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Vol. 6, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, SOON Chuan Yean


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

From Padi States to Commercial States: Reflections on Identity and the Social Construction Space in the Borderlands of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar
Frédéric Bourdier, Maxime Boutry, Jacques Ivanoff, and Olivier Ferrari
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015, 168pp.

The case studies in this book encompass the utilization of, and an extension of, James Scott’s “Zomia” concept. Deriving from anthropological works that focus on the “adaptation strategies of the border population” (p. 15), the book focuses on the enactment of alternative histories and (borderland) “societies” as well as on a revisiting of contemporary state-society relations, borrowing from the concept of Zomia. The authors add to the debates regarding Scott’s Zomia, in their words “de-territorialize” (p. 15) the concept of Zomia and focus on the “Inner Zomians,” defined as “cast-out and widely dispersed migrants, modern resisters residing within ethno-national borders” (p. 15).

The argument is that even though Zomia territory has been penetrated by the emergence of a “commercial state” based on a paddy cash crop economy that serves as a “system of statehood where rice-farming constitutes the basis of power structures” (p. 16), the “post-colonial nation-state” structures of control remain “partial” (p. 16). This can be seen in the cultural and economic exchanges as well as social and ethnic dynamism established between the “commercial” state and the Zomia communities.

To be more precise, the quote on page 24 narrates the main focus of the book:

. . . the modalities of the implementation of identities and the transformation of the interethnic relations provoked by development . . . starting from the center, reconfigure a Zomian reality that remains geographically hard for the center to access and exploit . . . we are attempting to understand the strategies that have been developed by the populations who are no longer external to the state and have become integrated, but who still remain “externalized,” either through their own will or through the state’s paradoxical discourse resulting from a desire to integrate these groups without putting an end to stigmatization. (p. 24)

The chapters celebrate the creativity and adaptability of the (inner) Zomians and address the questions of domination, resistance, and resilient acts through the politics of ethnic identification and construction. Despite the encroachment of the nation-states’ developmental programs—some have even penetrated into Zomia territory and have impacted the socioeconomic development of minorities—the political economy of the borderlands operates “as an element of reflection for our complementary understanding of a socio-cultural landscape that cannot be restricted to a geographical landscape” (p. 16) but arguably extends to cultural landscape (ethnicity, religion, ideology) of the “Inner Zomian . . . that is not only ethnic . . . but also socio-ethnic” (p. 18).

The book does not limit itself to locating resistance, or the processes of “not-being-governed” (Scott 2009), between two opposite categories such as ethnic/minority groups versus the state, but the “strata” within the particular group, coupled with their appropriative capabilities to adapt to differences and survive through the creation of new ethnic identities within the nation-state system.

The “inner” Zomia refers to the “particular strata” (p. 2) within the populations and other territorial groups—namely, the Jarai of Cambodia (Chapter 2), Chinese entrepreneurs or taukays and migrants (Chapter 3), the Moken or “sea-gypsies” (Chapter 4), and the minority groups of Moklen and Urak Lawoi vis-à-vis the dominant populations of Thai, Sino-Thai, and Malay Muslims (Chapter 5)—that move and flow between the dual dynamics either in their “relationship with the state or with other minorities” (p. 18).

In Chapter 2, Frédéric Bourdier’s analysis locates the “infinity” of ethnic identity of the hill people and the resilience of Zomia in the borderland of northeast Cambodia despite the penetration of “commercial states” activities. The analysis takes into consideration the flexibility of people to adapt and manipulate local strategies to modify the cultural marker in a particular borderland area, or what Bourdier calls “cultural effervescence,” a manifestation of the flexible identities that are capable of sharing physical, economic, and social relations with Laos and Vietnam through historical reappropriations and recompositions of the Jarai on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, and the reappropriation of autonyms and exonyms (the Brao and the Krung).

In Chapter 3, Maxime Boutry argues that the “sea-Zomians” bring a vulnerability to nation-state relations due to the adaptability of the Zomians in manipulating and appropriating interrelations with the nation-state to access resources and form their identities. The Moken or sea nomads’ identities survive through intermarriage with the Burmese along with frequent changes in religious practices, which subsequently challenge state-formulated racial and ethnic categories.

In Chapter 4, borrowing from Thongchai Winichakul’s concept of “interstices,” Jacques Ivanoff’s ethnographic research looks at the “sea-gypsies” of Southeast Asia in Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar, to locate the construction, recomposition, and reappropriation of the Moken in construing their own “Zomia” within the nation-state system at the margins.

In Chapter 5, Olivier Ferrari’s research locates the “sea-nomads” (Moken, Moklen, and Urak Lawoi) in Southern Thailand. The author showcases the way in which sea-nomads perpetuate their identities surrounded by the dominant populations (Thai, Sino-Thai, Malay Muslims) through their own unique management of the “cosmological border”—the coast—as an expression of their unique ethnic identity, thus creating an ethno-regional social fabric (pp. 129–131). Such dynamic relations provide a new perspective in conceptualizing the “nation-state” and problematize the extent to which the nation-state system is capable of homogenizing Zomian societies.

Thus, the book’s analysis of “inner Zomia” identifies the enactment of an “infinite parthenogenesis of identity” (p. 16) that blurs state-society relations. The book locates the borderland as a site for contestation and negotiation of “other” societies that are embedded by, and negotiated through, the domination of the state system. In brief, the book provides a different dynamic of “society” through the lens of a borderland that is not subsumed by the nation-state system but resilient in its own construction.

This is not an easy book to review, to be frank. The difficulty does not derive from the structure of the book. Rather, it derives from the complexities of state-society relations, the concept of “Zomia” and its interrelation to ethnic construction within the population in contemporary nation-state structures, and the ongoing shifts of identity politics in the borderlands that the book investigates. The volume covers a wide array of issues, ranging from the constant shaping of ethnic relations within the ongoing changes of borderland societies and nation-states to the constant political processes produced in a non-static fashion in the borderlands of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar.

The major contribution of the book is to provide alternative perspectives on “societies” located at the borders of “maritime and terrestrial” (p. 35) that still exist in a contemporary globalized world underpinned by a neoliberal political economy. Such alternative societies in the borderlands act as an answer to conventional views on the disappearance of societies or minority groups under the shadow of globalization and capitalism within the nation-state domain. Borderlands vis-à-vis the nation-state serve as sites to “. . . redeploy and strengthen people’s material and symbolic referents, which are in turn part of identity, which is itself in perpetual negotiations” (p. 34).

Essentially the book uses micro and localized case studies to grasp the social complexities of the locales. It provides rich ethnographic data focusing on case-by-case “micro-study” instead of macro-level patterns to generate particularities of borderlands’ political economy. The case studies characterize the non-uniformity and nuances of the “nation” and the “states” as well as “Zomia.” Rather than providing a standard model to identify the construction of ethnic identity and politics, the book provides a nonlinear analysis that showcases cultural fluidity within the borderlands and inner Zomians that are resilient and capable of generating multiple relations within a nation-state system.

The authors attempt to uncover deeper complexities, such as the organization of an “Inner Zomian zone” (p. 25), instead of emphasizing the investigation of Zomia per se; the “particular strata” of ethnic groups with the state, instead of between ethnic groups and the state; the constant shape of ethnic identities through interrelation between the dominant groups and minorities within a nation-state; and the processes that took place—negotiation, adaptation, appropriation, domination—as manifestations of new identity politics vis-à-vis the incapability of the “center” to penetrate and homogenize the “margins.”

Finally, the book serves as a critique to Scott’s “Zomia” as well as an attempt to build an extension of the concept—the “inner Zomia.” The book will be of use to those who are interested in comprehending and seeking concepts or theoretical frameworks to explain the process of change and adaptability of alternative “societies,” or existing societies vis-à-vis the nation-state system and neoliberalism; relocating historiography other than official/national histories; and identifying processes of cultural exchange and politics.

Soon Chuan Yean 孫傳煙
School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia


Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Vol. 6, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, TOMITA Shinsuke


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Sustainable Land Use and Rural Development in Southeast Asia: Innovations and Policies for Mountainous Areas
Holger L. Fröhlich, Pepijn Schreinemachers, Karl Stahr, and Gerhard Clemens, eds.
Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer, 2013, x+490pp.

There is no promising way of sustainably farming sloping land in a market-oriented economy. Farmers are usually required to offer competitive prices and quality of agricultural products in order to survive in the market. That forces them to increase agricultural production, which in turn leaves them no choice apart from sedentary agriculture and land use intensification. Changes in farming system and land use usually entail degradation of sloping land, because in arable land the outflows of soil, its nutritional content, and water exceed their inflows. Preventing or mitigating land degradation, along with keeping products competitive, is the central problem in agricultural development. Although the issue seems to be straightforward, several factors—from a range of ecological to cultural settings—are intricately tangled. This is likely to be one of the reasons why many agricultural development projects have not been as successful as expected. This volume is a result of the Uplands Program, which is an agricultural development project in northern Thailand and northern Vietnam to help solve the problem.

The objectives of this volume as outlined in Chapter 1 are as follows: first, to investigate drivers, consequences, and challenges of change mainly in land use and agricultural intensification; second, to describe how technology-based innovation processes can address the challenges; and third, to describe how knowledge creation can support changes in policies and institutions. The volume is divided into four parts, an introduction followed by one part for each of the objectives: Part 1, “Overview and Synthesis”; Part 2, “Environmental and Social Challenges”; Part 3, “Technology-Based Innovation Processes”; and Part 4, “Policies and Institutional Innovations.”

This project assumes that four drivers of change from traditional swidden cultivation to permanent field cultivation, mainly cash crops, are: economic development, policy change, introduction of new technologies, and population growth. As a result, as discussed in Part 2, mainly due to annual cash crop cultivation, soil erosion increases and pesticide-contaminated water runs off to the valley bottom (Chapters 3 and 4). In other words, sloping land is becoming a region where crops do not grow, and the watershed is getting to be contaminated by pesticide. To keep the soil environment usable as arable land, appropriate soil management is necessary. So, Karl Stahr et al. examine methodologies for making soil maps at a low cost (Chapter 2). Camille Saint-Macary et al. confirm that poverty is associated with land degradation since poor people have limited capital to invest in long-term soil conservation (Chapter 5). In Part 3, techniques of appropriate water use in sloping land cultivation (Chapter 6), effective cropping systems for soil conservation (Chapter 7), and profitability improvement in aquaculture carried out at the bottom of the valley (Chapter 8) are examined. The authors conclude that, technically speaking, there is potential to improve the farming system on sloping land in a way that is compatible with soil conservation and an increase in income. In Part 4, the authors examine and develop numerical models that may be helpful in predicting farmers’ responses to a decline in soil fertility and/or conservation activities (Chapter 10). In development studies and agricultural development research, the participatory approach has been thought to be a better way to transfer scientific knowledge and techniques to farmers than the top-down approach. However, the participatory approach has not worked as well as expected, and it is now widely recognized that the approach is inappropriate in some cases. In Chapter 9 Andreas Neef et al. analyze the failures of the participatory approach in Southeast Asia. Chapter 11 shows that an agricultural extension network is more responsive to the diverse needs of farmers than top-down extension. Although commercialization of agricultural products and agricultural intensification have increased farm productivity and farm income, farming in the uplands is getting to be unsustainable in the long term. The government needs to support upland farmers by making policies to mitigate risks stemming from changes in agriculture (Chapter 12).

