of political borders on cultural or religious realities. The papers included in this special issue explore these latter angles, as the stories they explore explicate and express the cultural and religious dynamics within which people actually live, and how border zones shape and transform these narratives, while at the same time orienting local actors within a broader sphere that extends beyond the border.

Narratives and Storytelling

In recent years storytelling and narrative has developed rapidly as a research area, both as a discipline in itself and within sociology, anthropology, international development, and health sciences.2) While modern approaches to the analysis of narratives and stories began a century ago with Vladimir Propp’s book Morphology of the Folktale, first published in Russian in 1928 (Propp 1958 [1928]), interest in the importance of narrative and storytelling has increased greatly in the past couple of decades, with what has been described as the “narrative turn” within the social sciences. A key author in this field is J. Bruner, who in his work in the late 1980s and 1990s contrasted a “narrative way of knowing” with a “logico-scientific mode” and emphasized the value of the former as a way of understanding how people perceive their own personal histories as well as histories shared with others (Bruner 1991). In recent years scholars have emphasized the enormous power and potential of stories in effecting change (Haven 2007; Grace and Kaufman 2013).

The importance of stories as ways of resisting authority and creating alternative histories by non-dominant peoples in marginal positions within broader societies was emphasized by Eric Selbin in his book Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story (Selbin 2010), while Sujatha Fernandes highlighted both the enormous power of stories and the potential for their misuse in her book Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (Fernandes 2017). While there has been some research recently on the power of stories and the ways in which stories and narratives are used to express counter-narratives to the dominant narrative within societies in some parts of the world (Musliu and Orbie 2016), this has yet to be explored as an explicit area of inquiry in relation to the borderlands of South and Southeast Asia. This small collection of papers begins to address this deficit.

The growing focus on narrative, particularly in the context of exploring voices which have not been heard in the past, in order to generate change has highlighted the importance of an open-ended anthropological approach, one which uses an iterative approach to exploring research questions, guided by the stories and narratives which emerge from the research process (Shekedi 2005; Mølbjerg Jørgensen and Largacha-Martinez 2014). The contributions in this special issue foreground an ethnographic method deriving from anthropology: they all take as a starting point stories as told and performed. As the papers in this collection show, the impact and communicative value of narratives, stories, legends, and myths depend on the contexts in which they are told, how they are mediated, and in what ways they reach their audiences. This draws attention to trajectories of generation, communication, dissemination, and circulation.

Stories, legends, and myths can involve claims to place, creating and legitimizing locatedness, and this is a major focus of the papers included in this collection. This is often in terms of kin networks, but it can also relate back to a place of origin, while at the same time connecting people to a place of arrival. Since stories travel with people, they are integral to a migratory or diasporic identity. Questions which arise in relation to the ways in which stories fit into stories of migration and across borders include the following: What exactly is the significance of stories on an emotional, political, and social level for different peoples and groups? How are stories subject to processes of authorization? What kind of agency is attributed to these stories? And how are these processes influenced by people’s location in borderlands, and by their being divided across several states? The contributions to this collection draw on these questions to query the data they present.

Narratives of Border Zones

The paper presented here by O’Morchoe focuses on origin stories told by the Lahu people of the border zone shared by China, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand (Siam). Lahu have a rich tradition of myths and stories that narrate their origin, their forced migration, as well as the origin of the ethnic differences that exist within the group. Earlier historians focused primarily on the importance of these myths in the Chinese context; the majority of Lahu currently reside in China. O’Morchoe widens the scope of the discussion by comparing Lahu origin stories and Lahu stories of migration collected in British Burma in the late nineteenth century to the versions of those stories told by the Lahu of Yunnan. She shows how, over time, origin stories have evolved with the changing needs of people to locate themselves, differentiate themselves from their new neighbors, and claim the historicity of their way of life. Within the nation-states in which they live, Lahu are in what historically were considered backward tracts (in British Burma) or outside the muang or civilized valleys (in Thailand); in China they were regarded as “raw” barbarians. O’Morchoe shows, however, that Lahu do not perceive themselves to be hill people (as opposed to valley people); their perception of ethnic differences does not refer to this dichotomy. An analysis of Lahu stories of origin, in short, reveals social categories that otherwise remain invisible.

Lorea analyzes the traveling archive of stories of a Bengali community living on the Andaman Islands of India. At the time of the Partition of India, in 1947, millions of Hindu Bengalis from what was then East Pakistan migrated into India. Thousands of these migrants, low-caste families, were resettled by the Indian government on the Andaman Islands, at the periphery of the Indian subcontinent, in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. Now, more than 70 years later, through oral traditions and verbal arts, many of these low-caste Bengalis continue to identify themselves as part of a Bengali diaspora. Lorea focuses on people belonging to the Matua sect, whose songs and musical practices bridge the emotional distance between the islands and the homeland, and she examines the ways in which transnational flows of pilgrims, preachers, and religious literature facilitate trans-regional and transnational connectivity within the Bengali diaspora. She also shows how sacred lyrics have gained new interpretations and meanings in the diasporic context. Borrowing, subverting, and accommodating elements from common Hindu epics, Matua performers engage in what Lorea calls diasporic “bricolage-thinking,” which allows them to subvert caste-based prejudices and to seek disconnection from those. In foregrounding narratives conveyed through Matua songs and music, she challenges and subverts the popular imagination of the Andamans as a homogeneous, casteless, multicultural whole.

Karlsson focuses on the content and interpretation of the Jengtung (Chiang Tung) State Chronicle, which consists of a collection of myths, legends, stories, and historical narratives. One of the main events described in this chronicle is the Songkran New Year festival, performed annually in the Eastern Shan State of Myanmar. This area is part of a border zone that spreads into Thailand, China, and Laos and was once part of the Tai cultural area of Lan Na, the land of “a million rice fields.” The Songkran festival, which still takes place, encompasses performances that narrate the history of the city-state (muang) Chiang Tung and its people (Tai Khun). In the festival, the Tai Loi (Hill Tai) act out the way in which their defeat by the Tai Khun resulted in their amalgamation into an encompassing Khun nation. Karlsson shows how performances of the festival are subject to sustained reformulation, which allows it to act as a manifestation of place, belonging, and ethnic identity. Songkran performances serve not only to remember the past but also to create the present.

Mashman analyzes the importance of narratives relating to ethnicity in the highlands of Borneo. Analyzing an oral narrative delivered in a Kelabit longhouse in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, her paper discusses two distinct ways of understanding ethnicity. The narrative refers on the one hand to a fluid and inclusive notion of “our people” (lun tauh), the significance of which is rooted in historical alliances and migrations that were significant before the advent of the national border between Indonesian and Malaysian parts of the island of Borneo. On the other hand, the narrative also refers to a reified, exclusive ethnic construct of “the Kelabit,” confined to an ethno-culturally homogeneous population associated with a bounded territory that is located only in Sarawak, which is part of Malaysia. Whereas the earlier relational conceptualization of “being a group” and identity has a long history, the latter is much more recent, and Mashman’s paper discusses these two contrasting but coexisting notions of ethnicity in the light of past and present political concerns and conditions. In the border zone in which the Kelabit live, the state is gradually gaining more of a presence. This results in a growing emphasis on reified ethnicity, gradually reducing the importance of lun tauh and the encompassing networks that go beyond rigid ethnic and state boundaries. As the modern state becomes more important for the Kelabit, people adopt an approach to ethnicity and territory which is meaningful within a context where national borders have become more and more significant.


Stories have enormous communicative power, particularly when they are told orally. They communicate messages effectively because they draw listeners in through empathy. They elicit emotions: sympathy, fear, expectation, anger, love. Stories such as those analyzed here, which relate to the history and place (of origin and of current belonging) of those listening, have particular power because there is no significant imaginative gap to cross—listeners are immediately able to enter into the stories told.

It is not therefore at all surprising that people who live in borderlands such as those in the margins of Southeast and South Asia’s postcolonial states, who also live between national cultures, tell stories, remember stories, and turn to stories to help them generate a sense of who they are, where they have come from, and where they belong. While it is arguable that all humans use stories to generate meaning and identity, those who find themselves marginalized are particularly likely to do so. While mainstream Thai or Myanmar peoples can turn to narratives provided by the states to which they now belong, minority, subaltern peoples living in borderland areas cannot do this. They need alternative narratives, and these they find in oral narratives and performances. This collection of papers presents and discusses some of the ways in which they do this.

We hope that this small collection of essays will stimulate and encourage more research on the relevance of storytelling and oral performance of narratives among peoples living at and across the borders of Southeast and South Asia’s postcolonial states—not only the geographical borderlands which are the focus of this collection but also the psychological and emotional borderlands in which many subaltern peoples live. While in some cases this may mean people who live also in geographical borderlands—as do the Matua on which Lorea focuses in her paper in this collection—it does not exclude those who live in the heartland of the nation-state. Such people are often left out of national imaginations, and it is very likely that many of them have narratives in which they attempt to create a sense of origin, belonging, and place for themselves. Researching and analyzing such narratives can provide important new insights into the consolidation and transformation of communities that otherwise remain at the margins of nation-states.

Accepted: December 10, 2019


We would like to thank the organizers of the Fifth Conference of the Asian Borderlands Research Network, held in Kathmandu on December 12–14, 2016, at which we were able to organize the panel that led to this collection. We would also like to gratefully acknowledge the financial support provided by Leiden University through their research programme Asian Modernities and Traditions. We thank Valerie Mashman, Klemens Karlsson, and Frances O’Morchoe for contributing to the panel and Carola Lorea for agreeing at a later stage to add her contribution to this collection.


Baud, M.; and van Schendel W. 1997. Towards a Comparative History of Borderlands. Journal of World History 8(2): 211–242.

Bruner, J. 1991. The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry 18(1): 1–21.

Dean, K. 2012. Spaces, Territorialities and Ethnography on the Thai-, Sino- and Indo-Myanmar Boundaries. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies, edited by D. Wastl-Walter, pp. 219–241. Farnham: Ashgate.

Fernandes, S. 2017. Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grace, P. E.; and Kaufman, E. K. 2013. Effecting Change through Storytelling. Journal of Sustainability Education 4: 1–16.

Haven, K. 2007. Storyproof: The Science behind the Startling Power of Story. Westport: Libraries Unlimited.

Horstmann, A.; and Wadley, R. L., eds. 2006. Centering the Margin: Agency and Narrative in Southeast Asian Borderlands. New York: Berghahn Books.

Mølbjerg Jørgensen, K.; and Largacha-Martinez, C., eds. 2014. Critical Narrative Inquiry: Storytelling, Sustainability and Power. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Musliu, V.; and Orbie, J. 2016. MetaKosovo: Local and International Narratives. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 18(1): 179–195.

Propp, V. 1958 (1928). Morphology of the Folktale. Bloomington: Indiana University (originally published in Russian in Leningrad).

Scott, J. C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Selbin, E. 2010. Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story. London: Zed Books.

Shekedi, A. 2005. Multiple Case Narrative: A Qualitative Approach to Studying Multiple Populations. Jerusalem: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

van Schendel, W.; and de Maaker, E. 2014. Asian Borderlands: Introducing Their Permeability, Strategic Uses and Meanings. Journal of Borderlands Studies 29(1): 3–9.

