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Vol. 9, No. 1, ODAJIMA Rie


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 1

Theatrical Governmentality and Memories in Champasak, Southern Laos

Odajima Rie*

* 小田島理絵, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University, Toyama 1-24-1, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-8644, Japan
e-mail: lectoda[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.1_99

In this article, I discuss cultural governmentality, its growth—as highlighted by multiple views in the past—and accretionary beliefs and religiosity that have emerged from the domestication of traditions in Southern Laos. In Champasak, visible ancient remains have long been indicators of the existence of guardian spirits, as well as religious beliefs, legends, and practices. The rites of worshipping the spirits have been demonstrated through staged ceremonial and ritual grandeur. This form of political art has been used to convey spiritual messages to the citizenry; however, such theatrical governmentality has not escaped the influence of scientific modernity. Thus, two phases of heritagization have occurred: French colonialization and the present periods of imposed scientific knowledge and politics that have created heritage sites and objects in the region. When modern knowledge dislocates spiritual worship and ambiguous memories of the past, the natives remember and craft legends and beliefs, or “unofficial” memories, in their pursuit of identity. By closely scrutinizing and recontextualizing these two encounters, this article elucidates how religious beliefs, legends, and memories redevelop as complex religious and political expressions of native selves.

Keywords: Laos (Lao PDR), Champasak, Wat Phu (Vat Phou), governmentality, religion, memory, archaeology, heritage

I Introduction

I-1 Wat Phu in the Past

Photos in the booklet by Henri Marchal (1959) show Champasak in the old days, with its emblematic site Wat Phu (Wat Phū; “Vat Phou” in French)1) (Fig. 1). Wat Phu is a well-known monument site in southern Laos. Presently, it is a tourist site; the large area surrounding it was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2001.2) However, Wat Phu has drawn a great deal of attention for a very long time. Since the beginning of French colonization in the late nineteenth century, Wat Phu has attracted not only local residents but also explorers, scholars, politicians, and tourists.



Fig. 1 Sketch Map of Champasak District (map created by author)


Three photos in the aforementioned booklet, which was originally published in French by Henri Marchal in 1957, were added when the text was translated into Lao by a dignitary and a member of the former Southern Lao royal court. They depict scenes of the Wat Phu Festival, one of the South’s most magnificent ceremonial festivities. Two of the three photos show that Savang Vatthana, Prince of Laos from the town of Luang Prabang, officially visited Wat Phu with his ministers in 1959, and that the ministers greeted Boun Oum (Bun Ūm), the late prince and last heir of the Southern Lao monarchy. The photos infuse the celebration taking place at Wat Phu with diplomatic tactics. Their insertion into the booklet reflects the translators’ intention to show that the Lao chiefs, particularly Boun Oum, were the governors of the Southern region. A semi-autobiography of Boun Oum (Archaimbault 1971) conveys the late prince’s feelings of grief, resignation, and powerlessness over the decline of the South in Northern-centered Laos. The translators, who were close to him, would have shared those feelings and added the three special photos as evidence of the closeness of the Southern monarchy to Champasak.

Modestly portrayed in both the French and Lao versions were the native Lao inhabitants who lived near Wat Phu and their feelings of friendship, respect, and awe toward the site. This closeness with Wat Phu still exists today, albeit in a less focused way.

I-2 Cultural Governmentality and Memories

In this article, my first aim is to elucidate the invention of certain political arts in Champasak, which employed fine arts on the political stage. I explore what Michel Foucault (1979) called “governmentality”—techniques, tactics, and discourses that embody forms of governing and polities under certain environmental and temporal conditions in the West—as a cultural product that emerged and was nurtured in Southern Laos, home to groups of ancient artifacts. I analyze the cultural uniqueness of Southern Lao governmentality based on documents written by French explorers, archaeologists, and ethnohistorians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly the ethnological documentation of Charles Archaimbault, who conducted extensive fieldwork in Champasak with a special focus on ceremonial and ritual features during the royal regime. I also use data collected and photos taken during my own on-site research in the early 2000s3) to examine how people lived with the archaeological sites and objects in Champasak, which had just become a World Heritage site. During this field research, I met elderly villagers who lived near archaeological objects or were involved in rituals conducted around the sites. I was not allowed to be alone in the village, however, due to the regulations of the current socialist government. When using these data, primarily in the later sections of the article, I take account of such particular present-day contexts.

These data sources illustrate what I call “theatrical governmentality.” The politico-societies of Tai groups have fitted themselves within different environments and realized culturally variable governmentality. Their religiosity takes a hybrid form, reflecting the ongoing lives and beliefs of living peoples, animating their own religious lives and sustaining the cultural governmentality of each group (Comaroff 1994; Hayashi 2003; Hayami 2004; Pattana 2005; Holt 2009; Endres and Lauser 2012; McDaniel 2014). This has given a unique shape to governmentality in Southern Laos.

These features are mirrored in the paramount tenet of political art in Champasak, or theatrical governmentality. In Champasak, as in other places in Southeast Asia where people live with ancient buildings and artifacts constantly in view, hybrid religiosity is sustained. Unique to Champasak, however, is that both native political actors and commoners reference beliefs that demonstrate “accretion” (McDaniel 2014) or “participation” (Lévi-Bruhl 1984 [1926]); these are conveyed by the ancient but still living artifacts, the messages of spiritual entities delivered through mediums, and various ritual spectacles and festivities invented or reinvented in the cultural public sphere.

To elucidate cultural governmentality and the religious specificity on which it is based, the materials present an image of French governmentality based in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French modernity. The colonizers’ technological, scientific, mechanical, numerical, chronological, and typological knowledge, devices, and discourses on objects, time, and human and nonhuman entities were embodied in archaeological and political exploration and exploitation. Modern development of rationales relied on deduction, evolution, or diffusion rather than accretion or participation. The contrast between these tenets led their early contact to take the shape of an encounter. Thus, my second aim in this article is to closely scrutinize the development of otherness when the two sides—colonizing and colonized, one using modern science and the other using locally developed knowledge—encountered one another. This extends to an investigation of what Mary Pratt (1992) calls the “contact zone”: the temporal and spatial phase in which the others meet without the preexisting equilibrium of power. This can also be called a phase of “heritagization” (Smith and Akagawa 2009; De Cesari 2017) or a politicized phase of heritage, as, for example in Champasak, ancient objects become materials by which different groups contest their own views of the truth.

However, my analysis is not limited to the phase that developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; it also encompasses the present phase, which developed through the union of the sciences with local theatrical arts in response to the rise of the scientific World Heritage program. In both phases, scientific and ritual governmentality clashed over their perspectives of the past, objects, and religions. Ultimately, ritual governmentality and the aspect of the place as a home for villagers and their spirits were hidden behind scientific governmentality.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, public crises and fears emerging from social struggles and dilemmas were often subsumed into religious phenomena, including millennialism. Such phenomena were either locally invented tactics to manage crises and insecurity or expressions (intentional or unintentional) of protest against the colonial or capitalistic other, and they were used against the modernity subsumed by that other (Worsley 1981 [1957]4); Ong 1987; Tanabe and Keyes 2002; Hayami 2004; Pattana 2005; Endres and Lauser 2012). Likewise, in Champasak, natives’ worship of spiritual entities expressed their feelings of insecurity regarding oncoming crises. Whereas orthodox religious teachings are reference points to embody governmentality and religious practices (Kanya 2017), the religious phenomena they re-realize do not equate to the old traditions; their beliefs and practices can be understood only as modern phenomena (Comaroff 1994; Hayami et al. 2003; Hayashi 2003; Hayami 2004; Holt 2009; Endres and Lauser 2012). This is particularly evident in the second phase of heritagization. In post-1975 Laos, where theatrical governmentality is unofficial despite its potency, a sharp demarcation is drawn between the past and the present, or between tradition and modernity, respectively (Rehbein 2007). As the industrious and realistic orientation and scientific education affect religious institutions and monks, the legitimacy of canonical Buddhism is apt to be overemphasized, and hybrid popular beliefs and practices may be denied (Ladwig 2012). In this strict atmosphere, understanding of heritage or religious monuments is standardized, and their spiritual potentiality is underestimated. Because of this trend, local beliefs in spiritual heroes in Champasak, which are closely tied to the existence of ancient monuments, have begun to reawaken and participate in living society as the local residents’ pursuit of identity.

Such local beliefs tend to be treated as historical anecdotes or memories shared within native circles only. However, if a memory is a continually reproduced representation of a living social group, as Maurice Halbwachs (1992) suggests, then so-called history can be regarded as a representation of scientific engagement. The “facts” are, therefore, multilayered, and we should take a multifaceted view when examining them.

When considering a multiplicity of facts, we must note how vulnerably, emotionally, and discursively the past and “truth” are produced in highly politicized and traumatic situations in the present. Halbwachs’s discussion of memory does not mention this (Rappaport 1998; Cole 2008; Shaw 2008). Multiple facts have been produced in phases of dispute in Champasak as an expression of various people’s struggles to define the past. Thus, by relocating the scientific position (and myself) as reflexively as possible, and by resituating histories/memories already unearthed in the excavation of the past, I aim to examine how different views have been produced and performed.

II Situating Champasak: Marginalization under French Rule

To begin the study, I first examine how Southern Lao experienced otherness and marginalization by the other. The marginalized position of the South was reinforced in two historical phases: first, the formation of French Laos by the unification of Lao principalities, the muang (mū’ang, ເມືອງ)5) of the three kingdoms (ānāchak, ອານາຈັກ) of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak at the end of the nineteenth century; and second, the installment of the king of Luang Prabang as the monarch of the Kingdom of Laos (ānāchak lāo, ອານາຈັກລາວ) after decolonization. This occurred alongside the Siamese colonization of the three Lao kingdoms in the eighteenth century. However, these phases, especially French colonization, were dramatic for the Southern Lao population as they introduced a coercive encounter with the powers of modernity, technology, and science that remained until the end of the royal court. French colonization began to affect Southern Lao even before the territorial treaty was forged in October 18936) by way of explorers dispatched to investigate the geography and resources of the South, including ancient monuments. The treaty, signed by the Siamese and French administrations, effected a change in the Southern kingdom: Muang Basak7) (Fig. 1), the capital principality of the Champasak Kingdom located on the western bank of the Mekong, was excluded from eastern bank-centered French Laos. Although the western bank was included in French Laos in the second treaty, concluded in 1904, the French administration then established its headquarters on the eastern bank. The new central city of the South, Pakse (Fig. 1), was occupied by Vietnamese and Chinese settlers. Unlike the new settlers, who engaged in commercial, administrative, and other promoted activities, the residents of Basak were wet-rice cultivators, marginalized both economically and geographically. Under such circumstances, how could, and how did, the Lao population view, interpret, and remember the present and past?

II-1 Constructing a Memory: How the Prince Remembered the Past

It is evident in Archaimbault’s account The New Year Ceremony at Basăk (1971) that for Champasak, the past was a production of remembering and forgetting the specific historical and political moments in which it was situated. Archaimbault wrote his account through a lengthy communication with Boun Oum in the 1950s and 1960s.8) He included statements written by Boun Oum himself, who experienced the loss of his position as a prince within the Kingdom of Laos by ceding the throne to the Luang Prabang court in 1946.

The account vividly notes how Boun Oum remembered the past in this situation. Archaimbault, serving as a storyteller, begins with the prince’s discussion of his grandfather Kham Souk. Kham Souk established the royal court of Basak (Fig. 1) and encountered French expeditions in the late nineteenth century. Boun Oum told Archaimbault that his grandfather’s encounter with French explorers was the start of a nightmarish experience: Auguste Pavie, the main player in the French colonization of Laos, treated Kham Souk as nothing more than “a phantom king” (Archaimbault 1971, 18), being skeptical of his close ties to the Siamese. The account notes that Kham Souk died in anger and distress, degraded to chief of one district. The nightmare was then passed on to his son, Rāsadānai—Boun Oum’s father—who had to swear “allegiance to the French” (Archaimbault 1971, 18). After 1941, Basak once again became a point of territorial battle between France and Siam (Thailand). It became part of Siam and remained so until it was returned to Laos in 1946. The account records Champasak’s past through the filter of Boun Oum, who sketched out the deterioration of both the fame and pride of the Southern Lao monarchy. This distress did not belong specifically to Kham Souk or Rāsadānai, but to Boun Oum himself. Boun Oum felt toward Archaimbault what his father and grandfather had felt toward French colonization. Sensing this, Archaimbault states that Boun Oum’s narratives appeared like bǭk bān chai (ບອກ ບານ ໃຈ)—the rite of expulsion of sins, literally meaning “to tell (bǭk) is to open or to bloom (bān) a heart (chai),” in which sins are confessed as self-punishment. Archaimbault decided that the former prince lamented the decline of his grandfather, father, and country due to his incapacity. Boun Oum, however, stated that the Southern country’s decline was its fate: in Buddhist thought, karma was attached to the South, and caused by an “original sin” by an ancestor of the royal court in the remote past (Archaimbault 1971, 45–49). This ancestor was a sinful queen named Nāng Pao. Another of Archaimbault’s accounts, “L’histoire de Čămpasăk” (1961), regarded Nāng Pao as the key cause of the country’s misfortune. In “L’histoire,” however, the queen was a mythical figure with few concrete details: she was the only daughter and heir of a multiethnic kingdom consisting of Khmer, Indians, Cham, Lao, and Suei, called Năk’ônkalăčămpanak’ăbŭrisi. The kingdom was believed to have been situated around the villages of Katup, Muang Kang, Sang O, and Phanon before 1638 and to have had a good relationship with the Khmer monarchy (Archaimbault 1961, 523). The queen, whose ethnicity was unknown, passed her reign to the two Lao founders of the monarchy, the Buddhist monk Prakru Ponmesak and the prince Soi Sisamut, who came from Vientiane and established the order of the Southern region following Buddhism (Archaimbault 1961, 534–557).