Based on the facts outlined in each chapter, the editors conclude the following (p. 22): first, intensified land use systems in mountainous areas are characterized by substantial inefficiencies; second, various technological and social innovations are available to address certain challenges, but adaptation rates remain low; third, innovation processes are more successful when using, instead of a conventional top-down approach, a participatory approach that takes into account diversity in the demand for innovations and allows people to test innovations and adapt them to their needs; and fourth, as poor farm households face difficulties in benefiting from the agricultural commercialization process, it remains important for governments to implement policies promoting market development with programs that give targeted support to poor households.

We learn from this volume that smallholders living in mountainous regions still face difficulties participating in a market economy despite various technological innovations. In a subsistence economy, farming on sloping land could have been developed in order to conserve the environment and secure livelihoods such as nomadism, shifting cultivation, and other subsistence-oriented farming systems found in Asia, Africa, and South America. However, in countries where most people live in a market economy, it is not rare for mountainous regions to be evacuated and arable land abandoned, as in the Pyrenees and Japan. People from mountainous regions often prefer to move to the lowlands and urban areas. In economically advanced countries, mountainous regions have become unfavorable places to live. It is uncertain whether mountainous areas in Southeast Asia remain places where people still choose to make a living when innovative technologies are available. Although agricultural development projects play a vital role in increasing the sustainability of land use in the mountains, we should recognize that sustainable land use does not necessarily mean sustainability of rural livelihood.

Most of the chapters mention that education for farmers is a prerequisite for adapting innovative technologies. Transferring scientific knowledge is vital for proper use of the technologies. For example, as mentioned in Chapters 3 and 4, it is important to learn about the effects of pesticide use on the environment and people’s health. Even though education is unquestionably important for proper use of technologies, it might not be the only reason why adaptation rates remain low. Even if the participatory approach is used and farmers correctly understand the benefits brought about by technology, they are bound to consider their labor and capital availability, risks stemming from the technology, ease of local government procedures, market potential, etc., and then make a decision on whether to adopt, defer, or reject the technology. Rapid adoption of technology may not necessarily be the best answer for them. If a participatory approach can allow farmers to make their own decision on technology, even if that turns out to have an unsatisfactory result for rural developers and other involved actors, that would be a distinct difference from the top-down approach that farmers often have to give in to.

Risk aversion and mitigation might be central to the stability of a farmer’s livelihood. Chapters 3, 4, 5, 8, and 9 describe a range of risks—from those familiar to farmers, such as floods, to new ones that accompany the introduction of new technologies, such as pesticides, and also the market economy. For risks stemming from the market economy, such as fluctuations of crop price, Saint-Macary et al. (Chapter 5) describe household strategies to diversify the income portfolio, as seen in other parts of the world such as Africa and South America. In addition, the contributors claim that risk aversion strategies prevent farmers from taking on challenges. Along with Manfred Zeller et al. (Chapter 12), they claim that government support for mitigating a range of risks associated with the market economy is essential. Although both household strategies and public services are key components of the challenges faced by farmers, the lack of analysis of informal networks may rankle among readers familiar with the rural situation in Southeast Asia. Sharing risks through the informal network plays a role in livelihoods and also migration. It would be good to have some studies on how the network has been changing—reflected in changes in social, economic, and ecological settings—and how the network influences development activities.

Tomita Shinsuke 富田晋介
Asian Satellite Campuses Institute, Nagoya University


Vol. 6, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, SAKUMA Kyoko


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Brunei: From the Age of Commerce to the 21st Century
Marie-Sybille de Vienne
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Institute De Recherche Sur L’Asie Du Sud-Est Contemporaine (Research Institute of Contemporary Southeast Asia), 2015, xviii+345pp.

Brunei: From the Age of Commerce to the 21st Century is a translation of Marie-Sybille de Vienne’s book that was originally published in French, titled Brunei: De la Thalassocratie à la Rente (Paris: CNRS, 2012, index, 303pp., translated by Emilia Lanier). This fascinating work examines how Brunei, a tiny sultanate of 5,765 square kilometers in the South China Sea, became today’s extraordinarily rich state. Through the lens of economic history, de Vienne explores this transformation in terms of monarchy, Islam, and trade. Interestingly, although de Vienne deals primarily with the society and economy of modern Brunei (1984–2014 in this volume), the early history of Brunei is briefly explored in Chapters 1 and 2 (pp. 1–60). This is key, as the political, economic, historical, and religious aspects of Brunei cannot be explained without an understanding of the maritime “Age of Commerce” (Reid 1988/93) in Southeast Asia.

The most significant contribution of this book is that it provides the first published overview of the long-term history of Brunei. As an anthropologist and specialist in indigenous communities of the Baram Basin, Northern Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, I have a keen interest in records of Brunei that describe the historical situation of Sarawak under the Sultan of Brunei. As de Vienne notes, “Brunei is thus the heart of a network in which all points on a north/south axis (from Canton at the top, down to Flores) correspond in pairs to the focal points of trade of the South China Sea” (p. 9).

Sarawak is well known as a major producer of jungle or forest products. By the early 1880s it was clearly outstripping its Bornean neighbors in its volume of such products, thus constituting a major proportion of the trade profile of all four countries: Brunei, Labuan, North Borneo, and Sarawak (Cleary 1996, 313), with Brunei being the most powerful polity. Carl Lumholtz writes that Antonio Pigafetta arrived in Brunei from the Moluccas in 1521, along with the survivors of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition, and was the first to give an account of it to the Western world. Pigafetta called it “Bornei,” which later, with a slight change, became the name of the whole island (Lumholtz 1920, 19).

Given the importance of Brunei in the history of the Southeast Asian Archipelago, the lack of good English references on the country is surprising. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only academic publication that examines the long-term economic history of this sultanate from the Age of Commerce to the twenty-first century. Although historians have always been interested in Brunei in and around the Age of Commerce, the attention drops off afterward, with the exception of the national history written by D. S. Ranjit Singh, a historian of Brunei (Singh 1984). Singh’s book provides an overview of Brunei’s economic and political history up until the modern age.

The chapters are in chronological order, and all kinds of historical events are included in each. Chapters 1 (“Prologue: Brunei versus Borneo,” pp. 1–11) and 2 (“From Thalassocracy to Rentier State,” pp. 13–128) are in concert with the “rhythm” of the archipelago of Oliver Wolters (1982). These chapters describe how Brunei gained and developed a significant geopolitical advantage in the Southeast Asian Archipelago and how it reached its golden age through expansion and contraction of the Sultan’s territory. The references cited in the footnotes and bibliography provide useful historical references.

This translation is undoubtedly the best reference on the history of Brunei. It would be a useful title for anyone interested in Brunei and/or Borneo or anyone who seeks to understand the historical and current situation of the maritime trade of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. This book does not take the high road of a historian’s work as it depends heavily on secondary sources. The author cites a large number of references, and the chronological historical descriptions tend to be lengthy. After Chapter 3, it becomes like any other impersonal history book. There is, of course, a major contrast between the past and present in a volume that is written in linear order with a single time line.

I have heard a wide variety of life stories from people in the Baram Basin of Sarawak who moved frequently and married across the border in Central Borneo. This is not the policymaker-centered history of nation-states like Brunei, but a history of how ordinary people, merchants, and immigrants have created their communities and built social networks in real life and in cyberspace. The political and economic position of the Chinese and Dayaks in Brunei, for example, is unclear. Although the history of Brunei has been reported to star the Malays and Western powers, the Chinese in the Southeast Asian Archipelago played a very important role. How have the Dayaks who emigrated from the Malaysian side of Borneo not been incorporated into the Islamic kingdom? Understanding Brunei in the twenty-first century requires examinations of such questions, and this book provides an excellent stepping-stone.

Sakuma Kyoko 佐久間香子


Cleary, M. C. 1996. Indigenous Trade and European Economic Intervention in North-West Borneo c.1860–1930. Modern Asian Studies 30(2): 301–324.

Lumholtz, Carl. 1920. Through Central Borneo: An Account of Two Years’ Travel in the Land of the Head-Hunters between the Years 1913 and 1917. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Reid, Anthony. 1988/93. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Singh, D. S. Ranjit. 1984. Brunei 1839–1983: The Problems of Political Survival. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Wolters, Oliver W. 1982. History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.




Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia’s Decade of Stability and Stagnation
Edward Aspinall, Marcus Mietzner, and Dirk Tomsa, eds.
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015, 362pp.

A Decade of Missed Opportunities

The Yudhoyono Presidency: Indonesia’s Decade of Stability and Stagnation is a collection of papers that were presented at the annual Indonesia Update conference at the Australian National University in 2014 and edited by three Indonesianists: Edward Aspinall, Marcus Mietzner, and Dirk Tomsa. The volume’s aim is to understand the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY, as he is called in Bahasa Indonesia) between 2004 and 2014. SBY was the first president elected through the democratic means of direct election in 2004. He was subsequently reelected in 2009, making him the first reelected president in democratic Indonesia. The Indonesian experience of directly electing a president in 2004 and 2009 was a watershed in the country’s modern history.

This book emphasizes the personality of SBY to evaluate his terms as president of Indonesia. The most visible feature of SBY’s personality was that he “was a peragu—a hesitator or vacillator who took care to avoid political controversy that he was rarely able to take decisive policy action” (p. 3), as described by the editors of the book. They also depict SBY as a moderating president, which means that “he viewed himself as leading a polity and a society characterized by deep divisions and he believed that his most important role was to moderate these divisions by mediating between the conflicting forces and interests to which they give rise” (p. 4). For some scholars this approach offers the possibility of writing about the positive impact of the stability offered by the SBY presidency over a 10-year period. This judgment is correct, especially when located in the broader context of Indonesian politics after the Reformasi (Reform), which started in 1998 and led to many social conflicts and deep divisions within both the polity and society.

However, by prioritizing stability and harmony, SBY also allowed himself to miss important economic opportunities that were provided by a commodities boom. How were these opportunities missed? It seems that SBY was reluctant to take on difficult policies because they would likely bring about open confrontation in society, and also with voters. Some of this book’s contributors discuss these policies, suggesting that SBY did not take decisive action on issues such as social welfare and human rights and that this inaction can be traced to his personality.

Another obstacle that confronted SBY was the decentralization policies adopted by President Habibie in 1999. These policies eliminated the hierarchical relationship that had existed between the central and local governments under Suharto’s New Order. This hierarchy had allowed Suharto to monitor and control governors and mayors or regents, which also meant that he had the power to control policies as far down as those affecting regions. The elimination of the hierarchy between the central and local governments put the president in a much more difficult situation if he wanted to monitor national policies that had to be implemented at the local level. SBY had to operate in this new political structure of no hierarchy between the central and local governments. However, there was something that his central government was able to control: the flow of funding to regions. This control of funds served as the foundation of power for the president. Therefore, it is no surprise that SBY tried to reduce decentralization by reducing the authority and power of local governments. SBY did not openly put forward an effort to recentralize the political system, but the Ministry of Home Affairs, which was under his control, put forth initiatives to take back central government control over the regions.

In short, this book illustrates SBY and the policy actions of his government through two different approaches: personality and structure. In terms of the personality approach, SBY is shown as a vacillator with a tendency to take the middle position. Structurally (some of the writers call it the institutional approach), the government formed a political coalition—a rainbow coalition—with various parties having very different ideologies, from secular-nationalist to Islamic. These approaches are relatively successful in offering a comprehensive portrait of SBY with all the consequences of this coalition.

