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Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Gianluca BONANNO

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Non-Traditional Security in Asia: Issues, Challenges and Framework for Action
Mely Caballero-Anthony and Alistair D. B. Cook, eds.
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013, xvi+349p.

Virtually anything that constitutes a threat to a person can be indexed as a human security issue. This makes it sometimes difficult to determine what should be included and what, if anything at all, should be excluded from the definition. Within human security, however, we can easily distinguish two groups of threats: state-sponsored military and non-military. Anything that is technically non-military is commonly regarded as a non-traditional security (NTS) issue, be it local or trans-national in nature. Some examples are the spread of infectious diseases, natural disasters, resource scarcity, transborder pollution and environmental degradation, irregular migration, transnational crime, but also threats such as state sponsored violence on domestic populations and the emergence of non-state armed actors.

The worldwide discourse on non-traditional security gravitates around three major schools, as the editors point out in the introductory chapter (Chapter 1) of this book: the 1994 UNDP Report school; the Japanese school; and the Canadian-Norwegian school. As the scope of the book is not the analysis of such schools but the description of some case-studies, the general approach of all three is simplified as being the management of “non-military threats to the safety of societies, groups and individuals” (p. 5). One thing is, however, made very clear: since many of such security challenges are transnational, securitizing actors tend to draw closer, turning to regional and multi-level frameworks that have profound implications for regional security cooperation among states, particularly in Asia.

The editors then go on to introduce the five pillars of the securitization analysis, as defined by scholars at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: issue area (the nature of the threat); securitizing actors; security concept (the securitized target); process (the speech act); and intervening variables (interplay of different concepts, issue linkage, role of stakeholders, and domestic political systems). Once these questions are addressed, the ultimate goal is the evaluation and analysis of policies and governance, or “the process of decision-making and the process through which decisions are (or are not) implemented” (p. 8). This inevitably results in an increased interaction between state and non-state securitizing actors, a process that gives rise to multifaceted governance structures with competing or joint mandates, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, United Nations bodies, the Bali Democracy Forum, and so forth.

Analyzing, evaluating, and eventually fine-tuning these governance structures are the sine qua non of success. Eight indicators are identified to measure governance performance: participation; the rule of law; transparency; responsiveness; consensus-oriented decisions; equity and inclusiveness; effectiveness and efficiency; and accountability. These are the perspectives through which this book undertakes an investigation into nine key non-traditional security threats in Asia.

Health is the first NTS threat to be addressed (Chapter 2). Infectious and parasitic diseases linked to poor nutrition and an unsafe environment are the major causes of death in developing countries, and Southeast Asia in particular has a worryingly high incidence. The chapter not only provides a comprehensive overview of frameworks and characteristics of health systems in the region; it also analyzes the health discourse in Asia by delineating its transnational features (epidemics often go beyond borders). Of particular relevance is the explanation of pandemic preparedness and regional cooperative schemes developed after the outbreak of the human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Given the impossibility of effectively tackling epidemics after their appearance, the authors argue that health policies should focus on multi-level, multi-sectoral preparedness in order to enhance the surge capacity of all health systems.5) Under the supervision of the World Health Organization, ASEAN, and other regional bodies, many nations have mounted extensive efforts, currently concentrating on emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases (ERIDs). Although comparative results show steady progress, the authors argue that a very low threshold means the results are far from satisfactory; hence they conclude with a series of practical recommendations in order to plug local and national responses into regional frameworks, such as through the improvement of surveillance and laboratory capacity, the management of vaccines, and a more transparent cross-border collaboration and information sharing.

Chapter 3 deals with the emergence of arguably the NTS threat of the future: food. Particular attention is paid to soaring food prices, as Asia is home to two-thirds of the world’s poor for whom food takes up 30 to 50 percent of the household budget (p. 43). Hence, a rise in food prices threatens to reverse the gains in poverty reduction in the region and thereby undermines the global fight against poverty and the achievements of both the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, given that in a state of emergency nations will implement any policy that will improve their own food security, this would most likely exacerbate regional tensions. The authors describe and analyze current and projected consequences of an uncontrolled rise of food prices at the individual, household, and national levels. They build their arguments on a thorough analysis of the 2008 global food crisis, identifying its drivers, its social, economic, and political impact, and eventually drawing some conclusions on the policy response that helped the Asia-Pacific region out of the emergency.

Chapter 4 touches upon an NTS issue so sensitive that many influent thinkers have publicly stated that future wars will most likely be fought over it: water. Much is related to this element, from obvious survival needs to renewable energy exploitation. Moreover, there is perhaps nothing more transboundary in nature than water. The authors build their short chapter around the case study of the Hindu-Kush Himalaya region, which they describe briefly but in a balanced way. Although the explanation is at times not sufficiently detailed, their comparative analysis provides an introductory understanding of transboundary water management, particularly when they expose the nexus between water scarcity, uneven distribution and access, climate change projections, and water insecurity. The chapter could have been a lot more inspiring, had the authors elaborated more on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and its guiding principles, as the discourse on water has arguably the highest potential for both trans-national conflict and cooperation.

Asia (and particularly Southeast Asia) is possibly the region most affected by natural disasters in the world. Given the severe short and long-term consequences of such occurrences, the management of all phases of natural disasters (prevention, relief, and reconstruction) is an utmost NTS concern. Despite the timeliness and far-reaching implications of the issue, Chapter 5 fails to satisfactorily address it in a constructive way. The authors structured their chapter very well, but do not link the interesting data with some overarching findings. In particular, although they provide a systematic analysis of policy implementation in many Southeast Asian countries, most of the data are updated only to 2008 at the latest, thus limiting the study to the preparatory and planning stages of the process. A consideration worth mentioning here is the explanation of how the disaster management cycle (including preparedness, early warning, mitigation, relief, recovery, and rehabilitation) has gradually seen a shift in focus to disaster risk reduction, both through reactive adaptation (individual and local level) as well as through planned adaptation (state and institutionalized actors). An example of new models of cooperation in this field is the ASEAN Regional Forum’s Voluntary Demonstration of Response (ARFVDR), the first, robust civilian-led, military supported exercise designed to demonstrate ARF’s national capabilities in responding to an affected country’s request for assistance, and to build regional assistance capacity for major, multi-actor relief operations.

One of the most insightful chapters in the book, Chapter 6, looks at internal conflict from a too-often ignored perspective: the importance of small arms and light weapons (SALWs) in nowadays human security. From a statistical point of view, SALWs are a much greater threat than Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), in the sense that they are easy to procure, easy to use, and extremely lethal. This is particularly true for Southeast Asia, a region with on-going internal armed conflicts (demand), post-conflict states such as Cambodia and Viet Nam where SALWs can be easily obtained (offer), long maritime and continental frontiers (distribution channels), and poor storage facilities (smuggling). Since the threat posed by SALWs is still largely overlooked by both the international community and national legislations, this chapter is a valuable contribution to the NTS discourse.

Although strictly speaking the title of Chapter 7 should not be “Forced Migration,” the authors once again touch upon one of the most sensitive NTS issues in Southeast Asia: statelessness. As the definition of a stateless person greatly varies depending on its de jure or de facto terms, these people are greatly affected by political change and discrimination, trafficking, marriage discrimination, child registration problems, and nationality issues. And despite the fact that many of these problems are common to illegal migrants and refugees, the two definitions do not coincide, although they do overlap at times. In fact, the official status that stateless persons obtain considerably affects the treatment they receive under national and international law. After describing how the problem of statelessness is currently regulated, the authors explain how most conventions are still Eurocentric and can hardly be applied to the Southeast Asian reality. To support their arguments, the authors comprehensively introduce the cases of the Rohingyas, the hill tribes in Thailand, the oft-forgotten Malaysian case, to conclude their analysis with an evaluation of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). Their conclusion reiterates the need to focus on gendered policy directions to effectively understand and deal with human development in Southeast Asia.

Energy is the pivotal pillar of the sustainable development nexus of energy-economy-environment. In Chapter 8, the authors constructively paraphrase that nexus into energy security-economic growth-environmental protection. The underlying question the authors address is whether Asia is experiencing a nuclear renaissance (referring to nuclear energy) or a renewable renaissance (referring to renewable energy resources). Although they seem to agree on the renewable renaissance trend, which they support with accurate data, the structure of the chapter is confusing and at times misleading. There are multiple sections within the chapter, either listing different energy sources, or gauging the discussion through a geographical framework. Unfortunately the distinction between the sections is blurred, often overlapping, and sometimes inaccurate, particularly when repeatedly listing Southeast Asian countries under the East Asian bloc. This distracts the reader from the core discussion and conclusions.

Alongside natural disasters, transnational crime is possibly the most tangible of all NTS issues. It is also one of the most controversial NTS issues, as international regulations on the matter are still too many. “Disrupting or deterring criminal organisations and traffickers does not solve the problem because the incentives and the drivers remain in place; and as long as they remain unaddressed, the problems will persist” (p. 235). Acknowledging the practical impossibility of covering all instances of transnational crimes in a single chapter, the authors focus their attention on those with a particular relevance to the region, namely illicit drug trafficking, human trafficking, maritime piracy, financial crimes, and environmental crimes. The selling point of this chapter is its second half, where the analysis of responses to two of the abovementioned crimes, i.e. human and drug trafficking, is very clearly divided into regional, national, supply-side, and demand-side. Although the analysis itself is sometimes superficial, the message that the authors deliver is effectively in line with the arguments set at the beginning of the chapter.

The last chapter of this book deals with cyber security. Until recently not considered to be a transnational crime, the threats it poses have convinced most practitioners to treat cyber security as a distinct NTS issue. One of the main reasons is that neither the securitizing actors nor the perpetrators of crime are easy to identify, while anybody else can be a direct target. Cyber security might be the only NTS issue where the balance of power does not relate to political and economic influence. Despite an increased professionalism of cyber crime in Southeast Asia, most responses to this kind of threat still put state and military interests at the center of the debate. The authors, notwithstanding the importance of the former, invite the reader to focus on the “human” factor of cyber security and the subtle threat it poses to human security in more general terms. Routine surveillance of the cyberspace is such a powerful tool that it can easily blur the demarcation line between authoritarian and democratic systems, particularly where the state is no longer the only securitizing actor and private companies are more and more involved in the business. The necessity of E-governance is surely undeniable, but the extent of it and the inevitable secrecy that its very mission implies could constitute a form of NTS. Given the early stage of the phenomenon, opinions on the future of cyber security widely differ, although fear of unknown consequences should not overshadow the potential for cyberspace multilateral cooperation, particularly as a pre-emptive measure.

Altogether, the book is a complete and well-arranged collection of the major non-traditional security concerns in the region. Due to space limitations, none of the chapters is able to analyze the issues with sufficient depth. But this is not the purpose of the book in the first place. Nevertheless, a final chapter elucidating the cross-issue nexus between policy analysis and academic investigation would have been useful. Another comment, though not strictly related to the contents of the book, is that the purpose of having the editor also co-author each and every chapter is somewhat unclear, although this might have helped in effectively producing overarching argumentation throughout this commendable endeavor.