Both Boun Oum and Archaimbault state in The New Year Ceremony at Basăk (1971, 14) and “L’histoire” (1961, 531) that the Southern kingdom fell into chaos during the reign of Nāng Pao because of the birth of her illegitimate daughter, Nāng Peng. Nāng Pao’s illegitimate pregnancy was considered to be the cause of all the bad luck that befell future generations. Boun Oum’s account raises a crucial theme in the governance of the Southern monarchy: gender and sexuality. He notes the importance of this theme in his own afterword in The New Year Ceremony at Basăk, in which he recalls how carefully his ancestors addressed gender and sexuality (Archaimbault 1971, 48).

Boun Oum’s narratives cannot prove the existence of Nāng Pao and other ancestral heroes. Historians can closely scrutinize his statements, but firsthand materials are rare, and if written materials or objects could be found, it would be difficult to determine their accuracy. It would be impossible to pursue such a positivist approach in its entirety because, although Archaimbault stated his written history was based on several sources—those authorized by Kham Souk, his dignitaries, a Lao monk, and Siamese dignitaries working for their royal court9)—the agency of the writers in shaping the facts remains uncertain. In the case of Boun Oum’s narratives, which are full of grief and sorrow, what is more certain is his view and way of interpreting the past and reconstructing a memory. We must consider what agency shaped Boun Oum’s own memory. As a man who experienced modernity and its marginalization of his country, Boun Oum was a postcolonial subject in a hybrid position between the colonizing and colonized cultures (Said 1993), and he could only feel powerless.10)

II-2 Muang and the People

During the period of the Southern country’s marginalization, the rite of purifying sins was important. Feelings of grief were not exclusively felt by the prince but shared by the people who participated in the rite. Furthermore, the prince’s reconstruction of the past was not solely an individual memory. Thus, ritualistic acts of purification served as important ceremonies. With respect to the New Year ceremony, Archaimbault notes that the sharing of symbolic acts established the harmonious relations of people with Muang Basak (Archaimbault 1971, 3–5).

Symbolic acts united the people, the royal house, and the authorities as an organic and lively community. Citizens who participated in the ceremony played the roles of both performer and observer. They were performers when they cleansed their bodies and purified the outer environment by accompanying the sacred procession with the prince as it circled the ritually central monasteries, and also when they sprinkled water on the prince and images of Buddha—the most powerful bodies symbolizing their principality and representing how and by whom the polity was managed and protected (Archaimbault 1971, 3–5). Subsequently, they completed the ceremony as observers. They observed that the rite was conducted promptly and smoothly, promising them safety and prosperity in the coming year (Archaimbault 1971, 3–5). This was the only way to officially end the ceremony, and the prince’s exhibition of the entire procedure to residents was thus a crucial task.

The significance of the people’s presence cannot be underestimated. The ceremony provided both the prince and the people with the opportunity to reconfirm their social and cosmological norms, as well as the political organization and protection, through enjoyment. Thus, the ceremonial settings of Southern Lao muang could be analogous to Clifford Geertz’s definition of the classical Balinese polity, the negara, as a “metaphysical theater state” (Geertz 1980), which was “designed to express a view of the ultimate nature of reality and, at the same time, to shape the existing conditions of life to be consonant with that reality” (Geertz 1980, 104). Southern Lao muang conducted the New Year ceremony at the turning point of the calendar, bringing governors and commoners together onto the stage of a grand “drama” in which they reconfirmed the ontological significance of their cosmos. As in the negara, in which governance operated via symbolic actions, in muang, politics was not a simple conduit of power but rather an art to help realize its grand function, inciting commoners to cooperate with the governing body and its associates.

III Theatrical Governmentality: How to Govern Muang

Although the features of Lao muang are analogous to the Balinese negara, muang were not exactly the same as negara. Each developed its own distinctiveness through unique cultural processes and the capacity to adapt to natural and social environments. We must thus more closely scrutinize each muang’s development of “theatricality,” or uniqueness in the art of conducting ceremonies for the political sake of each polity.

III-1 The Uniqueness of Lao Theater: The Cultural Public Sphere

The uniqueness of the Southern Lao art of governing muang can be seen most prominently in the popular way they relate themselves to the ceremonies and politics. We must first keep in mind that ceremonies are called bun (ບຸນ), a term with a double meaning: virtue or merit making, and participatory ceremonial occasions. Both meanings imply that individuals accumulate virtue or merit to achieve nirvana or eternal happiness (Nginn 1967), following the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Thus, achievement of a state of happiness depends primarily upon individual practices, but individuals also engage in merit making and ceremonial occasions to gift their virtues to those around them. Thus, their virtues and happiness are to be shared by the collective. Lao ceremonial occasions, or theatricality, imply both individual and common good.

To scrutinize Archaimbault’s portrayal of the New Year ceremony, Bun Pī Mai (ບຸນປີໃໝ່), in terms of this theatricality, we can consider the ceremony to be an occasion for both individual and collective pursuit of happiness. The occasion was meaningless if not conducted in a space that was both open and accessible to individuals living together in the muang. Some rites were conducted within the palace, but the ultimate aim of such rites was to lead the muang and its people to happiness. Thus, the New Year ceremony and other ceremonial occasions were culturally designed to occur in the public sphere. The people were enthusiastic to join in this sphere because, being mostly agrarian farmers, they earnestly wished to secure a good rice harvest. This is illustrated by Archaimbault: “The prince goes downstairs and takes his seat under the veranda, where everyone . . . now sprinkles him in order to assure an abundant rainfall” (Archaimbault 1971, 13). This aspect—people participating in ceremonial occasions in hopes of gaining life security and religious happiness—may also be a distinctive feature of Southern Lao’s theatricality, running in contrast to the negara. Geertz portrayed the negara as composed of subjects who faithfully performed given hierarchical roles. Each actor was invariably obedient to the social and political scenario. Anthropologists skeptical of the image of individuals as anonymous members of culture or society may insist that Geertz, in accordance with his early theories, customarily interpreted people as socially embedded objects, and thus he depicted the negara as a hierarchical, well-organized theater. Such critiques alert us that facts are filtered through writers’ eyes.

All we can draw with certainty from Archaimbault’s portrait of the New Year ceremony is that diagnostically, the muang’s residents were highly sensitive to socially expected roles and codes, which were conveyed through ceremonies. However, they were not merely recipients of these codes but creative performers who interwove their own will into the drama. Archaimbault’s portrayal suggests that if the theatrical public space did not allow individuals to live on their initiative, the theater would have been empty. In this respect, the Southern Lao public sphere was unlike the Balinese theatrical sphere.

In Southern Lao muang, ceremonies were important arts that connected the people to their lords. Indigenous politics were successful if they could stimulate people’s enthusiasm for living. An interview with villagers who participated in ceremonies during the old regime revealed that the festivities conveyed religious excitement and feelings of pleasure for their lives. The most impressive ceremonial event was bun sūang hū’a (ບຸນຊ່ວງເຮືອ), the boat racing ceremony. It was exciting because it had multiple meanings: human, ethnic, economic, and political. Such scenes can be observed again in Archaimbault’s research (1972). Racers came from all the lower regions of both banks of the Mekong, the farthest coming from the border area of present-day Cambodia, to the main stage in Muang Basak. In the area of the palace was a miniature Mount Meru (according to local belief, a physical representation of the peak of the world), located in the center of the Southern kingdom. The spatial range of the capital city Basak was marked and protected by two important shrines: the Golden Shrine ( kham, ຫໍຄຳ) in Phaphin Village, which enshrined the great guardian spirit of the capital of the kingdom (phī mū’ang, ຜີເມືອງ), Chao Thǣn Kham (ເຈົ້າແຖນຄຳ); and Wat Thāt (ວັດທາດ), the monastery that enshrined the royal Lao founder and guardian of the capital, Soi Sisamut (Fig. 1).

The people who performed the boat racing ceremony expressed appreciation and homage toward the divine dragon, Nāga, which controlled rainfall and was thus the farmers’ subsequent lifeline. At the same time, the ceremony provided a multitude of entertainment, offering people the opportunity to dance and sing with others from different villages and districts. Finally, the ceremony afforded the opportunity to purchase rare products brought by traders from all over the lower Mekong region (Archaimbault 1972, 62).11)

By hosting the ceremonies and integrating the rituals with trading and entertainment, the former Lao monarchy could control the public. By gathering racers and dignitaries from villages and small muang in the lower Mekong region, they also could recognize those in their mandala (Stuart-Fox 1997, 7) or galactic world (Tambiah 1976, 109). The ceremonies demarcated the border of the universe, not by drawing a borderline of the kingdom but by inspiring the imagination and performance of the ceremony’s participants.

III-2 What Is Shown in Lao Theater? Controlling Sexuality and Regulating Society

If ceremonies were indigenous arts for governing muang, we should carefully examine what participants were shown. As noted previously, in Champasak Boun Oum considered it important to regulate female sexuality. The theme of the sinful queen was staged repeatedly in important ceremonies and rites, including the sacrifice of buffaloes.12) This sacrifice was carried out at the Golden Shrine, which was built in the precinct of Wat Phu (Fig. 1). Based on his participant observation in the 1950s, Archaimbault (1959) described the procedures of the rite, unlike early explorers, who concerned themselves only with the architectural and archaeological features of Wat Phu. His research suggests how Nāng Pao’s original sin was related to regulating female sexuality by highlighting the villagers’ belief that Nāng Pao had cursed them:

If any young girl follows my example and lets some young lad make love to her to the extent of becoming a mother, then let her offer up a buffalo to the guardian spirits. . . . If not, then may the rice in the rays perish when the ears are forming, may the rice in the rice-fields dry up and die! (Archaimbault 1959, 160)

According to Archaimbault, following this curse, villagers searched for unmarried mothers in the greater area around Wat Phu and asked those women to offer buffaloes to the guardian spirits worshipped during the rite. He suggests that the main reason Lao communities sacrificed buffaloes was their adherence to local Lao oral tradition, which said that the founder of Wat Phu, Kammathā (ກຳມະທາ), offered human sacrifices to the guardian spirits (Archaimbault 1959, 156). At some point in the past, the rite transformed into a sacrifice of buffaloes because “the blood of a buffalo is of equal value with the blood of a man” (Archaimbault 1959, 156). Archaimbault does not indicate why Nāng Pao was drawn into the scenario; however, he obviously believed that the Lao attached their legend of Nāng Pao to a pre-existing rite of sacrifice. He followed the hypothesis of his fellow scholar George Cœdès, who translated the late-fifth-century Sanskrit inscription K365 discovered in Champasak (the details of this inscription will be discussed later). Cœdès suggested that in the remote past, a rite of human sacrifice was practiced by a king with a name other than Kammathā. Archaimbault, accordingly, believed the original rite to have begun in the remote past with someone other than Kammathā (Archaimbault 1961, 519–523). In Archaimbault’s perspective, the Lao attached their legend of Kammathā to the scenario of the sacrifice. Likewise, Archaimbault thought that the Lao legend of Nāng Pao was incorporated into the previously existing rite of sacrifice.

Archaimbault’s proposition suggests that, by reinterpreting and incorporating pre-existing religious practices into their own traditions, Southern Lao people reproduced their theatrical governmentality. This domestication of various beliefs and practices for their own use, with special attention to female sexuality, is also suggested by the Southern Lao recreation of other myths. First is the genesis myth of the Southern world, which stated that their world began with an accident caused by a female divinity who had an illegitimate child with her servant (Archaimbault 1964, 61–63); second is the oral tradition of a Lao woman named Nāng Malong, telling of her illegitimate love with a young non-Lao prince and ending in her suicide (Archaimbault 1961, 525–526). The main themes of such myths were female sexuality and misfortune, including interethnic marriage, caused by women’s misconduct. As Archaimbault mentioned (1961, 525–531), however, those stories share a resemblance to myths of Northern Lao principalities. Although female sexuality was a common theme in the region, the myths were not simply disseminated to the South; the Southern Lao found it necessary to transform them into theatrical governmentality.

Why was female sexuality an important theme? There is no critical answer. However, considering that important messages were transmitted during ceremonial performances, and that voluntary participation in ceremonial/political occasions was respected, it is possible that female sexuality was a difficult problem for the “liberal” government to solve.

It is unclear why interethnic marriage was narrated and performed as misconduct in myths and ceremonial occasions. Most likely, it was to maintain a hierarchical relationship between Lao and minorities,13) as in the case of royal ceremonies held in Luang Prabang (Lukas 2012). In Champasak non-Lao minorities played a significant role in ceremonies, but the Lao imposed a hierarchical relationship between the minorities and themselves. This relationship is well illustrated in the procedure of the boat racing ceremony (Archaimbault 1972). Some minorities, who were considered “original inhabitants” and thus legitimate conductors of rituals to call upon ancestral spirits, came to this ceremony to initiate the sacrifice of the buffalo to the guardian spirits. Others struck gongs, danced, and sang to call up the tutelary spirits of the land. One such song included both Lao and non-Lao lyrics, preaching the miserable end of interethnic marriage. By including non-Lao people in ceremonies, the Lao monarchy could ostensibly exhibit the Lao people’s superiority. Thus, minorities took part in the Lao theatrical governmentality not as the principal actors, but in supporting roles.

IV The Making of History: Gazing upon Antiquity

In Lao theatrical governmentality, festive occasions, myths, and legends were vehicles to convey symbolic messages to the people, particularly those concerning moral codes connected to female sexuality. In this governmentality, myths and legends were not fantasy but socially authorized historiography, or “correct history.” This “history” was, however, vastly different from the “history” created by French explorers and scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. French history was produced by scientific specialism, objectivity, and the measurability and traceability of materials. In contrast, Lao traditional governments’ history was crafted by providing people with opportunities for performance and celebration as social welfare.

IV-1 The French Version of History and Its Methodology

French scholars created a chronological history and gave the names of non-Lao founders and monarchs to the old artifacts and buildings scattered around Champasak. They developed this history in the form of texts to understand the past, writing about the causes and effects of events, piecing together fragments of evidence. This practice was initiated by nineteenth-century explorers. In the early twentieth century, the “amateur” work of French scholars was integrated into the work of a scholarly organization known as the French Archaeological Mission, which ultimately became L’École Française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East).