These two approaches aim to help us understand the presidency of SBY, but they could have been sharpened by borrowing an institutional economics approach (this approach is very different from the institutional approach used by some of the scholars in the book). Institutions are understood as formal or informal regulations created as a framework for guidance for living together in a polity and society. With this simple understanding of an institution, it can be seen that SBY functioned within the confines of the legacy that he inherited. This legacy was in the form of various regulations in politics, society, and the economy. For example, in the political domain SBY continued to adopt a coalition government, which had been initiated by Presidents Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri. This was an indication that SBY operated in a web of institutions that were created before his presidency. On one hand, he was able to navigate his policies by negotiating this web of institutions. On the other hand, he had opportunities to create new institutions that would serve as the foundation of his rule. Therefore, even though SBY wanted to make certain changes he had to do so within the existing institutions. This is known as path dependency. Considering these facts, therefore, SBY’s opportunities to effect change were wide open, but it would not be wise to think that he would put forward revolutionary policies. Drastic changes could only be proposed under huge political pressure involving large numbers of actors from both the polity and society. One can think of Reformasi as an example of a dramatic change that transformed many rules not only in the political arena but also the economic one.

I agree with the conclusion of the book. However, the explanation provided by institutional economics offers a comprehensive picture that describes the achievements and failures of SBY in managing the Indonesian polity, economy, and society in 10 years. From a political standpoint SBY is not the first president to have taken the initiative to form a political coalition to secure his power. SBY made this political coalition into a much deeper form by inviting many political parties except for PDIP (Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle), the party chaired by Megawati Sukarnoputri. By doing this SBY not only received political support from parliament, especially when he needed it to pass legislation or government policies, but also secured his presidential position from possible impeachment. It seems he believed that distributing ministerial seats would secure his political position as those political parties would back him. In short, SBY was part of a large web of power that was created before his presidency and he smartly operated within this web.

An effort by SBY to achieve his goals, as mentioned by several writers in the book, may be seen in the light of institutional complexities that existed before his administration and which he could not manage effectively. One of the legacies that he could not deal with was the bureaucracy both in the central and local governments. The most obvious examples are the installation of UK4P, the Presidential Work Unit for Development Monitoring and Control, and TNP2K, the National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction. Those two new bodies were installed outside the previous bureaucracy and reflect SBY’s inability to reform the bureaucracy, but at the same time they may be interpreted as his reluctance to shock the gigantic bureaucracy. If the ministries responsible for coordinating and supervising development could have worked together, perhaps SBY would not have needed to establish those offices outside of his Cabinet to monitor and supervise development.

SBY’s administration had a golden opportunity when it saw an increase in the price of exported commodities in the international market. This is an implicit message of the book: that SBY’s government did not benefit from the rise of commodity prices on the international market in order to pursue a more ambitious economic agenda. The book explains that under SBY’s administration Indonesia experienced a boom in primary commodities such as coal, other mineral resources, and crude palm oil. It can be said that this was Indonesia’s second boom, the first one being the oil boom in the 1980s. Thus, the country once again received a huge opportunity to transform its political, economic, and social life.

Anne Booth (1998) explains that throughout its history Indonesia lost some opportunities because it put small investment in the secondary and higher education sector, which in turn did not create a pool of labor with high skills. Booth talks about Indonesia since the Dutch time until 1990s. The relevant point of Booth’s discussion is that SBY’s administration paid little attention to secondary and higher education to form a significant pool of skilled labor. SBY did embark on a serious effort to increase the length of compulsory education to nine years, but one should note that this initiative was rooted in the previous government and stagnated due to the economic crisis that hit the country in 1997/8. This effort toward nine years of compulsory education does little to achieve the target of establishing the pool of skilled labor that the country needs to tackle various problems, mainly the middle-income trap.

This book also mentions some difficulties faced by SBY in the improvement of human resources. Data provided by contributors such as Faisal Basri and Dinna Wisnu show that SBY’s performance in the education sector was a mere continuation of the previous administrations’, starting from Suharto’s time. They mention that SBY had huge opportunities to improve the human resources development of the country. If we look at the 1970s, Esther Duflo (2004) argues that in the primary education sector Indonesia had experienced success in improving the skills of its population through a massive effort to build primary schools in many parts of the country. As a consequence, any government had to seriously acknowledge this effort and take it to a higher level.

Why is education important for Indonesia? Even though there is little discussion on the future challenges that Indonesia will confront, it seems that the country’s plan for integration with other member of Southeast Asian countries stressed the relevance of education. This year the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) takes effect, and Indonesia should have prepared for this economic cooperation years ago. In this book the AEC is discussed from a very different perspective by Evi Fitriani (p. 78) and Hal Hill (p. 300). Looking at the SBY administration’s handling of the education sector, one could argue that this administration did not adopt suitable policies to prepare Indonesia to enter the AEC. Such policies would have placed Indonesia in a better position to address labor issues. If the SBY administration was reluctant to take necessary measures to improve education, the impact will be seen in the next 10 years or more. When students at the secondary level cannot continue to university level, or only a small proportion of those students continue, there will be a problem in the provision of human resources.

This book covers almost all the problems confronted by the SBY administration. However, it is surprising that it does not provide a section discussing the dramatic changes in the mining sector after the law on mineral and coal took effect in January 2014. The law passed in December 2008 and was signed in January 2009. When it took effect in 2014 it created a controversy, as it banned the export of all mineral ores from Indonesia. The Indonesian government wanted to benefit from the export of minerals by proposing domestic processing of the commodities. At the same time it proposed a reduction in the export of unprocessed minerals. These proposals were put forward when the international prices of those commodities decreased. Companies operating in Indonesia were forced to build smelters. The Indonesian government and foreign companies that hold big concessions in the mining sector are still negotiating on how to settle the issue, because building a smelter is a relatively less profitable business enterprise for a company.

Wahyu Prasetyawan
Faculty of Communication, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta


Booth, Anne. 1998. The Indonesian Economy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century: A History of Missed Opportunities. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Duflo, Esther. 2004. The Medium Run Effects of Educational Expansion: Evidence from a Large School Construction Program in Indonesia. Journal of Development Economics 7(1): 163–197




Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Transforming Nikkeijin Identity and Citizenship: Untold Life Histories of Japanese Migrants and Their Descendants in the Philippines, 1903–2013
Shun Ohno
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015, xiv+284pp.

In January 2016, Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the Philippines as state guests. Mass media reported that the royal couple had wanted to visit the country as part of their pilgrimage for the victims of World War II. On January 28, the royal couple met with 86 second-generation (Nisei) Japanese descendants (Nikkeijin). The Nisei have lived extraordinarily difficult lives because of the war. Their Majesties politely listened to the stories the Nisei had kept for seven decades. Reading Transforming Nikkeijin Identity and Citizenship: Untold Life Histories of Japanese Migrants and Their Descendants in the Philippines, 1903–2013 by Shun Ohno, we can imagine how precious this meeting was. It would probably not have been made possible without the persistent efforts of sincere journalists—as Ohno was—for decades to seek justice for the Nikkeijin in the Philippines (“Philippine Nikkei” in the book), particularly the Nisei. Journalists, together with concerned citizens and Nikkeijin associations, have demanded the Japanese government’s recognition of its war responsibility for the Nisei. Nisei (often forcibly) collaborated with—or were even conscripted into—the Japanese military in the Philippines during World War II but were abandoned thereafter; no chance of repatriation was given. They were exposed to the threat of ambush. They lost practically everything—family, property, job, opportunities for education—but received no compensation at all.

The book is a culmination of Ohno’s life work. It summarizes the history of Japanese male emigrants to the Philippines in the early twentieth century and that of their children and grandchildren until recent times. Their life has been tossed about by rapidly changing bilateral relations between Japan and the Philippines at each historical moment. At the same time, colonial and postcolonial Philippines throughout the twentieth century and beyond has been under the influence of the United States, and that has also affected the Philippine Nikkeijin in many ways.

As a journalist at that time, I wrote about the Philippine Nisei’s impoverished and miserable post-war lives without Japanese fathers, and pointed out the inescapable responsibility of the Japanese government for having invaded the Philippines, conscripted many mestizo Nisei as Imperial Japan’s soldiers and gunzoku [paramilitary personnel], and abandoned them without any assistance after the war. (pp. 129–130)

What Ohno began for the Nisei as a journalist in the 1980s was expanded to his broader research on their fathers (first generation, or Issei) and their children (third generation, or Sansei) and beyond. That was eventually compiled in his doctoral dissertation, which became the foundation of this book.

The Issei, who migrated to the Philippines from the 1900s to the 1930s, managed to establish themselves and settled in the Philippines, where landownership, immigration control, civil registry, and citizenship were regulated by American-made laws (Chapter 2). Many of them eventually married in the Philippines and produced the second generation, Nisei, who carry a double heritage. The community of Japanese migrants built Japanese schools for the Nisei’s education in the 1920s and 1930s. Japanese schools received support from the Japanese government as institutions for “instilling the Japanese spirit in Nisei’s minds” (Chapter 3). So raised, the Nisei suffered greatly as they were inevitably involved in World War II, in which their father’s country—Japan—fought against the United States, the sovereign of their mother’s country, the Philippines. The colony became the worst battleground during the war. Family members who had different nationalities—Japanese or Filipino, if not dual, ambiguous, or stateless—were divided as “enemies” in theory and separated physically by death or repatriation. Many Nisei were ambushed by Filipinos on suspicion of espionage (Chapter 4) or as objects of revenge. Many of the Nisei who survived the war remained in the Philippines, concealing their identity for fear of maltreatment by Filipinos in the post-World War II decades when anti-Japanese sentiment was severe.

Japanese journalists, including Ohno, uncovered the fierce lives and deaths of the children of Japanese migrants in the Philippines without compensation and began to demand justice for them. Some opposition representatives, human right lawyers, and concerned citizens of Japan joined the movement (Chapter 5). In 1990 Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugees Recognition Act was revised to allow Japanese descendants up to the third generation, Sansei, to stay in Japan as long-term “special residents” without work restrictions. By then Japan had become a dream destination to many impoverished Filipinos for its economic and technological advancement, while Japanese industry needed 3D (dirty, demeaning, and dangerous) workers in the bubble economy. The Nisei began to unseal their identity and assist the Sansei to work in Japan (Chapter 6).

This is a moving story: a sincere journalist’s grounded research bearing fruit after decades by moving both the Japanese and Philippine governments, which were indifferent to the issue and reluctant to render any positive actions. It proves the merit of diligent journalism, which in this case contributed to justice by turning what seemed impossible into reality. This sprawling drama does not need agitating writing. Compilations of citations of archival materials or interviews are enough to impress readers.

However, this book leaves room for improvement if it is to be more influential in the domain of social sciences. Research questions could have been more focused so that the theoretical framework and methodology were more tightly knitted. There is a list of six questions in the first chapter. This implies that the project was not successful in narrowing down the research question. Also, the theoretical framework and methodology are not well harmonized. The thinness of both the introductory chapter (Chapter 1) and concluding chapter (Chapter 7) may be attributed to that.