Gianluca Bonanno

5) Surge capacity is the elasticity of a health system that enables it to expand quickly and to cope with a surge in demand of services beyond usual levels (p. 27).


Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, IGA Tsukasa

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow
Meredith L. Weiss
Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications and Singapore: NUS Press, 2011, xi+302p.

In April 2012, the amendment of the University and University College Act (UUCA) was approved in the lower house of Parliament in Malaysia. Before the amendment, UUCA had prohibited students from joining political parties and supporting political campaigning and protests. Although the amended law now allows students to engage in political activities outside campus, it is still restrictive because, for example, the new law gives each university the power to decide which organizations are allowed for student participation except political parties. But what is important here is that the Malaysian government has relaxed the UUCA, the restrictive provisions of which the government had hitherto refused to amend since its introduction in 1971. Against this background, the decline of the intellectual quality and the apathy of students in local universities have become increasingly apparent in recent times. The major parts of Student Activism in Malaysia read as an historical narrative, but also give us numerous suggestions and hints concerning current Malaysian politics and society.

The concept of “student activism” is ambiguous, as this book points out. While Weiss defines “student” as a collective identity and discussions of “student activism” in this book usually refer to students enrolled in tertiary-level institutions, the status of students is rather confusing “since they are expected to be future leaders, students’ potential may garner them respect and cultivate arrogance disproportionate to their age and experience, yet they remain for the moment still subordinates in society” (p. 3). On the other hand, Weiss argues that “efforts to define student activism not as a social movement like others, but as a ‘culture’, obscure the mechanisms behind that activism: implicit or explicit framing processes, organizational maintenance, and other aspect of micromobilization for collective action” (p. 5). Within the context of this book, its main objectives are to explore student activism as a distinctive genre of social movement and also examine those political impacts and externalities that influenced student activism in Malaysia (p. 3).

The underlying focus of this book is student activism, but Weiss’s perspective is wider. She locates the campus within a larger environment and examines the relationship between student activism and outside political forces, such as political parties and NGOs, and agenda like anti-colonialism and socialism. This book consists of seven chapters. Except Chapters 1 and 7, each chapter develops historical narratives starting with World War II until 2010. Following the introductory and theoretical parts of Chapter 1, Weiss examines the pre-independence period (before 1957), analyzing the alliance between Malayan students, radical journalists, and early political parties and how they prepared for independence (p. 25). The first decade after independence from 1957 to 1966 is covered in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 focuses on the period of the heyday of protest from 1967 to 1974, when student activism in Malaysia peaked. Students allied with peasants and urban squatters supported the protests among these sectors and also involved themselves in the general elections outside their campuses. However, student activism and its environment drastically changed after 1974, following changes in the student demographic trend. Weiss notes how prior to 1969 it was Chinese students who accounted for around 70 percent of the Malaysian undergraduate population, while Malays made up less than 30 percent (p. 19). She also notes how by the mid-1970s, those populations had nearly reversed (p. 19). The government tightened control over students and universities with the introduction in 1971 and the amendment in 1974 of the UUCA. Chapter 5 looks at the period of “normalized” higher education from 1975 to 1998 where “new universities and other institutions for higher education proliferated” and discusses how “campus politics increasingly came to mimic the partisan patterns outside the gate” (p. 26). Chapter 6 looks at the period of the gradual revitalization of student activism in the late 1990s in the wake of the Reformasi movement.

Weiss argues that “Malaysian students have been less inclined toward radicalism than their counterparts in neighboring states for at least the past few decades” (p. 18). Why have Malaysian students (and student activism) been less radical than neighboring states such as Indonesia and Thailand? This question is important, as it illuminates not only the character of Malaysian students and youth but also the long-term stability of the political regime since the 1970s led by the Barisan Nasional (BN). The key periods that answer this question are from 1967 to 1974 (Chapter 4) and from 1975 to 1998 (Chapter 5).

After the introduction and the amendment of UUCA in the 1970s, Weiss highlights how it was stiff penalties and the consequences of student activism that accounted for the “inaction” of student activism (p. 291). However, she also shows how the experiences of other surrounding nations were also taken into account (such as New Order Indonesia, Marcos’ Philippines, and Ne Win’s Burma, as well as China and South Korea) (p. 291). As she notes it is through “intellectual containment” that “the state delegitimizes students’ participation to undercut the challenge they pose, while at the same time minimizing over coercion” (p. 26). There are as such, two main forms of intellectual containment by the state: rewriting history and physical containment. Weiss points out;

By obscuring the history of student (and other, especially left-wing) activism, the Malaysian authorities have significantly stymied mobilization. Today, students are told that it is out of character for Malaysian students to engage politically. (p. 293)

Social movement theories, especially framing theories, bear out the fact that to mobilize people, “activists in one country actively borrow ‘cultural ideas, items, or practices’, such as norms of student empowerment and protest tactics, then tailor these to fit local context” (p. 283). What her work shows is that the government project to rewrite history since the mid-1970s deprived student activists of source materials for mobilization.

Another way of intellectual containment is through physical containment. By erecting fences, establishing campuses away from city centers, removing public spaces for students to gather, channeling activism toward less-than-meaningful elections and petitions, and co-opting student activists into political party machines, the government sought to hamper students’ solidarity and cooperation. Weiss points out that in University of Malaya (UM), the closure of the Union House and demolition of the Speakers Corner after 1974 made mobilizing students more difficult.

In addition to intellectual containment, commercialization and popularization of higher education in the mid-1990s also contributed to the declining momentum of student activism in Malaysia. Before the 1970s, UM was the only university in Malaysia and undergraduates and graduates were seen as the elite who would lead future Malaysia. By the 1999, 11 public universities, 6 vocationally oriented universities, and 10 polytechnics were established. In addition to these public institutions, 15 private universities and three medical schools were also established by corporations by early 2002, and hundreds of private colleges also joined in the Malaysian educational market. Weiss emphasizes that in this new context higher education itself now has more to do with the price one is prepared to pay to secure a decent job rather than “merely the means to pursue humanistic aims” (p. 191).

In sum, this book is based on historical narratives of student activism in Malaysia, but offers many interesting theoretical implications and comparative perspectives for those interested in students and protest movements in post-colonial states.

Iga Tsukasa 伊賀 司


Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Tomita Shinsuke

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Gambling with the Land: The Contemporary Evolution of Southeast Asian Agriculture
Rodolphe De Koninck and Jean-François Rousseau
Singapore: NUS Press, 2012, xv+187p.

Gambling with the Land is one of a series of publications resulting from an international research project on “Challenges of the Agrarian Transition in Southeast Asia” funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The main aim of this book is to illustrate ongoing agricultural intensification and expansion throughout Southeast Asian countries by means of an analysis of statistical data. The book focuses in particular on rapid agricultural transformation that began in the middle of the twentieth century, and draws on statistics relating to agricultural production such as crops, livestock, land, production, yields, irrigated areas, the application of chemical fertilizers, the use of tractors, and so on. In spite of the limitations of the database examined in the book, in terms of both time and space and the quality of the data, the authors have managed to present a general analysis of agricultural data and offer a contemporary account of changes taking place in Southeast Asian agriculture.

The authors identify four processes behind the agricultural transformation occurring in Southeast Asian countries: commoditization; globalization; “agriculturalization”; and relays and complementarities of agriculture among nations. These four processes have unevenly developed across the countries and have been influenced by various factors such as a range of national policies, a number of political events, wars, colonialism, regional and international agencies, and the ecological settings specific to the region. These processes bear out a unique feature of Southeast Asian countries: agricultural intensification and expansion go hand-in-hand, thereby contradicting the widely held belief that agricultural development intensifies only after expansion. “Agriculturalization” is the most interesting process discussed in the book. Research and statistical data confirm that there is an increase in labor migration as a result of the shift from agriculture to industry and services, on which the income structure has become more reliant on such domains. On the other hand, this book also demonstrates that agricultural employment in rural areas is actually increasing in Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines. As such, the keyword “gambling” is used to describe the nature of the people who largely bet on the land.

The main feature of this book is its detailed use of data derived mainly from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT) data sets between 1961 to 2007 and other figures that paint a contemporary picture of agriculture at the national level. In total, 138 figures account for a total of 187 book pages, and a large part of these are found in chapters 5 to 7 (these in fact make up the bulk of chapter 5’s “Agricultural Growth, Diversification, Intensification and Expansion,” chapter 6’s “Expansion and Intensification of Food Crops and Increase in Livestock Production,” and chapter 7’s “Expansion and Intensification of Cash Crops”). Chapter 7, with 51 figures, is the most important part of this book. Statistics on cash crops such as palm oil, coffee, rubber, tea, coconut, copra oil, cocoa, and sugarcane are used to explain harvested areas, ratios, yields, productions, and the amount of exports and imports by country.

However, as the authors mention through their analysis, FAOSTAT as well as statistics from other sources are prone to a number of errors and biases. For example, in regard to national statistics in Laos which I am most familiar with, there are considerable variations in the quality of the data across regions and years. My own fieldwork in Laos has led me to many villages where villagers claim that statistical data had not been collected until relatively recently. With land area, the large differences that exist in the collection of land area statistics (i.e. between data on authorized land certifications for household and data measured by survey, GIS, and GPS) are common. As such, it is not uncommon for the landholding size of household to be several times larger or smaller than that claimed in the certification. Moreover, villages that are located in remote areas might have frequently been omitted from the data gathering. Biases inherent in data arise from surveyors’ difficulties in gaining access to villages, and can result in underestimation of total agricultural land alongside exaggeration of the state of agriculture (as conducted in accessible areas and as presented in past records). Statistics can also underestimate agricultural activities during periods of political instability. An example of this would be Indochina during the tumultuous 1960s to 1970s, when authorities in charge of collecting statistics could not fully function at a time of war and conflict. When using statistical data, we need to keep in mind that they are just one of many instruments available for shedding light on aspects of agriculture.

The interpretation of data and items gathered and appearing in statistics are prescribed not only by common sense in the areas of expertise, but also the experiences of interpreters working in the regions. For instance, in chapter 5, the authors attribute an increase in the share of non-food production in 1970s Laos to opium production. Although opium may have been one form of non-food production that contributed to the fluctuations, these same fluctuations could also be attributable to the depletion of rice production. Although this tendency is not apparent in the statistics presented in chapter 6, it is a well-known fact that agricultural collectivization, compounded by the severe flood in 1970s, devastated wet rice farming and consequently led to the starvation of large number of farmers. Factoring such ground level developments in Laos might have resulted in a better interpretation of statistics.

Although statistics obviously include potential biases and errors, it is also true that they are often the only data available from which we can infer geographical variations and longitudinal changes in agriculture. Although the findings of this book are neither groundbreaking nor innovative, Gambling with the Land is undoubtedly an informative reference on the agricultural transformation in Southeast Asia over the last 60 years.

Tomita Shinsuke 富田晋介
Graduate School of Agriculture, Kyoto University


Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, MIENO Fumiharu

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Industrialization with a Weak State: Thailand’s Development in Historical Perspective
Somboon Siriprachai (edited by Kaoru Sugihara, Pasuk Phongpaichit, and Chris Baker)
Singapore and Kyoto: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2012, xii+183p.