Considering that the early explorers “discovered” and documented a dense distribution of ancient objects around Basak (Aymonier 1901; Lunet de Lajonquière 1907; Garnier 1996; Harmand 2010), the dwelling area of the Southern Lao monarchy became of interest to the organization. These ancient remains, particularly Wat Phu and other standing stone buildings, suited the French administration’s hopes of finding evidence of past and present affluence, as well as testing their knowledge. Particular political attention was paid to Wat Phu because it resembled Angkorian architecture, exhibited as a symbol of French Indochina in museums and expositions.

Epigraphists and conservators of the French School, such as Auguste Barth (1902), Louis Finot (1902), and Henri Parmentier (1914), published studies of the archaeological features and translations of the Sanskrit and Khmer inscriptions based on rubbings. Champasak was, however, too remote for extensive investigations on-site. The scholars’ offices were located in major cities within Indochina, and the greatest concern of the French School, following administrative policy, was the restoration of gigantic buildings. Given these restrictions, surveys in Champasak were limited, and the regional culture—particularly Lao culture in Southern Laos—was of far less interest until Archaimbault began his fieldwork in the 1950s.

Investigation and collection of ancient objects was allocated to French administrators or treasury researchers stationed in the French office. Those engaged in the Mission Conservatrice (Conservation Mission) were most interested in the statues with old Sanskrit and Khmer engravings.14) The inscriptions were prized as evidence the researchers could use for absolute dating. If the inscribed statues and other artifacts were small enough to carry, they were sent to museums established by the French administration in Indochina, or to museums in France.15)

The most active agents of the Conservation Mission, however, were members of the French Catholic Mission (hereafter “French mission”)16) who settled in Champasak in the late nineteenth century. With the aim to “[e]vangelize the people of Laos” (Tournier 1900, 130), the mission established a settlement and built a cathedral in the area around Phanon Village, located within several kilometers of both Wat Phu and Basak (Fig. 1).

When the mission arrived in Phanon, the area appears to have been sparsely populated. The early explorer Étienne Lunet de Lajonquière said, on his visit to Champasak in 1905, that locals preferred not to dwell in the Phanon area, which was scattered with bricks from collapsed structures, because they believed it was once a city created by the Cham and that the area was haunted by their spiritual entities (phī) (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 76). It is difficult to confirm the truth of the existence of the Cham spirits in the oral tradition. Considering that the area was the arrival point of the heroic Lao ancestors Prakru Ponmesak and Soi Sisamut, it is unclear whether the Lao would have abandoned it. Considering that the present villagers frequently moved settlements due to maladies caused by the spirits, it is unsurprising that the Lao refrained from living around a spiritual area. Despite this ambiguity, according to Lunet de Lajonquière’s information, the French mission chose to settle in the area because the Lao did not reside in it for fear of the spirits.

This decision led the French mission to form close connections with the ancient remains. Phanon Village was located in the area of Champasak most thickly scattered with archaeological remains, meaning that members of the mission could begin to conserve ancient artifacts immediately. One such object was a two-meter statue discovered along the bank of Hūai Sa Hūa (Sa Hua River), a branch of the Mekong. After the statue was discovered, the mission placed it in Phanon. It is uncertain why they did not transfer the statue to a French museum. Considering the difficulty of carrying a huge stone object all the way to a central city, it could be that preserving it on-site was merely a method of conservation, or that the mission may have been afraid of damaging the statue. In any case, the mission kept the statue for decades after its discovery (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 88–89; Cœdès 1953, 9; 1956, 210).

The stone statue was shaped like a lingam, a symbol of Shiva, and had Sanskrit inscriptions on its four surfaces. It became the focus of French investigation. Around the early 1930s, a French administrator took a rubbing of the inscriptions at Vat Luang Kao village, which neighbored Phanon. The rubbing was of poor quality, however (Cœdès 1953, 9), and the geographic remoteness prevented epigraphists from reading the inscriptions. It was not until the early 1950s that Cœdès (1953; 1956) studied and fully translated the statue’s inscriptions.17)

The inscription was numbered K365 in the French inventory. Some began to call it the inscription of Devānīka (Mahārājādhirāja Çrīmāñ Chrī Devānīka), after the king named in the inscription. K365 became renowned as significant evidence of “pre-Angkorian” history; Cœdès incorporated Angkorian inscriptions, Khmer oral tradition, Chinese texts, and K365 in his examination and created a grand history of the region. To French scholars who were concerned about how and why the Khmer formed the Angkorian Empire, and who were interested in the history of the lower Mekong region, his hypothesis was very insightful.18)

Cœdès portrayed Champasak, where the Lao were already the dominant residents at the time of his study, as the historical stage, related to Cham, Chenla, and Khmer. Studies of K365 and other inscriptions from Champasak also showed that Wat Phu was called Vrah Thkval (Aymonier 1901, 163–164; Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 75) and the venerated god was Bhadresvara (Cœdès 1956, 213; 1968, 66). None of these names, however, appear in Archaimbault’s studies of Southern Lao traditions. Paradoxically, Cœdès left some keywords appearing in K365 unexamined, including the rite of sacrifice, Kuruksetra (the name of the place, according to Cœdès [1956]), and tīrtha (a domain of sacredness, according to Diana Eck [1981; 2012]), although those are important for understanding the ancient governmentality of Champasak.

K365 stated that Devānīka, a great conqueror, came to and invented “tīrtha,” named “Kuruksetra,” and conducted the “rite of sacrifice” toward “fire.” Given that Devānīka led the sacrifice as a rite of purification, he acquired merit, conferred it on Kuruksetra (as created by Devānīka), and prayed that both the dead and the living would share it (Cœdès 1956, 217–219). Cœdès (1968, 75) concluded that Devānīka sacrificed humans to powerful spirits, following the texts of the Sui Dynasty as they relate to Chenla.19) To be precise, no critical statements in K365 state that the sacrifice was of humans; however, this hypothesis was accepted as an absolute truth. As noted in the previous section, by accepting Cœdès’s interpretation as an absolute fact, Archaimbault regarded human sacrifice as the origin of the buffalo sacrifice, despite the lack of any supporting evidence aside from the Chinese document.

Cœdès’s interpretation had an influence on many scholarly discussions; however, it had its limitations. For instance, epigraphic studies (Cœdès 1956, 212; Jacques 1962, 250) did include the important keywords “Kuruksetra” and “tīrtha,” but they were scrutinized only modestly. These studies noted that K365 reflected the lyrics and cosmology of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and thus suggested that ancient Champasak was a theatrical country, like the existing Indian city of Kurukshetra.20) Thus, they treated the cosmological lyrics and the name of Kurukshetra inscribed in K365 as evidence of “Indianization.” However, because they failed to closely scrutinize the meaning of tīrtha, they interpreted Indianization superficially. According to Eck (1981; 2012), a tīrtha classically indicated a sacred spot or place, such as a crossing, river, temple, or mountain. A tīrtha was not sacred in its own right; the sacredness of tīrtha, like Kurukshetra, was dependent on sacred acts, including purification, performed by visiting pilgrims. The sacredness of tīrtha and Kurukshetra were never guaranteed without the practices of living people.

Epigraphists were not indifferent to the two keywords of “Kurukshetra” and “tīrtha.” Nevertheless, because they could not witness the fragile and ambiguous actions of pilgrims, which were rarely reflected in written testimonies, they concluded only that the ancient governmentality described in the inscriptions was evidence of the static phenomenon of Indianization. Indianization could be a complicated and ambiguous process, however, just as a tīrtha could be a dynamic realm.

French investigations sought to acquire evidence using new technology, but there were limits to its interpretation. With the advent of aerial photography in the mid-twentieth century, Archaimbault and the French Service of Information provided Cœdès with a bird’s-eye view of the area. The epigraphist then found double-folded walls situated over a large area around Phanon Village (Fig. 1), including a number of archaeological remains (Cœdès 1956, 220). He concluded that they were the walls of Kuruksetra (Cœdès 1956, 220). After the appearance of the aerial photo, however, the ancient city began to be called Sresthapura, a legendary Khmer city, instead of Kuruksetra, although no archaeological materials supporting the existence of Sresthapura in Champasak were discovered. This was in large part due to scientific concerns tied up with Angkor-centered history. In accordance with Khmer legends that the earliest Angkorian Empire was born with the early Khmer King Sresthavarman, around an area geographically similar to Champasak, the walled city became known as the Sresthavarman’s city of Sresthapura (Archaimbault 1961, 519).21)

IV-2 The Local Lao Version of History and Its Methodology

Lao history contrasts with the French history of Champasak with respect to appreciation of ancient objects. Considering the documents written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Lao inhabitants can be assumed to have viewed all the great remains as sacred devices that contained the special powers of the spirits, which controlled the fate of the principality and the people. Caring for such objects was the duty of the Lao royal court, the holder of the ancient objects. Ancient artifacts were not displayed in museums but exhibited as active objects on the stages of ceremonies, or as symbols of welfare and protection for the living people. The site of Wat Phu was considered the oldest Mount Meru, the center of the universe, or the oldest palace (phāsāt, ຜາສາດ), which was guarded by spiritual powers. According to Lao inhabitants Archaimbault (1959; 1961) met in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the spirits with the greatest power was not Cham, Chenla, or Khmer, but rather King Kammathā, known in their oral tradition as the founder of Wat Phu. The villagers honored the spirit of King Kammathā by sacrificing buffaloes. However, as noted previously, in the oral tradition of Lao villagers, Kammathā conducted human sacrifices at Wat Phu in the remote past. The Lao villagers thus took over the rite from Kammathā. By holding the rite, regardless of their use of buffaloes, the Lao people declared to the spirit that they governed their country.

Kammathā rarely appears in the mainstream French version of Champasak’s history because no inscriptions or other written materials support his existence. Unlike other explorers, Etienne Aymonier (1901, 164–165), who traveled to Champasak in the late nineteenth century, noted that in the local Lao oral tradition, Kammathā was the founder of Wat Phu. However, Aymonier wrote that Kammathā was a legendary figure, stating that the oral traditions differed from written materials that could be used as evidence in scientific studies.22)

Archaimbault (1961), too, treated Kammathā as a legendary king. The sole instance in which Kammathā is mentioned is the chronicle written by Kham Souk and his dignitaries at the request of the Siamese in the late nineteenth century (Archaimbault 1961, 579). This chronicle was not intended to be printed and disseminated to the public. Rather, its contents were meant to be transmitted to the public in the cultural and ceremonial public sphere as real history, or in a way that attracted little scientific attention.

Despite positivists’ skepticism over King Kammathā’s existence, Lao communities shared the story about him in the form of ritual performance and narrative. In culturally authorized time and space, local residents believed it was not Devānīka, the Cham, the Chenla, or the Khmer kings, but Kammathā himself who was the heroic founder and initiator of the area’s history. In the oral tradition, Kammathā had a daughter named Nāng Sīdā, the main figure in the oral tradition titled “Mr. Katthanam.” This oral tradition concerns a heroic and mysterious prince who was married to Nāng Sīdā (Aymonier 1901, 164–165). In the story, Nāng Sīdā is represented as a model woman embodying intelligence and beauty (Archaimbault 1961, 521–523).23) Although she was also treated as a mythical figure by explorers and scholars, she too was a real princess to native Lao communities. As the stories of Queen Nāng Pao and other sinful women carried codes of sexuality and marriage in the monarchical regime, the stories of Kammathā and Nāng Sīdā also served to convey to the people their true history.

Lord Kammathā, Princess Sīdā, and all other “legendary” ancestors were considered not dead but “living” when their legends were remembered and narrated by Lao communities. As will be discussed later, these ancestors remain living in the present as they are worshipped in ordinary or ceremonial times and spaces. They are not only commemorated but also incarnated through the bodies or voices of ritual masters or mediums. Thus, Lao society illustrates what Lucien Lévi-Bruhl called “participation”: the “opposition between the one and the many, the same and another does not impose this mentality, the necessity of affirming one of the terms if the other be denied, or vice versa” (Lévi-Bruhl 1984 [1926], 77). In Lao society, old artifacts and legendary people were in a sense both dead and living, coexisting with the living villagers in their society.

During my fieldwork in the early 2000s, this feature was evident in my communication with and observation of the living inhabitants and the master of rituals. Those who lived in the village situated closest to Wat Phu and the other ancient places said that the spirits of the “legends” remained in the region. In Lao governmentality, the existence of the ancestors and spirits was anchored to performativity, subjectivity, and the remembering and forgetting of members of society, as was the past. History was interwoven in the course of inclusion, exclusion, and domestication of traditions. This historicization, however, was marginalized when it encountered science. Due to the exclusion of the ritual authorization of history, a phase of dispute developed between the two versions of history.

V The Encounter of the Spirits with Modern Science

The moment at which scientific and modern governmentality encountered theatrical governmentality was documented in the travelogue of the French explorer Lunet de Lajonquière (1907). As mentioned previously, Lunet de Lajonquière noted that although the Lao inhabitants were frightened by the spirits and preferred not to live around the Phanon area, the Catholic Mission chose to use the area as a base (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 76).24)

This was the first meeting between science and the spirits, old artifacts, and Lao governmentality. If the Lao felt fearful toward spirits, as the travelogue noted, we may presume that, out of awe and respect, the locals could hardly touch the ancient remains and would have therefore “conserved” the objects in situ. If a person were to carelessly touch one, the spirits might impose adverse repercussions. During my fieldwork I often heard Lao inhabitants express such fear of the spirits. Some said that villagers used to move their settlements when maladies were imposed on them by the spirits. In many cases, the villagers said the same thing regarding spiritual spots scattered with ruins.

More stories from inhabitants supported the hypothesis that not only the various French missions but also natives and the royal house engaged in the conservation of ancient artifacts. One story concerned the inscription of K365. The French catalog noted that the Catholic Mission handled K365 either in their village, Phanon, or in the neighboring village of Vat Luang Kao. However, at some point during the twentieth century, the statue was transferred to the palace at Basak. The royal house kept the statue for decades until it was transported to the exhibition room of the museum, which was built in 2002 after the large area obtained World Heritage site designation.