Wastl-Walter, D., ed. 2012. The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies. Farnham: Ashgate.

Wilson, T.; and Donnan, H., eds. 2012. A Companion to Border Studies. Hoboken: Wiley.

Wimmer, A.; and Glick Schiller, N. 2002. Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences. Global Networks 2(4): 301–334.

1) There are several research centers focusing on borderlands, including the Centre for International Borders Research at Queens University Belfast and IBRU: Centre for Borders Research at the University of Durham, both in the UK, and the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research at Radboud University in the Netherlands. There is an Association for Borderlands Studies as well as a network focusing specifically on Asian borderlands, the Asian Borderlands Research Network, which holds a biennial conference. There is a journal focusing on borderlands, the Journal of Borderlands Studies.

2) There are now a number of centers focusing on research into storytelling and narrative. These include the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative at St. Thomas University in Canada; Narrare: Centre for Interdisciplinary Narrative Studies at the University of Tampere, Finland; the Interdisciplinary Center for Narratology at the University of Hamburg in Germany; the Center for the Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in the United States; the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling at the University of South Wales; the Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative Studies at the University of York; and the Centre for Research in Memory, Narrative and Histories at the University of Brighton. There are a number of journals focusing on storytelling and narrative, including StoryTelling; Storytelling, Self, Society; Narrative; Frontiers of Narrative Studies; and Storyworlds.


Vol. 9, No. 1, ODAJIMA Rie


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 1

Theatrical Governmentality and Memories in Champasak, Southern Laos

Odajima Rie*

* 小田島理絵, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University, Toyama 1-24-1, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-8644, Japan
e-mail: lectoda[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.1_99

In this article, I discuss cultural governmentality, its growth—as highlighted by multiple views in the past—and accretionary beliefs and religiosity that have emerged from the domestication of traditions in Southern Laos. In Champasak, visible ancient remains have long been indicators of the existence of guardian spirits, as well as religious beliefs, legends, and practices. The rites of worshipping the spirits have been demonstrated through staged ceremonial and ritual grandeur. This form of political art has been used to convey spiritual messages to the citizenry; however, such theatrical governmentality has not escaped the influence of scientific modernity. Thus, two phases of heritagization have occurred: French colonialization and the present periods of imposed scientific knowledge and politics that have created heritage sites and objects in the region. When modern knowledge dislocates spiritual worship and ambiguous memories of the past, the natives remember and craft legends and beliefs, or “unofficial” memories, in their pursuit of identity. By closely scrutinizing and recontextualizing these two encounters, this article elucidates how religious beliefs, legends, and memories redevelop as complex religious and political expressions of native selves.

Keywords: Laos (Lao PDR), Champasak, Wat Phu (Vat Phou), governmentality, religion, memory, archaeology, heritage

I Introduction

I-1 Wat Phu in the Past

Photos in the booklet by Henri Marchal (1959) show Champasak in the old days, with its emblematic site Wat Phu (Wat Phū; “Vat Phou” in French)1) (Fig. 1). Wat Phu is a well-known monument site in southern Laos. Presently, it is a tourist site; the large area surrounding it was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2001.2) However, Wat Phu has drawn a great deal of attention for a very long time. Since the beginning of French colonization in the late nineteenth century, Wat Phu has attracted not only local residents but also explorers, scholars, politicians, and tourists.



Fig. 1 Sketch Map of Champasak District (map created by author)


Three photos in the aforementioned booklet, which was originally published in French by Henri Marchal in 1957, were added when the text was translated into Lao by a dignitary and a member of the former Southern Lao royal court. They depict scenes of the Wat Phu Festival, one of the South’s most magnificent ceremonial festivities. Two of the three photos show that Savang Vatthana, Prince of Laos from the town of Luang Prabang, officially visited Wat Phu with his ministers in 1959, and that the ministers greeted Boun Oum (Bun Ūm), the late prince and last heir of the Southern Lao monarchy. The photos infuse the celebration taking place at Wat Phu with diplomatic tactics. Their insertion into the booklet reflects the translators’ intention to show that the Lao chiefs, particularly Boun Oum, were the governors of the Southern region. A semi-autobiography of Boun Oum (Archaimbault 1971) conveys the late prince’s feelings of grief, resignation, and powerlessness over the decline of the South in Northern-centered Laos. The translators, who were close to him, would have shared those feelings and added the three special photos as evidence of the closeness of the Southern monarchy to Champasak.

Modestly portrayed in both the French and Lao versions were the native Lao inhabitants who lived near Wat Phu and their feelings of friendship, respect, and awe toward the site. This closeness with Wat Phu still exists today, albeit in a less focused way.

I-2 Cultural Governmentality and Memories

In this article, my first aim is to elucidate the invention of certain political arts in Champasak, which employed fine arts on the political stage. I explore what Michel Foucault (1979) called “governmentality”—techniques, tactics, and discourses that embody forms of governing and polities under certain environmental and temporal conditions in the West—as a cultural product that emerged and was nurtured in Southern Laos, home to groups of ancient artifacts. I analyze the cultural uniqueness of Southern Lao governmentality based on documents written by French explorers, archaeologists, and ethnohistorians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly the ethnological documentation of Charles Archaimbault, who conducted extensive fieldwork in Champasak with a special focus on ceremonial and ritual features during the royal regime. I also use data collected and photos taken during my own on-site research in the early 2000s3) to examine how people lived with the archaeological sites and objects in Champasak, which had just become a World Heritage site. During this field research, I met elderly villagers who lived near archaeological objects or were involved in rituals conducted around the sites. I was not allowed to be alone in the village, however, due to the regulations of the current socialist government. When using these data, primarily in the later sections of the article, I take account of such particular present-day contexts.

These data sources illustrate what I call “theatrical governmentality.” The politico-societies of Tai groups have fitted themselves within different environments and realized culturally variable governmentality. Their religiosity takes a hybrid form, reflecting the ongoing lives and beliefs of living peoples, animating their own religious lives and sustaining the cultural governmentality of each group (Comaroff 1994; Hayashi 2003; Hayami 2004; Pattana 2005; Holt 2009; Endres and Lauser 2012; McDaniel 2014). This has given a unique shape to governmentality in Southern Laos.

These features are mirrored in the paramount tenet of political art in Champasak, or theatrical governmentality. In Champasak, as in other places in Southeast Asia where people live with ancient buildings and artifacts constantly in view, hybrid religiosity is sustained. Unique to Champasak, however, is that both native political actors and commoners reference beliefs that demonstrate “accretion” (McDaniel 2014) or “participation” (Lévi-Bruhl 1984 [1926]); these are conveyed by the ancient but still living artifacts, the messages of spiritual entities delivered through mediums, and various ritual spectacles and festivities invented or reinvented in the cultural public sphere.

To elucidate cultural governmentality and the religious specificity on which it is based, the materials present an image of French governmentality based in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French modernity. The colonizers’ technological, scientific, mechanical, numerical, chronological, and typological knowledge, devices, and discourses on objects, time, and human and nonhuman entities were embodied in archaeological and political exploration and exploitation. Modern development of rationales relied on deduction, evolution, or diffusion rather than accretion or participation. The contrast between these tenets led their early contact to take the shape of an encounter. Thus, my second aim in this article is to closely scrutinize the development of otherness when the two sides—colonizing and colonized, one using modern science and the other using locally developed knowledge—encountered one another. This extends to an investigation of what Mary Pratt (1992) calls the “contact zone”: the temporal and spatial phase in which the others meet without the preexisting equilibrium of power. This can also be called a phase of “heritagization” (Smith and Akagawa 2009; De Cesari 2017) or a politicized phase of heritage, as, for example in Champasak, ancient objects become materials by which different groups contest their own views of the truth.

However, my analysis is not limited to the phase that developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; it also encompasses the present phase, which developed through the union of the sciences with local theatrical arts in response to the rise of the scientific World Heritage program. In both phases, scientific and ritual governmentality clashed over their perspectives of the past, objects, and religions. Ultimately, ritual governmentality and the aspect of the place as a home for villagers and their spirits were hidden behind scientific governmentality.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, public crises and fears emerging from social struggles and dilemmas were often subsumed into religious phenomena, including millennialism. Such phenomena were either locally invented tactics to manage crises and insecurity or expressions (intentional or unintentional) of protest against the colonial or capitalistic other, and they were used against the modernity subsumed by that other (Worsley 1981 [1957]4); Ong 1987; Tanabe and Keyes 2002; Hayami 2004; Pattana 2005; Endres and Lauser 2012). Likewise, in Champasak, natives’ worship of spiritual entities expressed their feelings of insecurity regarding oncoming crises. Whereas orthodox religious teachings are reference points to embody governmentality and religious practices (Kanya 2017), the religious phenomena they re-realize do not equate to the old traditions; their beliefs and practices can be understood only as modern phenomena (Comaroff 1994; Hayami et al. 2003; Hayashi 2003; Hayami 2004; Holt 2009; Endres and Lauser 2012). This is particularly evident in the second phase of heritagization. In post-1975 Laos, where theatrical governmentality is unofficial despite its potency, a sharp demarcation is drawn between the past and the present, or between tradition and modernity, respectively (Rehbein 2007). As the industrious and realistic orientation and scientific education affect religious institutions and monks, the legitimacy of canonical Buddhism is apt to be overemphasized, and hybrid popular beliefs and practices may be denied (Ladwig 2012). In this strict atmosphere, understanding of heritage or religious monuments is standardized, and their spiritual potentiality is underestimated. Because of this trend, local beliefs in spiritual heroes in Champasak, which are closely tied to the existence of ancient monuments, have begun to reawaken and participate in living society as the local residents’ pursuit of identity.

Such local beliefs tend to be treated as historical anecdotes or memories shared within native circles only. However, if a memory is a continually reproduced representation of a living social group, as Maurice Halbwachs (1992) suggests, then so-called history can be regarded as a representation of scientific engagement. The “facts” are, therefore, multilayered, and we should take a multifaceted view when examining them.

When considering a multiplicity of facts, we must note how vulnerably, emotionally, and discursively the past and “truth” are produced in highly politicized and traumatic situations in the present. Halbwachs’s discussion of memory does not mention this (Rappaport 1998; Cole 2008; Shaw 2008). Multiple facts have been produced in phases of dispute in Champasak as an expression of various people’s struggles to define the past. Thus, by relocating the scientific position (and myself) as reflexively as possible, and by resituating histories/memories already unearthed in the excavation of the past, I aim to examine how different views have been produced and performed.