Over the past decade, Thailand has experienced constant political turmoil. Although fair evaluation of the economic “reforms” of the Thaksin government (2001–06) is not yet possible, there is little doubt that these “reforms” cut into Thailand’s socio-economic fundamentals—long treated as a taboo subject—and affect the core factors that have stabilized and integrated the nation. Undoubtedly, Thaksin’s growth strategies, various redistribution policies, and drastic rearrangements of vested interests (i.e. rents) enlarged the “economic pie.” But these also brought vast wealth to crony business factions, attracting serious complaints from groups that held opposing traditional vested interests. Since the coup d’état of 2006, the political system has failed to adjust to conflicts in a democratic fashion and the last 10 years have seen the actual democratic process itself continually undermined. Public conflicts between competing groups have become a daily scene, leading to both the military and the judiciary asserting political control, even as the bureaucracy and monarchy do not show any signs of being in full control of the situation.

Somboon Siriprachai’s posthumous book, Industrialization with a Weak State, develops his observations on and analyses of long-term economic development in post-war Thailand until 1990s. Adopting a critical stance toward standard development economic theory, it describes the Thai state as a “weak state,” one contrasted to the “strong state” typically found in East Asian countries. Within such a context, the book discusses the characteristics and shortcomings of Thailand as well as the prospective challenges that the Thai economy faces. While the period the book focuses on is a little out of date (pre–1990), the argument nevertheless contains many insights which remain relevant for Thailand’s present socio-economy.

The author, Professor Somboon Siriprachai, was a prominent Thai economist, who had long engaged in academic work on Thailand’s economic development in Thammasat University. Regrettably, he suddenly passed away in December 2008 while in Japan, on his way back home from a conference at Kyoto University, where he gave a talk based on one part of the manuscript that became this book, and this reviewer was his discussant. Carrying out his wishes, his friends in academia, Kaoru Sugihara, Pasuk Phongpaichit, and Chris Baker, edited his published journal papers and gathered them together in this book.

Owing to the nature of the publication process, this book is a collection of the author’s major journal papers, rather than a monograph. However, all chapters share a common concern: to shed light on the fundamental structure of the Thai economy. The seven chapters are divided into three parts. Chapter 1 presents an overview of the book and its basic questions. Chapter 2 focuses on export-led industrialization under the conditions of “land abundance”; chapter 3 on demographic change, land cultivation, and deforestation; and chapter 4 primarily on the inconsistency of development policy. The second half of the book, chapters 5 to 7, revisits the question of East Asian economic development. These chapters offer a critical overview of modern development economics and focus on the nature of the “state” as a policy authority in East Asia and Thailand by pointing out the limitations of the applicability of the East Asian miracle to Thailand.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the trajectory of the development stages that took place between the 1940s and the 1990s. These were: the state-owned-enterprise-based economy of the Phibun regime in the 1940s; the private capital-led economy with national development plans and the conservative macroeconomic management of the Sarit regime in the late 1950s to 1960s; industrialization with primary product export and import substitution in 1960s; gradual conversion toward export-led industrialization while coping with the global economic recession of the 1970s; and serious macroeconomic imbalance and its recovery in the early 1980s. The chapter critically interprets the late 1980s high growth era by referring to the depletion of natural resources, poverty in rural areas, corruption, and insufficient human capital investment.

The following three chapters consider the structure of Thai economic development from a historical and socio-economical point of view. Chapter 2 traces the process of economic development and industrialization with an emphasis on the keyword “land abundance.” Rich primary products and accommodated wage upward pressure, backed by “abundance of land,” were the key factors for economic growth. This meant that the bureaucracy was less concerned about how to effectively achieve industrialization than about how to sustain the system to exploit the surplus generated by the endowment condition. According to the author, these structures relate to an incomplete policy shift from import-substitution to export-led industrialization since the 1970s, the destruction of the natural environment, and worsening income disparity in the 1980s.

Chapter 3 discusses Thai demographics in relation to deforestation between 1850–1990, a theme that connects to the previous chapter’s discussion on “land abundance.” Following prominent population studies in Thailand by Skinner, Falkus, and Siamwalla, the author states that as early as 1960s, demographic transition was already occurring in Thailand. Population growth synchronized with agricultural growth that came about through conversion from forest into land for cultivation. As a result, population concentration and upward wage pressure in urban areas remained relatively moderate. This meant that Thailand’s industrialization largely depended on its initial conditions, and the contribution of industrialization to economic growth was limited until the 1990s.

Chapter 4 focuses on the various dimensions of a “weak state” and argues that the development policies adopted by the post-war Thai state were inconsistent and incomplete. The conversion from import substitution to export-led industrialization and agricultural land reform remained an incomplete project, generating urban-rural disparities that became serious in 1990s. The author argues that behind inconsistent policies, there existed patrimonial bureaucrats who failed to transform themselves into technocrats as well as other groups with vested interests.

The rest of the chapters aim to interpret Thai economic development through international comparison, particularly with East Asia, based on various general theories of economic development, and through existing empirical studies on Thailand’s economic growth. Chapter 5 seeks to identify the nature of the modern “developmental state,” cutting into the classical dispute over mercantilism versus trade liberalism during the absolute monarchy period in Western Europe. It concludes that policies under East Asian Developmentalism shared common ideologies with classical mercantilism.

Chapter 6 critically overviews both mainstream economics and relevant development economics, as descendants of liberalism, showing that the East Asian miracle was not a triumph of development economics, but entailed strong government intervention, one enabled only under the “developmental state” in East Asia. The author doubts the applicability of similar policies in Thailand which lacks such a “strong state.”

Lastly, Chapter 7 surveys existing empirical studies on Thailand’s economic growth and reveals the fact that, unexpectedly, post-war Thailand has sustained relatively high rates of technological progress (total factor productivity) among Asian countries, while agricultural productivity has remained low. Furthermore, in the manufacturing sector, the rate of technological progress declined in 1990s even under high growth led by foreign direct investment (FDI). The author identifies low investment in human capital and worsening income disparity as the reasons behind—as well as the results of—such productivity structures and these remain challenges for the future. Given such “technological inertia,” as Professor Somboon called it in the chapter title, such negative structures in Thai economy are a consequence of “land abundance” and a “weak state” (or a “predatory state”). In order to realize further sustainable growth, structural conversion from the exploitation of natural resources and cheap wages to new directions in technological progress is essential. This is, in fact, the core message of this book.

Again, partly due to the publication process, the author’s arguments overlap in places. The introductory chapter by Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit nicely summarizes the author’s main arguments, which center on the following key issues: characteristics of the state, economic policies, corruption, and income distribution. In effect, Pasuk’s introduction is not only an opening chapter, but also an excellent commentary that gives readers a clear understanding of Professor Somboon’s arguments.

However, as a reviewer, I would like to raise a few points. The author describes the Thai state as a “weak state” occupied by bureaucrats and groups with vested interests who have leeched off the environment’s rich surplus. But whether the state is “weak” or “strong” does not have to be seen as extrinsic or unchangeable. In addition, government intervention may not always be a necessary condition for technological progress. Among the East Asian examples, post-war Taiwan began as a country where the mutual interests of state and society did not coincide: autonomous innovation was achieved primarily within the private sector under conditions of repression and exploitation by the state. Support from the state in terms of technological progress such as government initiatives for Research and Development was, in a sense, a mere consequence of a state-side change.

While there is no doubt that bureaucrats and political actors in Thailand have not transformed the state into “strong” one until 1990s, we cannot deny that this may be a possibility in the near future. While the Thaksin government was a chimera of a predatory and interventionist state, in some aspects, Thaksin apparently tried to direct Thailand toward a “strong state.” This book seems to give many implicit suggestions as to the main reasons for the collapse of Thaksin’s attempt, and the subsequent emergence of serious social disturbances.

Covering the period before 1990s, the author is less appreciative of the contributions of FDI-driven industrialization. It is true that growth until the mid-1990s came about largely as a result of an increase in factor inputs, rather than improvement in productivity. Indeed, how to overcome the nature of the assembling industry and enhance high value-added in the manufacturing sector remains a vital policy agenda for the present-day economy. Therefore, to enhance investment in human capital is no doubt crucial. However, it is also a fact that the Thai economy in the 2000s has shown another possible side. After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, trade balance went from deficit to surplus with remarkable growth in financial assets, both in macroeconomic savings and foreign assets. Entering the 2010s, domestic private corporations have actively expanded and diversified their businesses, and in the process of enlargement they have been aggressively expanding business relationships with, or even been acquiring, Japanese and US companies with their now abundant cash flow.

In general, there are a few patterns in technological progress in relation to fund-raising channels. Technological progress by technology diffusion through FDI will hit its limits sooner or later. In the process of catching up with Japan and Korea, under strong government interference, the evaluation capabilities of banks played a major role in the acquisition of new technology. In Taiwan, however, the technological progress was realized mainly through mutual mergers and acquisitions (M&A) through self-financing by the companies. Lastly, as in North America, the most dynamic innovation in the world has been occurring through affluent risk money on the market. The current pattern in Thailand seems to resemble that of Taiwan’s experience. The future jump in technological progress may be achieved through technology acquisition by M&A activities even under persistently weak government intervention.

In sum, this book invites readers to stand in front of an entrance gate that poses questions about Thailand’s future prospects. Yet regrettably, it is silent in offering direct answers since it covers the earlier period prior to the 1990s and will never be updated. Instead of definitive answers, the book gives us many excellent insights drawn from economics, economic history, and political economy, insights that cut right and deeply into the question. This is where I believe the essential value of the book lies. Professor Somboon’s posthumous manuscript is an excellent academic work as well as a nice textbook on economic development in Thailand. Above all, however, the readers will be impressed by this book’s celebration of the life and career of one faithful economist who dealt clear-eyed and courageously with the economy of his home country.

Mieno Fumiharu 三重野文晴



Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

State and Uncivil Society in Thailand at the Temple of Preah Vihear
Puangthong R. Pawakapan
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013, xiv+125p.; bibliography, index.

Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and Its Solutions
Charnvit Kasetsiri, Pou Sothirak, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun
Bangkok: White Lotus, 2013, xiv+104p.; bibliography, no index.

In recent years, instead of being a place for peace, meditation, contemplation, and prayer, the ancient Khmer temple of Prasat Preah Vihear (Phra Wihan to the Thai) has become an object of political dispute and even military clashes between two ASEAN members: Thailand and Cambodia. The two short books under review are a welcome addition to the growing corpus of literature on the temple dispute which arose after the controversial decision by UNESCO in July 2008 to inscribe Preah Vihear on its World Heritage list. The author of the first volume, Puangthong R. Pawakapan, is Associate Professor in the International Relations Department of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science and best qualified to write on this subject as she has in the past conducted extensive research on Thai-Cambodian relations.1) The main purpose of this well-written booklet, however, is not only to provide a comprehensive overview of the historical background of the conflict, but also to analyze the actions, strategy, and objectives of the campaign of Thailand’s People’s Alliance for Democracy’s (PAD) to exploit the border conflict for its own anti-Thaksin agenda.