The royal house placed K365 at the entrance, as if it were a symbol of the house. From the perspective of theatrical governmentality, this “exhibition” would represent the art of governing the Lao polity: showing a symbolic object signaled that the palace was the center of the principality. Although it was not possible to ask the house why K365 was “conserved” outside, many native narratives suggested that the house employed the traditional art of managing the polity by governing ancient objects. Those narratives said that in the old days, when people found artifacts near their living environments, they delivered them to the palace, which was considered the most appropriate place to manage extraordinary objects. The Lao palace therefore served as a “storehouse” or “museum,” as Grant Evans (1998, 122) noted.

Ironically, these stored artifacts did not have corresponding information about the dates and states of discovery, so when museological and curatorial knowledge arrived with the World Heritage designation, the traditional methods of conservation were criticized as “incorrect.” Under Laos’s socialist regime, which pursued modernization, theatrical governmentality was considered to be so old and contradictory that it obfuscated the facts.

V-1 The Second Phase: The Old Man Who Lived in the Ancient City

Around the 2001 inscription of Champasak on the list of World Heritage sites, historical investigation, interpretation, conservation, and restoration began to revisit Champasak. Based on my fieldwork, I discuss how and why facts multiplied, reexamining the participation of the dead in the living society, and the involvement of the physical in that belief.

A conversation with an elderly villager living within the walls of the ancient city of Kuruksetra/Sresthapura illustrates how the pursuit of truth may make our realities converge. I visited the resident’s village in 2002, when I was still unknown to the villagers. I was accompanied by two local officers, an older man and a woman interpreter, who were dispatched by the local authorities to oversee the research. My meeting with the elderly villager was an opportunity to learn how vulnerable the past was. To determine general information about the village, I asked several questions, including some about his personal life and the history of the village. In response to my questions about the history of the village, the old man began talking about the “Conservation Mission” of the native population. He said that the royal court and the villagers had come together to create the village, which was located in the heart of Kuruksetra/Sresthapura. According to the man, his village had been created when the palace ordered the citizens to establish a village in an area densely covered by fragments of ancient bricks, with the intention of having the residents manage the remains. The man, who stated his age at about 70 years, reported that this order was given about “100 years ago,” equivalent to “two or three generations before.” The interpreter asked him for a precise year, but he did not provide one. He spoke with her quickly and in unidentifiable words but did not offer me any more details. The old man and my associates seemed to talk amongst themselves and did not continue the investigation.

I discovered many years later that the old man’s information was somewhat confusing when referring to a description of the same situation by a French explorer. A French travelogue I read in 2010 (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 76) mentioned that Lao inhabitants refrained from establishing settlements around the ancient city because they were afraid of the curse of the spirits and the ancient remains. Nonetheless, a sketch map (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907, 78–79) showed the village that I visited, with exactly the same name and location. If the village truly existed in 1905, then who issued the order to create it, and when? The monarchical history reveals that Kham Souk died in 1900, and Rāsadānai took over in 1903.25)

By 2010 I had had a few opportunities to meet with another old man from the village who took care of the spirits. He said that the spirits dwelled around the ancient remains. He also spoke about foreign researchers he had met at the ancient remains in the 1990s. He thought that the researchers had come to his village to dig for gold, because when he was sleeping the spirits conveyed to him that gold was present. Although he did not criticize the researchers, he had been unwilling to see them.

When I found the French map in 2010, I recalled both stories and considered that the visits by outsiders would have been shocking to the villagers. In particular, during the period of French colonization in which ancient materials were of great interest, it made sense that the Lao royal court—Kham Souk, Rāsadānai, or others—would have created a mission to protect the objects and spirits from colonization, regardless of citizens’ fears of spiritual curses. To lose the ancient remains would have meant losing a way to communicate with their spiritual guardians; the Lao royal court’s resistance would have been reasonable.

The stories raised questions that my positivistic investigation could not definitively answer. As a researcher from a foreign country, I found it difficult to obtain supporting data that provided details with a signature from the author(s). I was unsure how to acquire data that supported the narratives. Even if I had another opportunity to meet these old men, it would be difficult to move from the fragile past to a fieldwork context, when stories of the old regime would still trigger political confusion. Eventually, I realized that there might be unspoken stories. The silenced, untouched element in the old men’s speech was obviously the archaeological history of Champasak. The officers who accompanied me engaged in the present art of governing foreign affairs and instructed me to be on their side. They appeared to imply that they controlled the research. Thus, the two old men appeared to claim ownership of the ancient sites, over both the officers and me.

If I had been more in tune with the context in which the old men were situated, I could have asked more insightful questions and had better conversations with them. The same thought occurred to me in 2015, when I had the opportunity to meet with Lao authorities. They had visited the old men’s village in the 1990s to acquire new archaeological materials to add Champasak to the World Heritage list. When I spoke with these authorities, they implied that they felt the villagers were unwelcoming. They said that not many villagers had seen an archaeological excavation, and most did not know what was going on. I recalled the old men’s stories upon hearing this, and realized that their mission to protect the ancient remains might have been reactivated when the authorities visited the village. When I visited, the villagers would also have watched me carefully. When outsiders began to visit Champasak to see the ancient objects, the old men and other villagers may have resumed their mission to protect both the antiquities and the village.

It is difficult to find the absolute truth about these situations. Different people are concerned about Champasak’s past and present. Not all would necessarily respond to a positivist inquiry of the past. Thus, all I could ascertain was that the facts were delicately constructed.

V-2 The Second Phase: The Masters of Ritual Who Lived in the Precinct of Wat Phu

In 2008 I had the opportunity to talk with the masters of the ritual who lived at the neighboring site of Wat Phu. At that time, the sacrifice of buffaloes had been modified to a sacrifice of chickens in accordance with the “saving-first” policy of the socialist government. The ceremonial governmentality tended to be overlooked by society as a whole.

The village of the masters, located next to Wat Phu, was known as a home to people who had been in touch with the guardian spirits. Male mediums, such as Mǭ Thīam (ໝໍທຽມ), who could be possessed by spirits, and Mǭ Cham (ໝໍຈັ້ມ), who could talk with spirits, were the main conductors of the rituals; female mediums, Mǣ Lam (ແມ່ລຳ), who communicated with spirits by dancing and were concerned with curing diseases, lived with other villagers. These masters played the main role in communicating with the ancient founder of Wat Phu and other spirits authorized as guardian spirits of the principality in oral traditions and myths, along with other masters of the Golden Shrine in Muang Champasak (formerly Muang Basak) (Fig. 1).

Mǭ Thīam, who was over 70 years old, said that the spiritual entities had continued to monitor Champasak, with each establishing its own base. Thǣn Kham (ແຖນຄຳ), Nǭi (ນ້ອຍ), and Thamphalangsī (ທຳພະລັງສີ) were at the Golden Shrine next to Wat Phu, where the masters conducted the sacrifice. Each mountain lying beside Wat Phu was a base for the great spirits of Surinyaphāvong (ສຸຣິຍະພາວົງ), Lāsaphangkhī (ລາຊະພັງຄີ), Phāsathū’an (ພາສະເທືອນ), Ongkhot (ອົງຄົດ), Champāvongkot (ຈຳປາວົງກົດ), Thǭnglǭ (ທອງຫລໍ່), and Mǭkasat ( ໝໍ່ <ໝໍ> ກະສັດ). The ancient buildings were occupied by the spirits of Nāng Ekhai,26) located in the stone-built monument, called Tomo, on the eastern bank, and Kammathā, located in Wat Phu (Fig. 1).27)

Mǭ Thīam did not mention the spirit of Nāng Sīdā dwelling at the ancient stone building complex named for her, which was located within a kilometer of Wat Phu (Fig. 1). Even so, just as her story was a favorite of present Lao communities, many inhabitants continued to commemorate her, although in a different place. As Aymonier noted, the location bearing her name was originally one of two galleries standing in the lower terrace of Wat Phu, not the smaller-scale stone building in the complex a kilometer distant (Aymonier 1901, 164–165). Her name was most likely removed from the gallery of Wat Phu because the scientific investigation at Wat Phu began in earnest during the French colonial period, during which the gallery became known by a different name. After Nāng Sīdā’s “expulsion” from Wat Phu, however, the monument complex nearby became known as the “building of Nāng Sīdā” (hōng Nāng Sīdā, ໂຮງນາງສີດາ) in native circles. People do not remember when the removal occurred, or if there even was one; however, both the site and the building named for the ancient princess remain, reflecting local remembrance of her.

The vulnerability of the past to the present situation continued to fill me with confusion. To combat this, I did not talk about my research before my conversation with Mǭ Thīam. After describing the guardian spirits, the master of the ritual described the procedure for sacrificing the buffaloes. He told me that the sacrifice was conducted in a way very similar to the procedure noted by Archaimbault. Historically, unmarried mothers had to sacrifice a big black buffalo to the great spirits at Wat Phu as compensation for their guilt. Mǭ Thīam said nothing about the curse of Nāng Pao and its relation to the buffalo sacrifice. When I asked, he said he had not heard the name of the ancient Queen Nāng Pao or about her curse.

The master of the ritual told me what he had seen and experienced during the sacrifice of buffaloes in the past. Then, there were a number of unmarried mothers around the region, so the masters conducted the sacrifice with buffaloes every year. During the sacrifice, the masters and participants listened very carefully to the words of the spirits, who gave both the masters and the people warnings and protection. Some spirits, who did not station themselves at any sites in Champasak, responded when the masters called upon them at the sacrifice. Those spirits came from far across the region and participated in the rite and a feast with the masters and the participants. The names of the spirits given by Mǭ Thīam were slightly different from those in Archaimbault’s (1959) study on the rite. It is possible to suppose, in accordance with the master’s explanation, that if the sacrifice were conducted appropriately, the spirits appeared to communicate and to protect the region. The fate of the country was fully subject to how the rites were conducted.

In the master’s discussions, remembering and forgetting fused. The past was ongoing and interwoven, and society accepted that spirits and humans lived together. In such a society, where the dead (or the past) participated with the living (or the present), history could be grasped by commemorating and appreciating the dead (past), and by worshipping spirits and narrating tales about them. Thus, although it was unknown whether the spirit of Nāng Sīdā dwelled in the stone building complex neighboring Wat Phu, it was possible to conclude that if the worship of the ancient princess continued, she continued to live in the present.

The participation of the ancient princess in present society was evidenced in the current era when Champasak became a World Heritage site. A museum was established, and many ancient artifacts, including K365, were moved there from the former palace. Many objects were added to the museum, including the statue of a woman that the local museum staff began to call Nāng Sīdā. Wishing to have a place to remember her, they placed the statue in the room next to the entrance (Fig. 2). The ancient princess, together with Kammathā, who was worshipped and commemorated at Wat Phu (Fig. 3), continued to live alongside local worshippers and pilgrims. Kammathā, whose statue took the shape of Vishnu and differed from that seen by French explorers a century ago (Aymonier 1901, 165),28) was remembered as the founder of the world. This remembrance animated his existence as living and true. In 2013, when the rite of buffalo sacrifice was reestablished by the living villagers after the authorities revoked its official suspension, Kammathā was again worshipped in the rite of sacrifice with even firmer belief in his status as a hero. Whether in this ceremonial and ritual time and space, or in the process of performance and commemoration, local true history continues to be produced and reproduced.



Fig. 2 The Statue of Nāng Sīdā and Offerings (photo by author, December 2018)




Fig. 3 People Give Offerings to the Statue, Recog­nizing It as Kammathā (photo by author, December 2015)


VI Conclusion

In this article, I discussed the cultural governmentality in Champasak, Southern Laos, where hybrid beliefs and facts have been produced since local beliefs first encountered modern scientific discourse. Throughout this examination, I argued that in the Southern Lao world the past and the present, the dead and the living, the material and the immaterial are participated in. In such a world, cultural governmentality is valued, and the past and its traditions are reproduced or accrue on its performing and artistic stages. In this sense, history is a living being that encourages inhabitants to live as active subjects. This ceremonial and performative art of governing is a unique, “authentic” art of the region that has transcended the borders of time and ethnicity.

If scientific discourse is indifferent to this uniqueness, or seeks to dominate the delicacy and dynamics of such a world, a competitive phase arises and ritual governmentality becomes a representation of protest against scientific governmentality. Although such ritual governmentality is a contemporary phenomenon or a product of modernity, rather than ancient surviving traditions, those who associate with it can claim the legitimacy of their governmentality as a long-lasting heritage. Accordingly, I present a multi-layered history in this article by relocating different memories in the same area. This method is important for exploring a place like Champasak, where different types of agency encounter one another. Ultimately, it is crucial to unravel the entire historical and social process, allowing a multiplicity of views and the subtlety of different selves to emerge.

Accepted: January 17, 2020


I am very grateful to all those who provided me with opportunities to conduct fieldwork in Champasak. My sincere gratitude should also go to the editors of the journal who kindly supported the review and the anonymous referees whose insightful comments were helpful for finalizing this article.


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1) In Lao, Wat Phu means “mountain temple,” and the site is located at the bottom of the mountain Phū Kao. Phū Kao means “mountain in the shape of a woman’s chignon.” Ancient inscriptions, however, seem to refer to the mountain as Lingaparvata (“mountain in the shape of a lingam,” or phallus, a symbol of Shiva).

2) The buffer zone of the Champasak World Heritage site includes not only Wat Phu, but also the mountains and archaeological sites located nearby, particularly the Ancient City (called Kuruksetra or Sresthapura).

3) In addition to the data collected in the early 2000s, I use two photos taken during short visits in 2015 and 2018.

4) I read the text in Japanese translation.

5) In this article the word “muang” is used in two ways: “principality” and “capital.” Scholars consider a muang to be a small polity and component of the traditional Tai world. This Tai world and cosmology was called the “mandala” (Stuart-Fox 1997, 7) or “galactic polity” (Tambiah 1976, 109). In the mandala or galactic world, a muang was a principality because it was organized by the political discretion of local chiefs, and often maintained relative autonomy. However, if, like Basak, a principality was the heartland of a kingdom composed of many other subordinate principalities, it could also be considered a capital. I wish to emphasize that a muang is not only a politically organized polity but also a religiously organized one, or a polity embodied by religious imagination and performance.