The author claims to “analyze identities and citizenship of three generations of Nikkei” (p. 4). “Identity and citizenship” has become an important topic in understanding issues pertaining to ever-escalating human mobility, which is producing increasing numbers of transnational families and citizens in this globalizing world. Identity of migrants has been massively researched since the 1990s in migration studies and in various studies pertaining to globalization. The premise of these studies is that identity is not static but a process of othering. It is flexible, political, and relational, can be plural, and can be strategically articulated in negotiations; “It is only through the relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not” (Hall 1996, 4). The identity and citizenship of Philippine Nikkeijin as viewed by Ohno confirms such nature of identity making as manifested by different attitudes by each generation of Philippine Nikkeijin. The first generation who grew up in Japan mingled well with members of the destination community. But they were Japanese, after all. Their Japaneseness was further amplified by the growing militarism of Japan and the war (Chapters 2–4). Many mestizo Nisei, if not all, attended Japanese school and were made to collaborate with the Japanese forces during the war. They had to conceal their Japanese identity during the postwar decades for their own survival and began to reveal it only after Philippine–Japan relations improved. They played a central role in organizing Nikkeijin associations (Chapters 5 and 6). Sansei who migrated to Japan as “Japanese descendants” were treated as “foreigners” in the host country, at times discriminatorily. While they gained stable resident status in Japan, and even Japanese passports in some cases, they came to consider themselves more “Filipino” (Chapter 6). The whole story is informative.

Today, we are not unfamiliar with individuals who possess de facto plural citizenships or nationalities and use each of them strategically in different situations. For some global citizens today, their citizenship/nationality and sense of belongingness do not necessarily coincide. It could have been more interesting if the grand story of three generations of Philippine Nikkeijin were elevated to a theoretical discussion such as a question of nations and citizens, the transformation of nation states, or power and agency, among others.

The complex layers of power relations that the players of this history render are intellectually stimulating. References to the complex power relations among the minorities of both countries challenge the assumption of a simple majority-minority dichotomy. The book reveals not only mainland Japanese migrants’ discriminatory attitudes toward Okinawan migrants in the Philippines but also those of Filipinos toward the latter. The book also reveals the arrogant attitude of members of the Japanese military toward Japanese migrants in the Philippines—including their descendants, such as Nisei—during the war. It is shocking to learn about starving Japanese soldiers murdering their fellow Japanese, particularly Nisei—and even massacring Okinawans—who were fighting along with them against the enemy, for food. The war made humans hungry, and extremely starving humans became beasts. Justice, particularly for Nisei, is indeed necessary.

On the Philippine side, details of the land problem in Davao City in the early decades of the twentieth century (Chapters 2 and 3) enlighten us on the intricacies of colonial American rule over the land occupied by the Bagobos, who had exercised what James Scott called “the art of not being governed” (Scott 2010). On the one hand, Americans blamed Japanese intermarriers as illegal (occupants); on the other hand, the Bagobos happily accommodated Japanese men as kin as they diligently developed their land. Members of the Filipino population who had already been assimilated into the colonial system, such as Manila-based journalists, supported the American view.

Methodologically speaking, the sources Ohno cites are skewed to Japanese ones, with few materials from the Philippines or the United States. Citations from unreliable sources, including double citations, are scattered throughout the text. Some uncritical treatments of archival materials and such citations of interviewees do not sit comfortably in the main text of the book. The publisher could have been more careful in editing for typos and biased or ambiguous expressions. While Ohno’s adoption of “citizenship/nationality” (pp. 4–5) is appreciated, these two terms are a source of confusion when discussing migration matters between Japan and the Philippines due to inconsistent usage of the terms. Nevertheless, a number of anecdotes expose untold sad stories effectively. For example it is important for us to learn about Takuma Higashiji, a Nisei, who was hanged as war criminals in 1946 (pp. 87, 102–103), while his commander from the Japanese Imperial Army and his colleagues were repatriated alive.

A huge number of newspaper and magazine articles, studies, and reports on Nikkeijin in the Philippines have been published in Japanese. This has hindered Filipinos, including Philippine Nikkei, from reading them. Although this book contains minor limitations, it is a welcome source of information for Philippine Nikkei persons, researchers, and students of the subject, particularly those who do not read Japanese, as well as supporters and government officials in both countries.

Michiyo Yoneno-Reyes 米野みちよ
Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, The University of Tokyo


Hall, Stuart. 1996. Introduction: Who Needs “Identity”? In Questions of Cultural Identity, edited by Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, pp. 1–17. London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Scott, James. 2010. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.




Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands: Ecology, Economy and Society
Kosuke Mizuno, Motoko S. Fujita, and Shuichi Kawai, eds.
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2016, xxvii+466pp.

Fires and haze have become regular events during the dry season in tropical areas in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia. This is due mainly to government institutional failure in managing resource appropriation. Hence, existing solutions of command and control to mitigate the risk have not resulted in satisfactory results in analyzing the source and impacts (Glover and Jessup 1999; Varkkey 2016).

Catastrophe and Regeneration in Indonesia’s Peatlands: Ecology, Economy and Society reminds readers of the importance of the relationship between societies, institutions, and the environment in tropical settings before offering a recommendation. It shows that this relationship has been influenced by living strategies that formed through long periods of ethnic interaction, colonization, and independent state governance. The authors offer the concept known as the “Sustainable Humanosphere” to interpret this relationship and use grounded research to avoid study bias. The book then introduces the idea of developing “people forestry” in order to preserve peatlands while satisfying the economic needs of societies. These are the strong points of the book.

The book was written by 14 researchers who were in close contact with tropical societies in Indonesia. It is structured in three parts, with a total of 14 chapters excluding the introduction and epilogue. The first part attempts to explain biomass production in Southeast Asia. It gives an informative description of the tropical rainforest as intersectional beneficiary resource stock for conservation, economic development, as well as a social motive for income survival. The first section also investigates the ways in which natural resources have been appropriated. It describes the governance of forest resources, which has been conducted by different regimes through the years in Southeast Asia. The first section also covers historical context, with appropriation trajectories of forested regions, including state agrarian policy, forest management, traditional agricultural practices, and large company projects.

Chapter 1 devotes special attention to the development of land policies and forest management in Indonesia since the days of Dutch colonization. It notes that to some extent, states have played a dominant role in the country’s land and forest management. During the Dutch occupation, the agrarian law with the specific principle known as domeinverklaring1) provided guarantees that enabled states to own the land. It also gave freedom to companies to lease state land for efficient and productive forest management. Before the policy was passed in 1870, the Dutch had also formed some institutions for more scientific forest management, passed regulations to manage excessive exploitation of timber forests in Java and Madura, abolished corvee labor or Blandong, and set up the Department of Forest Service. These institutions engaged in forest management in a way that was hostile to the community, as it demarcated forest boundaries, created maps, and specified expansion. Even so, it increased the tree forest.

This increased tree forest suffered from differences in forest management after Indonesian independence: through the Basic Forestry Act of 1967, all controlled forestland in the country was eligible for logging and industrial tree plantation. The act accelerated the process of deforestation in the country. Within this policy orientation, the state introduced a social forestry policy for the community as well as creating consensus on forest zoning.

Like Chapter 1, Chapters 2 and 3 also note the transformation of tropical forest, which has occurred mostly through the processes of degradation and afforestation. In order to promote an understanding of the processes, Chapter 2 introduces the biotic resource approach, which identifies the relationship of transformation between humans and the ecosystem with the process of modernization. This approach shows that hunter-gatherer lifestyles, swidden agriculture, commercial crops, transmigration, and forest fires are factors that influence forest degradation. In addition to this long observation, Chapter 2 proposes that afforestation through logging still allows some natural forest species to live. Therefore, it is necessary to have a nested conservation scheme. In addition, economic incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, forest certification systems, and the UN Collaborative Programme Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation are also required to support initiatives for maintaining biodiversity.

Chapter 3 looks more deeply into the subject by evaluating the sustainability of reforested areas through comparing the biomass stock of standing trees and biomass flow. Observations from acacia plantations between 2000 and 2005 show that secondary forest is sufficient to maintain the biomass balance. However, an assessment of carbon transfer through the decomposition process is necessary in order to see the complete balance. The authors of this chapter also suggest developing institutions and management that work in harmony with local communities and coexist with social forestry (pp. 112–114).

The second part of the book contains imaginative observations that take the reader from the tropical biomass region closer into peatland. As in the first part, the authors emphasize the necessity of recognizing basic knowledge of resource stock, native animals, and vegetation of peatland, as well as human relationships and the course of livelihoods from those resources in order to identify challenges and potential use of peatland. Recognition of resource stock and flow factors is important for regenerating degraded peatland. The author’s concern in Chapter 4 is that a basic level of knowledge is needed regarding plants and animals living in the peat swamp, as well as livelihoods and history of local inhabitants, in utilizing the peat swamp forest. This knowledge is required for peatland restoration as well as for the purpose of study in describing the peatland ecosystem.

This concern is partially addressed in Chapter 5 by tracing historical changes in the relationship between humans and peatlands. By focusing on Sumatra, Indonesia, as the observation site, Chapter 5 shows that river topography influences the distribution of local community settlements as well as trade commodities and patterns. The influx of migrants with different motives, foreign direct investment in petroleum, and Suharto’s developmentalist strategy of development are factors changing livelihood patterns.

This change is explained in detail in Chapter 6, where the authors highlight characteristics of peat swamps use by local communities in Riau. In order to describe the relationship between the local community and peatland, the Momose model, which is explained in a previous chapter, is used to classify villages in the peatland region. The authors note that during precolonial times, local communities regarded peatland as an extension of the ocean. It would require a huge investment for them to transform the area for production activities. This is not an incentive for Talang people living in the hinterland or in Pangkalan villages, other than collecting agricultural and forest products to use for economic activity. These products were sold in Muara villages at the confluence of the river. Laut people, inhabitants of fishing villages, would also trade their fishing and marine products. This relationship was broken with the arrival of migrants. At the present time, Pangkalan villages are an expansion area for palm oil plantations (p. 201).

Within this land use transformation of peatland for plantations and the phenomenon of abandonment due to decreasing productivity, Chapter 7 highlights rehabilitation of degraded peatland by reflecting on the implementation of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation with an addition of conservation (REDD+). Through examination of types of land use in the conception of REDD+ and livelihood reproduction, it shows that natural and secondary forest has had the most effective greenhouse gas reduction, high biodiversity conservation, and land conservation. Therefore, it is necessary to conserve the remaining forest area. Meanwhile, plantations of rubber, palm oil, and fast-growing trees provide moderate greenhouse gas control but low biodiversity. Since these plantations are highly profitable, the system requires systematic management to prevent accelerated decomposition of peatland. In addition, swidden agriculture and the conversion of peatland for farmland activities should be minimized.

The third part of the book is concerned mostly with looking at the consistency of the approaches and definitions introduced in previous chapters, such as biomass production, resource stock and flow, nested conservation, peatland biodiversity, and the relationship of river topography, social economy livelihood, and social forestry thorough direct observation in the Giam Siak Bukit Batu (GSK-BB) Biosphere. GSK-BB is the first private-initiative conservation biosphere built in the peat swamp area. The surveyed areas, as explained in Chapter 8, are separated into two zones: the Bukit Batu River Estuary and Tanjung Leban Village. In the conception of Momose, these zones have characteristics allowing them to be classified as migrant and fishing villages. The first zones are rich in alluvial soil and have strategic locations as trade points. Most of the village area in this zone is an extension of the natural peat swamp reservation area and the Sinar Mas Forestry acacia plantation. Therefore, it is interesting that Chapter 12 looks at the biodiversity and land use in this area. As one of the first systematic studies on animal diversity in the peat swamp forest, this chapter shows that the population sum and biodiversity of birds and mammals in the acacia forest is lower compared to the natural forest. Separation between the natural forest in the protected areas and the wildlife reserve by canals is one of the factors in this lack of diversity (p. 373). Therefore, this chapter suggests the importance of internal patches of rubber forest to link natural forest and secondary forest. This link is important for the movement of birds for the process of ornitokori, or bird population rebuilding. Chapter 14 also observes local communities and their efforts at forest restoration. It shows that the surveyed households have a high motivation to participate in the conservation of the forest. However, this chapter also notes that this desire is influenced by socioeconomic factors (p. 415).