The PAD, also known as the Yellow Shirt movement, is seen in State and Uncivil Society in Thailand as the stakeholder mainly responsible for sowing the seeds of hatred between Thais and Cambodians and derailing the successful economic and political cooperation between the two countries between 2000–08. The PAD is portrayed as an ultra-nationalist social movement supported by various civic groups and institutions, mainly in the Thai capital Bangkok. In the first of four chapters the author tries to conceptualize the term “uncivil society” as an appropriate characterization of movements such as the PAD whose behavior and ideology run contrary to democratic principles. Puangthong argues that “the exclusion of certain organisations from the definition of civil society is theoretically untenable because all social movements and organisations, even the Ku Klux Klan, claim that their actions are right and legitimate” (p. 9). It is also a matter of fact that the same “civil movement” might be considered a progressive force when fighting communist regimes or other authoritarian dictatorships and viewed as reactionary when opposing a democratically elected government, “even though its confrontational tactics may have been the same all along” (p. 9). The author tries to overcome this contradiction by defining “uncivil society” as a sub-set of “civil society.” This argument is not fully convincing as even electoral democracies with a strong civil society are by no means immune to nationalism and may be pressured by public opinion in their respective countries to stage wars against neighboring states. As European history in the nineteenth and twentieth century amply demonstrates, liberal-civic democracies sometimes seem to be less inclined to preserve peace than certain autocratic regimes which appear to be more determined to keep chauvinistic masses at bay.

The chapter entitled “The Post-Cold War Regional Integration” is based on the premise that after the end of Cambodian conflict (Third Indochina War) in 1991, it was economic cooperation and exchange that fostered improved relations between Thailand and her Indochinese neighbors, including Cambodia. The author persuasively argues that Cambodia became an important market and investment area for the Thai economy. The cross-border trade between the two countries grew impressively between 1992 to 2008, with exports from Thailand exceeding imports from Cambodia by a factor of 10. However, it would be a misconception to believe that Cambodia was an economically much weaker neighbor, one remaining largely dependent on the cooperation and assistance of Thailand. In fact, any disruption of trade between Thailand and Cambodia would harm both sides. The anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh in January 2003, during which the Thai embassy was attacked and destroyed, were thus interpreted as a strong signal that Thai-Cambodian relations still lacked mutual trust and understanding. The burning of the Thai embassy provoked by an inaccurate newspaper report that a famous Thai actress claimed Thai ownership over Angkor was a very serious incident. It highlighted the dark side of Cambodian ultra-nationalism grounded in an inferiority complex of the Khmer vis-à-vis their more powerful Thai and Vietnamese neighbors. Many Khmer feel deeply ashamed by this chauvinistic outburst and were caught by surprise at how quickly the Thai government restored political and economic relations with Cambodia.

The anti-Thai riots of early 2003 did indeed not have a lasting effect on Thai-Cambodian relations as Phnom Penh and Bangkok had embarked on cooperation in many fields, including the Preah Vihear temple issue as Puangthong argues in the third chapter of her book. At the beginning of the last decade Cambodia and Thailand were seriously planning to inscribe the contested temple on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On June 7, 2000, the governments in Phnom Penh and Bangkok—the latter still under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai of the Democrat Party—signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) “on the Survey and Demarcation of Land Boundary” which sought to pave the way for a solution of the Preah Vihear dispute and other unresolved border problems. A Joint Boundary Commission was set up for that purpose. From 2002 until 2007 there was an ongoing discussion between the two sides on whether Thailand should give her consent to Cambodia’s decision to nominate Prasat Preah Vihear as a Cambodian World Heritage site or whether the temple should be jointly nominated by Thailand and Cambodia. At a meeting in Bangkok on March 25, 2004 a joint committee agreed on a number of basic principles for a resolution that would solve all major problems related to developing the temple of Preah Vihear as a world heritage for humanity. Both sides agreed—at least implicitly—on a joint inscription of Preah Vihear on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A joint nomination made sense since parts of the wider temple complex, such as the Sa Trao pond, are either situated inside the disputed border area or even north of the Annex I Map line (p. 47f.).

Three years later, in talks held in 2007 and early 2008, the Cambodian government flatly rejected the idea of a joint nomination arguing that the temple was under the sole sovereignty of Cambodia and that Thailand should make a separate nomination for archaeological sites in areas under Thai sovereignty. How can this sudden change of mind be interpreted? Why did Hun Sen and Sok Anh decide to pursue no longer the idea of Preah Vihear as a transnational and trans-border joint heritage of Cambodia and Thailand? Puangthong speculates that Cambodia’s decision “was clearly based on the fact that the temple legally belong to Cambodia” (p. 48). She further speculates that the Cambodians feared a Thai “desire for Cambodian territory, particularly for this cultural site” (p. 49). Such fears are only understandable if we take into consideration the maximalist Cambodian legal standpoint arguing that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had already determined the location of the boundary in 1962 and that any Thai move to negotiate a boundary line deviating from the line marked on the Annex I Map should be considered as an unjustified claim of Cambodian territory. One may sympathize, even as a Thai scholar, with such a maximalist position which perceives any negotiations with Thailand on the border issue as just an opportunity for the Thai side to “accept reality,” in other words, to surrender to the legal position of Cambodia.

Though all Thai governments after 2008, notwithstanding their political orientation, insisted that the MoU of June 2000 did not compromise Thai legal claims on the disputed area in the neighborhood of the Preah Vihear temple, such a chain of arguments was grist for the mill of the nationalist forces in Thailand. The PAD campaign over the Preah Vihear temple dispute is discussed in the fourth and last chapter of Puangthong’s book. The author recalls the founding in early 2006 of the PAD as “a coalition of heterogeneous groups with diverse and even conflicting backgrounds and interests” ranging from “a network of grassroots and mass-based civil society organisations” (p. 57) to royalist, conservative, and nationalist groups, united only by the willingness to remove Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters from power. Given “Cambodia’s firm refusal” (p. 49) of a joint nomination, it is understandable that almost all Thai political actors became suspicious of Hun Sen’s ultimate objectives.

The strategy of the PAD network to use the Preah Vihear temple for stirring up nationalist sentiments is also discussed in Preah Vihear: A Guide to the Thai-Cambodian Conflict and Its Solution authored by the renowned Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri, former rector of Thammasat University, Pou Sothirak, a former Cambodian minister and diplomat, and the Thai political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun, now associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. The authors argue that the PAD and their allies, the Democrat Party, “rejuvenated the worst aspects of historical relations between Thailand and Cambodia” (p. 26) through the following mechanism: First, the arousal of a sense of irredentist nationalism grounded in the discourse of “lost territories” which were once ceded to French and British colonialism. Second, the Thai taboo of “selling the country” (khai chat) was resurrected to demonize their political adversaries as national traitors. Finally, the PAD and their allies “reinvented the image of Cambodians as Thailand’s archrivals” (p. 28).

It seems that the main focus of the PAD propaganda was to defend Thai sovereignty over the disputed area of 4.6 square kilometers. If the Cambodian side started to build hotels, markets, police stations, and customs facilities, or even a casino in this zone, it could do so with the backing of the International Community. Moreover, the Samak government was accused of having secretly abandoned Thai sovereignty over Prasat Preah Vihear (including the disputed area) in exchange for economic concessions from the Hun Sen government to the Shinawatra Corporation in the coastal province of Koh Kong in southwestern Cambodia (p. 27). This accusation was put forward by several “insiders” like Kasit Phirom, a former close aide to Thaksin and Thai ambassador to Berlin and Washington. After the demise of the Somchai government in December 2008, Kasit became foreign minister of Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat-led coalition government. In his new position he pursued a more pragmatic policy vis-à-vis Cambodia, eventually becoming himself a scapegoat of PAD propaganda.

Although the authors of the two books are in general sympathetic towards the Samak and Somchai governments, Puangthong at least concedes that Samak made a “strategic mistake” when he appointed Nopphadon Patthama, Thaksin’s personal lawyer, as foreign minister, given Thaksin’s very close relations with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (p. 62). Even Thaksin himself admitted, several years later, in a rare interview with the Bangkok Post in 2008 that Nopphadon “should not have supported Cambodia’s application,” concluding that “[f]rankly speaking, Thailand is at a disadvantage in this case.”2)

What are the prospects for solving the conflict on Preah Vihear, or Phra Wihan? Charnvit, Sothirak, and Pavin discuss in detail two different approaches towards a solution to the conflict. The bilateral approach would mean that Thailand and Cambodia demarcate their common border through a diplomatic process. Such a bilateral mechanism exists in the form of the above-mentioned Joint Boundary Commission which, however, was unable to complete the demarcation of the 803 kilometer long border between Thailand and Cambodia (p. 58). Fearing Thai military pressure and deeply frustrated because of the inconsistent positions of successive Thai governments over the last decade, Phnom Penh is clearly in favor of a multilateral approach to the border conflict. Against this background it is not surprising that the Cambodian government was tempted to use the registration of Preah Vihear as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to internationalize the conflict with Thailand and thus put pressure on the Thai government to yield to the Cambodian legal viewpoint. In 2011, Phnom Penh invoked the ICJ in The Hague to make a final and binding decision on the border in the vicinity of the Preah Vihear sector.

At the time when the two books under review were published, the ICJ had not yet ruled on the interpretation of the 1962 Judgment at the request of the Cambodian government. Puangthong made the reasonable prediction that a decision in favor of Cambodia, i.e. assigning the whole disputed area of 4.6 square kilometers to Cambodia, would certainly cause a public uproar in Thailand and result in serious border clashes (p. 87). Charnvit et al. come to a very similar conclusion (p. 89). Therefore, the court’s final decision announced on November 11, 2013 came to the relief of both Cambodia and Thailand as it did not leave a clear winner. The ICJ defined the whole promontory of Preah Vihear as the “vicinity” of the Preah Vihear temple which the 1962 verdict had declared as territory under Cambodian sovereignty. Cambodia can now safely claim roughly one quarter of the disputed area as her territory. The Buddhist temple, Wat Kaeo Sikkhakhirisawara, built shortly after 2000, as well as a nearby settlement inhabited mostly by the families of Cambodian soldiers, as well as a market, now dismantled, are all situated in this relatively small zone immediately to the west of the temple. The road which Phnom Penh built several years ago with Chinese help to link the temple with Cambodian territory also cuts across the promontory and has to be respected by Bangkok as territory under Cambodian sovereignty as well. This certainly satisfies Phnom Penh. However, the larger part of the disputed zone, lying further to the west and including the neighboring hill of Phnom Trap (Thai: Phu Makhüa), was considered by the ICJ as lying “outside the disputed area.”3) Therefore, the Thai government is now entitled to claim almost 3 quarters of the 4.6 square kilometers as territory under Thai sovereignty in any future bilateral negotiations on the delimitation of the border in the neighborhood of Preah Vihear.