6) The 1893 Franco-Siamese Treaty consisted of 10 articles concerning the delimitation of the territorial border. The territory of French Laos was delimited at the Mekong and excluded the western bank of the present provinces of Luang Prabang and Champasak. The western bank of Champasak, on which the palace of the Southern Lao kingdom was located, was cut off from French Laos in the 1893 treaty (Picanon 1901, 222–223) despite its close connection to the eastern bank. In 1904 the French government succeeded in annexing the Western banks of both the Northern and Southern regions (Le Boulanger 1931, 347–349). In the 1940s, however, the two western banks again became sites of territorial dispute between France and Siam (Thailand). This historical path may have furthered the marginalization of Champasak.

7) Muang Basak, the capital of the Southern Lao monarchy, no longer exists. Present residents call the former Basak area Muang or Muang Champasak, which translates to “town.” “Muang Champasak,” however, also signifies “Champasak district” (an area larger than the former Basak or “town”) of Champasak Province. Since the French colonial period, the political system has considered Muang to mean “district,” an administrative unit lower than a province.

8) Although a number of explorers visited Laos, including Champasak, and wrote travelogues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they rarely mentioned the names of the Lao kings. Archaimbault, who visited Laos after decolonization, focused on members of the Lao monarchies because his research, unlike that of early adventurers, pertained to Lao monarchical traditions. Thus, he became close to members of the royal family (Goudineau 2001; Lemoine 2001). That said, he does not seem to have been ignorant of the fact that he came from the colonizers’ side.

9) Archaimbault’s “L’histoire” (1961, 579) referenced several source materials: first, two Lao versions, the annals of Kham Souk and his dignitary, written at the request of the Siamese, and the writing of Vientiane monk P’ră K’ru Kêu Lăk K’ăm; and second, three Siamese versions written by the dignitaries P’răyamahaămmatăyathibodi, Hmôn Amorawong Wičit, and Čău P’romt’ewanŭk’rô. All these sources were based on Lao and Siamese ancient texts and oral traditions.

10) When reading Archaimbault’s studies of Champasak, we must also carefully examine his agency and theoretical standpoint. Although Archaimbault demonstrated the inconsistency of the religious structure in Laos, as discussed in this article, he can also be said to have been influenced by structuralism; his inclination toward psychoanalytic structuralism (Lemoine 2001, 179–180) overemphasizes Boun Oum as an absolutely melancholic man despite his in-between position in postcolonial Laos, similar to his interpretation of gender and sexuality as firm dichotomies.

11) Jos Platenkamp (2008, 8–9) states that in Luang Prabang, what he calls the “appointed markets” were held at the New Year and boat racing ceremonies. These markets were officially controlled occasions in which citizens could meet traders and peruse merchandise from all upper Mekong regions and various ethnicities.

12) Buffalo sacrifice was not conducted exclusively in Champasak. As Paul Lévy (1959) noted, the same rite was historically conducted in Northern Lao principalities as well, although it has not survived to the present in the North. In 1975 the sacrifice of buffaloes in Champasak was replaced with the sacrifice of chickens; however, following permission from the authorities, the villagers of Champasak restored the rite in 2013, as is discussed in a later section. This occurred along with a resurgence of popularity and belief in the legends of Kammathā and Nāng Sīdā.

13) During the Lan Xang period, people were enslaved as a result of debt or captivity after armed conflicts. In the southern region of Laos, minorities were often enslaved by the dominant groups, such as the Lao, the Siamese, and the Vietnamese. In the late nineteenth century, Europeans began an anti-slavery campaign, and the French colonial government officially abolished slavery in Laos in 1898. However, slavery continued as an institution in remote areas until the 1920s (Stuart-Fox 2001 [1992], 290–291).

14) At least 12 inscriptions were discovered around Wat Phu and catalogued in French travelogues and inventories (Aymonier 1901; Barth 1902; Lunet de Lajonquière 1907; Cœdès 1953; 1956; 1964; Harmand 2010): K365, K366, K367, K475, K476, K478, K720, K721, K722, K876, K938, and K963.

15) Inventories of the inscriptions, particularly Volumes 5 and 7 (Cœdès 1953; 1964), allow us to trace where the inscriptions of Champasak were taken and stored. Most were sent to Vietnam and Cambodia, and very rarely were they sent to Paris. K365 was not removed from Champasak.

16) The Catholic Mission belonged to the Bishop of Bangkok and was accompanied by Christian Annamites, who had been liberated from slavery (Tournier 1900, 130). The mission was called the Mission at Phanon, named after the village where the cathedral was built. In a sketch map of the location (Lunet de Lajonquière 1907; Cœdès 1956, 211), however, the mission seems to have been located at the site of Vat Luang Kao village, which had a pier. Phanon and Vat Luang Kao were both sanctuary sites for Lao royal ancestors and Buddhist monks. Early French articles often confused the locations of Phanon and Vat Luang Kao due to uncertainties in the village profiles.

17) The statue, before being numbered K365 in the French inventory, was called by different names by explorers and administrators: the statue of the Catholic Mission, the statue of Phanon Village, or the statue of Vat Luang Kao. Cœdès was able to translate the inscription because Archaimbault, who was doing fieldwork on the site and checked whether there were as many statues as there were names, gave him a photographed copy of all its surfaces (Cœdès 1956, 220).

18) With K365, Cœdès presented his hypothesis of the “pre-Angkorian” history of the region. He came to the following conclusions: 1) Because a sentence in K365 stated that Devānīka devoted himself to the lingam, or the god Shiva, on the mountain Lingaparvata (“mountain of the lingam,” present-day Phū Kao), like the ancient Cham site My Son, and because other inscriptions named the venerated god Bhadresvara, identical to the name of the god worshipped at My Son, Champasak clearly had a relationship with Cham; 2) King Devānīka was the same person as the king of Chenla (真臘), Fan Chen (=神), Tch’eng (=成, 晟), or Fan Tien-Kai, whose name was mentioned in the Chinese texts of the Sui Dynasty, because the meaning of the two names matched, along with the Chinese description of Chenla and the features of Champasak; 3) The Sanskrit letters of K365 could be dated to around the late fifth century, when Funan, a rival to the early Khmer, was in decline and the Khmer defeated the Cham (Cœdès 1956; 1968).

19) The Sui texts said that the place “was always guarded by a thousand soldiers and consecrated to the spirit named P’o-to-li, to whom human sacrifices are made” (Cœdès 1968, 65). According to Cœdès (1968, 66), P’o-to-li was identical to Bhadresvara, and the temple was Wat Phu or Vrah Thkval.

20) The existing Indian city is spelled “Kurukshetra,” not Kuruksetra, in contemporary English maps.

21) Recently, scholars involved in excavations in Champasak have begun to discuss calling the city Kuruksetra, due to the lack of material evidence to support the existence of Sresthapura. The discussion reflects the recent trend for scholars to pay greater attention to locally specific history.

22) Aymonier wrote that local Lao oral traditions identified Kammathā not as a Lao but as a Cham man who married a daughter of the Lao king of Vientiane (Aymonier 1901, 164–165). The fact that he was a Cham man did not appear in the oral traditions of the twentieth-century villagers that Archaimbault (1961) studied. The mutation in the story, however, does not necessarily exclude oral traditions from usefulness as material for scientific studies. As demonstrated in this article, studies should examine how such changes occurred and what they indicate.

23) Archaimbault (1961) notes that the oral traditions of Nāng Sīdā had some similarities with Northern Lao legends, as did other southern legends such as that of Nāng Malong. If so, we may assume that the myths and legends were adapted to their environments in the course of Lao resettlement into the South.

24) Phanon Village still exists along the Mekong today. However, the village is divided into North Phanon and South Phanon, populated by Buddhists and Christians respectively. Thus, the legacy of the Catholic Mission has been passed down to later generations in a way that coexists with the local religion, despite its religious differences.

25) A three-year interregnum followed the death of Kham Souk. This was likely related to the French administration, which could not establish its provincial office until 1908. However, no materials support this claim.

26) I was unable to record the name of Nāng Ekhai in Lao in my notebook during fieldwork. This is a female spirit, as “Nāng” is a general title for women.

27) Within several kilometers of Wat Phu and Nāng Sīdā is a ruined stone monument called Thāo Tao (see Fig. 1 for location). The name means “Mr. Turtle” in Lao. The masters of the sacrifice did not mention any spirits around this building. The booklet published by the local authorities (Champasak Province 1996, 38–39) states that local myth and oral tradition concerning turtles might be the source of the building’s name. Recent villagers rarely remembered any myths or oral traditions regarding “Mr. Turtle.”

28) Aymonier (1901, 165) noted that the statue of Kammathā was located at Wat Phu, but the neck was broken and there was no head. This must have been the statue left in the grassy area that I saw during my fieldwork. The Vishnu-like statue of Kammathā (Fig. 3) was already being worshipped when I visited Champasak in 2002. This indicates that the statue of the local hero had been changed, most likely to show a more energetic image of the hero.


Vol. 9, No. 1, YOSHIZAWA Asuna and KUSAKA Wataru


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 1

The Arts of Everyday Peacebuilding: Cohabitation, Conversion, and Intermarriage of Muslims and Christians in the Southern Philippines

Yoshizawa Asuna* and Kusaka Wataru**

* 吉澤あすな, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, 46 Shimoadachi-cho, Yoshida, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8501, Japan
Corresponding author’s e-mail: yoshizawa[at]
** 日下 渉, Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University, Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya 464-8601, Japan

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.1_67

While armed conflict has occurred since around 1970 in the Southern Philippines, ordinary people of different faiths have cohabited as neighbors, lovers, and families. Why are ordinary Muslims and Christians able to create and maintain everyday peace although they have suffered from the conflicts and the state’s initiatives for peace have not yet been realized? After noting limitations of peacebuilding efforts by the state and nongovernment organizations, we analyze the arts of everyday peacebuilding practiced by ordinary people based on ethnographic research in Iligan City. First, Muslims and Christians have engaged in mutual assistance for everyday survival in the city where they live as diaspora or transients, who are relatively autonomous from their clan networks. Second, Muslim converts and many Christians regard those who practice other religions as companions who share the same “paths to happiness.” Third, when a multireligious family is pressed to choose one religion for its children’s faith or its ceremonial style, it avoids the rupture of family relationships by “implementing non-decision” to make the two religions obscurely coexist. Finally, even when Christian women married to Muslim men face polygamy without consent, they do not attribute the unfaithful behavior of their husbands to Islam but instead often blame the patriarchal culture of their ethnic group. Such a practice of “crossing divides” prevents religion from becoming an absolute point of conflict. Everyday peacebuilding of the ordinary can be a foundation of the state’s official peacebuilding, although there exists a tension between them.

Keywords: religion, interfaith dialogue, intermarriage, Balik-Islam, everyday peace, Southern Philippines, peacebuilding, multiculturalism


This study aims to clarify the arts of cohabitation and everyday peacebuilding practiced by ordinary Muslims and Christians in the Southern Philippines. In the predominantly Christian Philippines, the armed struggle of Muslims for secession and autonomy has been ongoing since the 1970s. The state has tried to realize peace by granting autonomy to Muslims, while civil society organizations have promoted interfaith dialogue, but violence has not been eradicated. However, despite the prolonged conflict, ordinary Muslims and Christians have cohabited not only as neighbors and friends but also as lovers and family members. This reality propels us to ask the question: Why are ordinary Muslims and Christians able to create and maintain everyday peace although they have suffered from the conflicts and the state’s initiatives for peace have not yet been realized?1)

Roger Mac Ginty (2014) highlights the concept of everyday peace to counteract the technocratic and top-down peacebuilding efforts employed by professionals, states, and international organizations that emphasize “control and order.” He argues that ordinary locals have also contributed to peace, especially in informal areas where the technocratic approach is ineffective. Official peacebuilding is parasitic to everyday harmony despite the latter’s subversive nature against the former. Mac Ginty maintains that fluidity, heterogeneity, and intra-group interactions among ordinary people are the foundations of everyday peace.2) However, his argument is limited to how people deal with others with opposing identities and does not explore cases in which people’s identity itself becomes ambiguous. Thus, this paper aims to develop Mac Ginty’s argument in a way that expands the focus on flexibility and ambiguity to people’s identity.

In Southeast Asia, most scholars have identified local culture and identity shared by different religious groups, rather than flexibility and ambiguity, as an enabling factor of interreligious coexistence. Alexander Horstmann (2011) maintains that multi-religious ritual traditions in Southern Thailand facilitate the coexistence of Muslims and Buddhists. Albertus Bagus Laksana (2014) describes how an inclusive Javanese religio-cultural sensibility supports a religious pluralism among Javano-Catholics and Muslims. Hannah Neumann (2010) and Coline Cardeño (2019) assert that in the Southern Philippines, the construction of a shared local identity coupled with weakening of narrow clan and ethno-religious identities is the foundation of everyday peace. However, such shared local culture and identity are not always necessary for everyday peacebuilding. For instance, Kawada Makito (2010), in studying the religious communities worshipping the Virgin of Guadalupe in Cebu City, argues that conflicting practices and discourses over history coexist, which can be interpreted as a case of coexistence of plurals in diversified life under urbanity and globalization. We also claim that flexibility and ambiguity in everyday life can be a foundation of inter-faith cohabitation even without a shared local identity, and even with antagonism over religious differences, based on an ethnographic study in Iligan City, Province of Lanao del Norte.

Yoshizawa Asuna, one of the authors, conducted intensive fieldwork in the city while living with a Muslim family from February 2013 to June 2014. All the stories and narratives quoted in this paper are taken from her field notes. Iligan is known to be a place where Muslims and Christians have coexisted relatively peacefully. Yet, the “peace” experienced in Iligan is not inherent but is an outcome of the everyday efforts undertaken by ordinary people, even in instances when the city was surrounded and partially encroached by elements of violence. For instance, in 2000, when the Estrada administration waged an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that resulted in over 900,000 refugees, the first clash occurred in a town close to Iligan. Many residents of Iligan witnessed the violence that accompanied it. The military used Christian militia in its operations against the MILF, which led to violence perpetrated by vigilante groups from both sides. In 2017 Marawi City, located just two hours from Iligan by car, was devastated by a five-month-long battle between the ISIS-inspired Maute group and the military.