II Situating Champasak: Marginalization under French Rule

To begin the study, I first examine how Southern Lao experienced otherness and marginalization by the other. The marginalized position of the South was reinforced in two historical phases: first, the formation of French Laos by the unification of Lao principalities, the muang (mū’ang, ເມືອງ)5) of the three kingdoms (ānāchak, ອານາຈັກ) of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak at the end of the nineteenth century; and second, the installment of the king of Luang Prabang as the monarch of the Kingdom of Laos (ānāchak lāo, ອານາຈັກລາວ) after decolonization. This occurred alongside the Siamese colonization of the three Lao kingdoms in the eighteenth century. However, these phases, especially French colonization, were dramatic for the Southern Lao population as they introduced a coercive encounter with the powers of modernity, technology, and science that remained until the end of the royal court. French colonization began to affect Southern Lao even before the territorial treaty was forged in October 18936) by way of explorers dispatched to investigate the geography and resources of the South, including ancient monuments. The treaty, signed by the Siamese and French administrations, effected a change in the Southern kingdom: Muang Basak7) (Fig. 1), the capital principality of the Champasak Kingdom located on the western bank of the Mekong, was excluded from eastern bank-centered French Laos. Although the western bank was included in French Laos in the second treaty, concluded in 1904, the French administration then established its headquarters on the eastern bank. The new central city of the South, Pakse (Fig. 1), was occupied by Vietnamese and Chinese settlers. Unlike the new settlers, who engaged in commercial, administrative, and other promoted activities, the residents of Basak were wet-rice cultivators, marginalized both economically and geographically. Under such circumstances, how could, and how did, the Lao population view, interpret, and remember the present and past?

II-1 Constructing a Memory: How the Prince Remembered the Past

It is evident in Archaimbault’s account The New Year Ceremony at Basăk (1971) that for Champasak, the past was a production of remembering and forgetting the specific historical and political moments in which it was situated. Archaimbault wrote his account through a lengthy communication with Boun Oum in the 1950s and 1960s.8) He included statements written by Boun Oum himself, who experienced the loss of his position as a prince within the Kingdom of Laos by ceding the throne to the Luang Prabang court in 1946.

The account vividly notes how Boun Oum remembered the past in this situation. Archaimbault, serving as a storyteller, begins with the prince’s discussion of his grandfather Kham Souk. Kham Souk established the royal court of Basak (Fig. 1) and encountered French expeditions in the late nineteenth century. Boun Oum told Archaimbault that his grandfather’s encounter with French explorers was the start of a nightmarish experience: Auguste Pavie, the main player in the French colonization of Laos, treated Kham Souk as nothing more than “a phantom king” (Archaimbault 1971, 18), being skeptical of his close ties to the Siamese. The account notes that Kham Souk died in anger and distress, degraded to chief of one district. The nightmare was then passed on to his son, Rāsadānai—Boun Oum’s father—who had to swear “allegiance to the French” (Archaimbault 1971, 18). After 1941, Basak once again became a point of territorial battle between France and Siam (Thailand). It became part of Siam and remained so until it was returned to Laos in 1946. The account records Champasak’s past through the filter of Boun Oum, who sketched out the deterioration of both the fame and pride of the Southern Lao monarchy. This distress did not belong specifically to Kham Souk or Rāsadānai, but to Boun Oum himself. Boun Oum felt toward Archaimbault what his father and grandfather had felt toward French colonization. Sensing this, Archaimbault states that Boun Oum’s narratives appeared like bǭk bān chai (ບອກ ບານ ໃຈ)—the rite of expulsion of sins, literally meaning “to tell (bǭk) is to open or to bloom (bān) a heart (chai),” in which sins are confessed as self-punishment. Archaimbault decided that the former prince lamented the decline of his grandfather, father, and country due to his incapacity. Boun Oum, however, stated that the Southern country’s decline was its fate: in Buddhist thought, karma was attached to the South, and caused by an “original sin” by an ancestor of the royal court in the remote past (Archaimbault 1971, 45–49). This ancestor was a sinful queen named Nāng Pao. Another of Archaimbault’s accounts, “L’histoire de Čămpasăk” (1961), regarded Nāng Pao as the key cause of the country’s misfortune. In “L’histoire,” however, the queen was a mythical figure with few concrete details: she was the only daughter and heir of a multiethnic kingdom consisting of Khmer, Indians, Cham, Lao, and Suei, called Năk’ônkalăčămpanak’ăbŭrisi. The kingdom was believed to have been situated around the villages of Katup, Muang Kang, Sang O, and Phanon before 1638 and to have had a good relationship with the Khmer monarchy (Archaimbault 1961, 523). The queen, whose ethnicity was unknown, passed her reign to the two Lao founders of the monarchy, the Buddhist monk Prakru Ponmesak and the prince Soi Sisamut, who came from Vientiane and established the order of the Southern region following Buddhism (Archaimbault 1961, 534–557).

Both Boun Oum and Archaimbault state in The New Year Ceremony at Basăk (1971, 14) and “L’histoire” (1961, 531) that the Southern kingdom fell into chaos during the reign of Nāng Pao because of the birth of her illegitimate daughter, Nāng Peng. Nāng Pao’s illegitimate pregnancy was considered to be the cause of all the bad luck that befell future generations. Boun Oum’s account raises a crucial theme in the governance of the Southern monarchy: gender and sexuality. He notes the importance of this theme in his own afterword in The New Year Ceremony at Basăk, in which he recalls how carefully his ancestors addressed gender and sexuality (Archaimbault 1971, 48).

Boun Oum’s narratives cannot prove the existence of Nāng Pao and other ancestral heroes. Historians can closely scrutinize his statements, but firsthand materials are rare, and if written materials or objects could be found, it would be difficult to determine their accuracy. It would be impossible to pursue such a positivist approach in its entirety because, although Archaimbault stated his written history was based on several sources—those authorized by Kham Souk, his dignitaries, a Lao monk, and Siamese dignitaries working for their royal court9)—the agency of the writers in shaping the facts remains uncertain. In the case of Boun Oum’s narratives, which are full of grief and sorrow, what is more certain is his view and way of interpreting the past and reconstructing a memory. We must consider what agency shaped Boun Oum’s own memory. As a man who experienced modernity and its marginalization of his country, Boun Oum was a postcolonial subject in a hybrid position between the colonizing and colonized cultures (Said 1993), and he could only feel powerless.10)

II-2 Muang and the People

During the period of the Southern country’s marginalization, the rite of purifying sins was important. Feelings of grief were not exclusively felt by the prince but shared by the people who participated in the rite. Furthermore, the prince’s reconstruction of the past was not solely an individual memory. Thus, ritualistic acts of purification served as important ceremonies. With respect to the New Year ceremony, Archaimbault notes that the sharing of symbolic acts established the harmonious relations of people with Muang Basak (Archaimbault 1971, 3–5).

Symbolic acts united the people, the royal house, and the authorities as an organic and lively community. Citizens who participated in the ceremony played the roles of both performer and observer. They were performers when they cleansed their bodies and purified the outer environment by accompanying the sacred procession with the prince as it circled the ritually central monasteries, and also when they sprinkled water on the prince and images of Buddha—the most powerful bodies symbolizing their principality and representing how and by whom the polity was managed and protected (Archaimbault 1971, 3–5). Subsequently, they completed the ceremony as observers. They observed that the rite was conducted promptly and smoothly, promising them safety and prosperity in the coming year (Archaimbault 1971, 3–5). This was the only way to officially end the ceremony, and the prince’s exhibition of the entire procedure to residents was thus a crucial task.

The significance of the people’s presence cannot be underestimated. The ceremony provided both the prince and the people with the opportunity to reconfirm their social and cosmological norms, as well as the political organization and protection, through enjoyment. Thus, the ceremonial settings of Southern Lao muang could be analogous to Clifford Geertz’s definition of the classical Balinese polity, the negara, as a “metaphysical theater state” (Geertz 1980), which was “designed to express a view of the ultimate nature of reality and, at the same time, to shape the existing conditions of life to be consonant with that reality” (Geertz 1980, 104). Southern Lao muang conducted the New Year ceremony at the turning point of the calendar, bringing governors and commoners together onto the stage of a grand “drama” in which they reconfirmed the ontological significance of their cosmos. As in the negara, in which governance operated via symbolic actions, in muang, politics was not a simple conduit of power but rather an art to help realize its grand function, inciting commoners to cooperate with the governing body and its associates.

III Theatrical Governmentality: How to Govern Muang

Although the features of Lao muang are analogous to the Balinese negara, muang were not exactly the same as negara. Each developed its own distinctiveness through unique cultural processes and the capacity to adapt to natural and social environments. We must thus more closely scrutinize each muang’s development of “theatricality,” or uniqueness in the art of conducting ceremonies for the political sake of each polity.

III-1 The Uniqueness of Lao Theater: The Cultural Public Sphere

The uniqueness of the Southern Lao art of governing muang can be seen most prominently in the popular way they relate themselves to the ceremonies and politics. We must first keep in mind that ceremonies are called bun (ບຸນ), a term with a double meaning: virtue or merit making, and participatory ceremonial occasions. Both meanings imply that individuals accumulate virtue or merit to achieve nirvana or eternal happiness (Nginn 1967), following the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Thus, achievement of a state of happiness depends primarily upon individual practices, but individuals also engage in merit making and ceremonial occasions to gift their virtues to those around them. Thus, their virtues and happiness are to be shared by the collective. Lao ceremonial occasions, or theatricality, imply both individual and common good.

To scrutinize Archaimbault’s portrayal of the New Year ceremony, Bun Pī Mai (ບຸນປີໃໝ່), in terms of this theatricality, we can consider the ceremony to be an occasion for both individual and collective pursuit of happiness. The occasion was meaningless if not conducted in a space that was both open and accessible to individuals living together in the muang. Some rites were conducted within the palace, but the ultimate aim of such rites was to lead the muang and its people to happiness. Thus, the New Year ceremony and other ceremonial occasions were culturally designed to occur in the public sphere. The people were enthusiastic to join in this sphere because, being mostly agrarian farmers, they earnestly wished to secure a good rice harvest. This is illustrated by Archaimbault: “The prince goes downstairs and takes his seat under the veranda, where everyone . . . now sprinkles him in order to assure an abundant rainfall” (Archaimbault 1971, 13). This aspect—people participating in ceremonial occasions in hopes of gaining life security and religious happiness—may also be a distinctive feature of Southern Lao’s theatricality, running in contrast to the negara. Geertz portrayed the negara as composed of subjects who faithfully performed given hierarchical roles. Each actor was invariably obedient to the social and political scenario. Anthropologists skeptical of the image of individuals as anonymous members of culture or society may insist that Geertz, in accordance with his early theories, customarily interpreted people as socially embedded objects, and thus he depicted the negara as a hierarchical, well-organized theater. Such critiques alert us that facts are filtered through writers’ eyes.

All we can draw with certainty from Archaimbault’s portrait of the New Year ceremony is that diagnostically, the muang’s residents were highly sensitive to socially expected roles and codes, which were conveyed through ceremonies. However, they were not merely recipients of these codes but creative performers who interwove their own will into the drama. Archaimbault’s portrayal suggests that if the theatrical public space did not allow individuals to live on their initiative, the theater would have been empty. In this respect, the Southern Lao public sphere was unlike the Balinese theatrical sphere.