It is not yet too late to have Prasat Preah Vihear inscribed as a joint Thai-Cambodian World Heritage of Cambodia and Thailand. The UNESCO decision of June 2008 still leaves this option open when stating that it recognizes “that Thailand has repeatedly expressed a desire to participate in a joint nomination of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its surrounding areas” and by considering “further that archaeological research is underway which could result in new significant discoveries that might enable consideration of a possible new transboundary nomination, that would require the consent of both Cambodia and Thailand.”4) The American anthropologist Helaine Silverman, an expert in heritage management and museum theory and practice, strongly supports the idea of a joint Cambodian-Thai management of Preah Vihear as a transborder World Heritage Site. She argues that, given the history of the conflict, UNESCO was adding fuel to the fire by allowing the temple to be inscribed as the sole heritage of only one nation-state. A solution acceptable to both countries in the long run would presuppose that the temple were conferred “a borderless status, assisting the two countries to prepare dual access routes to the site with appropriate passport control. The UNESCO flag and the flag of both countries would fly over the site” (Silverman 2011, 15). Given the temple’s architecture which shows a clear natural orientation towards the north and given the fact that the easiest and most convenient access to the temple is from the Thai side, a joint management of Preah Vihear still seems the best solution. The German lawyer Dr René Gralla has come forward with an ingenious idea proposing an Andorra-style solution for Preah Vihear. The whole disputed area of slightly less than five square kilometers would be proclaimed as the independent state of “Preah Vihear-Phra Wihan” ruled by two diarchs, namely the King of Cambodia and the King of Thailand, harboring a population of monks and local villagers from both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border, mostly ethnic Kui and Khmer, apart from some Lao and Thai. Such a mini-state could promote tourism, attract foreign investors, and finally become the symbol of eternal friendship between Thailand and Cambodia (Gralla and Grabowsky 2013). A dream? Perhaps, but one that should be tried.

Volker Grabowsky
Asien-Afrika-Institut of the Universität Hamburg


Gralla, René; and Grabowsky, Volker. 2013. Andorra-stlye Solution Beckons in Preah Vihear Row. Bangkok Post, September 24, 2013.

Puangthong Rungsawasdisab. 1995. War and Trade: Siamese Interventions in Cambodia, 1767–1851. PhD dissertation, University of Wollongong.

Silverman, Helaine. 2011. Border Wars: The Ongoing Temple Dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and UNESCO’s World Heritage List. International Journal of Heritage Studies 17(1): 1–21.

1) See, for example, Puangthong (1995).

2) “Thaksin warns of Thai friction over temple. History of disputed Preah Vihear area is in Cambodia’s favour, says former Prime Minister,” in Bangkok Post, March 11, 2012.

3) ICJ, “Request for interpretation of the judgment of 15 June 1962 in the case concerning the temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand),” November 11, 2013, section 98.

4) UNESCO convention concerning the protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, World Heritage Committee, Quebec City, Canada, July 2–10, 2008.


Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Veerayooth Kanchoochat

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Diversifying Retail and Distribution in Thailand
Endo Gen
Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2013, xii+275p.

Once again, Thai studies need a determined Japanese researcher to unearth the puzzling research areas that are plagued by limited data, poor statistics, and mistaken presumptions. A comprehensive account of the retail and wholesale industry has been rare, despite this industry being Thailand’s second largest sector by constituent ratio of GDP and employment.

This book by Endo Gen provides a thorough understanding of Thailand’s retail, wholesale, and distribution systems. It gives a historical background of the business with a focus on the dynamics since the 1990s—the period that has unleashed the “modern trade,” such as cash-and-carry, hypermarkets, supermarkets, and convenience stores, throughout the country.

Chapters 1 and 2 present the historical background and characteristics of Thai retailing, which, until the 1980s, had been overwhelmed by small-scale grocery stores (cho huai) or the so-called shophouse, a one-story shop with a dwelling over the top. While there is no strong argument within these two chapters, I find them insightful for those who want to understand the evolution of the sector. In addition to the general structure, the author traces today’s major players, such as the Central Group and Saha Pat, back to their origins. Competition and coordination among them are addressed and put into contextual settings extremely well. The investment and consumption booms of the late 1980s led to the advent of new retail formats and fiercer competition. The succeeding chapters develop the arguments of the book, capturing the contemporary structure and situation of the industry.

Chapter 3 discusses the 1997 financial crisis and the massive influx of new retail formats introduced by multinational companies. The author conceptualizes post-1980s Thailand’s consumer market as a “mosaic structure” that possesses significant disparities among geographical areas and income strata. He then argues that this mosaic structure is the main explanation for why retail and distribution firms in Thailand must adopt diversification strategies (pp. 38–46) and why Bangkok-based and provincial department stores “competed to open new stores in provincial cities, which led to excessive competition” (p. 63).

Chapter 4 poses an important question: Have new retail formats really heralded a distribution revolution? As the 1997 financial crisis created the opportunities for new, foreign-led retailers, particularly hypermarkets which sell daily foods and necessities at lower prices, the change in the retail and distribution sector looks so immense that most observers would call it a “revolution.” Nonetheless, Endo argues that the revolution has yet to come. Things have been changed, for sure. From a long and complicated chain of distribution networks, the modern retail formats now deal directly with manufacturers, with an increased relative bargaining power of the former. The distribution and logistics systems have been improved, have greater efficiency, and are equipped with better information technology. Commercial practices, such as the payment systems, have been considerably modified, too.

Yet, given all the above changes, the author argues that we should not call it a revolution, for a number of reasons (pp. 128–129). To begin with, the biggest players in the market, that is, hypermarkets and cash-and-carry stores, have achieved growth mainly from expanding their number of stores. However, doing so is becoming increasingly difficult over time. The active expansion into provinces via smaller-size stores of these modern retailers has caused managerial problems in their logistics management. Another modern retail format, the supermarket, has also struggled to develop its own unique competitive advantage and has suffered managerial problems, low profitability, and high operating costs. Likewise, convenience stores have not succeeded in establishing themselves as an important retail format and have had no significant impact on the distribution system, as initially expected.

The book’s most profound findings are presented in Chapter 5. Among mass media and policymakers in Thailand, the conventional focus of the industry after 1997 has always been the struggle of traditional mom-and-pop stores vis-à-vis multinational retailers. In certain provinces, local retailers staged protests by provoking nationalist sentiment against the entry of multinationals. But Thai retailing has never been that simplistic and dichotomous, and the adaptive skills of local entrepreneurs should not be underestimated. Furthermore, from the demand side, previous analyses typically looked into the middle classes but overlooked the lower-income consumers, who in fact own the lion’s share of retail consumptions.

As Endo points out, the crisis has not bypassed wholesalers. Instead, it is provincial wholesalers who have emerged as critical players in the game after the dust settled. Amid the penetration of the multinationals, most traditional wholesalers (yi pua) in the provinces have adapted themselves sufficiently to maintain a firm grip on today’s retail and distribution system. In their respective provinces, the leading wholesalers “have converted their operations into new formats by implementing certain aspects of new retail formats’ management systems,” and therefore become what the author calls a “provincial-city-based, retail-cum-wholesale company” (p. 163). Such an adaptation also has a positive impact on the mom-and-pop stores by giving them “more channels to buy goods, which could make it easier to start a new business” (p. 137). As a result, the author makes a strong claim that we should not overstate the effects of modern trade on traditional stores: “While many stores did close down, enough stores opened to largely offset the loss. Thus, it seems that the impact of new retail formats varies” (p. 137). To support this claim, Endo digs deeper into the stories and generational change of provincial wholesalers such as Tang Ngee Soon in Udon Thani, Yongsanguan in Ubon Ratchathani, and Ekkaphap in Saraburi.

There are three comments I would make about this book. First, in general, Japan seems to be the point of reference throughout the book, but such a comparison unfolds in fits and starts. The insights and lessons from a comparative perspective could have been more illuminating if the author had made the comparison in a more constructive manner. Second, the question about whether Thailand has undergone a “distribution revolution” is a moot point. And I would think that the author refutes this hypothesis mainly because he contrasts it with the Japanese case. Given the changes the author mentioned (the direct deal between retailers and manufacturers, improved distribution and logistics systems, altered commercial practices, the hybrid format of wholesale-cum-retail stores), it could be counted as a revolution, especially by Thai standards and in comparison with what the sector looked like before (as depicted in Chapters 1 and 2). Meanwhile, the reasons the author raised to reject the revolution hypothesis (pp. 128–129) are, in essence, inefficiency at firm level, rather than the big picture of the sector. Dramatic changes have already been grounded in Thai retailing, yet the direction in which it has headed differs from the Japanese experience.

My final comment is about the provincial wholesalers. As the book elaborates, the provincial wholesalers have survived and flourished because they adopted certain features of modern trade, as well as managed to attain low-cost operations. This is true. But I would like to add cultural and geographical aspects to the issue. From my previous research (Veerayooth 2008), local retailers and wholesalers usually stay afloat because they know local people very well. To compete with megastores, either Bangkok-based or foreign, comparable prices are necessary, but not sufficient. The promotions and special campaigns have to be tailored to local custom. For example, they know what specific items should be sold as a package deal, and who are the folk singers they should invite, on the Buddhist Lent Day in their areas. Geography also helps. Many wholesalers, especially those located near the borderlines, are able to buy consumer goods from manufacturers in bulk, not to sell solely to Thai consumers, but to re-sell to the middlemen coming from neighboring countries. Big manufacturers acknowledge, and sometimes even encourage, this demeanor, even if it goes against their code of conduct, in order to boost their own monthly sales.

All in all, the key strengths of the book lie in the detailed survey and discerning analyses. The author has placed strenuous efforts into collecting and processing data from various sources, including the commemorative books from the funerals of business persons. This book is the product of industrious and committed research, with an inductive method of discovery that generates fresh findings and unconventional wisdom. The actual structure and situation of the industry has been uncovered as the author promises. It fills a significant gap in the field and will definitely be required reading for anyone interested in Thailand’s retail and distribution.

Veerayooth Kanchoochat วีระยุทธ กาญจน์ชูฉัตร
National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), Japan


Veerayooth Kanchoochat. 2008. Services, Servility, and Survival: The Accommodation of Big Retail. In Thai Capital after the 1997 Crisis, edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, pp. 85–104. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.


Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, AKAGAWA Natsuko

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

A Heritage of Ruins: The Ancient Sites of Southeast Asia and Their Conservation
William Chapman
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013, 340p.

With this well presented book, William Chapman has provided a fascinating overview of the iconic heritage sites of Southeast Asia. It is, as the introduction and acknowledgments indicate, the outcome of the author’s many years of thorough research, and of reflection, conversations, practice, and accumulated knowledge in the field. The locations Chapman discusses will be familiar to all who have traveled or read the history of Southeast Asia, but perhaps few will have visited all of them. This makes the book, apart from anything else, a significant overview of these sites. But in the first place this is a book on the history of heritage practice.

Ruins have long been the iconic markers of antiquity, empire, and nationhood since the nineteenth century, and through scholarly and popular literature, textbooks and nationalist propaganda, tourism and documentaries, the “ruins of Southeast Asia” featured in this book have become recognized globally as significant heritage sites. As the reader would expect then, represented here are the temple complexes of Prambanan and Borobudur in Indonesia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Khorat Plateu temples in Thailand, My Son in Vietnam, Vat Phu in Laos, Pagan in Burma, and Lembah Bujang in Malaysia. Other sites, notably the Prasat Preah Vihear temple complex, currently the center of conflicting claims by Thailand and Cambodia, are discussed in passing. The main purpose of A Heritage of Ruins, aside from presenting an account of their origins is, as the subtitle indicates, to review how they have been conserved since their discovery as “ruins,” to become essential elements in national and world heritage.