The second zone is mostly a peat swamp area that has extended up to the coastal area. With such important resources in this area, the remaining chapters try to investigate the process of land cultivation (Chapter 9), hydrological environment (Chapter 10), livelihood activities (Chapter 11), and production of biomass by corporations and small farmers (Chapter 13). Chapter 9 notes that land use change is caused by given social characteristics of the people in the area, which was primarily peat submerged under water with abundant timber resources on top of it (latent cause). Even during the existence of panglong or loggers, the majority of peatland was still intact. It was dramatically changed with the expansion of acacia and palm oil plantations (trigger cause). Chapter 10 especially highlights the changing hydrological cycle of peatland with the presence of the plantations. It clarifies the climatic conditions of concentrated rainfall and the characteristic of groundwater levels in the peat swamp. Chapter 11 acknowledges that although palm oil plantations are at risk of burning, village people still invest their capital for future uncertain harvests. The chapter notes the potential of developing the area as people’s forestry for two indicators: the available abandoned land and potential diversion of source income from non-peatland cultivation. In addition to these, local knowledge of cultivating trees native to the peat swamp and openness to ethnic diversity show the existence of social capital for people’s forestry.

In the last section of the book, the authors provide an epilogue as a space to link the conception of the Humanosphere, which is explained in the introduction, and discussion as well as findings of the chapters. The epilogue also further elaborates recommended solutions for regenerating peat swamp through people forestry and by observing the harmonization of different motives of actors in the biomass production system.

Being an edited volume, this book suffers from consistency of writing structure in some chapters. Several chapters (1, 2, 4, 8, and 11) end strongly, with a conclusion as an answer to the main question or objective. Meanwhile, most of the chapters satisfy the readers by showing summaries. This book would be more neatly organized if problems such as redundancies of acknowledgements in Chapter 12 (p. 376) were omitted.

Apart from these issues, it is clear that the sustainable Humanosphere in biomass production requires harmonization of the motives of survival, profit, and conservation by different actors. Such harmonization can be achieved through the recommended conception of people forestry. Within people forestry, biomass society can live and maintain its relationship with the environment, companies can still earn profits, and the government as well as NGOs can be satisfied with conservation results. Framing the Indonesian government with a conservationist motive is intriguing, knowing that the highlighted Suharto development policy orientation is far from conservationist. An explanation of the government’s natural resource appropriation, supposedly in order to position it as a conservation agency, is missing in the book. Had it been included, it would bridge government conservation consciousness with particular implicit or explicit policies of the environmental protection trajectory in the various countries. This would clearly depict social forestry as the commonweal for actors in the sustainable Humanosphere (Warren and McCarthy 2009).

Bondan Widyatmoko
Graduate School of Asian and African Areas Studies, Kyoto University


Glover, David; and Jessup, Timothy, eds. 1999. Indonesia’s Fires and Haze: The Cost of Catastrophe. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Varkkey, Helena. 2016. The Haze Problem in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage. New York: Routledge.

Warren, Carol; and McCarthy, John F. 2009. Community, Environment and Local Governance in Indonesia: Locating the Commonweal. London: Routledge.

1) Domeinverklaring means that “all land which is not proved to be eigendom (subject to complete right of ownership of land possessed by European people) land shall be deemed the domain of the state” (p. 23).


Vol. 6, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Walden Flores BELLO


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Two Crises, Different Outcomes: East Asia and Global Finance
T. J. Pempel and Keiichi Tsunekawa, eds.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015, viii+267pp.

More Financial Crises Ahead?

Two Crises, Different Outcomes: East Asia and Global Finance makes three key assertions: first, contrary to the school attributing the Asian financial crisis to “crony capitalism,” the debacle of 1997–98 was due largely to unregulated capital flows that flooded the region then quickly fled at the onset of the macroeconomic distortions they had brought about.

Second, the United States and Europe could have avoided the financial collapse of 2008–09 had they learned the right lessons from the Asian financial crisis and strengthened instead of dismantling or weakening their systems of financial regulation.

Third, learning from the Asian financial crisis, the East Asian economies took steps to prevent a rerun of that crisis, including making currency swap arrangements, limiting their exposure to new financial products like credit default swaps, and, above all, building up massive financial reserves derived from intensified export-intensive trade strategies. These measures insulated them from the 2008–09 global financial crisis.

To be sure, these three arguments have been made by others in the academic and political debates that followed both crises. But it is worth restating them cogently and with strong empirical backing, as the book does. Moreover, the essays on the region’s different economies provide important nuances to the book’s central arguments. For instance, Yasunobu Okabe’s paper on Korea and Thailand claims that in contrast to Thailand, Korea’s post-Asian financial crisis regulation of capital flows to foreign bank branches was quite lenient, and this nearly brought Korea to its knees again in 2008; the country was saved from “a second financial crisis through a $30 billion currency swap approved by the US Federal Reserve Board in October 2008” (p. 105). Had Korea had a second financial collapse, who knows what the knock-on effects on the region might have been? We might now be writing on how the East Asian region was drawn into the maelstrom of the global financial crisis.

Some of the essays provide us with interesting insights into the institutional contexts of the different countries’ responses to the two crises. Barry Naughton, in his essay on China, says that while the response of the Chinese government—the rolling out of a stimulus program—was superficially similar in both the Asian financial crisis and the global financial crisis—the institutional contexts were different. During the Asian financial crisis, the stimulus was intended by reform-oriented Prime Minister Zhu Ronji to be an emergency measure within a liberalizing trend, while during the global financial crisis it was part of a return to greater state intervention under the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership.

In varying degrees the different authors make the point that while East Asia may have dodged the bullet during the global financial crisis, it is not out of the woods. In fact, not only is the era of high growth over, but structural crises are catching up with the different economies of the region. Building up financial reserves via vigorous export drives and largely staying away from Wall Street’s dangerous financial innovations like securitized mortgages and “credit default swaps” may have saved the Asian economies from the worst effects of the global financial crisis, but their deeper problems remain unresolved—problems stemming largely from the region’s integration into the global economy.

What are these problems? As the essays make clear, though the Asian economies have structural similarities, each of them has its unique configuration of challenges. Japan, Tsunekawa points out, cannot seem to shake off its quarter of a century of stagnation owing to pendulum swings between neoliberal reform advocated by reform technocrats and increased public spending in response to electoral pressures. One path cannot be pursued long enough for it to produce decisive results. However, this oscillation seems to be a symptom of something deeper, more structural in character, something that Tsunekawa mentions but apparently does not attach much significance to as a cause of Japan’s stagnation. Japan’s economic system has been described as “communitarian capitalism,” one whose underlying logic is community solidarity. Created during Japan’s drive to catch up with the West, the system sought to contain social conflict while at the same time promoting rapid development and national autonomy. Resting on social compromises such as lifetime employment for the core workforce, worker-management cooperation in the production process, and strict observance of seniority, the system is threatened with unraveling when subjected to reforms liberating market forces. While the system worked well during the country’s dynamic postwar development as a global exporting power, many analysts feel it has become dysfunctional under the current conditions of global capitalism. Yet inertia dominates because, as political economist Marie Anchordoguy claims, Japanese society would rather live with dysfunctionality than risk fundamental change, with its unpredictable consequences (Anchordoguy 2005).

For Korea, it seems the opposite is the case. While Japan was too big to be successfully brought to heel by external forces promoting liberalization, such as Washington and the International Monetary Fund, Korea was laid low by the same actors, which used the Asian financial crisis to substantially weaken the formidable alliance between the state and the conglomerates that had been the engine of Korea’s sizzling growth from the 1960s to the 1990s. Liberalization has advanced in key sectors of the economy, being especially swift in the financial sector. By 2004, foreigners owned 45 percent of corporate stocks. Capital market deregulation triggered a credit card lending bust in 2003, a real estate bust in 2003–04, a liquidity crisis in 2008, and bankruptcies of savings banks in 2011 (Park 2013, 225). As noted above, only a $30 billion swap provided by the US Federal Reserve seemed to have saved Korea from a second financial collapse in 2008. Ironically, the financial sector has become the most vulnerable point of an economy that probably had the most repressed financial sector in non-Communist Asia during the “miracle years.”

In the case of China, the challenge is not so much a choice between liberalization and a drift back to state intervention highlighted by Naughton, but between sticking to a high-growth export-oriented political economy that represses domestic demand and one more geared to expanding it. The downspin of demand in China’s most important markets following the onset of the global financial crisis and the blame game that targeted its massive trade surplus with the center economies as one of the key reasons for the crash convinced the Chinese leadership that a new economic strategy was badly needed.

When in 2009 then President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao launched China’s massive stimulus program—at US$585 billion, the biggest in the world in relation to the size of the economy—their aim went beyond providing temporary relief while awaiting the recovery of the country’s main export markets in the United States and Europe. The stimulus was intended to be the cutting edge of an ambitious effort to make domestic demand the driver of economic growth via redistributive and related measures (see Bello 2015).

This shift to stimulating domestic consumption made economic sense, not only because export markets were volatile but also because owing to overinvestment there was much unused capacity in the economy. Also, the stimulus was attractive from an equity point of view since it would place more purchasing power in the hands of the vast majority of peasants and workers, who had been disadvantaged by the priority given to export-oriented industry and profits. This internal rebalancing between classes would parallel the international rebalancing between Beijing and its main trading partners.

The problem was that the shift was not just a case of changing macroeconomic priorities; it would also entail transforming the composition of winners and losers. This meant taking on the set of political and economic interests that were the prime beneficiaries of the political economy of export-oriented rapid growth the previous quarter of a century.

The Hu-Wen push did not get very far. Not only did the export-led rapid growth lobby manage to neutralize the plan to make domestic consumption the cutting edge of the economy, but it was also able to hijack the massive stimulus program that had been intended to place money and resources in the hands of consumers (Wang 2014, 118–119).

It remains to be seen how the current leadership of Xi Jinping will manage citizens’ expectations in a period of much slower growth, increasing joblessness, greater inequality, and much greater discontent. Will it continue to tread softly around the powerful set of interests that has dominated society for over two decades or will it muster the courage to break with the political economy of export-oriented rapid growth and lead the way to a new development paradigm based on domestic consumption underpinned by greater equity? Naughton is correct that the current leadership has still to definitively settle on a macroeconomic course, but his judgment that maintenance of “the full panoply of social insurance and industrial policies that were ramped up during the crisis . . . no longer seems natural, inevitable, and right” (p. 133) underestimates the magnitude of the challenge facing the new leadership, though he is not unsympathetic to the need for addressing the dislocations triggered by the liberalization program.