In Southern Lao muang, ceremonies were important arts that connected the people to their lords. Indigenous politics were successful if they could stimulate people’s enthusiasm for living. An interview with villagers who participated in ceremonies during the old regime revealed that the festivities conveyed religious excitement and feelings of pleasure for their lives. The most impressive ceremonial event was bun sūang hū’a (ບຸນຊ່ວງເຮືອ), the boat racing ceremony. It was exciting because it had multiple meanings: human, ethnic, economic, and political. Such scenes can be observed again in Archaimbault’s research (1972). Racers came from all the lower regions of both banks of the Mekong, the farthest coming from the border area of present-day Cambodia, to the main stage in Muang Basak. In the area of the palace was a miniature Mount Meru (according to local belief, a physical representation of the peak of the world), located in the center of the Southern kingdom. The spatial range of the capital city Basak was marked and protected by two important shrines: the Golden Shrine ( kham, ຫໍຄຳ) in Phaphin Village, which enshrined the great guardian spirit of the capital of the kingdom (phī mū’ang, ຜີເມືອງ), Chao Thǣn Kham (ເຈົ້າແຖນຄຳ); and Wat Thāt (ວັດທາດ), the monastery that enshrined the royal Lao founder and guardian of the capital, Soi Sisamut (Fig. 1).

The people who performed the boat racing ceremony expressed appreciation and homage toward the divine dragon, Nāga, which controlled rainfall and was thus the farmers’ subsequent lifeline. At the same time, the ceremony provided a multitude of entertainment, offering people the opportunity to dance and sing with others from different villages and districts. Finally, the ceremony afforded the opportunity to purchase rare products brought by traders from all over the lower Mekong region (Archaimbault 1972, 62).11)

By hosting the ceremonies and integrating the rituals with trading and entertainment, the former Lao monarchy could control the public. By gathering racers and dignitaries from villages and small muang in the lower Mekong region, they also could recognize those in their mandala (Stuart-Fox 1997, 7) or galactic world (Tambiah 1976, 109). The ceremonies demarcated the border of the universe, not by drawing a borderline of the kingdom but by inspiring the imagination and performance of the ceremony’s participants.

III-2 What Is Shown in Lao Theater? Controlling Sexuality and Regulating Society

If ceremonies were indigenous arts for governing muang, we should carefully examine what participants were shown. As noted previously, in Champasak Boun Oum considered it important to regulate female sexuality. The theme of the sinful queen was staged repeatedly in important ceremonies and rites, including the sacrifice of buffaloes.12) This sacrifice was carried out at the Golden Shrine, which was built in the precinct of Wat Phu (Fig. 1). Based on his participant observation in the 1950s, Archaimbault (1959) described the procedures of the rite, unlike early explorers, who concerned themselves only with the architectural and archaeological features of Wat Phu. His research suggests how Nāng Pao’s original sin was related to regulating female sexuality by highlighting the villagers’ belief that Nāng Pao had cursed them:

If any young girl follows my example and lets some young lad make love to her to the extent of becoming a mother, then let her offer up a buffalo to the guardian spirits. . . . If not, then may the rice in the rays perish when the ears are forming, may the rice in the rice-fields dry up and die! (Archaimbault 1959, 160)

According to Archaimbault, following this curse, villagers searched for unmarried mothers in the greater area around Wat Phu and asked those women to offer buffaloes to the guardian spirits worshipped during the rite. He suggests that the main reason Lao communities sacrificed buffaloes was their adherence to local Lao oral tradition, which said that the founder of Wat Phu, Kammathā (ກຳມະທາ), offered human sacrifices to the guardian spirits (Archaimbault 1959, 156). At some point in the past, the rite transformed into a sacrifice of buffaloes because “the blood of a buffalo is of equal value with the blood of a man” (Archaimbault 1959, 156). Archaimbault does not indicate why Nāng Pao was drawn into the scenario; however, he obviously believed that the Lao attached their legend of Nāng Pao to a pre-existing rite of sacrifice. He followed the hypothesis of his fellow scholar George Cœdès, who translated the late-fifth-century Sanskrit inscription K365 discovered in Champasak (the details of this inscription will be discussed later). Cœdès suggested that in the remote past, a rite of human sacrifice was practiced by a king with a name other than Kammathā. Archaimbault, accordingly, believed the original rite to have begun in the remote past with someone other than Kammathā (Archaimbault 1961, 519–523). In Archaimbault’s perspective, the Lao attached their legend of Kammathā to the scenario of the sacrifice. Likewise, Archaimbault thought that the Lao legend of Nāng Pao was incorporated into the previously existing rite of sacrifice.

Archaimbault’s proposition suggests that, by reinterpreting and incorporating pre-existing religious practices into their own traditions, Southern Lao people reproduced their theatrical governmentality. This domestication of various beliefs and practices for their own use, with special attention to female sexuality, is also suggested by the Southern Lao recreation of other myths. First is the genesis myth of the Southern world, which stated that their world began with an accident caused by a female divinity who had an illegitimate child with her servant (Archaimbault 1964, 61–63); second is the oral tradition of a Lao woman named Nāng Malong, telling of her illegitimate love with a young non-Lao prince and ending in her suicide (Archaimbault 1961, 525–526). The main themes of such myths were female sexuality and misfortune, including interethnic marriage, caused by women’s misconduct. As Archaimbault mentioned (1961, 525–531), however, those stories share a resemblance to myths of Northern Lao principalities. Although female sexuality was a common theme in the region, the myths were not simply disseminated to the South; the Southern Lao found it necessary to transform them into theatrical governmentality.

Why was female sexuality an important theme? There is no critical answer. However, considering that important messages were transmitted during ceremonial performances, and that voluntary participation in ceremonial/political occasions was respected, it is possible that female sexuality was a difficult problem for the “liberal” government to solve.

It is unclear why interethnic marriage was narrated and performed as misconduct in myths and ceremonial occasions. Most likely, it was to maintain a hierarchical relationship between Lao and minorities,13) as in the case of royal ceremonies held in Luang Prabang (Lukas 2012). In Champasak non-Lao minorities played a significant role in ceremonies, but the Lao imposed a hierarchical relationship between the minorities and themselves. This relationship is well illustrated in the procedure of the boat racing ceremony (Archaimbault 1972). Some minorities, who were considered “original inhabitants” and thus legitimate conductors of rituals to call upon ancestral spirits, came to this ceremony to initiate the sacrifice of the buffalo to the guardian spirits. Others struck gongs, danced, and sang to call up the tutelary spirits of the land. One such song included both Lao and non-Lao lyrics, preaching the miserable end of interethnic marriage. By including non-Lao people in ceremonies, the Lao monarchy could ostensibly exhibit the Lao people’s superiority. Thus, minorities took part in the Lao theatrical governmentality not as the principal actors, but in supporting roles.

IV The Making of History: Gazing upon Antiquity

In Lao theatrical governmentality, festive occasions, myths, and legends were vehicles to convey symbolic messages to the people, particularly those concerning moral codes connected to female sexuality. In this governmentality, myths and legends were not fantasy but socially authorized historiography, or “correct history.” This “history” was, however, vastly different from the “history” created by French explorers and scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. French history was produced by scientific specialism, objectivity, and the measurability and traceability of materials. In contrast, Lao traditional governments’ history was crafted by providing people with opportunities for performance and celebration as social welfare.

IV-1 The French Version of History and Its Methodology

French scholars created a chronological history and gave the names of non-Lao founders and monarchs to the old artifacts and buildings scattered around Champasak. They developed this history in the form of texts to understand the past, writing about the causes and effects of events, piecing together fragments of evidence. This practice was initiated by nineteenth-century explorers. In the early twentieth century, the “amateur” work of French scholars was integrated into the work of a scholarly organization known as the French Archaeological Mission, which ultimately became L’École Française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East).

Considering that the early explorers “discovered” and documented a dense distribution of ancient objects around Basak (Aymonier 1901; Lunet de Lajonquière 1907; Garnier 1996; Harmand 2010), the dwelling area of the Southern Lao monarchy became of interest to the organization. These ancient remains, particularly Wat Phu and other standing stone buildings, suited the French administration’s hopes of finding evidence of past and present affluence, as well as testing their knowledge. Particular political attention was paid to Wat Phu because it resembled Angkorian architecture, exhibited as a symbol of French Indochina in museums and expositions.

Epigraphists and conservators of the French School, such as Auguste Barth (1902), Louis Finot (1902), and Henri Parmentier (1914), published studies of the archaeological features and translations of the Sanskrit and Khmer inscriptions based on rubbings. Champasak was, however, too remote for extensive investigations on-site. The scholars’ offices were located in major cities within Indochina, and the greatest concern of the French School, following administrative policy, was the restoration of gigantic buildings. Given these restrictions, surveys in Champasak were limited, and the regional culture—particularly Lao culture in Southern Laos—was of far less interest until Archaimbault began his fieldwork in the 1950s.

Investigation and collection of ancient objects was allocated to French administrators or treasury researchers stationed in the French office. Those engaged in the Mission Conservatrice (Conservation Mission) were most interested in the statues with old Sanskrit and Khmer engravings.14) The inscriptions were prized as evidence the researchers could use for absolute dating. If the inscribed statues and other artifacts were small enough to carry, they were sent to museums established by the French administration in Indochina, or to museums in France.15)

The most active agents of the Conservation Mission, however, were members of the French Catholic Mission (hereafter “French mission”)16) who settled in Champasak in the late nineteenth century. With the aim to “[e]vangelize the people of Laos” (Tournier 1900, 130), the mission established a settlement and built a cathedral in the area around Phanon Village, located within several kilometers of both Wat Phu and Basak (Fig. 1).

When the mission arrived in Phanon, the area appears to have been sparsely populated. The early explorer Étienne Lunet de Lajonquière said, on his visit to Champasak in 1905, that locals preferred not to dwell in the Phanon area, which was scattered with bricks from collapsed structures, because they believed it was once a city created by the Cham and that the area was haunted by their spiritual entities (phī) (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 76). It is difficult to confirm the truth of the existence of the Cham spirits in the oral tradition. Considering that the area was the arrival point of the heroic Lao ancestors Prakru Ponmesak and Soi Sisamut, it is unclear whether the Lao would have abandoned it. Considering that the present villagers frequently moved settlements due to maladies caused by the spirits, it is unsurprising that the Lao refrained from living around a spiritual area. Despite this ambiguity, according to Lunet de Lajonquière’s information, the French mission chose to settle in the area because the Lao did not reside in it for fear of the spirits.

This decision led the French mission to form close connections with the ancient remains. Phanon Village was located in the area of Champasak most thickly scattered with archaeological remains, meaning that members of the mission could begin to conserve ancient artifacts immediately. One such object was a two-meter statue discovered along the bank of Hūai Sa Hūa (Sa Hua River), a branch of the Mekong. After the statue was discovered, the mission placed it in Phanon. It is uncertain why they did not transfer the statue to a French museum. Considering the difficulty of carrying a huge stone object all the way to a central city, it could be that preserving it on-site was merely a method of conservation, or that the mission may have been afraid of damaging the statue. In any case, the mission kept the statue for decades after its discovery (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 88–89; Cœdès 1953, 9; 1956, 210).