According to the 2010 census, Iligan’s household population was 321,156, of which 89.7 percent was Christian (with 79.3 percent being Catholic), 9.5 percent Muslim, and 0.8 percent maintaining the animism of the indigenous tribes. Since Muslims make up 5.6 percent of the national population, statistically speaking, the proportion of Muslims in Iligan is only 4 percent higher than the national average. However, actually living in the city, one gets the sense that 30–40 percent of its inhabitants are Muslims. Perhaps this is because many Muslims from neighboring areas temporarily live in Iligan due to its opportunities for higher education and employment. Among the more than 10 Muslim ethnic groups in the Philippines, Maranaos are the majority in Iligan.3) There are also non-Muslim indigenous peoples who are generally known as Lumad, and while their representation and social inclusion are important issues, this paper’s coverage is limited to the relationship between Muslims and Christians.

I Living with Religious Minorities

Recently there has been a growing apprehension that liberal democracy, due to its principle of secularism, may be unable to represent religious minorities, thus worsening the social exclusion and fragmentation rather than promoting integration. In this sense, possible limitations of liberal democracy should be examined, not just the failures of the Philippine state as a cause of prolonged armed conflict in the Southern Philippines.

Separation of religion from politics was a prerequisite to the establishment of liberal democracies in the West. Modernization has been expected to entail privatization of religion and secularization of deliberation in the public sphere. However, there are a growing number of cases in which religions assert their values and norms in the public sphere. In the Middle East, Islamism has progressed against violent and corrupt secular regimes supported by Western countries since the end of the World War II, as seen in the Islamic Revolution in Iran at the end of the 1970s. Because Islamism calls for political reform based on the teachings of Islam, it is incompatible with the concept of separation of church and state. Christianity also played a major role in the struggles against dictatorships in the Philippines, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. In the United States, Christian fundamentalism that colludes with the new conservatism has exercised its political influence since the 2000s (e.g., in justifying the War on Terror).

José Casanova (1994) emphasizes that religion plays a public role in supporting liberal democracy and modern values in the era of post-secularism. While some examples mentioned above support his argument, others show that religion also threatens the values of liberal democracy. This ambiguity has activated debates over how liberal democracies should address religion in the public sphere. Secularists, on the one hand, insist that religious discourses should be excluded from the public sphere because they obstruct rational deliberation and consensus based on public reason. On the other hand, some scholars forward the view that religious discourses may be included in the public sphere under certain conditions. For instance, Jürgen Habermas argues that religious discourses entering the public sphere must be “translated” into “generally acceptable secular discourses” (Habermas 2011, 26).

However, it is unjust to impose the obligation of secular translation on religious citizens while not demanding a fundamental change on the part of liberal democracy and secular citizens. Charles Taylor (2011) contends that secularism is by no means neutral, as it excludes religious discourses from the public sphere while making itself absolute. Thus, he advocates neutrality between secular and religious discourses. Talal Asad (2003) further argues that the secular-religious dichotomy is fictional. According to him, secularism is a religious product rooted in Western Christianity because it was created and upheld in the process through which liberal democracy defeated the theory of the divine right of kings in Western modernity. Saba Mahmood (2009), addressing the controversy over cartoons depicting Muhammad that caused disputes and violence in Europe in the mid-2000s, contends that the legal framework of liberal democracy rejected representing the subjective injuries of Muslims. According to these arguments, liberal democracy fails to represent religious minority Muslims because secularism imposes its systems and norms on them while denying its Christian background and biases, not because religion makes rational deliberation impossible.

Despite the limitations, some would argue that multiculturalism has enabled progress toward realizing the rights of religious minorities in Western liberal democracies since the 1970s. However, it is the state, not the minorities, that has broad discretion over which aspects and to what extent claims for religious minorities’ rights can be accepted. This state-sponsored, official multiculturalism presupposes management by the majority, and its group-based approach carries the risk of entrenching social cleavages. Moreover, as neoliberalism has become hegemonic since the 1980s, official multiculturalism has reduced its welfare function, thereby favoring highly skilled migrant workers while excluding unskilled laborers. In these circumstances, scholars see possibilities in “everyday multiculturalism” wherein diverse people experience and negotiate cultural variety in ordinary settings such as neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, and in the process shape and reshape their social relations and identities.4)

Some proponents of deliberative democracy, as Monique Deveaux (2017) notes, also highlight the potential of informal public spheres for opening up additional pathways for democratic participation by the minorities, thereby contributing to everyday multiculturalism. Deliberative democracy places hope on the possibility that deliberation with others leads to transformation of people’s preferences. However, there is a growing belief among critical scholars that the formal Habermasian public sphere, which upholds normative procedure, rationality based on public reason, and moral consensus, practically excludes marginalized groups’ discourses and interests. Thus, they advocate incorporating a broader variety of discourses into deliberative democracy, such as rhetoric, narrative, testimony, storytelling, myth, and oral histories, as well as wider forms of communication such as bargaining, negotiation, and compromise among different self-interests. They argue that the outcome of deliberation contributing to cultural pluralism is more important than the idealized procedures and moral requirements of deliberation (Deveaux 2017). Yet, granted that informal deliberation is more friendly to religious discourses and would facilitate interfaith coexistence, various forms of hierarchy and emotional conflicts in everyday settings may obstruct the possibility. Also, pressing necessities of everyday events may not allow enough time for deliberation.

Judith Butler (2011) advocates the ideal of “cohabitation” with others with whom deliberation is difficult or even impossible, as a more radical vision of a plural society. According to her, cohabitation is a Jewish value based on the tradition of diaspora. Thus, violent return to the land by the Israeli state is an attack not only on Palestinians but also on the same Jewish value. She reminds us that “those with whom we cohabit the earth are given to us, prior to choice, and so prior to any social or political contracts we might enter through deliberate volition” (Butler 2011, 83). This is an ontological condition in which we are bound with strangers, and “to destroy the other is to destroy my life” (Butler 2011, 88). Thus, Butler claims that cohabitation with neighboring others is a universal right and obligation. She further suggests that cohabitation might be achieved when opposing groups’ unique memories of dispossessions—experiences of being exiled from places or groups that they originally belonged to—flash up during moments of emergency. This means that remembering one’s exile may prompt concern regarding the dispossession of another, since while the suffering of each dispossession is unique, it is also a universality that ties together opposing groups (Butler 2011).

II Conflict and Cohabitation in the Southern Philippines

Reexamining Social History

The idea of cohabitation helps us to reinterpret the social history of the Southern Philippines as an encounter, cohabitation, and everyday peacebuilding by ordinary people who embrace not only the different faiths but also their unique experiences of dispossession. This historical landscape is affirmed by Patricio Abinales (2016), who criticizes an “orthodoxy” of the history and cause of conflict in the region which is commonly shared by state officials, Muslim separatists, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and development experts.

First, the orthodoxy identifies religion as a primary source of conflict in the South and attributes its origin to the Spanish era, which began in the sixteenth century. Certainly, Spaniards attacked Muslim communities with Christianized local soldiers. They called the Muslims Moro, naming them after, and projecting their hostility toward, the Muslim Moors in North Africa who conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century. For the Spanish, the Moro represented a common Christian enemy with whom dialogue was impossible. Christianized Filipinos also antagonized the Moro, who in retaliation to the Spanish invasion attacked Christian villages and kidnapped villagers to procure labor. However, the simplistic view that reduces roots of conflict to religion cannot explain the times when relative peace was maintained, such as the 1930s to 1960s, and why so many Muslims and Christians have cohabited.

Second, the orthodoxy offers the socioeconomic deprivation of Muslims as a root cause of the conflict, emphasizing how Muslims’ lands were legally and illegally seized by Christian settlers who migrated from the highly populated north-central regions. In the early twentieth century, a resettlement program was undertaken by the American colonial state to resolve the food crisis. This was continued by the post-independence state to prevent expansion of Communism and unrest in the north-central regions. These events led to Muslims becoming a minority in Mindanao by the 1970s. Moreover, international corporate capital investments in plantation and mining businesses impoverished Muslims through land grabbing and environmental devastation. Nowadays, in the Muslim-majority provinces the poverty incidence is the highest in the country, while the human development index, average life expectancy, and family income are the lowest.5) The sense of dispossession experienced by Muslims, despite their residing in a habitat rich in resources, has led to their desire to reclaim their land and rights and has bolstered separatist movements engaging in armed conflict.

However, this explanation of the factors behind the socioeconomic marginalization of Muslims needs to be qualified. Abinales claims that land grabbing was not systematically promoted by an efficient state. Both colonial and autonomous states were too underbudgeted, corrupt, and inefficient to implement the resettlement program. The law to supervise and regulate land acquisition was not appropriately implemented, thus making the claim of “legal” land grabbing invalid. Due to the state’s failure, Christian settlers also suffered from hunger and famine, which was worsened by widespread and recurrent rodent infestation.6) Certainly, despite the absence of the state’s support and the hardships suffered by the people in the frontier, spontaneous migration continued even after independence had been achieved. Approximately 1.2 million people migrated to Mindanao after independence until the shortage of frontier land became a serious issue in the mid-1960s. However, this vast migration did not immediately lead to clashes with Muslims. Christian migrants avoided Muslim-majority areas, and they, as well as Muslim elites, occupied new lands by clearing forests. Abinales notes the following:

Muslim, Lumad, and settlers shared the same resentment toward an apathetic national state, and at the ground level de facto plural societies thrived, with “tri-people” contacts limited to small marketplaces in towns or in between these communities where goods and harvests were traded and sold. “Peace” was, in turn, ensured by the Muslim elites themselves who saw the settlement zones as new constituents in their patronage games with national elites . . . . (Abinales 2016, 52)

This account illustrates the dispossession of Christian settlers who escaped from impoverishment under feudal landownership in the north-central regions to the frontiers in the South, where they were met with strained circumstances. It also indicates that Muslims and Christians spontaneously began cohabiting based on their unique but shared experience of dispossessions.

Abinales further explains that the conflict between Muslims and Christians became serious in the beginning of the 1970s, when land became scarce for new settlers and Christian elites emerged and started challenging the authority of the existing Muslim elites. This competition promoted the militarization of local elites and the organization of private armies. The timing coincided with the declaration of martial law in 1972 by President Ferdinand Marcos, who mobilized massive international capital to develop the region and deployed military power to suppress dissent. Marcos also intervened in regional politics, giving preferential treatment to allied local elites to consolidate their support, which intensified the rivalry among local elites. In summary, heightened competition among local elites over lands and access to state resources through patronage with national elites came to erode cohabitation at the ground level (Abinales 2016, 49–52).

The frustration of impoverished Muslims invited the emergence of young Muslim leaders who, through scholarships, either obtained higher education in Manila or received religious instruction in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These young leaders reconceptualized the derogatory term Moro into the shared identity of the proud Bangsa Moro (Moro state, nation, or people) and established the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1972 with the aim to reclaim their ancestral domain and resources.7) Threatened by the rise of local Christian elites, local Muslim elites also supported the struggle. To appease the MNLF, President Marcos enacted the Code of Muslim Personal Law in 1977 to promote recognition of their faith and culture, but economic marginalization persisted. Meanwhile, the MILF, a splinter group of the MNLF, became the country’s largest anti-government Islamic force providing policing, welfare, and religious programs in places where the state failed to function.

Peacebuilding by the State

The Philippine state utilized two institutions of liberal democracy to integrate Muslims into the nation and build peace. However, paradoxically, both invited a division of Muslims into those who worked within secular institutions and those who did not or could not, as well as conflicts between Muslims and Christians.

First, the installment of electoral democracy in the South in 1958 did not alleviate impoverishment of ordinary Muslims while it helped local Muslim elites to entrench their power by holding elected office through clientelist politics with economically disadvantaged constituents.8) Muslim elites also developed patronage with Christian presidents and senates to gain privileged access to state resources and rent seeking. This system integrated local Muslim elites into national politics, which explains the absence of large-scale resistance directed by them until the end of the 1960s. By the early 1960s, Muslim congressmen succeeded in having legislations passed for Muslims’ rights such as increasing educational opportunities and facilitating development by the Mindanao Development Authority. However, the issue of land redistribution remained untouched because it could affect their power base. Amid persistent poverty, ordinary Muslims disillusioned with electoral democracy found hope for a better life in the armed struggles of the MNLF in the 1970s. After the interval of dictatorship from 1972 to 1986, the electoral system was reinstalled, but it again failed to channel the leadership of armed rebels into representative democracy. It also intensified conflicts among local elites for electoral posts, as vividly shown by the 2009 Maguindanao massacre, in which 58 people were killed.

Electoral democracy also triggered conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the 1970s. This was because Muslim local elites and emerging Christian local elites started competing with each other for electoral positions, and ordinary people whose welfare was dependent on their leaders’ electoral outcome also passionately joined the contest. Elites on both sides organized private armies or allied with paramilitary groups that frequently committed violence against people of a different faith. For instance, Ilaga (“rat” in the Cebuano language), a fanatic Christian paramilitary group, massacred more than five hundred Muslims in the early 1970s, while the Barracudas, an alleged private army of Muslim Congressman Sultan Mohamad Ali Dimaporo, had an encounter with the Ilaga in Lanao del Norte in 1971, which led to hundreds of deaths on both sides. These incidents seriously worsened interreligious relationships in the region.

Second, successive administrations engaged in peace talks with antigovernment forces to establish an autonomous region.9) However, these negotiations led to conflict between those who supported the conditions of an autonomous region and those who opposed it, not only among Muslim forces but also among ordinary people. Muslim rebel leaders competed for which group would become a participant in peace talks with the government and enjoy access to rights and resources granted to an autonomous region. Every time the state tried to advance peace talks with an antigovernment force, disgruntled factions resorted to violence to demand representation.