In five substantive chapters, the book provides a “history of heritage practice” for each of these ancient sites. The reader is thus invited to compare different colonial conservation practices and their legacy for post-colonial nations, as well as to compare contemporary heritage practices and the uses of heritage under different political regimes. When it comes to the present, Chapman shows how the safeguarding of these “ruins” has become a focus of international interest, cooperation, and of increasingly uniform practices.

The title of this finely produced book will catch the eye of many readers, and will no doubt also raise some questions. As Chapman indicates, in the nineteenth century “ruins” came to form a central theme in the nostalgic remembrance of things past. Ruins had long formed the imaginary of artists and poets, particularly in the British tradition, and with increased travel, they became the destination for new generations of well-heeled tourists, firstly within Europe but increasingly also in Europe’s empires abroad. Here they played a role in bolstering the justification for European imperialism, as representing literally the ruins of the past empires of Asia now superseded by superior modern European ones. Yet, as Chapman’s account shows, the colonial conservation practices that developed in the course of the nineteenth century safeguarded, and in some cases salvaged, these Southeast Asian ruins as national monuments for future post-colonial nations. As Chapman’s succinct overview of the histories of each of these sites demonstrates, many of today’s conservation practices and the “meanings” given to heritage have emerged from these past practices. For post-World War II modern nations of Southeast Asia, these ancient sites, whose presence has over the course of the previous century become firmly established in the Western imagination, provided immediate and imposing, internationally recognizable symbols of nationhood.

While necessarily concise, the histories Chapman provides in five country-focused chapters present an invaluable overview for understanding the background of heritage practice in Southeast Asia that will be useful to students of heritage and equally informative for the diligent traveler and the interested general reader. For most readers, the current state of heritage practice which forms the final section of each chapter will be of particular interest. Building on these individual accounts, the book’s two concluding chapters offer a broader discussion of the state of heritage in Southeast Asia today, as this pertains not only to the particular sites in question, but briefly in a final chapter, also with regard to heritage practice in general.

In the penultimate chapter, Chapman provides brief insightful commentaries on a range of practical issues that arise from contemporary practices and circumstances related to these well-visited sites. Emphasizing the interconnection between heritage and tourism, a perspective that permeates the whole volume, Chapman points to the tension between local and foreign tourism in their “use” of these heritage sites, and between the historical value of the sites and the growing dependence upon them as income-earning enterprises. This tends to point to conflicting messages for heritage practitioners. While on the one hand, Chapman appears to concur with the suggestion that site managers “have to fight for market share” of the tourist dollar by bringing “fresh attractions to their venues” (p. 230), elsewhere he argues strongly that the historical “spiritual links” adhering to these must be safeguarded. These links often reach back to older traditions that defy contemporary religious boundaries, political ideologies, and modern preoccupations. Underlying this discussion is the potential conflict between the interests of different stakeholders to which the future of these sites are beholden.

In a final brief chapter Chapman in a sense brings the narrative of this book full circle. These ancient ruins, once plucked from obscurity by imperial endeavor to become the focus of international tourism and scientific research, now need to be seen as “part of a shared past,” as important elements of a global heritage whose on-going conservation concerns us all.

This is a useful book in many respects. While full of history, each chapter follows a consistent, forward framework. For the uninitiated in heritage questions, the book requires little technical pre-knowledge yet introduces the reader to real and contemporary questions facing site managers and heritage practitioners, national governments and world bodies. With its rich history and thought provoking discussion, these issues should also concern the conscientious traveler when he or she next visits one of these awe-inspiring edifices of human civilization.

Akagawa Natsuko 赤川夏子
School of Social Sciences, The University of Western Australia


Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Cheow-Thia CHAN

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China
Alison M. Groppe
Amherst: Cambria Press, 2013, x+325p.

Studies of the Chinese overseas have devoted substantial attention to Southeast Asia owing to deep historical connections forged by the overwhelming majority of Chinese migrants to the region. While historical and ethnographic approaches are common modes of inquiries, analyses of literary writings are seldom featured in the relevant scholarship (Liu 2006). From the perspective of modern Chinese literary studies in the English language academe, however, it is Southeast Asia that is an unfamiliar parameter of research. With recent calls by scholars to pay greater attention to “expressive documents” about Chinese migration in order to probe the Chineseness of displaced memories and desires, or to advocate a strategic focus on creative writings for exploring ambivalent Chinese sentiments in different world regions, the two fields have been set up for a productive dialogue and are currently experiencing exciting transformations (Wang 2007; Shih 2013).

Participating in the ongoing paradigm shift toward a global conception of Chinese literature and culture, Alison M. Groppe’s well-researched Sinophone Malaysian Literature: Not Made in China offers an excellent overview not only of salient works from a fascinating corpus that has thus far eluded English-language scholarship, but also of the lineage of approaches critical for grasping the larger ramifications arising from its anomalous status as “sectional literature” in Malaysia, where only literary works written in the national language of Malay are recognized as “national literature” (pp. 2, 282). The book leverages Malaysia for its unique insights about the adaptive experiences of China-origin people who account for a minority yet politically significant community residing outside the mainland Chinese state, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Broadly speaking, Groppe explores the question of what it means “to be of Chinese descent and to be Chinese-speaking outside of China” (p. 25) primarily through examining modes of literary representations Malaysian-born writers employ to negotiate and express their layered ethnic and national identities in postcolonial Malaysia. In its focus on Malaysia as a vibrant location beyond China’s geopolitical borders that has nurtured an active contingent of innovative writers, the monograph joins E. K. Tan’s Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World (also published by Cambria Press in 2013) in ushering Southeast Asia into the horizon of modern Chinese literary studies (p. 283).

Chapter 1 maps the critical concepts that undergird Groppe’s ensuing interpretation of the complicated and multifarious relationships across the locales of China, Taiwan, and Malaysia that a compelling repertoire of Chinese-language narratives contemplates. Of crucial utility to Groppe is the notion of the Sinophone as “a network of places of cultural production” which, in her discourse, follows the coinage and explication by Shu-mei Shih (2013) who foregrounds its non-China and Sinitic traits. Groppe points out how Mandarin functions as the medium of Chinese education and mass media for most of the twentieth century in Malaysia, where it co-exists with other Sinitic topolects including Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, and Hainanese that arrived in tandem with Chinese migrants from China’s southern provinces. At the same time that Sinophone Malaysian literature (hereafter SML) gives prominence to both the geographical origin of the writers and the linguistic medium of their works (pp. 5, 9–15), the book also draws upon the ideas of other interlocutors, such as Salman Rushdie, James Clifford, and Chow Tse-Tsung, to suggest an eclectic identification process evinced by migrant writers. Inspired also by Stuart Hall’s processual perspective on identity, Groppe ultimately stakes her overarching claim that Sinophone Malaysian fiction should be valued for its ability to represent a distinctive “process of becoming rather than being” in the authorial subjects’ self-reflexive search for suitable Chinese cultural identities (p. 22) enmeshed with local histories.

Chapter 2 surveys the cultural politics affecting the Malaysian field of Chinese literary production. Groppe contends, vis-a-vis literature written in creolized Baba Malay, English, and classical Chinese, that the self-conscious mediation of Chinese identities is more evident in the body of work initiated by the use of vernacular Chinese incubated by local newspaper supplements and Chinese language education for creative writings in early twentieth century (p. 29). By synthesizing critical ideas distilled from the scholarship of Fang Xiu, Tee Kim Tong, and Sharon Carstens, among others, she skillfully interweaves political milestones and literary development in British Malaya and postcolonial Malaysia to depict the broader challenges the Chinese community faces in advocating its ethnic cultural identification as a legitimate part of the hitherto Malay-centric national culture. Readers will become acquainted with literary polemics pertaining to issues about distinctive aesthetics, appropriation of traditional cultural symbols, canonization etc. that collectively refract an anxiety over the local creation of an autonomous subjectivity for SML. In this regard, as well as in light of her overall thrust to avoid privileging any particular genealogical bonds with Malaysia in the realm of Chinese cultural production, Groppe appears more sympathetic toward local efforts in the Southeast Asian state when she stresses that SML written and published in Taiwan “should not be taken as representing the whole or even necessarily the best of Sinophone Malaysian literature’s past, present and future” (p. 52), despite its significant and conspicuous accomplishment in achieving literary distinction beyond the Malaysian shores.

Chapter 3 delves into the complex imbrication of language, place, and identity. Groppe relates the central predicament of authors to “the challenges of crafting their literary language in the northern-based topolect of Mandarin while writing of and within the Sinophone Southeast Asian (Nanyang) environment” (p. 58), a milieu that uses a variety of Sinitic topolects from southern China in everyday life. She parses the problematic through the discourse of the contemporary critic and writer Ng Kim Chew, focusing in particular his distinction between zhongwen and huawen—discrepant terms for the Chinese written language—that allows him to argue for two types of literary language, indicative of a China/Mandarin-oriented and a local Malaysian Chinese cultural identification respectively. Following Ng’s analytic, Groppe traces the historical contours of different formulations through which Sinophone Malayan and Malaysian authors have endeavored to foster a distinct literary voice through “a strategy of language differentiation” (p. 60) that bears out different shades of Chinese cultural identity. Whereas the earlier writers and critics were inclined to view literary language as a tool for accurate sociolinguistic representation, Ng, who is equipped with wider exposure to modernist models from China and Taiwan, is committed to harnessing topolectal colloquialism for innovation in literary aesthetics and reflections on marginality (p. 90). As Groppe astutely points out, despite great disparities in attitudinal and practical orientation, both sides sought the same recourse to spoken language as the favored cultural resource for fashioning a unique literary language for SML (pp. 72–73, 79–80, 86, 96). The final part of the chapter instantiates Stuart Hall’s sustained influence on Groppe’s argument, when she maintains the relevance of the notion of “minor literature” coined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in light of Ronald Bogue’s characterization of it as a creative process and manner of literary writing rather than a niche typology of literary output.