The stone statue was shaped like a lingam, a symbol of Shiva, and had Sanskrit inscriptions on its four surfaces. It became the focus of French investigation. Around the early 1930s, a French administrator took a rubbing of the inscriptions at Vat Luang Kao village, which neighbored Phanon. The rubbing was of poor quality, however (Cœdès 1953, 9), and the geographic remoteness prevented epigraphists from reading the inscriptions. It was not until the early 1950s that Cœdès (1953; 1956) studied and fully translated the statue’s inscriptions.17)

The inscription was numbered K365 in the French inventory. Some began to call it the inscription of Devānīka (Mahārājādhirāja Çrīmāñ Chrī Devānīka), after the king named in the inscription. K365 became renowned as significant evidence of “pre-Angkorian” history; Cœdès incorporated Angkorian inscriptions, Khmer oral tradition, Chinese texts, and K365 in his examination and created a grand history of the region. To French scholars who were concerned about how and why the Khmer formed the Angkorian Empire, and who were interested in the history of the lower Mekong region, his hypothesis was very insightful.18)

Cœdès portrayed Champasak, where the Lao were already the dominant residents at the time of his study, as the historical stage, related to Cham, Chenla, and Khmer. Studies of K365 and other inscriptions from Champasak also showed that Wat Phu was called Vrah Thkval (Aymonier 1901, 163–164; Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 75) and the venerated god was Bhadresvara (Cœdès 1956, 213; 1968, 66). None of these names, however, appear in Archaimbault’s studies of Southern Lao traditions. Paradoxically, Cœdès left some keywords appearing in K365 unexamined, including the rite of sacrifice, Kuruksetra (the name of the place, according to Cœdès [1956]), and tīrtha (a domain of sacredness, according to Diana Eck [1981; 2012]), although those are important for understanding the ancient governmentality of Champasak.

K365 stated that Devānīka, a great conqueror, came to and invented “tīrtha,” named “Kuruksetra,” and conducted the “rite of sacrifice” toward “fire.” Given that Devānīka led the sacrifice as a rite of purification, he acquired merit, conferred it on Kuruksetra (as created by Devānīka), and prayed that both the dead and the living would share it (Cœdès 1956, 217–219). Cœdès (1968, 75) concluded that Devānīka sacrificed humans to powerful spirits, following the texts of the Sui Dynasty as they relate to Chenla.19) To be precise, no critical statements in K365 state that the sacrifice was of humans; however, this hypothesis was accepted as an absolute truth. As noted in the previous section, by accepting Cœdès’s interpretation as an absolute fact, Archaimbault regarded human sacrifice as the origin of the buffalo sacrifice, despite the lack of any supporting evidence aside from the Chinese document.

Cœdès’s interpretation had an influence on many scholarly discussions; however, it had its limitations. For instance, epigraphic studies (Cœdès 1956, 212; Jacques 1962, 250) did include the important keywords “Kuruksetra” and “tīrtha,” but they were scrutinized only modestly. These studies noted that K365 reflected the lyrics and cosmology of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and thus suggested that ancient Champasak was a theatrical country, like the existing Indian city of Kurukshetra.20) Thus, they treated the cosmological lyrics and the name of Kurukshetra inscribed in K365 as evidence of “Indianization.” However, because they failed to closely scrutinize the meaning of tīrtha, they interpreted Indianization superficially. According to Eck (1981; 2012), a tīrtha classically indicated a sacred spot or place, such as a crossing, river, temple, or mountain. A tīrtha was not sacred in its own right; the sacredness of tīrtha, like Kurukshetra, was dependent on sacred acts, including purification, performed by visiting pilgrims. The sacredness of tīrtha and Kurukshetra were never guaranteed without the practices of living people.

Epigraphists were not indifferent to the two keywords of “Kurukshetra” and “tīrtha.” Nevertheless, because they could not witness the fragile and ambiguous actions of pilgrims, which were rarely reflected in written testimonies, they concluded only that the ancient governmentality described in the inscriptions was evidence of the static phenomenon of Indianization. Indianization could be a complicated and ambiguous process, however, just as a tīrtha could be a dynamic realm.

French investigations sought to acquire evidence using new technology, but there were limits to its interpretation. With the advent of aerial photography in the mid-twentieth century, Archaimbault and the French Service of Information provided Cœdès with a bird’s-eye view of the area. The epigraphist then found double-folded walls situated over a large area around Phanon Village (Fig. 1), including a number of archaeological remains (Cœdès 1956, 220). He concluded that they were the walls of Kuruksetra (Cœdès 1956, 220). After the appearance of the aerial photo, however, the ancient city began to be called Sresthapura, a legendary Khmer city, instead of Kuruksetra, although no archaeological materials supporting the existence of Sresthapura in Champasak were discovered. This was in large part due to scientific concerns tied up with Angkor-centered history. In accordance with Khmer legends that the earliest Angkorian Empire was born with the early Khmer King Sresthavarman, around an area geographically similar to Champasak, the walled city became known as the Sresthavarman’s city of Sresthapura (Archaimbault 1961, 519).21)

IV-2 The Local Lao Version of History and Its Methodology

Lao history contrasts with the French history of Champasak with respect to appreciation of ancient objects. Considering the documents written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Lao inhabitants can be assumed to have viewed all the great remains as sacred devices that contained the special powers of the spirits, which controlled the fate of the principality and the people. Caring for such objects was the duty of the Lao royal court, the holder of the ancient objects. Ancient artifacts were not displayed in museums but exhibited as active objects on the stages of ceremonies, or as symbols of welfare and protection for the living people. The site of Wat Phu was considered the oldest Mount Meru, the center of the universe, or the oldest palace (phāsāt, ຜາສາດ), which was guarded by spiritual powers. According to Lao inhabitants Archaimbault (1959; 1961) met in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the spirits with the greatest power was not Cham, Chenla, or Khmer, but rather King Kammathā, known in their oral tradition as the founder of Wat Phu. The villagers honored the spirit of King Kammathā by sacrificing buffaloes. However, as noted previously, in the oral tradition of Lao villagers, Kammathā conducted human sacrifices at Wat Phu in the remote past. The Lao villagers thus took over the rite from Kammathā. By holding the rite, regardless of their use of buffaloes, the Lao people declared to the spirit that they governed their country.

Kammathā rarely appears in the mainstream French version of Champasak’s history because no inscriptions or other written materials support his existence. Unlike other explorers, Etienne Aymonier (1901, 164–165), who traveled to Champasak in the late nineteenth century, noted that in the local Lao oral tradition, Kammathā was the founder of Wat Phu. However, Aymonier wrote that Kammathā was a legendary figure, stating that the oral traditions differed from written materials that could be used as evidence in scientific studies.22)

Archaimbault (1961), too, treated Kammathā as a legendary king. The sole instance in which Kammathā is mentioned is the chronicle written by Kham Souk and his dignitaries at the request of the Siamese in the late nineteenth century (Archaimbault 1961, 579). This chronicle was not intended to be printed and disseminated to the public. Rather, its contents were meant to be transmitted to the public in the cultural and ceremonial public sphere as real history, or in a way that attracted little scientific attention.

Despite positivists’ skepticism over King Kammathā’s existence, Lao communities shared the story about him in the form of ritual performance and narrative. In culturally authorized time and space, local residents believed it was not Devānīka, the Cham, the Chenla, or the Khmer kings, but Kammathā himself who was the heroic founder and initiator of the area’s history. In the oral tradition, Kammathā had a daughter named Nāng Sīdā, the main figure in the oral tradition titled “Mr. Katthanam.” This oral tradition concerns a heroic and mysterious prince who was married to Nāng Sīdā (Aymonier 1901, 164–165). In the story, Nāng Sīdā is represented as a model woman embodying intelligence and beauty (Archaimbault 1961, 521–523).23) Although she was also treated as a mythical figure by explorers and scholars, she too was a real princess to native Lao communities. As the stories of Queen Nāng Pao and other sinful women carried codes of sexuality and marriage in the monarchical regime, the stories of Kammathā and Nāng Sīdā also served to convey to the people their true history.

Lord Kammathā, Princess Sīdā, and all other “legendary” ancestors were considered not dead but “living” when their legends were remembered and narrated by Lao communities. As will be discussed later, these ancestors remain living in the present as they are worshipped in ordinary or ceremonial times and spaces. They are not only commemorated but also incarnated through the bodies or voices of ritual masters or mediums. Thus, Lao society illustrates what Lucien Lévi-Bruhl called “participation”: the “opposition between the one and the many, the same and another does not impose this mentality, the necessity of affirming one of the terms if the other be denied, or vice versa” (Lévi-Bruhl 1984 [1926], 77). In Lao society, old artifacts and legendary people were in a sense both dead and living, coexisting with the living villagers in their society.

During my fieldwork in the early 2000s, this feature was evident in my communication with and observation of the living inhabitants and the master of rituals. Those who lived in the village situated closest to Wat Phu and the other ancient places said that the spirits of the “legends” remained in the region. In Lao governmentality, the existence of the ancestors and spirits was anchored to performativity, subjectivity, and the remembering and forgetting of members of society, as was the past. History was interwoven in the course of inclusion, exclusion, and domestication of traditions. This historicization, however, was marginalized when it encountered science. Due to the exclusion of the ritual authorization of history, a phase of dispute developed between the two versions of history.

V The Encounter of the Spirits with Modern Science

The moment at which scientific and modern governmentality encountered theatrical governmentality was documented in the travelogue of the French explorer Lunet de Lajonquière (1907). As mentioned previously, Lunet de Lajonquière noted that although the Lao inhabitants were frightened by the spirits and preferred not to live around the Phanon area, the Catholic Mission chose to use the area as a base (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 76).24)

This was the first meeting between science and the spirits, old artifacts, and Lao governmentality. If the Lao felt fearful toward spirits, as the travelogue noted, we may presume that, out of awe and respect, the locals could hardly touch the ancient remains and would have therefore “conserved” the objects in situ. If a person were to carelessly touch one, the spirits might impose adverse repercussions. During my fieldwork I often heard Lao inhabitants express such fear of the spirits. Some said that villagers used to move their settlements when maladies were imposed on them by the spirits. In many cases, the villagers said the same thing regarding spiritual spots scattered with ruins.

More stories from inhabitants supported the hypothesis that not only the various French missions but also natives and the royal house engaged in the conservation of ancient artifacts. One story concerned the inscription of K365. The French catalog noted that the Catholic Mission handled K365 either in their village, Phanon, or in the neighboring village of Vat Luang Kao. However, at some point during the twentieth century, the statue was transferred to the palace at Basak. The royal house kept the statue for decades until it was transported to the exhibition room of the museum, which was built in 2002 after the large area obtained World Heritage site designation.

The royal house placed K365 at the entrance, as if it were a symbol of the house. From the perspective of theatrical governmentality, this “exhibition” would represent the art of governing the Lao polity: showing a symbolic object signaled that the palace was the center of the principality. Although it was not possible to ask the house why K365 was “conserved” outside, many native narratives suggested that the house employed the traditional art of managing the polity by governing ancient objects. Those narratives said that in the old days, when people found artifacts near their living environments, they delivered them to the palace, which was considered the most appropriate place to manage extraordinary objects. The Lao palace therefore served as a “storehouse” or “museum,” as Grant Evans (1998, 122) noted.