The 1976 Tripoli Agreement between the Marcos administration and the MNLF led to the splitting away of Salamat Hashim’s faction, which established the MILF in 1984.10) After the Fidel Ramos administration and the MNLF signed the 1996 peace agreement, MNLF leader Nur Misuari became the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.11) However, when he lost the post in 2001 due to internal conflict, his faction attacked the military headquarters in Jolo, Sulu, to disrupt the gubernatorial election. The 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Benigno Aquino III administration and MILF provoked the Sulu-based Islamic forces. In 2013 a self-proclaimed descendant of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III sent one hundred armed men to Sabah, Malaysia, insisting on territorial claim to the land, which led to an encounter with Malaysian armed forces. Kiram reportedly protested the exclusion of the issue of territorial dispute over Sabah in the peace talks between the MILF and the government.12) Seven months after the event, Misuari’s MNLF faction, which had also been excluded from the peace talks, laid siege to Zamboanga City, reportedly to appeal its inclusion, triggering a battle with the government forces.

Such division among Muslim forces was driven not only by interests but also by ideological differences. While mainstream Muslim organizations have accepted the secular framework of an autonomous region under the Philippine state, more radical Islamists have tried to disrupt it in favor of an independent ummah (Islamic community). The MILF appealed to establish an Islamic system when it split from the MNLF, criticizing the latter’s secular and communistic struggle. Yet after the 2003 death of Hashim, who had been a student of Islamic studies in the Middle East, the MILF has increasingly emphasized secular demands, appealing to the right of national self-determination while calling for jihad (religious struggle) to establish an autonomous region where sharia law would be implemented.13) In contrast to the “secularization” of the two forces, spin-off hard-liners have emerged.14) In the 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf Group was formed by defecting members of the MNLF. In 2011, a commander who had split from the MILF formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. In 2017 the Maute group, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, entrenched itself in Marawi and fought for five months.

The rise of Islamist armed groups was facilitated by the worldwide Islamic revival and international networking among Muslim activists. However, it would not have gained ground without locals believing that armed struggle for an independent Islamic community was more attractive than the MILF’s technical and practical negotiation with the government for an autonomous government. Since the prolonged conflicts and massive resettlements destroyed the vernacular social system that sustained ordinary Muslims’ lives, an increasing number of Muslims found a vision of an alternative system that would emancipate them in radical Islamism. In particular, youths who could not relate to aging organizations became targets of recruitment by extremists resorting to terrorism.

The initiatives for establishing an autonomous region also paradoxically destabilized the everyday cohabitation of ordinary Muslims and Christians. This was because the initiatives evoked suspicion and fear among Christians that they may become the minority and be treated unjustly in a new territory. The MNLF and MILF claimed that the territory should include the vast extent of the South where many Christian-majority and mixed communities existed. In order to justify the claim, they tried to (re)define the concept of Bangsa Moro or Bangsamoro people as not limited to Muslims but including non-Muslims as well.15) However, this inclusivity was not readily accepted by the people because the Islamic symbols and discourses had been associated with the concept since the 1970s. Both Christians and non-Muslim indigenous people believe that the Bangsamoro movement has been just for Muslims. This discrepancy between the idealized collective identity and people’s everyday perception contributed to confusion and misunderstanding about contents of peace talks among non-Muslims, which eventually led to a big protest movement against the peace process in 2008.

In confidentiality, the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration and MILF negotiated the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) and were scheduled to sign it in Malaysia in August 2008. Stipulated in the MOA-AD were the establishment of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the six municipalities adjacent to the region, and the conduct of a plebiscite on the participation in the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity of the additional 735 barangays (smallest local government unit) within 12 months, and 1,459 barangays not earlier than 25 years. When these stipulations were made public, Christian local elites with vested interests in the existing system launched a fierce opposition campaign that rapidly expanded. This was because the secret negotiation adopted to prevent Christian politicians and other Muslim groups from hindering the peace process unintentionally escalated Christians’ fear. The erroneous assertion also spread that Christian lands would be grabbed by Muslims. One Christian staff member of an NGO recalled in a personal conversation with Yoshizawa, “I participated in the opposition movement out of anxiety and fear without deep understanding of the MOA-AD. Such shared feeling of anxiety surely increased the tension between Muslims and Christians even in Iligan.” Several local politicians, including the mayor of Iligan City, claimed that the MOA-AD was unconstitutional, which the Supreme Court affirmed. In response to the setback with the MOA-AD, the MILF collided with government forces.

As discussed, electoral democracy and initiatives for autonomous government worsened intra-Muslim as well as interreligious divisions. The division of the former could have been due to the secular bias of liberal democracy against Muslims, considering not a few Muslim forces rejected the secular institutions.16) As for the interreligious relationship, however, the secular institutions do not always keep on worsening it. First, the interreligious conflicts escalated by electoral democracy have been under control in Lanao del Norte since the mid-1970s, when rival powerful elite families from both sides made an alliance. Abdullah, a son of Mohamad Ali Dimaporo, and Imelda Quibranza, a daughter of a Christian elite, even married in the 1980s and formed a strong and interreligious political foundation in the area. This could be viewed not merely as a strategic marriage but also as a case in which interfaith cohabitation at the grassroots encouraged the elites to overcome their political rivalry along with religious groups. Second, the initiatives for an autonomous region made significant progress in the 2010s. One factor that disrupted the peace talks was the discrepancy between the state’s institutions governing the population based on ideally compartmentalized “we/they” relationships, and everyday cohabitation built on complexly interwoven social relations among the people. In the 2010s, however, the government and MILF tried to mediate the gap by adjusting the former to the latter, which contributed to the establishment of the autonomous region. This argument will be elaborated in the conclusion section.

Interfaith Dialogue in Civil Society

Associations in civil society have also worked toward peacebuilding, not only through advocacy and social development but through interfaith dialogue.17) For instance, the Bishop-Ulama Conference, sponsored by the state, organizes public debates among religious leaders, and their outcomes are disseminated through the media. It also invites policy makers, antigovernment forces, and NGOs to improve state policies. Reina Neufeldt (2011) praises the dialogue as a successful case, but Steven Rood (2005) claims that it failed to make an impact on ordinary Muslims, as the ulamas involved in the initiative did not represent the diverse Muslim communities. Meanwhile, Jayeel Cornelio and Andrew Salera (2012), who examined the impact of interfaith dialogue among the youth in Manila, assert it is personal communication, friendship, and collective participation in communities rather than theological discussion which can break down stereotypes and humanize religious others. However, such communication may not be feasible in situations where religious antagonism is prevalent.

In Iligan’s civil society, interfaith dialogue, among other activities, is conducted by the Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao (IPDM), an academic institution affiliated with Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.18) Deep-rooted prejudice of Christians against Muslims as being generally “uneducated,” “undeveloped,” “violent,” and “dangerous” has made such initiatives pressing tasks. The prejudice also delegitimizes the struggle of Muslims, because the more they object against historical injustice and marginalization, the more the negative stereotypes are strengthened. In a private conversation, a Maranao university lecturer noted that media coverage also reinforces this prejudice when news about Muslims emphasizes their religious affiliation, which is not the case when Christians are involved. It is not rare to hear such malicious jokes as “The only good Muslims are dead Muslims” and “Islam teaches that the only way to reach Heaven is to kill Christians.”

To debunk such stereotypes, IPDM organizes workshops among Muslim and Christian students. The methodology includes participants expressing their sentiments through drawing pictures and creating videos on peacebuilding in Mindanao. Many of these videos challenge traditional social norms (e.g., telling stories of romance that transcend religious barriers), but they do not necessarily have a happy ending, which reflects actual social constraints. IPDM notes that educating students on Mindanao history provides them with a foundation for interfaith activities. Part of their mandate, therefore, is to train young educators in order to develop their ability to facilitate discussion about sensitive topics. Otherwise, according to a staff member of IPDM, classrooms can become a space for conflicting and hostile ideas instead of promoting peace.

In an IPDM workshop, Yoshizawa observed how Muslim and Christian students developed trust through listening to each other’s voices. Such activities are surely an important process in assuaging mistrust between the two groups. However, although the workshop envisioned an ideal society where “good Christians” and “good Muslims” harmoniously coexisted, it seemed to be divorced from everyday life on the ground where tensions over differences and actions that deviated from norms were common. This vision of coexistence seems to have a similarity with the state’s peacebuilding in drawing clear boundaries on the complexly intertwined diverse people. Staff members of IPDM are not unaware of such limitations of idealistic interfaith dialogue in realizing peace. Nevertheless, IPDM keeps on encouraging students to engage in the activity perhaps out of the expectation that they would become future local leaders of peacebuilding who have the ability to articulate experiences and practices of interfaith coexistence in a universal language.

Another organization in Iligan which promotes interfaith dialogue is Kapamagogopa, Incorporated. The NGO is known for having won the Intercultural Innovation Award from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the BMW Group in 2013. Organized by Maranaos, Kapamagogopa provides young Muslim university graduates with opportunities to work as social workers in other NGOs. This is to reduce employment discrimination against them. When searching for jobs in large enterprises and government organizations, many Muslim youths are unreasonably denied interviews or given lower priority than Christian applicants. The more capable a Muslim graduate is, the greater the frustration they face when being deprived of opportunities to exercise their skill and knowledge and build careers in positions with high social status. A female co-founder of Kapamagogopa said that when she underwent the National Steel Corporation’s final selection process for three new hires, she, the only Muslim among the finalists who all graduated from Mindanao State University-Marawi School, was turned down although her score was the third highest. She believed the rejection was due to religious discrimination.

Kapamagogopa dispatches young Muslims who have completed their training programs to other NGOs as trainees. They receive payment for their living expenses, and if they get good evaluations they can become regular staff. Jobs at NGOs financed by international donors are attractive for them because they can promote peace and development in the region while receiving respect and a good salary. Thus, there are around a hundred applicants for the annual recruitment of 10 trainees. Approximately 80 percent of applicants are women, and the recruitment ratio is comparable. The reason for the large number of female applicants is that many Muslim families hope that their university-educated daughters will get stable jobs, such as schoolteachers, NGO staff members, and professional workers abroad. Also, for Maranao women, employment at NGOs enables them to distance themselves from their clan groups and conservative social norms. This allows them to enjoy freedom of movement and friendship. Even though there are relatives who oppose the idea of women living away from their parents, they can be persuaded if the women work at NGOs.

Kapamagogopa’s training programs include learning about the general conduct expected of workers as well as tolerance of different faiths and cultures to broaden their perspectives. Trainees also learn skills necessary for social workers such as community development, project planning and management, and advocacy. Through acquiring such values and skills, trainees are expected to work in Christian-dominant societies as “good Muslims” and contribute to eliminating the prejudice against them. In fact, many trainees have acquired the reputation of being good Muslims, overcoming daily prejudice, learning Cebuano, the language of Christians in the South, and adapting to unfamiliar environments.

Within the context of these activities, it seems that being a “good Muslim” means acquiring secular knowledge and skills, becoming tolerant of other cultures, engaging in secular deliberation, and working with Christians, while maintaining their faith, all in order to eliminate the prejudices against them. It seems Kapamagogopa believes that young Muslim university graduates have more potential and flexibility to undergo such subjective transformation than uneducated or older Muslims. From the perspective of Habermasian theory, young Muslims are trained to translate religious discourses into a “universally accessible language.” It seems, however, that the emphasis on creating “good Muslims” risks marginalizing those who fail to fit into this mold as “bad Muslims.” Also, it is unfair to demand that Muslims alone shoulder the burden of subjective transformation for the sake of interfaith dialogue with Christians. This asymmetric relationship reflects the extent to which Muslims are marginalized, not the biases of the NGO.

III The Arts of Everyday Peacebuilding

Mutuality to Cope with Dispossession

In contrast to the state and civil society’s tendency to call for ideal subjects compartmentalized according to clear boundaries for peacebuilding, ordinary people in Iligan have built everyday cohabitation by blurring the boundaries of differences while simultaneously harboring prejudice and antagonism. The most common practice of interfaith cohabitation is mutual cooperation among the poor for everyday survival.

Nafie, a Maranao Muslim woman, and her family moved to a depressed community where they found a new house for rent. In the neighborhood, they regularly bought vegetables and condiments at a sarisari (sundry) store run by an elderly Christian woman named Gusina. Initially, Gusina was alarmed by the Muslim family and did not even talk to Nafie when she came to shop. Gusina was very surprised to learn that Yoshizawa was living with the family, and her daughter asked in a hushed tone, “Do they treat you well? Don’t trust the Maranaos.” However, when Nafie’s family had to leave their rented house due to their landlord’s circumstances, Gusina’s attitude changed. Since the landlord needed to have his leg amputated due to diabetes, he hoped to pawn the house to Nafie or someone else to get the money to cover the expense of the operation. Nafie struggled to raise money while searching for other houses to rent. Perhaps out of sympathy, Gusina began showing her concern and listened to Nafie’s complaints about the situation. When Nafie’s small child became sleepy and started to fret as they stood chatting, Gusina laid him on a couch in the shop, saying, “Take a nap here, boy.” Nafie’s problem made her closer and more intimate with Gusina.

Nafie also helped Rachel, the Christian woman who lived next door. Rachel had been separated from her husband for several years and was living with her two little girls and her partner, with whom Rachel constantly quarreled over financial troubles. Nafie said, “We Maranaos help our relatives when they are in need. Christians are heartless; they don’t help their relatives even when they have problems.” Though she made this kind of dismissive remark, she was concerned about Rachel’s plight. Rachel’s daughter was to enter elementary school, and she needed money for her school uniform and supplies. Nafie and her neighbors offered to lend Rachel money, using as collateral Rachel’s household goods such as an electric fan. In such an arrangement with friends, one can redeem the item after an extended period of time, unlike when one pawns it at a pawnshop. This practice is possible even when the parties involved have only transient relationships and do not completely trust each other.

As shown by the above examples, when Muslims and Christians encounter each other, their sense of mistrust mixes with the feeling that not all people of different faiths are bad. While they remain cautious and may gossip about each other, their everyday needs can trigger a small exchange that soon develops into friendship and mutual assistance. In Iligan, it is common to find such mutual cooperation among the poor despite differences in faith. Even ordinary Christians living in communities without Muslim neighbors would not be surprised to hear these stories, since they believe that they can also mutually engage with Muslims when necessary. Since the state and the market do not guarantee subsistence and opportunities, mutuality is the most important resource for ordinary people in a small city like Iligan. This suggests that rich people need not develop such mutuality. In fact, a well-to-do Maranao family living in a two-story concrete house in the same depressed community did not interact even with their Maranao neighbors. They just went out and back in their private car.