The Southeast Asian economies, for their part, are facing the challenge of moving from labor-intensive, low-value-added production to technology-intensive, high-value-added production. Indeed, Richard Doner says that the very success of the Southeast Asian economies in protecting themselves from a rerun of the Asian financial crisis has contributed to their current dilemma:

[Their] responses, which relied largely on macroeconomic measures and financial sector reforms, as well as a proliferation of free trade agreements and participation in global production networks, alleviated pressures for systematic improvements in technology-related capacities such as research and development training. They perpetrated a broader strategy that, while resulting in impressive GDP growth rates and diversification, has encouraged capital-intensive, foreign-dominated manufacturing and weak intra- and intersectoral linkages. (p. 164)

The result has been to expose these economies to what Doner calls the “middle income trap” or what Stephanie Rosenfeld and I earlier termed the “structural squeeze,” that is, being caught between “low-wage/low-skill and higher-wage/higher-productivity rivals” in a competitive global economy sliding into stagnation (p. 164; Bello and Rosenfeld 1992, 251–277).

While having their own specific configurations of crisis, the East Asian economies face the common threat of increasing obsolescence of their mode of integration into a global economy that is increasingly driven by the gyrations of finance capital.

During the late 1990s, speculative capital’s push to have a piece of the Asian economic miracle and the Asian economies’ need for capital to fuel their export machines combined to create the Asian financial crisis. The effort of the Asian economies to fortify themselves against new attacks on their currencies led them to build up their financial reserves through aggressive export drives. A great portion of these reserves was then recycled as loans to the US Treasury and US banks, and through the wonders of financial engineering, they helped finance the housing and other bubbles that brought on the global financial crisis. It remains to be seen what the next stage is in this increasingly toxic relationship between Asia’s export-driven growth and global speculative capital. As stagnation spreads in the region’s productive sectors, will its economic and political elites be tempted once more to resort to speculative finance to shore up profits?

Seen in a dynamic global context, the two financial crises explored in this volume emerge as explosions—or implosions—waiting to happen in a global capitalist system driven by instability and tending toward disequilibrium. In their conclusion, the editors lay out three possible scenarios for the coming period: a “best case scenario,” “collapse around the corner,” and “a lost decade ahead.” They seem to regard the third option as the least unlikely. East Asian societies face a range of critical problems in the next decade, including a rise in inequality, graying populations, climate change, and security crises. But one of the most serious challenges is the failure to make a transition to a post-export-led growth model even as global finance capital remains largely unbridled. This volatile conjunction, warn the editors, “could lead to the recurrence of devastating financial crises and the precarious response based on their own debt accumulation in the East Asian countries” (p. 232).

This scenario may well transpire, but it may be inflected greatly by a development that, surprisingly, the volume largely ignores: greater geo-economic competition between China and the United States. This competition accelerated greatly under the Obama administration, with its Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative, which seeks to integrate countries in the Pacific Rim—notably, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore—into a US-dominated free trade area designed to counter China’s economic hegemony. Fought over by two economic giants, one pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the other its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership designed to keep the United States at bay, the smaller and weaker economies are likely to be subjected to severe pressure for preferential trade, investment, and financial liberalization from both sides. With geo-economic—and geopolitical—competition added to volatile capital flows and continued addiction to export-led growth, the East Asian region is entering uncharted, troubled waters.

Walden Flores Bello
Focus on the Global South


Anchordoguy, Marie. 2005. Reprogramming Japan: The High Tech Crisis under Communitarian Capitalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bello, Walden. 2015. China’s Stock Market Crash Is the Latest Crisis of Global Capitalism. Foreign Policy in Focus. October 2., accessed on January 5, 2016.

Bello, Walden; and Rosenfeld, Stephanie. 1992. Dragons in Distress: Asia’s Miracle Economies in Crisis. London: Penguin.

Park, Yung Chul. 2013. Financial Development and Liberalization in Korea: 1980–2011. In How Finance Is Shaping the Economies of China, Japan, and Korea, edited by Yung Chul Park and Hugh T. Patrick, pp. 225–301. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wang, Hongying. 2014. Global Imbalances and the Limits of the Exchange Rate Weapon. In The Great Wall of Money: Power and Politics in China’s International Monetary Relations, edited by Eric Helleiner and Jonathan Kirshner, pp. 99–126. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Vol. 6, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Kai CHEN


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Humanitarian Assistance for Displaced Persons from Myanmar: Royal Thai Government Policy and Donor, INGO, NGO and UN Agency Delivery
Premjai Vungsiriphisal, Dares Chusri, and Supang Chantavanich, eds.
Cham: Springer, 2014, xxi+245pp.

Resettlement of Displaced Persons on the Thai-Myanmar Border
Benjamin Harkins and Supang Chantavanich, eds.
Cham and New York: Springer, 2014, xix+116pp.

In 1984 displaced people from Myanmar began to flee to the Thai-Myanmar border. To date, Thailand has hosted millions of displaced people in Thai-Myanmar border shelters. These people have insufficient language skills to be integrated into Thai society, while “many Thai officers and voluntary guards did not speak the displaced persons’ languages” (Premjai et al., p. 72).

Both academics and policy makers need to know more about the dynamics of the Royal Thai Government’s policies toward the displaced population on the border, challenges facing the stakeholder involved and policy implications for the stakeholders. These two volumes edited by the Asian Research Center for Migration at Chulalongkorn University can easily find a place on reading lists for academics interested in international security, human insecurity, refugees, and Thai studies. They are also must-reads for anyone seeking a better understanding of the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Correcting Misunderstandings about the Royal Thai Government

A collection of essays by brilliant scholars from multiple disciplines, Humanitarian Assistance for Displaced Persons from Myanmar reviews the dynamics of the Royal Thai Government’s policies toward the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border and explores the impacts of current interventions by stakeholders (e.g., donor countries, NGOs, international organizations, and the Royal Thai Government).

This volume has two parts. Part 1 (Chapters 1–6) highlights the Royal Thai Government’s policies toward the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border, while Part 2 (Chapters 7–13) analyzes the other stakeholders’ funding policies, project implementation strategies, and countermeasures against the Royal Thai Government, as well as the impacts and limitations of stakeholders. From a comparative perspective, this edited volume examines three potential solutions for the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border: resettlement, local integration, and repatriation.

In the opinion of the reviewer, the most obvious contribution of this edited volume is to correct misunderstandings about the Royal Thai Government, which has been contributing significant funding and human resources for the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border.

First, it is evident that the Royal Thai Government is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees; neither does it have any domestic legislation that directly defines the standards of the treatment for refugees. However, this does not mean that the Royal Thai Government does not follow international standards on the treatment of refugees. The government’s policy toward the displaced population is “shaped in various Cabinet resolution, Ministry announcements and regulations” (Premjai et al., p. 90).

For decades, the government has been providing community-based shelter services and protection to the displaced population, “not on the grounds of refugee status, but as displaced persons” (Premjai et al., p. 12). It has had to balance the needs of its own citizens with those of the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border. According to interviews with some members of the displaced population, “they largely feel safe, and believe their education and health care provision are at a certain level satisfactory” (Premjai et al., p. 75).

Second, stakeholders have been seeking durable solutions to improve the quality of life in the border shelters. For instance, “microfinance has been initiated in some settlements in the form of Village Saving and Loan Associations (VSLA) for those who are more interested in setting up their own small businesses than looking for waged employment” (Premjai et al., p. 45).

As the Royal Government insists, “when the circumstances that caused them to flee have changed or ceases, then they must return to the country of their former habitual residence” (Premjai et al., p. 13). Therefore, the displaced population’s voluntary repatriation is the most practical second-best solution in the future. However, voluntary repatriation of the displaced population would depend on the ceasing of armed conflict between ethnic-based militias and the Myanmar Army, and peace appears a distant prospect.

Third, some critics ignore the fact that Thailand is in a uniquely difficult position with regard to funding shortage. On the one hand, the Royal Thai Government needs to serve the immediate basic needs of the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border. On the other hand, it needs to provide the displaced population with opportunities for self-reliance. Due to a funding shortage, there is a lack of effective communication among the Royal Thai Government, donor countries, international organizations, and NGOs, as well as a halting pace of registrations in the border shelters. As a result, many unregistered displaced people are not eligible for the resettlement program.

Some donor countries are still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. Not surprisingly, it is hard for the Royal Thai Government to commit to sustainable funding, let alone providing increased opportunities for vocational training and income-generating activities for the displaced population. There is an increasing incidence of violence and human rights abuses toward displaced children on the Thai-Myanmar border, and education is still disrupted: “graduation in the settlements is not recognized by the Thai education bureau yet” (Premjai et al., p. 44), and “large numbers of children are not continuing their studies and number of drop-outs is quite large” (Premjai et al., p. 62).

Fourth, there is a fallacy that the Royal Thai Government’s policies toward the displaced population are unchangeable. In fact, the government’s policies are somewhat flexible: “there has been flexibility at the practical and local level” (Premjai et al., p. 85). For instance, members of the displaced population are allowed to leave the shelters to seek health care in Thai hospitals as well as get access to education in other shelters. More important, many displaced people leave the border shelters to seek employment. Many of them “do have jobs, and are able to leave the settlements to work for local employers, usually in agriculture and manufacturing” (Premjai et al., p. 44). “This practice is often tolerated at the local level” (Premjai et al., p. 24).

At the same time, displaced people can work within the border shelters, such as employees of the NGOs. The findings of this volume show that “almost two-thirds of displaced persons” who participated in the study agreed with the Royal Thai Government’s policies toward the displaced population and “none of the displaced persons complained openly about the poverty they experienced within the shelters” (Harkins and Supang, p. xiv).

In the conclusion, the editors and contributors to this volume note that there is no optimal solution to reduce the number of displaced persons in the shelters on the Thai-Myanmar border. They believe that “resettlement is the only one of the three durable solutions available in the border shelters” (Premjai et al., p. 30). This conclusion is open to further discussion.

Is Resettlement the Best Solution?

The past decade witnessed more people flowing from Myanmar into the Thai-Myanmar border shelters, “primarily due to the ongoing conflict and human rights abuses within Myanmar.” Historically, resettlement of displaced populations has the following three functions: meeting “the protection requirements or special needs of individual refugees,” providing “a major durable solution for large groups of refugees,” and serving as a second-best solution of burden sharing among the stakeholders (Harkins and Supang, pp. 10, 88).

The resettlement of displaced families on the Thai-Myanmar border is regarded as the largest resettlement program in the world, with 12 receiving countries accepting displaced families (Harkins and Supang, p. xiii). According to a report issued by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, 11,107 displaced persons from the shelters departed for resettlement in 2010, bringing the total number of departures since 2006 to 64,513. Approximately 76 percent of this total were destined for resettlement in the United States, “with the remainder accepted by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Japan” (Harkins and Supang, p. 2).

In practice, if an applicant living in a border shelter has “all of the documentation necessary, it is correctly filled out without any major discrepancies and they are able to answer the application questions plausibly, the process generally takes less than 1 year” (Harkins and Supang, p. 54). The applicant is also required to apply for an exit permit from the Royal Thai Government, without which he/she cannot depart from Thailand (Harkins and Supang, p. 57).

During the past decade, thousands of people have benefited due to the resettlement program. “[R]eunion with friends and family members, educational opportunities and hope for a better future were the primary reasons for their decisions to apply” (Harkins and Supang, p. 48), although most resettled families argued that “they had no control over which country their application was sent to” (Harkins and Supang, p. 55). Will the resettlement program be the most durable solution for the displaced population on the Thai-Myanmar border in the long run?