Ironically, these stored artifacts did not have corresponding information about the dates and states of discovery, so when museological and curatorial knowledge arrived with the World Heritage designation, the traditional methods of conservation were criticized as “incorrect.” Under Laos’s socialist regime, which pursued modernization, theatrical governmentality was considered to be so old and contradictory that it obfuscated the facts.

V-1 The Second Phase: The Old Man Who Lived in the Ancient City

Around the 2001 inscription of Champasak on the list of World Heritage sites, historical investigation, interpretation, conservation, and restoration began to revisit Champasak. Based on my fieldwork, I discuss how and why facts multiplied, reexamining the participation of the dead in the living society, and the involvement of the physical in that belief.

A conversation with an elderly villager living within the walls of the ancient city of Kuruksetra/Sresthapura illustrates how the pursuit of truth may make our realities converge. I visited the resident’s village in 2002, when I was still unknown to the villagers. I was accompanied by two local officers, an older man and a woman interpreter, who were dispatched by the local authorities to oversee the research. My meeting with the elderly villager was an opportunity to learn how vulnerable the past was. To determine general information about the village, I asked several questions, including some about his personal life and the history of the village. In response to my questions about the history of the village, the old man began talking about the “Conservation Mission” of the native population. He said that the royal court and the villagers had come together to create the village, which was located in the heart of Kuruksetra/Sresthapura. According to the man, his village had been created when the palace ordered the citizens to establish a village in an area densely covered by fragments of ancient bricks, with the intention of having the residents manage the remains. The man, who stated his age at about 70 years, reported that this order was given about “100 years ago,” equivalent to “two or three generations before.” The interpreter asked him for a precise year, but he did not provide one. He spoke with her quickly and in unidentifiable words but did not offer me any more details. The old man and my associates seemed to talk amongst themselves and did not continue the investigation.

I discovered many years later that the old man’s information was somewhat confusing when referring to a description of the same situation by a French explorer. A French travelogue I read in 2010 (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 76) mentioned that Lao inhabitants refrained from establishing settlements around the ancient city because they were afraid of the curse of the spirits and the ancient remains. Nonetheless, a sketch map (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 78–79) showed the village that I visited, with exactly the same name and location. If the village truly existed in 1905, then who issued the order to create it, and when? The monarchical history reveals that Kham Souk died in 1900, and Rāsadānai took over in 1903.25)

By 2010 I had had a few opportunities to meet with another old man from the village who took care of the spirits. He said that the spirits dwelled around the ancient remains. He also spoke about foreign researchers he had met at the ancient remains in the 1990s. He thought that the researchers had come to his village to dig for gold, because when he was sleeping the spirits conveyed to him that gold was present. Although he did not criticize the researchers, he had been unwilling to see them.

When I found the French map in 2010, I recalled both stories and considered that the visits by outsiders would have been shocking to the villagers. In particular, during the period of French colonization in which ancient materials were of great interest, it made sense that the Lao royal court—Kham Souk, Rāsadānai, or others—would have created a mission to protect the objects and spirits from colonization, regardless of citizens’ fears of spiritual curses. To lose the ancient remains would have meant losing a way to communicate with their spiritual guardians; the Lao royal court’s resistance would have been reasonable.

The stories raised questions that my positivistic investigation could not definitively answer. As a researcher from a foreign country, I found it difficult to obtain supporting data that provided details with a signature from the author(s). I was unsure how to acquire data that supported the narratives. Even if I had another opportunity to meet these old men, it would be difficult to move from the fragile past to a fieldwork context, when stories of the old regime would still trigger political confusion. Eventually, I realized that there might be unspoken stories. The silenced, untouched element in the old men’s speech was obviously the archaeological history of Champasak. The officers who accompanied me engaged in the present art of governing foreign affairs and instructed me to be on their side. They appeared to imply that they controlled the research. Thus, the two old men appeared to claim ownership of the ancient sites, over both the officers and me.

If I had been more in tune with the context in which the old men were situated, I could have asked more insightful questions and had better conversations with them. The same thought occurred to me in 2015, when I had the opportunity to meet with Lao authorities. They had visited the old men’s village in the 1990s to acquire new archaeological materials to add Champasak to the World Heritage list. When I spoke with these authorities, they implied that they felt the villagers were unwelcoming. They said that not many villagers had seen an archaeological excavation, and most did not know what was going on. I recalled the old men’s stories upon hearing this, and realized that their mission to protect the ancient remains might have been reactivated when the authorities visited the village. When I visited, the villagers would also have watched me carefully. When outsiders began to visit Champasak to see the ancient objects, the old men and other villagers may have resumed their mission to protect both the antiquities and the village.

It is difficult to find the absolute truth about these situations. Different people are concerned about Champasak’s past and present. Not all would necessarily respond to a positivist inquiry of the past. Thus, all I could ascertain was that the facts were delicately constructed.

V-2 The Second Phase: The Masters of Ritual Who Lived in the Precinct of Wat Phu

In 2008 I had the opportunity to talk with the masters of the ritual who lived at the neighboring site of Wat Phu. At that time, the sacrifice of buffaloes had been modified to a sacrifice of chickens in accordance with the “saving-first” policy of the socialist government. The ceremonial governmentality tended to be overlooked by society as a whole.

The village of the masters, located next to Wat Phu, was known as a home to people who had been in touch with the guardian spirits. Male mediums, such as Mǭ Thīam (ໝໍທຽມ), who could be possessed by spirits, and Mǭ Cham (ໝໍຈັ້ມ), who could talk with spirits, were the main conductors of the rituals; female mediums, Mǣ Lam (ແມ່ລຳ), who communicated with spirits by dancing and were concerned with curing diseases, lived with other villagers. These masters played the main role in communicating with the ancient founder of Wat Phu and other spirits authorized as guardian spirits of the principality in oral traditions and myths, along with other masters of the Golden Shrine in Muang Champasak (formerly Muang Basak) (Fig. 1).

Mǭ Thīam, who was over 70 years old, said that the spiritual entities had continued to monitor Champasak, with each establishing its own base. Thǣn Kham (ແຖນຄຳ), Nǭi (ນ້ອຍ), and Thamphalangsī (ທຳພະລັງສີ) were at the Golden Shrine next to Wat Phu, where the masters conducted the sacrifice. Each mountain lying beside Wat Phu was a base for the great spirits of Surinyaphāvong (ສຸຣິຍະພາວົງ), Lāsaphangkhī (ລາຊະພັງຄີ), Phāsathū’an (ພາສະເທືອນ), Ongkhot (ອົງຄົດ), Champāvongkot (ຈຳປາວົງກົດ), Thǭnglǭ (ທອງຫລໍ່), and Mǭkasat ( ໝໍ່ <ໝໍ> ກະສັດ). The ancient buildings were occupied by the spirits of Nāng Ekhai,26) located in the stone-built monument, called Tomo, on the eastern bank, and Kammathā, located in Wat Phu (Fig. 1).27)

Mǭ Thīam did not mention the spirit of Nāng Sīdā dwelling at the ancient stone building complex named for her, which was located within a kilometer of Wat Phu (Fig. 1). Even so, just as her story was a favorite of present Lao communities, many inhabitants continued to commemorate her, although in a different place. As Aymonier noted, the location bearing her name was originally one of two galleries standing in the lower terrace of Wat Phu, not the smaller-scale stone building in the complex a kilometer distant (Aymonier 1901, 164–165). Her name was most likely removed from the gallery of Wat Phu because the scientific investigation at Wat Phu began in earnest during the French colonial period, during which the gallery became known by a different name. After Nāng Sīdā’s “expulsion” from Wat Phu, however, the monument complex nearby became known as the “building of Nāng Sīdā” (hōng Nāng Sīdā, ໂຮງນາງສີດາ) in native circles. People do not remember when the removal occurred, or if there even was one; however, both the site and the building named for the ancient princess remain, reflecting local remembrance of her.

The vulnerability of the past to the present situation continued to fill me with confusion. To combat this, I did not talk about my research before my conversation with Mǭ Thīam. After describing the guardian spirits, the master of the ritual described the procedure for sacrificing the buffaloes. He told me that the sacrifice was conducted in a way very similar to the procedure noted by Archaimbault. Historically, unmarried mothers had to sacrifice a big black buffalo to the great spirits at Wat Phu as compensation for their guilt. Mǭ Thīam said nothing about the curse of Nāng Pao and its relation to the buffalo sacrifice. When I asked, he said he had not heard the name of the ancient Queen Nāng Pao or about her curse.

The master of the ritual told me what he had seen and experienced during the sacrifice of buffaloes in the past. Then, there were a number of unmarried mothers around the region, so the masters conducted the sacrifice with buffaloes every year. During the sacrifice, the masters and participants listened very carefully to the words of the spirits, who gave both the masters and the people warnings and protection. Some spirits, who did not station themselves at any sites in Champasak, responded when the masters called upon them at the sacrifice. Those spirits came from far across the region and participated in the rite and a feast with the masters and the participants. The names of the spirits given by Mǭ Thīam were slightly different from those in Archaimbault’s (1959) study on the rite. It is possible to suppose, in accordance with the master’s explanation, that if the sacrifice were conducted appropriately, the spirits appeared to communicate and to protect the region. The fate of the country was fully subject to how the rites were conducted.

In the master’s discussions, remembering and forgetting fused. The past was ongoing and interwoven, and society accepted that spirits and humans lived together. In such a society, where the dead (or the past) participated with the living (or the present), history could be grasped by commemorating and appreciating the dead (past), and by worshipping spirits and narrating tales about them. Thus, although it was unknown whether the spirit of Nāng Sīdā dwelled in the stone building complex neighboring Wat Phu, it was possible to conclude that if the worship of the ancient princess continued, she continued to live in the present.

The participation of the ancient princess in present society was evidenced in the current era when Champasak became a World Heritage site. A museum was established, and many ancient artifacts, including K365, were moved there from the former palace. Many objects were added to the museum, including the statue of a woman that the local museum staff began to call Nāng Sīdā. Wishing to have a place to remember her, they placed the statue in the room next to the entrance (Fig. 2). The ancient princess, together with Kammathā, who was worshipped and commemorated at Wat Phu (Fig. 3), continued to live alongside local worshippers and pilgrims. Kammathā, whose statue took the shape of Vishnu and differed from that seen by French explorers a century ago (Aymonier 1901, 165),28) was remembered as the founder of the world. This remembrance animated his existence as living and true. In 2013, when the rite of buffalo sacrifice was reestablished by the living villagers after the authorities revoked its official suspension, Kammathā was again worshipped in the rite of sacrifice with even firmer belief in his status as a hero. Whether in this ceremonial and ritual time and space, or in the process of performance and commemoration, local true history continues to be produced and reproduced.