The remaining chapters feature a series of author and thematic studies. It is to Groppe’s credit that she has incorporated into her discussion figures such as Li Tianbao (Chapter 5) and Li Zishu (Chapter 7) whose creative orientations differ from that of a select group of Sinophone Malaysian writers who have been recruited thus far to illustrate the theoretical underpinnings of Sinophone studies centered on a critique of Sinocentrism. The pioneering nature of the monograph necessitates that these chapters must furnish substantial introductions to local sociopolitical circumstances, writers’ personal trajectories, and plot synopses. Extending an approach from the previous chapter, Groppe continues to couple SML with critical concepts to accentuate its situated nature in the making of modern Chinese cultural identities in a globalizing world. In Chapter 4, Linda Hutcheon’s “postmodern parody” is appropriated to read Ng Kim Chew’s satirical tales, unified by a trope of quest revolving around a missing eminent author from China, the fascinating plots of which intimate the difficult cultivation of literary autonomy for Sinophone Malaysia due to the enduring influence of mainland Chinese writing traditions. Expanding the historical purview of Chua Beng Huat’s formulation regarding “pop culture China,” Chapter 5 pairs the author Li Tianbao with the Sarawak-born director Tsai Ming-liang to contend that, by referencing music and films from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan from the earlier decades of the twentieth century, the aesthetic design of their works testifies to the well-established traffic of imagination, production, and consumption of Sinophone cultural products, as well as demonstrates the range of Malaysia’s discursive and sentimental affiliations to multiple nodes in a network driven by an economy of popular culture. In Chapter 6, Svetlana Boym’s notion of “reflective nostalgia” that underscores a critical self-reflexive element in the enactment of individual memories offers Groppe a conceptual launch pad for interpreting Li Yongping’s narrative recollections about his hometown in Kuching. The autobiographical effect, the trope of displaced wandering in urban Taipei, where the protagonist shares his remembrances about Borneo through conversation, essentially becomes in Li’s work, a coded style of introspection that negotiates the vexatious issues of home and diaspora, self-identity, and ethnic cultural identification. As Groppe rightly elucidates, Li’s diasporic identity formation carries other anti-hegemonic valences evolved within a colonial setting that are belied by his Sinophilic image (pp. 203, 206). Public memory becomes the more encompassing rubric in Chapter 7 that covers works by Ng Kim Chew, Li Yongping, Zhang Guixing, and Li Zishu. Groppe treats their fictional writings that reflect upon the Malayan communist insurrections from late 1940s to 1960s as emblematic artifacts of what John Bodnar has termed “vernacular culture,” a folk configuration of diversity committed to expressing the affective dimension of social realities as experienced by ordinary individuals, in contradistinction to the normative slant of official articulations (pp. 235–236).

While the monograph predominantly addresses fictional works read in the light of Sinophone theory, the conclusion briefly reverses the interpretive method by exploring how Sinophone Malaysian literary production can problematize the concerns of the Sinophone. Departing from existing deployments of the Sinophone concept that either includes or excludes China, Groppe reiterates the unique role Malaysia can play in reminding Sinophone theory to stay flexible, open-minded, and sensitive to the nuances of difference present in local history and literary arts arising from connectivity on multiple scales (pp. 280–281, 287–288). What deserves even greater appreciation is how she thoughtfully references “Why Sinophone Malaysian Literature?”—the profoundly influential 1993 essay by Lim Kien Ket, an important critical voice that has been conspicuously elided from the current spotlight on Malaysian Chinese literary production in English language scholarship. Responding to the query in the title of Lim’s essay, she puts forth the value of studying SML’s “transnational, traveling and even translingual” profile, as well as suggests its heuristic value for theorizing cultural relations between mainland China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia (pp. 282–283).

Overall, with its comprehensive coverage, focused treatment, and lucid exposition, Sinophone Malaysian Literature marks a key reference volume in the English language on the topic. Not only does it succeed in pluralizing the scholarship on the Chinese overseas and modern Chinese literature, it also urges deeper dialogue with other fields of knowledge such as human geography and Southeast Asian Studies. It could be productive, for instance, to bring in Li Yongping’s professed ambivalence over the classification of his works as “Sinophone Malaysian literature” (Chen and Mayer 1998), given that he grew up in colonial Sarawak and left North Borneo for Taiwan very soon after the colony joined the new political formation of Malaysia. Whether it is the geopolitical “Malaysia” denoting a national space of interpellation or Borneo as a native landscape for embodied dwelling that carries greater import for Li in his reconciliatory effort with his own ambiguous Chinese identity becomes a question that Groppe subtly broaches and invites deeper reflection (pp. 249, 278n5). In addition, Tee Kim Tong’s thesis about “interference” from China’s New Literature movement in early twentieth century (pp. 28, 285) and Groppe’s delineation of the writers’ conscious strategy of “linguistic adaption” (p. 72) to suture spoken and literary language both suggest an underlying Sinophone ecology in situ. Echoing the long-standing interest in the construction of historical agency through processes such as “domestication” and “vernacularization” in Southeast Asian historiography (Reynolds 1995), such perspectives that assert local will and inventiveness when engaging foreign elements shore up peripheral avenues of research which now seem well worth pursuing. What are the other linguistic and literary modalities of artistic agency in Malaya/Malaysia over the past two centuries? How should one re-evaluate the historical conditions of co-existing or competing artistic practices bound to discrepant ideas and feelings of being Chinese? It is worthwhile to note that history and literature might view the discursive trope of “localization” through different optics, perceiving the process as either one of absorption of foreign influence, or one engaged in adaptation to new cultural contexts. Inquiries into overlapping or abutting configurations of Baba Malay literature, classical Chinese literature, and Anglophone literature that are regrettably less developed in Groppe’s discourse, then, hold great potential in developing a thicker biography of how the Sinophone comes to perform the local and becomes entangled with cultural modernity in the region. These issues notwithstanding, her laudable book-length study has laid a solid foundation upon which scholars can investigate further to yield fresher insights about the uneasy making of modern Sinophone Southeast Asian subjects and their hybrid cultural identities.

Cheow-Thia Chan 曾昭程
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, Yale University


Chen, Elaine; and Mayer, David, tr. Outsider in Taipei—Li Yung-ping. Taiwan Panorama, July 1998, (accessed May 22, 2014).

Liu, Hong, ed. 2006. The Chinese Overseas. 4 vols. London and New York: Routledge.

Reynolds, Craig J. 1995. A New Look at Old Southeast Asia. The Journal of Asian Studies 54: 419–446.

Shih, Shu-mei. 2013. Introduction: What is Sinophone Studies? In Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, edited by Shu-mei Shih, Chien-hsin Tsai, and Brian Bernards, pp. 1–16. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tan, E. K. 2013. Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World. Amherst: Cambria Press.

Wang, Gungwu. 2007. Mixing Memory and Desire: Tracking the Migrant Cycles. In Chinese Overseas: Migration, Research and Documentation, edited by Chee Beng Tan, Colin Storey, and Julia Zimmerman, pp. 3–20. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.


Vol. 3, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Keith W. TAYLOR

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3



Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946)
David G. Marr
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, xix+721p.

David Marr’s scholarship, which has spanned almost half a century, has had a great influence upon the direction of Vietnamese studies. We are all in his debt for showing what can be done by careful archival research and for making his findings accessible to people interested in Vietnam. His books have become the foundation of scholarship on modern Vietnamese history in the English language and have had a great influence upon work published in all other languages as well, including Vietnamese. Whatever the criticisms that might be made of his work, including mine in this review, they take nothing away from his monumental achievement in bringing historical knowledge about the modern Vietnamese into readable books.

Marr’s first monograph, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885–1925 (1971) was written in wartime with an agenda of asserting a theme of heroic, albeit unsuccessful, Vietnamese resistance to French colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to explain why US policy was doomed, thus providing a scholarly blessing to the anti-war viewpoint of that time; it was suffused with an approbation of a certain kind of nationalism as a legitimizing historical force, which was a dominant academic perspective in the 1960s and 1970s. As Marr states in his Preface (p. xv), his “fundamental assumption . . . is that one cannot understand resistance efforts in Vietnam in more recent times without going back at least to 1885.” The concept of “resistance” is important in all of Marr’s books, which to him means resistance to the non-revolutionary mainstream of Vietnamese nationalism.

Marr’s second book, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 (1981), revealed the lively intellectual life of educated Vietnamese during the late French colonial period. It provided inspiration for a generation of young scholars of modern Vietnamese history that came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it has proven to be the most influential of Marr’s books.

In his last two books, Marr has focused on what he sees as the centerpiece of modern Vietnamese history, the August Revolution of 1945. In Vietnam 1945 (1995) he takes readers through the events leading up to the August Revolution and the declaration of independence announced in Hanoi on September 2, 1945. Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946), according to Marr in his Preface (p. xv), “focuses on events of the next sixteen months, when Vietnam’s future course was largely determined.” This statement comes immediately after Marr notes the difference between the August Revolution in Hanoi and in Saigon: “one orderly, one anarchic, [which] showed how the popular upheavals of August could propel Vietnam in starkly different directions.” Here we find an implicit contradiction between north and south going in “starkly different directions” while there is but one “future course” that was “largely determined” for “Vietnam”; the implication is that the south had fallen out of the logic governing Vietnamese history.

The strength of this book is the depth of detail with which it describes how state and party structures were built from the enthusiasm of the August Revolution in northern Vietnam during 1945 and 1946. However, Marr presents this structure as the predetermined “future course” of “Vietnam.” He has no discernible interest in the many Vietnamese who did not agree with this future course and were prepared to resist it, for they, from Marr’s perspective, did not represent “Vietnam,” being dupes, wittingly or not, of foreign powers.

Marr’s hardening of focus from “Vietnamese” in his first two books to “Vietnam” in his last two books suggests a bias in legitimizing a particular scheme of state formation. I do not mean to imply that there is anything objectionable about this, but it cannot but be obvious that the general direction of this interpretive strategy is to scrape away a large number of Vietnamese from the bailiwick of “Vietnam,” or, at least, to render them into some kind of lessor category of membership in the thing called “Vietnam.”

Marr appears to address this issue on the last page of his Epilogue, where he wrote;

From the point of view of many Vietnamese, the pro-American Republic of Vietnam was the insurgent threat, not the DRV or the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. No CIA-initiated program, be it “civic action,” “census grievance,” “counterterror,” or “political action,” managed to overcome this liability. Washington then escalated to search-and-destroy operations, forced urbanization, and bombing the north, greatly increasing the human toll but not reversing the underlying political dynamics. (p. 578)

In this thumb-nail narrative of the 1960s, Marr’s “many Vietnamese” represent “the underlying political dynamics” that no amount of CIA and Washington policies could overcome, putting us back into the framework of Marr’s first book. Marr is not interested in the “many Vietnamese” who resisted the vision that the DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam)/National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam had for the future of their country; he denies them any legitimate right to have a voice about how to organize the state. For Marr, any Vietnamese who oppose his “many Vietnamese” are simply an “insurgent threat” to his “Vietnam”; they are “pro-American” in a sense that Marr neglects to compare with the pro-Soviet or pro-PRC “many Vietnamese” of his “Vietnam.” He denies his “pro-American” non-many Vietnamese any agency, attributing his scare quoted phrases to foreign meddlers. At most, this is an exuberant view of “underlying political dynamics” in a determinist version of history. At least, this is a one-sided, exclusionary view of the Vietnamese.

The degree to which this book is based on archival materials is remarkable and praiseworthy, which for some may also be a limitation in the sense that it tends to read like a transcription of research notes. Aside from scattered comments, there is little analytical development, nor is there a chronological narrative enabling a sense of the actual flow and logic of events as they happened; what we have is a topical organization of archival debris that has survived from events, along with an implication that this allows us to see how a structure of state authority was built in the wake of a revolution.