In reviewing resettlement policy-related documents, interviews, and field visits, Resettlement of Displaced Persons on the Thai-Myanmar Border, edited by Benjamin Harkins and Supang Chantavanich, focuses on the receiving countries of resettled families (particularly the United States), explores the motivations and constraints for the displaced population to participate in the resettlement program, analyzes the resettlement’s impacts on stakeholders (e.g., the displaced population, remaining populations on the Thai-Myanmar border, and new displaced families flowing into the border shelters). Finally, this volume stresses the policy implications for stakeholders in the foreseeable future.

This volume has six chapters. The first two review the research approach and the literature of the resettlement program. As the editors and contributors believe, there has been a public-private partnership established by the stakeholders to promote the resettlement program, such as the Royal Thai Government’s agencies (especially the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organization for Migration, Overseas Processing Entity, US Department of Homeland Security, etc.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine the negative and positive factors influencing the displaced population’s attitudes toward the resettlement program. The negative factors, constitute a pre-existing exclusion to full participation in the resettlement program. As the editors and contributors suggest, the negative factors include but are not limited to “living conditions within the shelters and the future prospects for local integration within Thailand,” policy restrictions (e.g., lack of registration status, and stalled registration process), and security concerns—many displaced families felt that “it was unsafe to return to Myanmar currently” (Harkins and Supang, pp. 48, 50). On the other hand, the positive factors include “better educational opportunities for children,” “better job opportunities,” “an overall better future for their families,” as well as “family reunification” (Harkins and Supang, p. 79).

In Chapter 5, based on the cases of resettled families in St. Paul, Minnesota, and San Francisco, California, the editors and contributors to this volume highlight the challenges facing resettled families in the United States. For example, “upon arrival in the U.S. they often find that they are over the age limit to attend local public schools” (Harkins and Supang, p. 82). What is worse, since the labor market in the United States “appears to have reached its saturation point for unskilled workers,” resettled families have “very limited employment opportunities in a very high-cost living environment” (Harkins and Supang, p. 90). For instance, the funding allocated for cash assistance to support the resettled families was “too low for high-cost cities such as those in the San Francisco Bay Area where taxes and living expenses are among the highest in the US” (Harkins and Supang, p. 98). What type of welfare assistance did the resettled families receive? In most cases, they received food stamps (between $300 and $600 per month). In addition, the majority of resettled families received rental assistance, while some “said that it did not fully cover their actual rental expenses” (Harkins and Supang, p. 83).

Finally, Chapter 6 draws conclusion and advances policy recommendations for stakeholders in the future. As the editors and contributors suggest, although resettlement should be part of a sustainable and solutions-oriented approach to displacement on the Thai-Myanmar border, “it appears highly unlikely that resettlement can resolve the displaced person situation in the border shelters as a lone durable solution” (Harkins and Supang, p. 95).

So far, the most significant constraint is that the resettlement program is significantly underfunded. For instance, the stakeholders have insufficient funding to reinvigorate the screening mechanism that determines displaced persons’ status, in order to provide new asylum seekers with basic services.

Unfortunately, stakeholders are often requested to provide funding for the needs of resettled families, such as “adjusted immigration status, stable housing, engagement with community services and independent functioning” (Harkins and Supang, p. 82).

In the opinions of the editors and contributors, there is no truly feasible solution for resettled families from the Thai-Myanmar border shelters. Without sufficient funding, it is impossible to implement any measures for self-reliance, which is “a necessary part of any truly sustainable longterm strategy for resolving the displacement situation” (Harkins and Supang, p. 97).

Kai Chen 陈锴
School of International Relations, Xiamen University




Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

State and Finance in the Philippines, 1898–1941: The Mismanagement of an American Colony
Yoshiko Nagano
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015, 272pp.

In State and Finance in the Philippines, 1898–1941: The Mismanagement of an American Colony, Yoshiko Nagano aims to revise the history of the deep financial crisis that hit the Philippines between 1919 and 1922. The economic problems facing the Philippines after the end of World War I are to be understood as part of a larger Southeast Asian crisis caused by a sudden decline in the price of export products on the international markets. In the Philippine case, this crisis was particularly severe due to the collapse of the Philippine National Bank (PNB), which caused hyperinflation. The consequences were far-reaching: the Philippine financial crisis resulted in the imprisonment of several local banking officials on counts of corruption, discredited their alleged political backer Sergio Osmeña, and ended the “Filipinization” policy as practiced by Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison, who was replaced by Leonard Wood.

Examining the crisis within the wider context of financial policies of the American colonial state between 1898 and 1941, Nagano contends that it was the failure of US policies, rather than the inability and corruption of Filipino banking officials, that produced the crisis. The Americans mismanaged their colony, after which they successfully blamed their Filipino subjects for the catastrophic results of their own mistakes, in line with the colonial discourse that justified American rule and economic dominance as a means to developing the archipelago.

It is in Nagano’s thoroughly researched analysis of the PNB’s collapse that her book makes its most important intervention. As Nagano rightly laments, existing scholarship—following the US version of the crisis—customarily attributes the collapse to the incompetence and corruption of Filipino banking officials. For instance, Benedict Anderson claims that “Sergio Osmeña, Sr., and his friends helped themselves to huge, virtually free loans . . . and cheerfully ignored the subsequent bankrupting of the bank of issue” (Anderson 2004, 202–203; see also Abinales and Amoroso 2005, 141–142). Instead, Nagano claims that the main responsibility for the collapse, and hence for the severity of the crisis, lies with American policymakers. The Bureau of Insular Affairs made policies that put the bank and the currency at risk: pegging the silver-based Philippine peso to the gold-based US dollar, creating the PNB as both a commercial bank and a central bank responsible for managing the currency, and allowing the PNB to use currency reserve funds for distribution as loans to the lucrative agricultural sector during World War I. Moreover, the Bureau of Insular Affairs allowed irresponsible banking practices to persist, mainly as the PNB accepted standing crops—rather than the land itself—as collateral for loans to the agricultural sector. This practice worked as long as the export market profited from high prices; but when the market collapsed after the war ended, it meant trouble for the bank that kept the national currency.

Nagano furthermore argues that the customary presentation of the crisis as a corruption scandal in the PNB has its roots in American colonial discourses “intended to legitimize the mastery of the United States over Philippine society” (p. 188). Nagano’s view seems plausible: exposure of the mistakes made by American officials and institutions in the lead-up to and during the crisis would undermine the legitimacy of US dominance. Therefore, she goes on to argue, the Americans deliberately covered up their errors, imposed the notion of the crisis as “the corruption scandal of the Philippine National Bank” (p. 5), and strengthened their control over the finances of the Philippines. The “scandal” supposedly showed the limitations of the “Filipinizing” of the bureaucracy under Governor-General Harrison and helped give way to a renewed focus on US control under Wood.

These conclusions shed new light on the split between Osmeña and Manuel Quezon, as the latter banked on the official view of the PNB’s collapse to challenge the leadership of Osmeña, who was politically responsible for the PNB. Instead of the image of a thoroughly corrupt Osmeña being defied by a more professional Quezon (see Abinales and Amoroso 2005, 141), Nagano presents Quezon simply as the politician who was most able to use the US version of events to his own advantage. Sadly, in her eyes this makes him less of a “true” nationalist (p. 191)—but whatever the right kind of nationalism for a 1920s Filipino politician may be is not up to twenty-first-century historians to decide.

Nagano’s book adds well-researched detail to recent scholarship that is more critical of American reports (such as that of the Woods-Forbes mission which reported the “corruption scandal”) of Filipino inability and corruption (e.g., Kramer 2006, 388–398). While it is a great achievement of the book to draw attention to the US responsibility for the crisis and to emphasize the way colonial discourse covered up the failures, it also downplays Filipino responsibilities. Nagano does acknowledge that Filipino officials were liable for corruption and irresponsible lending practices. But she leaves their contributions to the crisis out of her main argument by pinning the prime responsibility on the Americans. For instance, Osmeña did play a dubious role by appointing inexperienced cronies to the PNB, but Nagano’s argument seems to confirm his rejection of his critics as being anti-Filipino.

The book’s conception of a single colonial discourse implemented from above is problematic. Nagano has a good point in arguing that the US version of the crisis as a corruption scandal in the PNB was in line with the developing mission stated in colonial discourses. But a more differentiated approach to such discourses would considerably enhance this point. Discourses never work one-way or top-down but are enacted by both the ruler and the ruled, i.e., the colonizer and the colonized. How did different Filipinos uphold colonial discourses, and how did this determine their responses to the notion of the corruption scandal in the PNB? Such a discussion may go beyond the book’s original conceptualization as a financial-political history, although the discussion of Quezon’s adoption of the rhetoric of the corruption scandal in the PNB would offer a good starting point.

A further complication emerges in the discussion of the interactions between colonial authorities and the demands and aspirations of the local elites in terms of economic and financial policies. While this is an important question that builds on from research such as Michael Cullinane’s Ilustrado Politics (2003), Nagano tends to treat the “Filipino elite” (pp. 74, 76) as a monolithic whole without differentiating much between the demands of differences in terms of the kinds of enterprises they engaged in, or regional varieties.

Nagano may not have written the “true history” (p. 5) of the Philippine financial crisis—such a qualification applies to no account of history, however well researched, and should have been avoided by the author. Nevertheless, her book is a vital revision of this crisis and its implications for the (political) history of the Philippines.

Hidde van der Wall
Department of Fine Arts, Ateneo de Manila University


Abinales, Patricio N.; and Amoroso, Donna J. 2005. State and Society in the Philippines. Pasig: Anvil Publishers.

Anderson, Benedict. 2004. The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Cullinane, Michael. 2003. Ilustrado Politics: Filipino Elite Responses to American Rule, 1898–1908. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Kramer, Paul A. 2006. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.


Vol. 6, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, IIKUNI Yukako


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1



Women in Modern Burma
Tharaphi Than
London and New York: Routledge, 2014, 182pp.

The 2015 election in Myanmar was a pivotal moment in history due to the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy, led by the world-renowned politician Daw Aung San Su Kyi. The presence of an outstanding female leader appears to be a testament of the popular narrative that Burmese women are powerful agents granted equal rights and status in society. In Women in Modern Burma, Tharaphi Than challenges this notion and reassesses the social, economic, and political position of women in Burma throughout the twentieth century.

The introduction offers an overview that includes the “official” narrative and popular image of Burmese women along with a brief political and cultural outline of twentieth-century Burma. Than shows how the national framework of historical writing has defended the privileged positions of Burmese women, who have been portrayed as powerful agents enjoying high status and equal rights to men. Contrary to this narrative, the book attempts to challenge the concept of “liberated Burmese women” by showing that Burmese women experience little freedom in reality. It accomplishes this by exploring the world of female soldiers, politicians, writers, and prostitutes and by referencing women’s writings, personal interviews, newspapers, and magazine articles (p. 4). Next, Myanmar’s political and cultural situation in the twentieth century is briefly outlined as follows: the transition to independence (1945–48), Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) (1946–52), Pyidawtha or the Happy Land Years (1952–56), Burma Socialist Program Party (1962–88), and the post-1988 period with a post-independence media landscape.