Fig. 2 The Statue of Nāng Sīdā and Offerings (photo by author, December 2018)




Fig. 3 People Give Offerings to the Statue, Recog­nizing It as Kammathā (photo by author, December 2015)


VI Conclusion

In this article, I discussed the cultural governmentality in Champasak, Southern Laos, where hybrid beliefs and facts have been produced since local beliefs first encountered modern scientific discourse. Throughout this examination, I argued that in the Southern Lao world the past and the present, the dead and the living, the material and the immaterial are participated in. In such a world, cultural governmentality is valued, and the past and its traditions are reproduced or accrue on its performing and artistic stages. In this sense, history is a living being that encourages inhabitants to live as active subjects. This ceremonial and performative art of governing is a unique, “authentic” art of the region that has transcended the borders of time and ethnicity.

If scientific discourse is indifferent to this uniqueness, or seeks to dominate the delicacy and dynamics of such a world, a competitive phase arises and ritual governmentality becomes a representation of protest against scientific governmentality. Although such ritual governmentality is a contemporary phenomenon or a product of modernity, rather than ancient surviving traditions, those who associate with it can claim the legitimacy of their governmentality as a long-lasting heritage. Accordingly, I present a multi-layered history in this article by relocating different memories in the same area. This method is important for exploring a place like Champasak, where different types of agency encounter one another. Ultimately, it is crucial to unravel the entire historical and social process, allowing a multiplicity of views and the subtlety of different selves to emerge.

Accepted: January 17, 2020


I am very grateful to all those who provided me with opportunities to conduct fieldwork in Champasak. My sincere gratitude should also go to the editors of the journal who kindly supported the review and the anonymous referees whose insightful comments were helpful for finalizing this article.


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1) In Lao, Wat Phu means “mountain temple,” and the site is located at the bottom of the mountain Phū Kao. Phū Kao means “mountain in the shape of a woman’s chignon.” Ancient inscriptions, however, seem to refer to the mountain as Lingaparvata (“mountain in the shape of a lingam,” or phallus, a symbol of Shiva).

2) The buffer zone of the Champasak World Heritage site includes not only Wat Phu, but also the mountains and archaeological sites located nearby, particularly the Ancient City (called Kuruksetra or Sresthapura).

3) In addition to the data collected in the early 2000s, I use two photos taken during short visits in 2015 and 2018.

4) I read the text in Japanese translation.

5) In this article the word “muang” is used in two ways: “principality” and “capital.” Scholars consider a muang to be a small polity and component of the traditional Tai world. This Tai world and cosmology was called the “mandala” (Stuart-Fox 1997, 7) or “galactic polity” (Tambiah 1976, 109). In the mandala or galactic world, a muang was a principality because it was organized by the political discretion of local chiefs, and often maintained relative autonomy. However, if, like Basak, a principality was the heartland of a kingdom composed of many other subordinate principalities, it could also be considered a capital. I wish to emphasize that a muang is not only a politically organized polity but also a religiously organized one, or a polity embodied by religious imagination and performance.

6) The 1893 Franco-Siamese Treaty consisted of 10 articles concerning the delimitation of the territorial border. The territory of French Laos was delimited at the Mekong and excluded the western bank of the present provinces of Luang Prabang and Champasak. The western bank of Champasak, on which the palace of the Southern Lao kingdom was located, was cut off from French Laos in the 1893 treaty (Picanon 1901, 222–223) despite its close connection to the eastern bank. In 1904 the French government succeeded in annexing the Western banks of both the Northern and Southern regions (Le Boulanger 1931, 347–349). In the 1940s, however, the two western banks again became sites of territorial dispute between France and Siam (Thailand). This historical path may have furthered the marginalization of Champasak.

7) Muang Basak, the capital of the Southern Lao monarchy, no longer exists. Present residents call the former Basak area Muang or Muang Champasak, which translates to “town.” “Muang Champasak,” however, also signifies “Champasak district” (an area larger than the former Basak or “town”) of Champasak Province. Since the French colonial period, the political system has considered Muang to mean “district,” an administrative unit lower than a province.

8) Although a number of explorers visited Laos, including Champasak, and wrote travelogues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they rarely mentioned the names of the Lao kings. Archaimbault, who visited Laos after decolonization, focused on members of the Lao monarchies because his research, unlike that of early adventurers, pertained to Lao monarchical traditions. Thus, he became close to members of the royal family (Goudineau 2001; Lemoine 2001). That said, he does not seem to have been ignorant of the fact that he came from the colonizers’ side.

9) Archaimbault’s “L’histoire” (1961, 579) referenced several source materials: first, two Lao versions, the annals of Kham Souk and his dignitary, written at the request of the Siamese, and the writing of Vientiane monk P’ră K’ru Kêu Lăk K’ăm; and second, three Siamese versions written by the dignitaries P’răyamahaămmatăyathibodi, Hmôn Amorawong Wičit, and Čău P’romt’ewanŭk’rô. All these sources were based on Lao and Siamese ancient texts and oral traditions.

10) When reading Archaimbault’s studies of Champasak, we must also carefully examine his agency and theoretical standpoint. Although Archaimbault demonstrated the inconsistency of the religious structure in Laos, as discussed in this article, he can also be said to have been influenced by structuralism; his inclination toward psychoanalytic structuralism (Lemoine 2001, 179–180) overemphasizes Boun Oum as an absolutely melancholic man despite his in-between position in postcolonial Laos, similar to his interpretation of gender and sexuality as firm dichotomies.

11) Jos Platenkamp (2008, 8–9) states that in Luang Prabang, what he calls the “appointed markets” were held at the New Year and boat racing ceremonies. These markets were officially controlled occasions in which citizens could meet traders and peruse merchandise from all upper Mekong regions and various ethnicities.

12) Buffalo sacrifice was not conducted exclusively in Champasak. As Paul Lévy (1959) noted, the same rite was historically conducted in Northern Lao principalities as well, although it has not survived to the present in the North. In 1975 the sacrifice of buffaloes in Champasak was replaced with the sacrifice of chickens; however, following permission from the authorities, the villagers of Champasak restored the rite in 2013, as is discussed in a later section. This occurred along with a resurgence of popularity and belief in the legends of Kammathā and Nāng Sīdā.

13) During the Lan Xang period, people were enslaved as a result of debt or captivity after armed conflicts. In the southern region of Laos, minorities were often enslaved by the dominant groups, such as the Lao, the Siamese, and the Vietnamese. In the late nineteenth century, Europeans began an anti-slavery campaign, and the French colonial government officially abolished slavery in Laos in 1898. However, slavery continued as an institution in remote areas until the 1920s (Stuart-Fox 2001 [1992], 290–291).

14) At least 12 inscriptions were discovered around Wat Phu and catalogued in French travelogues and inventories (Aymonier 1901; Barth 1902; Lunet de Lajonquière 1907; Cœdès 1953; 1956; 1964; Harmand 2010): K365, K366, K367, K475, K476, K478, K720, K721, K722, K876, K938, and K963.

15) Inventories of the inscriptions, particularly Volumes 5 and 7 (Cœdès 1953; 1964), allow us to trace where the inscriptions of Champasak were taken and stored. Most were sent to Vietnam and Cambodia, and very rarely were they sent to Paris. K365 was not removed from Champasak.

16) The Catholic Mission belonged to the Bishop of Bangkok and was accompanied by Christian Annamites, who had been liberated from slavery (Tournier 1900, 130). The mission was called the Mission at Phanon, named after the village where the cathedral was built. In a sketch map of the location (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907; Cœdès 1956, 211), however, the mission seems to have been located at the site of Vat Luang Kao village, which had a pier. Phanon and Vat Luang Kao were both sanctuary sites for Lao royal ancestors and Buddhist monks. Early French articles often confused the locations of Phanon and Vat Luang Kao due to uncertainties in the village profiles.

17) The statue, before being numbered K365 in the French inventory, was called by different names by explorers and administrators: the statue of the Catholic Mission, the statue of Phanon Village, or the statue of Vat Luang Kao. Cœdès was able to translate the inscription because Archaimbault, who was doing fieldwork on the site and checked whether there were as many statues as there were names, gave him a photographed copy of all its surfaces (Cœdès 1956, 220).

18) With K365, Cœdès presented his hypothesis of the “pre-Angkorian” history of the region. He came to the following conclusions: 1) Because a sentence in K365 stated that Devānīka devoted himself to the lingam, or the god Shiva, on the mountain Lingaparvata (“mountain of the lingam,” present-day Phū Kao), like the ancient Cham site My Son, and because other inscriptions named the venerated god Bhadresvara, identical to the name of the god worshipped at My Son, Champasak clearly had a relationship with Cham; 2) King Devānīka was the same person as the king of Chenla (真臘), Fan Chen (=神), Tch’eng (=成, 晟), or Fan Tien-Kai, whose name was mentioned in the Chinese texts of the Sui Dynasty, because the meaning of the two names matched, along with the Chinese description of Chenla and the features of Champasak; 3) The Sanskrit letters of K365 could be dated to around the late fifth century, when Funan, a rival to the early Khmer, was in decline and the Khmer defeated the Cham (Cœdès 1956; 1968).

19) The Sui texts said that the place “was always guarded by a thousand soldiers and consecrated to the spirit named P’o-to-li, to whom human sacrifices are made” (Cœdès 1968, 65). According to Cœdès (1968, 66), P’o-to-li was identical to Bhadresvara, and the temple was Wat Phu or Vrah Thkval.

20) The existing Indian city is spelled “Kurukshetra,” not Kuruksetra, in contemporary English maps.

21) Recently, scholars involved in excavations in Champasak have begun to discuss calling the city Kuruksetra, due to the lack of material evidence to support the existence of Sresthapura. The discussion reflects the recent trend for scholars to pay greater attention to locally specific history.

22) Aymonier wrote that local Lao oral traditions identified Kammathā not as a Lao but as a Cham man who married a daughter of the Lao king of Vientiane (Aymonier 1901, 164–165). The fact that he was a Cham man did not appear in the oral traditions of the twentieth-century villagers that Archaimbault (1961) studied. The mutation in the story, however, does not necessarily exclude oral traditions from usefulness as material for scientific studies. As demonstrated in this article, studies should examine how such changes occurred and what they indicate.

23) Archaimbault (1961) notes that the oral traditions of Nāng Sīdā had some similarities with Northern Lao legends, as did other southern legends such as that of Nāng Malong. If so, we may assume that the myths and legends were adapted to their environments in the course of Lao resettlement into the South.

24) Phanon Village still exists along the Mekong today. However, the village is divided into North Phanon and South Phanon, populated by Buddhists and Christians respectively. Thus, the legacy of the Catholic Mission has been passed down to later generations in a way that coexists with the local religion, despite its religious differences.

25) A three-year interregnum followed the death of Kham Souk. This was likely related to the French administration, which could not establish its provincial office until 1908. However, no materials support this claim.

26) I was unable to record the name of Nāng Ekhai in Lao in my notebook during fieldwork. This is a female spirit, as “Nāng” is a general title for women.