Many passages are a survey of archival materials on a particular topic. For example, the section entitled “Importing Marxism-Leninism” (pp. 490–492) provides no explanation of the significance of the topic and ends abruptly with a non sequitur. This is typical of many sections in the book. Other passages are a miscellaneous accumulation of bits and pieces of information gleaned from the archives. It is a pleasure for people like myself to savor these details, but for students or general readers who lack a mental context for appreciating the author’s prowess as an archivist it may come across as a jumble.

A strength of this format, as others have noted, is that it suggests a contingency of events beyond the guidance or control of the communist leadership, which goes against the grain of a previous widespread assumption, nurtured by ICP (Indochinese Communist Party) historians, that the August Revolution and its sequel was the result of an almost omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent group of men led by Ho Chi Minh. Yet, one aspect of the book is the degree to which Marr appears to buy into Ho Chi Minh’s cult of “Uncle Ho.”

On page 265, Marr says “Ho’s subsequent actions” following his return from France in October 1946 “suggest that he retained a multilateral view of the world until 1949.” Earlier in the same paragraph Marr says that any retention of a multilateral view of the world was purely tactical. The “subsequent actions” are not cited or explained. Mention of the year 1949 implies that once the Chinese communists arrived on the Vietnamese border it was they who set the agenda of the Vietnamese revolution and forced Ho Chi Minh out of his “multilateral view.”

Similarly, on page 453, Marr mentions “certain operational advantages” in dissolving the ICP, then follows this up with: “Beyond that, I doubt that Ho wanted an ICP dictatorship anytime soon.” Marr’s doubt about what Ho may or may not have wanted “any time soon” is obscure if not naïve.

This solicitous care for nurturing a benevolent image for Uncle Ho is extended to the ICP leadership more generally on page 497, describing a time in late 1946: “The most senior members of the ICP did not believe in proletarian dictatorship for Vietnam any time soon.” The twice-repeated “any time soon” formula lacks clarity.

On the next page (p. 498), Marr goes even further to say “Before 1945, the ICP might be compared with the very early Christian church, constantly under threat, necessarily clandestine.” This remarkable “might be” comparison reveals a neglect of the ICP’s international connections and both actual and potential sources of external support, something unavailable to “the very early Christian church.” Where Marr is going with his comparison, his suggestion, his doubt, his any-time-soon becomes apparent at the end of the paragraph: “Along the way, Truong Chinh became a separate pole of power from President Ho Chi Minh” (p. 498). What this actually means is vague, but it strongly implies that Truong Chinh was as much or more in the driver’s seat of the state as was Ho Chi Minh and thus shared or even bore most responsibility for unsavory aspects of the Vietnamese revolutionary path. The idea of Truong Chinh being the scapegoat taking away any possible sins that might accrue to Uncle Ho is not new, but it has yet to be proven and Marr provides no evidence for it, being content to simply say that it is something that happened “along the way.” Without evidence it can be no more than an effort to keep a clean slate for Uncle Ho.

On page 533, Marr makes an important and revealing statement in reference to DRV calculations of literacy instruction in 1946: “This sort of pseudo-scientific precision with big numbers became common in the DRV, sometimes making it impossible for decision makers to distinguish wish from reality.” Here, the archivist’s suspicion of big precise numbers opens a small ray of light upon dissonance between the wishes of his many Vietnamese and the reality they inhabited. Yet, the vague plural expression “decision makers,” given the context of the book, allows Marr to spread responsibility for the unrealistic policies, the murders, and the acts of injustice committed by revolutionaries, to all levels of decision-making, down to the local self-appointed operatives who were out of the ICP’s control. Marr does not shy away from the bloody-mindedness of many who followed the revolution, but he implies that it still represented a more legitimate “Vietnam” than any other that he can imagine.

Nevertheless, this is a good book, full of information to delight specialists of modern Vietnamese history. Marr’s work during the past half-century has transformed the study of Vietnamese history, showing that the Vietnamese have participated in the modern world with the full force of their aspirations for betterment. His years spent in the archives have not been in vain. His books are a great benefit for other scholars, and this book brings us into the details of government activity in the DRV during 1945 and 1946 as no other scholar has been able to do.

Keith W. Taylor
Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University


Vol. 3, No. 3, Mujiburrahman

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3


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


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

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

e-mail: mujib71[at]

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

Keywords: Islam, theology, Banjarese, Indonesia

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

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

Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari’s Theological Text and Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamic Theological Texts Taught in Banjarese Society

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

The Theological Texts Taught and Written by Banjarese Ulama

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

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

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


Table 1 Theological Texts Used in Religious Gatherings (Pengajian)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contents and Relevance of the Theological Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Accepted: March 26, 2014


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Bibliographical Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vol. 3, No. 3, Piyada Chonlaworn

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

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

Piyada Chonlaworn*

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

e-mail: u2piyada[at]

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

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

I Introduction

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

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

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



Map 1 The Seven Provinces (Former Pattani Kingdom)

Source: Kobkua (1988, 160).


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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Structure and Administrative Practice

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

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

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



Fig. 2 Political Structure in Pattani before the 1901 Reform

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


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

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

Legal and Judicial Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

III New Rules and Regulations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Source: Bangkok National Archives.


Kali Courts in the Seven Provinces

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

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

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

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

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

IV Imposition of the Legal and Judicial System

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

Case 1: Nikuan versus the Raja of Yaring

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


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



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

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

Case 2: Sadloh versus the Raja of Raman

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

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

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

Concluding Remarks

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

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

Accepted: September 6, 2013


Arifin Binji อารีฟีน บินจิ; Abdullah La-orman อับดุลเลาะห์ ลออแมน; and Ahmad Somboon Bualuang อัฮหมัดสมบูรณ์ บัวหลวง. 2000. Patani Darussalam ปาตานี ดารุสสลาม [The kingdom of Patani]. Yala: Cultural Center of Southern Thailand.

Bang-nara อ.บางนรา. 1976 [2008]. Pattani adit-patjuban ปัตตานี อดีต ปัจจุบัน [Pattani: Its past and present]. Publisher unknown. Reprinted in a proceeding of “Islam and Muslims in Southeast Asia Conference,” November 28–29, 2008, Thailand. Bangkok: Foundation of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbook Project.

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Loos, Tamara. 2010. Competitive Colonialisms: Siam and the Malay Muslim South. In Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, edited by Rachel Harrison and Peter Jackson, pp. 75–91. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

―. 2006. Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books. First published by Cornell University, 2002.

―. 2004–05. Siam’s Subjects: Muslims, Law, and Colonialism in Southern Thailand. Southeast Asia Program Bulletin Winter-Spring, 2004–2005: 6–11. Accessed April 22, 2012,

Maneeratana Yamprasert มณีรัตน์ แย้มประเสริฐ. 1977. Botbat thangdan kan borihan rachakaan pandin khong Chaophrya Yommarat (Pan Sukhum) nai rachasamai Phryabat somdet Phra Mongkutklao chaoyuhua บทบาททางด้านการบริหารราชการแผ่นดินของเจ้าพระยายมราช (ปั้น สุขุม) ในรัชสมัยพระบาทสมเด็จพระมงกุฎเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว [The administrative role of Chao Phrya Yommarat (Pan Sukhum) during the reign of King Vajiravudh]. M.A. thesis, Chulalongkorn University.

Mohtar bin Haji Mohammad Dom. 1979. Malaysian Customary Law and Usage. Federal Cultural Series. Kuala Lumpur: Federal Publications.

Nantawan Haemindra. 1976. The Problem of the Thai-Muslims in the Four Southern Provinces of Thailand (Part 1). Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 7(2): 197–225.

Narong Siripachana ณรงค์ ศิริปะชะนะ. 1975. Kwampenma khong kotmai Islam lae Datok Yutittham ความเป็นมาของกฎหมายอิสลามและดาโต๊ะยุติธรรม [The origins of Islamic law and judges]. Bangkok: Khana-kamakhan Klang Itsalam Haeng Prathet Thai [National Central Committee of Islam].

Omar Farouk Bajunid. 2005. Islam, Nationalism, and the Thai State. In Dynamic Diversity in Southern Thailand, edited by Wattana Sugunnasil, pp. 1–20. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

Peletz, Michael G. 2002. Islamic Modern: Religious Courts and Cultural Politics in Malaysia. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Phan-ngam Gothamasan พรรณงาม เง่าธรรมสาร. 1976. Kanpokkrong Huamuangpaaktai thang 7 nairachasamai Phrabat Somdet Phra Chulachomklao Chaoyuhua การปกครองหัวเมืองภาคใต้ทั้ง 7 ในรัชสมัยพระบาทสมเด็จพระจุลจอมเกล้าเจ้าอยู่หัว [The administration of the seven southern Siamese provinces or the so-called “Seven Malay States” during the reign of King Chulalongkorn]. M.A. thesis, Chulalongkorn University.

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―. 1978. Kanpatirup kanpokkrong Monthon Pattani pho so 2499–2474 การปฎิรูปการปกครองมณฑลปัตตานี (พ.ศ.2449–2474) [Administrative reform in Monthon Pattani, 1906–31]. M.A. thesis, Sri Nakharinwirot University, Bangkok.

Somdet Phryachao Boromawongthu Kromphrya Damrongrachanuphab สมเด็จพระยาเจ้าบรมวงษ์เธอกรมพระยาดำรงราชานุภาพ. 1966. Thesaphiban เทศาภิบาล [Thesaphiban]. Printed on occasion of the Cremation of Phrya Chindarak (Chamlong Sawat-chuto), October 10, 1966.

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Thanet Aphornsuvan. 2008. Origins of Malay Muslim “Separatism” in Southern Thailand. In Thai South and Malay North: Ethnic Interactions on a Plural Peninsula, edited by Michael Montesano and Patrick Jory, pp. 91–123. Singapore: NUS Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Literally “department of politics” in Thai.

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

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

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

11) Khaek law here means Islamic law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34) กีตับคุนวา

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

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

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

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

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


Vol. 3, No. 3, Trinh Ly Khanh

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3

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

Trinh Ly Khanh*

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

e-mail: lykhanh.trinh[at]

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Current Trade Union Organizing Practices

Traditional Practices of Trade Union Organizing

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

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

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

How Employers Interfere in Trade Union Organizing

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

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

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

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

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

Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference

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

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

Trade Union Responses to Employers’ Interference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Challenges for Trade Union Organizing Free from Employers’ Interference

Challenges within the Trade Union System

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

Challenges from the Workers’ Side

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

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

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

Challenges from the Employers’ Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case 4: F.C. Company (ibid., 20–21)

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

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

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

Case 5: Company F (ibid., 24)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Remarks

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

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

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

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

Accepted: May 27, 2013


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

7) See the instructions (in Vietnamese) of immediate upper-level trade unions, e.g., Federation of Labour of District 1, Ho Chi Minh City: (accessed October 3, 2013); Federation of Labour of Binh Tan District, Ho Chi Minh City: (accessed October 3, 2013); Trade Union of the Industrial Zones of Ha Nam province: ChannelId=39&articleID=60 (accessed October 3, 2013), etc. for more details of the procedures for establishing workplace trade unions.

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

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

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

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

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

13) Summarized by the author.

14) Summarized by the author.

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

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

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

18) Summarized by the author.

19) Summarized by the author.

20) Summarized by the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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