Chapter 2 focuses on how female journalists, editors, and writers struggled to achieve their positions in the print media. After the first English-language newspaper in Burma was published in 1910, print media, especially newspapers, flourished in the country and were regarded as non-lethal weapons with which to challenge British colonial rule. Thus, young, educated Burmese nationalists viewed journalists and teachers as the most attractive professions that could build a full engagement with national politics. Educated Burmese elite men often moved easily within the print media industry, politics, and the business arena, while such mobility was not available to women. Daw Phwa Shin became the first female editor and publisher of the newspaper Tharawaddy. However, she used her husband’s name as the publisher and editor, because she feared that readers would think Tharawaddy was inferior if it was known to be run by a woman. Even Independent Daw San, who demonstrated that a woman was indeed capable of managing a newspaper, wrote under a male pseudonym for fear of being blamed for not embracing modesty. However, independence caused a seismic shift in the discourse of Burmese literature and female writers. Women writers played a significant role in shaping national themes and goals for post-independence literature, particularly for the preservation of Burmese culture and contributions to nation building and national identity formation.

Chapter 3 takes up the subject of women’s education. On the subject of female education in the colonial period, Chie Ikeya (2011) has already argued that the British education system was crucial to the success of Burmese middle-class women and that modern education triggered the most radical transformation in the history of female education and professionalism. On the other hand, Than insists that while the British education system might have triggered a transformation, “the transformation may simply have been a matter of learning in an institution” and that Burmese women “were not empowered to make their independent way in the world,” with few exceptions (p. 49). Certainly, statistical data obtained by local NGOs, the United Nations Population Fund, and the government show that women were either highly educated or highly illiterate (p. 61). In addition, male participation in the labor force was 2.5 times larger than that of females (Chart 3.11) and men were consistently paid more than women across almost all sectors included in the 1953 survey. However, the author acknowledges that “the number of female professionals [was] higher than that of males, and this reflect[ed] the rising number of females with university-level education” (p. 64) and that “women dominate[d] the health-care and teaching sectors” (p. 65), which require a high level of education. Therefore, to say that Burmese women “were not empowered to make their independent way in the world” through education seems to be exaggerated. Furthermore, considering the lack of comprehensive statistical data, the use of statistical data seems probably misleading, as the wage differences between men and women in 1953 cannot be logically extrapolated across the entire twentieth century; the social, political, and economic background should have been taken into account.

Chapter 4 addresses the creation of the Burma Women’s Army. Than reveals that a cultural landscape that expected Burmese women to be obedient, feminine, and subservient to their husbands and families was changed not because of education and modernity, but because of World War II and the Japanese occupation. Hatred of Japan and patriotic literature transformed many well-behaved women into socially and politically aware citizens. Beginning in 1943, The East Asia Youth League mobilized as many as 30,000 young women and provided them with physical and ideological training. In February 1945, as the Japanese were arresting resistance leaders, the Women’s Army Division was established within the Burma Army. The Women’s Army seemed ideal for active young women, but in reality there was only one active platoon consisting of nine members. Furthermore, female soldiers deployed to the battlefield were restricted to administrative tasks—such as translation, disseminating news to the troops, and mobilizing villagers—all of which were “disgraceful” to them, according to the author. Women inevitably failed to assume key roles in the overall movement.

Chapter 5, titled “Disbanding the Army and Communist Women,” investigates the role of women in the Communist factions and discusses why the roles of female guerilla fighters were omitted from the “official” history. After World War II, although the Women’s Army was disbanded, many women’s organizations—such as the All Burma Woman Independence Group and the Burma Women Congress—were established to advance women’s rights. Than argues that there were two spheres of Burmese women’s political activism. One was composed of elite women, especially the wives and daughters of policy makers, who chose engagement tactics, such as cooperation with the government and negotiating within the system. The other sphere represented the grassroots movement, often drawing from the wives and families of nationalist leaders, and took a more confrontational and direct approach, including boycotts and strikes. Only those who demanded women’s rights within the government framework were “allowed” a space in Burmese history and are portrayed as beacons of equal status for Burmese women.

Chapter 6 considers “Women and Modernity.” The principal argument of this chapter is how Burmese women in this period were conflicted over modernity. While businesses employed images of modern women in their advertisements and many women demanded modern items, such as cigarettes, nylon fabric, and contraceptive pills, others saw modernity as a threat to the rediscovery of uniquely identified Burmese culture for nation building and the purity of the “Burman” race and Buddhism. Therefore, the issue of intermarriage was greatly politicized. Some considered the marriage of women to foreigners as a feminine vice and a betrayal of race, religion, and state. Others saw these women as victims of exploitation by opportunist foreigners. Under the objective of freeing Burmese Buddhist women from exploitation by foreigners and protecting their interests, the 1954 Special Marriage and Inheritance Act for Buddhist Women was enacted. Than argues that the division across Burma’s social landscape between those who urged women to embrace modernity and those who saw women as a bulwark against the corruption of Burmese identity by foreign cultural influence was an outstanding feature of the AFPFL years.

Chapter 7 discusses prostitution under the title of “Marginalized Women in the Making of the ‘Burman’ Nation.” During the colonial period, prostitution—which became common during and following the Japanese occupation—was seen simply as a medical concern threatening the health of British soldiers. However, after independence the issue of prostitution was used as propaganda. While the ruling party viewed prostitution as a form of moral corruption brought on by foreign ideologies and modernity and blamed women for their inherently vile nature, the opposition portrayed it as an outcome of economic injustice and evidence of government failure. After slight mention of prostitution from the 1960s to the 1990s, the author turns to prostitution in the twenty-first century, including the Burmese social landscape and human trafficking.

Than focuses on “the forgotten women of Burma,” such as the Women’s Army, Communist women, and prostitutes; they have not been included in any “official” histories, which have been censored by authorities. The author’s challenge to reveal the ideology of the “official histories” has succeeded, as descriptions of the activities of the Women’s Army and of Communist women are limited in domestic historical research, such as Political Movements of Myanmar Women (Myanma Hsoshelit Lanzin Pati 1975). This book shows that gender studies are indispensable to enrich the discussion concerning the multiple histories of Myanmar/Burma.

Furthermore, this book also indicates that the context of the social landscape of women in the 1950s parallels the current situation. For example, ex-President Thein Sein enforced the four collective laws, what is called the Race and Religion Laws, including the Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, on August 2015 without discarding the 1954 Special Marriage and Inheritance Act for Buddhist Women. These laws were drafted to protect the rights of Burmese female Buddhists from the threat of Muslims, just as in the 1950s, when the issue of intermarriage was greatly politicized.

However, there is some inconsistency between the framework of the book and the text. For example, the trafficking of women, which is described as part of the arguments within Chapter 6 in Introduction (p. 15), is actually discussed in Chapter 7 (p. 161). Furthermore, it is not clear what the author wants to discuss as a whole, as there is no overall discussion and only a brief summary in each chapter. Although redundant and arbitrary usage of statistical data makes Than’s arguments monotonous and less persuasive, the topics addressed in this book are critical not only for the study of Burmese history but also for an understanding of present-day Myanmar.

Iikuni Yukako 飯國有佳子
Department of International Cultures, Faculty of International Relations, Daito Bunka University


Ikeya, Chie . 2011. Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Myanma Hsoshelit Lanzin Pati ျမန္မာ႔ ဆိုရွယ္လစ္ လမ္းစဥ္ပါတီ [Burma Socialist Programme Party]. 1975. Myanma Nainngan Amyodhami mya i Nainnganyei hloutshahmu ျမန္မာ ႏိုင္ငံ အမိ်ဳးသမီးမ်ား ၏ ႏိုင္ငံေရး လႈပ္ရွားမႈ [Political movements of Myanmar women]. Yangon: Myanma Hsoshelit Lanzin Pati.


Vol. 6, No. 1, Media Zainul BAHRI


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

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

Media Zainul Bahri*

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

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_139

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emergence of Theosophy in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ITS and the Idea of Religious Pluralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Demeaning Other Religions, Conversion, and Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perennialism, Religious Humanism, and Javanese Mysticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiring “Multicultural Education”

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

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

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


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

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

Accepted: July 19, 2016


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


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Imam, Soewarno. 2005. Konsep tuhan, manusia, mistik dalam berbagai kebatinan Jawa [The concepts of God, men, and mystic in various streams of Javanese mysticism]. Jakarta: Rajagrafindo Persada.

J. M. 1922. Satoe pokok [One pillar]. PTHN (1–2): 21.

―. 1920. Hal rasoelallah [On the prophet]. PTHN: 87.

Karim, A. 1925. Serba-serbi tentang Allah [Perspectives on Allah]. PTHN (2): 31.

―. 1923. Auwaloeddin Ma’rifatoellah [The first thing in religion is knowing God]. PTHN (3): 33.

Khan, Inayat. 1922. Soefie [The Sufis]. PTHN (5): 66.

Labberton, Van Hinloopen. 1917. Kenjataannja tetenger dan perlambang [On reality and symbols]. PTHN (11): 161.

―. 1912. Perdamian doenia [sic] [World peace]. PTHN: 126–127.

―. n.d. Perdamian sadoenia [World peace]. Theosophie in Nederlandsch Indie (TINI): 126.

Laibelman, Alan. 1996. Realitas dan makna ultim menurut filsafat perenial [The reality and the ultimate in perennial philosophy]. In Perenialisme, edited by Ahmad Norma Permata, p. 86. Yogyakarta: Tiara Wacana.

Latief, A. 1926a. Faedah Theosofie boeat manoesia [The benefit of Theosophy for men]. PTHN (1): 10–11, 30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

―. 1927b. Seng-To! Kow-Li! PTHN: 124.

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

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

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

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

Redaksi. 1921. Pemerintahan jang berdasar persoedaraan atau perdamaian [A government based on brotherhood and peace]. PTHN (6): 96.

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

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

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Rumi, Jalal al-Din. 1990. The Matsnawi of Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated and edited by Reynold Nicholson. Book 3. Cambridge: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust.

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

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

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

S. M. 1926. Djalan kesempoernaan [A path of perfection]. PTHN (10): 140.

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Tjitro, Kijahi Somo. 1915. Djalan menoentoet elmoe kenjataan [A path that demands a knowledge of reality]. PTHN (10): 121–122.

TVTKL, Lid. 1927. Katerangan dari goeroe kita [An explanation from our master]. PTHN (1): 15.

Van Motman, H. E. 1912. Kepada toean redacteur soerat kabar Pewarta Theosophie [Dear Editor of Pewarta Theosophy Newspaper]. PTHN: 123–124.

Wieringa, Edwin. 1998. The Mystical Figure of Haji Ahmad Mutamakin from the Village of Cabolek (Java). Studia Islamika, Indonesian Journal for Islamic Studies 5(1): 30.

W1. 1927. Haroes terpoedji [Praiseworthy]. PTHN (6): 129.

Wongsodilogo, R. M. 1921. Djalan oetama [A leading path]. PTHN: 51–52.

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1) Theosophical Association of the Netherlands Indies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vol. 6, No. 1, Kanya WATTANAGUN


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretism in Vernacular Thai Buddhism

Kanya Wattanagun*

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

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.1_115

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

Keywords: vernacular Thai Buddhism, syncretism, magic, karma

Syncretism: A Problematic Analytical Model?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karma versus Magic: Dissonance and Syncretization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2.1. Mr. Woravit

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

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

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

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

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

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


2.2. Venerable Ko

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syncretism or Repertoire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problematizing Anti-syncretism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accepted: January 6, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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