27) Within several kilometers of Wat Phu and Nāng Sīdā is a ruined stone monument called Thāo Tao (see Fig. 1 for location). The name means “Mr. Turtle” in Lao. The masters of the sacrifice did not mention any spirits around this building. The booklet published by the local authorities (Champasak Province 1996, 38–39) states that local myth and oral tradition concerning turtles might be the source of the building’s name. Recent villagers rarely remembered any myths or oral traditions regarding “Mr. Turtle.”

28) Aymonier (1901, 165) noted that the statue of Kammathā was located at Wat Phu, but the neck was broken and there was no head. This must have been the statue left in the grassy area that I saw during my fieldwork. The Vishnu-like statue of Kammathā (Fig. 3) was already being worshipped when I visited Champasak in 2002. This indicates that the statue of the local hero had been changed, most likely to show a more energetic image of the hero.


Vol. 9, No. 1, YOSHIZAWA Asuna and KUSAKA Wataru


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 1

The Arts of Everyday Peacebuilding: Cohabitation, Conversion, and Intermarriage of Muslims and Christians in the Southern Philippines

Yoshizawa Asuna* and Kusaka Wataru**

* 吉澤あすな, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, 46 Shimoadachi-cho, Yoshida, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8501, Japan
Corresponding author’s e-mail: yoshizawa[at]
** 日下 渉, Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University, Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya 464-8601, Japan

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.1_67

While armed conflict has occurred since around 1970 in the Southern Philippines, ordinary people of different faiths have cohabited as neighbors, lovers, and families. Why are ordinary Muslims and Christians able to create and maintain everyday peace although they have suffered from the conflicts and the state’s initiatives for peace have not yet been realized? After noting limitations of peacebuilding efforts by the state and nongovernment organizations, we analyze the arts of everyday peacebuilding practiced by ordinary people based on ethnographic research in Iligan City. First, Muslims and Christians have engaged in mutual assistance for everyday survival in the city where they live as diaspora or transients, who are relatively autonomous from their clan networks. Second, Muslim converts and many Christians regard those who practice other religions as companions who share the same “paths to happiness.” Third, when a multireligious family is pressed to choose one religion for its children’s faith or its ceremonial style, it avoids the rupture of family relationships by “implementing non-decision” to make the two religions obscurely coexist. Finally, even when Christian women married to Muslim men face polygamy without consent, they do not attribute the unfaithful behavior of their husbands to Islam but instead often blame the patriarchal culture of their ethnic group. Such a practice of “crossing divides” prevents religion from becoming an absolute point of conflict. Everyday peacebuilding of the ordinary can be a foundation of the state’s official peacebuilding, although there exists a tension between them.

Keywords: religion, interfaith dialogue, intermarriage, Balik-Islam, everyday peace, Southern Philippines, peacebuilding, multiculturalism


This study aims to clarify the arts of cohabitation and everyday peacebuilding practiced by ordinary Muslims and Christians in the Southern Philippines. In the predominantly Christian Philippines, the armed struggle of Muslims for secession and autonomy has been ongoing since the 1970s. The state has tried to realize peace by granting autonomy to Muslims, while civil society organizations have promoted interfaith dialogue, but violence has not been eradicated. However, despite the prolonged conflict, ordinary Muslims and Christians have cohabited not only as neighbors and friends but also as lovers and family members. This reality propels us to ask the question: Why are ordinary Muslims and Christians able to create and maintain everyday peace although they have suffered from the conflicts and the state’s initiatives for peace have not yet been realized?1)

Roger Mac Ginty (2014) highlights the concept of everyday peace to counteract the technocratic and top-down peacebuilding efforts employed by professionals, states, and international organizations that emphasize “control and order.” He argues that ordinary locals have also contributed to peace, especially in informal areas where the technocratic approach is ineffective. Official peacebuilding is parasitic to everyday harmony despite the latter’s subversive nature against the former. Mac Ginty maintains that fluidity, heterogeneity, and intra-group interactions among ordinary people are the foundations of everyday peace.2) However, his argument is limited to how people deal with others with opposing identities and does not explore cases in which people’s identity itself becomes ambiguous. Thus, this paper aims to develop Mac Ginty’s argument in a way that expands the focus on flexibility and ambiguity to people’s identity.

In Southeast Asia, most scholars have identified local culture and identity shared by different religious groups, rather than flexibility and ambiguity, as an enabling factor of interreligious coexistence. Alexander Horstmann (2011) maintains that multi-religious ritual traditions in Southern Thailand facilitate the coexistence of Muslims and Buddhists. Albertus Bagus Laksana (2014) describes how an inclusive Javanese religio-cultural sensibility supports a religious pluralism among Javano-Catholics and Muslims. Hannah Neumann (2010) and Coline Cardeño (2019) assert that in the Southern Philippines, the construction of a shared local identity coupled with weakening of narrow clan and ethno-religious identities is the foundation of everyday peace. However, such shared local culture and identity are not always necessary for everyday peacebuilding. For instance, Kawada Makito (2010), in studying the religious communities worshipping the Virgin of Guadalupe in Cebu City, argues that conflicting practices and discourses over history coexist, which can be interpreted as a case of coexistence of plurals in diversified life under urbanity and globalization. We also claim that flexibility and ambiguity in everyday life can be a foundation of inter-faith cohabitation even without a shared local identity, and even with antagonism over religious differences, based on an ethnographic study in Iligan City, Province of Lanao del Norte.

Yoshizawa Asuna, one of the authors, conducted intensive fieldwork in the city while living with a Muslim family from February 2013 to June 2014. All the stories and narratives quoted in this paper are taken from her field notes. Iligan is known to be a place where Muslims and Christians have coexisted relatively peacefully. Yet, the “peace” experienced in Iligan is not inherent but is an outcome of the everyday efforts undertaken by ordinary people, even in instances when the city was surrounded and partially encroached by elements of violence. For instance, in 2000, when the Estrada administration waged an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that resulted in over 900,000 refugees, the first clash occurred in a town close to Iligan. Many residents of Iligan witnessed the violence that accompanied it. The military used Christian militia in its operations against the MILF, which led to violence perpetrated by vigilante groups from both sides. In 2017 Marawi City, located just two hours from Iligan by car, was devastated by a five-month-long battle between the ISIS-inspired Maute group and the military.

According to the 2010 census, Iligan’s household population was 321,156, of which 89.7 percent was Christian (with 79.3 percent being Catholic), 9.5 percent Muslim, and 0.8 percent maintaining the animism of the indigenous tribes. Since Muslims make up 5.6 percent of the national population, statistically speaking, the proportion of Muslims in Iligan is only 4 percent higher than the national average. However, actually living in the city, one gets the sense that 30–40 percent of its inhabitants are Muslims. Perhaps this is because many Muslims from neighboring areas temporarily live in Iligan due to its opportunities for higher education and employment. Among the more than 10 Muslim ethnic groups in the Philippines, Maranaos are the majority in Iligan.3) There are also non-Muslim indigenous peoples who are generally known as Lumad, and while their representation and social inclusion are important issues, this paper’s coverage is limited to the relationship between Muslims and Christians.

I Living with Religious Minorities

Recently there has been a growing apprehension that liberal democracy, due to its principle of secularism, may be unable to represent religious minorities, thus worsening the social exclusion and fragmentation rather than promoting integration. In this sense, possible limitations of liberal democracy should be examined, not just the failures of the Philippine state as a cause of prolonged armed conflict in the Southern Philippines.

Separation of religion from politics was a prerequisite to the establishment of liberal democracies in the West. Modernization has been expected to entail privatization of religion and secularization of deliberation in the public sphere. However, there are a growing number of cases in which religions assert their values and norms in the public sphere. In the Middle East, Islamism has progressed against violent and corrupt secular regimes supported by Western countries since the end of the World War II, as seen in the Islamic Revolution in Iran at the end of the 1970s. Because Islamism calls for political reform based on the teachings of Islam, it is incompatible with the concept of separation of church and state. Christianity also played a major role in the struggles against dictatorships in the Philippines, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. In the United States, Christian fundamentalism that colludes with the new conservatism has exercised its political influence since the 2000s (e.g., in justifying the War on Terror).

José Casanova (1994) emphasizes that religion plays a public role in supporting liberal democracy and modern values in the era of post-secularism. While some examples mentioned above support his argument, others show that religion also threatens the values of liberal democracy. This ambiguity has activated debates over how liberal democracies should address religion in the public sphere. Secularists, on the one hand, insist that religious discourses should be excluded from the public sphere because they obstruct rational deliberation and consensus based on public reason. On the other hand, some scholars forward the view that religious discourses may be included in the public sphere under certain conditions. For instance, Jürgen Habermas argues that religious discourses entering the public sphere must be “translated” into “generally acceptable secular discourses” (Habermas 2011, 26).

However, it is unjust to impose the obligation of secular translation on religious citizens while not demanding a fundamental change on the part of liberal democracy and secular citizens. Charles Taylor (2011) contends that secularism is by no means neutral, as it excludes religious discourses from the public sphere while making itself absolute. Thus, he advocates neutrality between secular and religious discourses. Talal Asad (2003) further argues that the secular-religious dichotomy is fictional. According to him, secularism is a religious product rooted in Western Christianity because it was created and upheld in the process through which liberal democracy defeated the theory of the divine right of kings in Western modernity. Saba Mahmood (2009), addressing the controversy over cartoons depicting Muhammad that caused disputes and violence in Europe in the mid-2000s, contends that the legal framework of liberal democracy rejected representing the subjective injuries of Muslims. According to these arguments, liberal democracy fails to represent religious minority Muslims because secularism imposes its systems and norms on them while denying its Christian background and biases, not because religion makes rational deliberation impossible.

Despite the limitations, some would argue that multiculturalism has enabled progress toward realizing the rights of religious minorities in Western liberal democracies since the 1970s. However, it is the state, not the minorities, that has broad discretion over which aspects and to what extent claims for religious minorities’ rights can be accepted. This state-sponsored, official multiculturalism presupposes management by the majority, and its group-based approach carries the risk of entrenching social cleavages. Moreover, as neoliberalism has become hegemonic since the 1980s, official multiculturalism has reduced its welfare function, thereby favoring highly skilled migrant workers while excluding unskilled laborers. In these circumstances, scholars see possibilities in “everyday multiculturalism” wherein diverse people experience and negotiate cultural variety in ordinary settings such as neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, and in the process shape and reshape their social relations and identities.4)

Some proponents of deliberative democracy, as Monique Deveaux (2017) notes, also highlight the potential of informal public spheres for opening up additional pathways for democratic participation by the minorities, thereby contributing to everyday multiculturalism. Deliberative democracy places hope on the possibility that deliberation with others leads to transformation of people’s preferences. However, there is a growing belief among critical scholars that the formal Habermasian public sphere, which upholds normative procedure, rationality based on public reason, and moral consensus, practically excludes marginalized groups’ discourses and interests. Thus, they advocate incorporating a broader variety of discourses into deliberative democracy, such as rhetoric, narrative, testimony, storytelling, myth, and oral histories, as well as wider forms of communication such as bargaining, negotiation, and compromise among different self-interests. They argue that the outcome of deliberation contributing to cultural pluralism is more important than the idealized procedures and moral requirements of deliberation (Deveaux 2017). Yet, granted that informa