However, one cannot generalize that impoverished neighbors of different faiths always help one another. There have been many cases when cohabitation of people of different faiths turned into violence.19) Why is it possible for people in Iligan to develop relationships of mutual assistance despite their religious differences and the conflicts around them?

First, the city has the characteristic of a community of diaspora and transients with experiences of dispossession. Many Maranaos in Iligan have escaped from problems in their hometowns such as poverty, conflict, lack of agricultural land, and restrictive family relationships. They usually find vacant houses in various communities in Iligan without forming segregated Muslim communities, which creates opportunities for everyday interaction with Christians. The Christians, on the other hand, are descendants of settlers who migrated to Mindanao in search of land and a better life. Many Christians born in neighboring areas also come to Iligan for education and work. Considerable number of both Muslims and Christians do not consider Iligan as their final home and continue to move around in search of better opportunities. Particularly in deprived communities, it is common for people to briefly stay at their relatives’ rented houses, be evicted from their houses when the rent money runs out, and be forced to evacuate by natural disasters. In such contexts, Muslims and Christians find it relatively easier to have interfaith interactions than in their rural hometowns where relations are often strained over agricultural land and political power.

Second, from the Maranaos’ perspective, there is a sense that in Iligan Christians can be trusted as neighbors more than unknown Muslims. Within Maranaos’ close clan network, one can trust others because proper behavior is strictly expected and those who break this norm are sanctioned. However, most Maranaos whom they meet in Iligan are outside of their network, thereby inviting distrust. Moreover, together with media discourses highlighting violent events related to Muslims, it seems self-representations of Maranao men, which typically portray them as fearless “tough guys,” also increase their sense of distrust of unknown Maranaos. They often boast about the way they engaged in fights, got involved in rido (violent feuds between clans) and other crimes, or participated in armed groups. Rich men, usually successful businessmen or high-ranking military or police officers, ride around ostentatiously in rugged vehicles such as American Hummers. Perhaps they represent themselves as such because of their upbringing, surrounded by violence and conflicts as well as foreboding that something unjust that cannot be dealt with by the law can happen any time.20)

Religious Differences as “Paths to Happiness”

How do ordinary people address differences and antagonism based on faith, which is much more difficult than developing relationships of everyday mutual assistance? We identify everyday practices that intertwine religious differences to create and maintain multi-faith cohabitation.

We firstly focus on the religious practice of conversion, which erodes the boundaries between Christians and Muslims and neutralizes the sense of otherness. In the Southern Philippines, since the 1970s there have been an increasing number of Christians who develop doubts about their own Catholicism and convert to Islam.21) They call themselves Balik-Islam, which means “returning to Islam.” There are four Balik-Islam organizations in Iligan City. Importantly, converts (and many Christians) recognize the differences between the two religions not as an exclusive dichotomy, but as connected “paths to happiness” down which they walk in pursuit of a better life and death. Missionary activities by various religious groups have helped people in search of “more correct” religious practices to recognize the hidden connectedness of the two faiths.

Missionary seminars conducted by Balik-Islam groups emphasize the shared worldviews of Christianity and Islam (i.e., one God, Heaven, and Hell) while conveying the superiority of Islam with referencing Christ and the Bible. For example, a Balik-Islam group explained that it was inconsistent for monotheistic Christianity to advocate the theory of the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and therefore Islam, in which one prayed only to Allah, was more correct. When one of the attendees questioned the explanation and said that a Catholic priest had told them the teaching of the Trinity was correct, a Muslim convert who had been a Christian pastor answered that the Bible did not contain the teachings of the Trinity. The Balik-Islam also explained that the practices of Muslims were closer than those of Christians to the practices of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Examples of such practices were Christ’s 40-day fast and Mary’s wearing of a veil. Christians who have more knowledge of the Bible’s teachings are more likely to be interested in Islam and therefore likely to convert.

The missionary activities of other religious groups also emphasize connectedness among different faiths to attract new followers by lowering the psychological barriers to conversion. In a seminar of a Catholic youth group, a lecturer explained that indigenous people’s animism was not different from that of Catholics: “They pray to God through worshipping natural beings such as mountains and stones which have the spirit of God.” Various Protestant groups insist that they are more faithful to the Bible than Catholics who share a common worldview as Christians. Although each group maintains the supremacy of its own faith, such discourses connecting religions have been so aggressively produced by missionary activities as to erode the religious boundaries. Therefore, it is not surprising that Christians who previously considered Muslims as “absolute others” came to realize that Islam was a possible option for conversion.

More specifically, competition among the various Protestant groups unintentionally led Catholics who doubted their church’s teachings to convert to Islam.22) A man named Rasel was originally a faithful Catholic but converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose teachings he thought were more faithful to the Bible. However, when he became seriously ill due to a heavy drinking habit, he received prayers from a Born Again Christian group and recovered. Then, he joined the group and contributed to the congregation’s worship services, using his singing talent. Subsequently, while deeply studying the Bible, he moved toward Judaism and then eventually discovered Islam. Rasel is not an unusual case in Iligan. Yoshizawa has met more than a few former Catholics who finally settled for Islam after successively converting to other religions. The more they study the Bible, the more they feel unconvinced worshipping statues of Christ and Mary. They also complain about the authoritative Catholic Church and its priests. Their deep wish is to interpret the teachings of the Bible in an equal position with religious leaders and to conduct correct religious practices accordingly. Those who have such sentiments are attracted to Muslim groups’ assertion of being the true adherents of the Bible and the most effective in achieving equality before God.

In addition to those who question Catholic teachings, there are also people who convert to Islam without much concern for religious doctrine and practice. One day, some elderly people gathered at the Balik-Islam missionary seminar. While they were being taught the obligations of Muslims, such as fasting and zakat (giving to charity), one of them impatiently grumbled, “That’s all well and good, but we are too old now; all we can do is pray. I know that if I become a Muslim I can go to Heaven, so I want to hurry up and convert.” Another elderly woman wanted to convert after listening to her eldest son, who had converted to Islam while working in the Middle East. After shahada (the confession of faith), she said with a radiant face, “I cannot fast because of my age, but now I am finally free, right?” She seemed to be convinced that she had finally reached the path to happiness both in life and in the afterlife.

Reaching the path to happiness is a common wish regardless of people’s religions and concerns about doctrines. Nevertheless, nobody knows whether they are on the right path that leads to happiness or not. This persistent uncertainty makes people keep on being curious about different teachings, which weakens the otherness of different faiths. Even Balik-Islam who seem to have made a final choice retain an interest in Christianity and ardently ask persons with a deep knowledge of Christianity about “true teachings.” If convinced, they even stop practicing Islam and go back to Christianity. They are called “Balik-Christian.”

It is natural for people in Iligan to develop the idea that different faiths are linked paths for happiness because religious differences do not fall into the false secular–religious dichotomy. As Asad and Mahmood assert, in Christian-dominated societies that advocate “secularism” secretly anchored in the Christian culture, Muslims’ voices are not heard. In Iligan, however, most Christians do not support secularism, and the pursuit of happiness through religion is a common concern among the people. This guarantees a space for open discussion where people ask about others’ faiths without hesitation and talk about various religious issues in their workplaces and on street corners. Although there are often prejudices and misunderstandings in these everyday conversations, and some people just deny others with a belief that their own faith is absolutely right, the fact remains that any normative discourses on religion are not hegemonic. Such contested spaces create enough room for ordinary people to deliberate freely over what would be the “true religion” for happiness. Because religion is a common interest, the Muslim minority can have channels for dialogues with Christians without being silenced by the pressure of secularism.

In small cities like Iligan, where the state and market do not guarantee happiness—failing to provide people with stable life or career opportunities—religions can become bonds that create social ties. Amid this precariousness, people endeavor to seek “good lives and afterlives” through cultivating mutuality and sharing their wish for happiness even with people of different faiths.

However, people do not necessarily respect different groups equally. For instance, even Balik-Islam who have transcended religious boundaries construct a hierarchy among groups. They consider Muslims to be “brothers and sisters who know the religion of truth” while pitying Christians as “those who do not yet know the truth.” Their attitudes toward Maranaos, usually born Muslims, are complex. While Balik-Islam admire devout Maranaos with their in-depth knowledge of Islam and the Arabic language as “good Muslims,” they criticize “Muslims only by name” who lack a sincere study and practice of the Islamic teachings. Armed conflicts have also exacerbated Balik-Islam’s othering of Maranaos. In a meeting held after the armed encounter between the MNLF and the army in Zamboanga in September 2013, a woman said that her new landlord had not allowed her to move in due to his mistrust of Muslims. This propelled other participants to share their stories of discrimination by Christians. Interestingly, they blamed Maranaos more than Christians, exchanging such opinions as “We are affected by Maranaos who ruin the reputation of our religion by perpetuating violence and crimes” and “I can’t stand being mistaken for a Maranao just because I wear the hijab.” They further criticized some Maranao customs as un-Islamic, saying, “Maranaos are totally different from us because they have a tradition like rido which is against Islam, a religion of peace.”

In this way, Balik-Islam construct a hierarchy based on proximity to “true religion,” piety, and ethnicity. Yet this hierarchy by no means represents a fixed “friend/enemy” antagonism over religious differences. It is easily challenged by persistent uncertainty and curiosity regarding “true religion.”

“Implementing Non-decision” in Multi-religious Families

We next examine a practice that allows different religions to coexist in a family. Multi-religious families are created either by conversion or by interfaith marriage. Both practices are acts of transcending religious boundaries, but they in turn create new boundaries within the family. Not only conversion to Islam, but also love and marriage between people of different faiths are not unusual in Iligan City. However, most interfaith marriages are between Christian women and Muslim men. Muslim men can marry Christian and Jewish women who are considered “people of the Book.” Among the 19 interfaith married couples that were interviewed, 9 women converted to Islam while the other 10 remained Christians.23) Meanwhile, based on Islamic law, Muslim women can marry only Muslim men. In theory, Christian men can marry Muslim women if they convert to Islam, but in Iligan, family relationships and the norms of the Maranaos rarely permit it.

While many multi-religious families maintain multiple faiths, special occasions such as funerals and decisions on the children’s religion bring forth the tough question of which religious practice to follow. Although consensus is almost impossible, couples must somehow conduct family events. In an act of desperation, family members on both sides often discreetly try to influence the way events are carried out, or attempt to avoid making a definitive decision as far as possible. We like to conceptualize such a practice as “implementing non-decision,” which helps families manage their dilemma and retain coexistence of the two faiths. The following cases illustrate this concept.

Mariam is a Balik-Islam woman whose mother also converted with her encouragement. Mariam’s Christian brothers were angry that she had “stolen” their mother from them. When Mariam’s mother died, Mariam came into conflict with her brothers over which religion should be followed at the funeral. In Islam, burial must be done no later than a day after death; but in Christianity, burial can be held even a week after the funeral service. Without providing an opportunity for deliberation, Mariam’s brothers held a Christian funeral. At the wake, while the white Christian coffin was decorated with flowers and photographs, there were several ornaments with passages from the Qur’an on the walls of the room. While her brothers invited a priest to perform Mass on Sunday, Mariam asked her Balik-Islam group to hold an Islamic missionary seminar on another day. The death of a loved one heightens people’s wish to know the “true religion.” In such a spiritual atmosphere, these two religions were competing and coexisting.

On the way to the Christian cemetery, Mariam rode a different jeepney, murmuring, “Because my brothers are somewhat different . . .” After a while, she said she was hurting and held her hands tightly to her chest. When she arrived at the cemetery, Mariam stayed at the end of the line, and later she persuaded her brothers to allow a leader of the Balik-Islam group, who was a former pastor, to deliver a sermon. He preached, “Although there are conflicts between religions, Muslims and Christians are brothers under the same God, so we can live together.” After the burial, Mariam repeatedly reminded the workers who were plastering the grave with concrete not to attach a symbol of the cross.

As in Mariam’s case, in situations where compromise or consensus through deliberation is difficult to achieve due to differences in religious doctrines, multi-religious families somehow negotiate sensitively and make nuanced adjustments acceptable to both parties because they must continue living as a family.

Choosing a religion for the children is also a difficult and sensitive issue for inter-religious couples. There is no problem with husbands and wives retaining their original faiths and engaging in different religions while respecting each other. This is more easily understood and accepted by the people around them. Conflict arises, however, when grandparents and other relatives intervene in the decision of whether their children should be Muslim or Christian. The fact that both religions stipulate that it is the parents’ responsibility to foster devout faith in their children strengthens the pressure from people around them.

Ali was a Catholic Christian when he got married, but he converted to Islam after his children were born while his wife remained a Christian. Their three children who were in elementary school were baptized as Christians, according to their grandparents’ wishes. They attend Islamic prayers on Fridays and Mass on Sundays. Since Ali himself was raised a Christian and converted after becoming an adult and studying Islam, he wants to instill in his children the doctrines of both religions and allow them to choose based on their free will. He firmly believes that “when the children grow up and are able to understand, they will naturally come to Islam.” This is the practice of delaying the decision on the children’s faith and maintaining the ambiguity of their religious affiliation. It is stressful for Ali to deal with criticism from other Muslims, who often tell him things like “Your children should be Muslims. It is unbelievable that you let your wife and children go to church.” Nevertheless, Ali states with conviction, “Faith is a relationship between you and God; it is not the place of other people to speak on this.”

It is natural for children of multi-religious couples to be confused or indecisive about their own faith. Sahara is one of these children. When asked whether she was a Muslim or a Christian, Sahara responded that she did not know. Her Muslim father migrated to Manila for work and met her Christian mother there. However, since her father left her mother and went back to Iligan with Sahara and her siblings, she has lived apart from her mother for almost 15 years. This has led Sahara to being ambivalent toward both faiths. Her father does not show much religiosity. Relatives on her father’s side, whom Sahara often spends time with, always admonish her to wear the hijab and perform salah (daily prayer), but no one really taught her the ways of living as a Muslim, nor did they listen to her troubles. When she is with her mother’s family in Manila, she feels that she is different from her Christian relatives. For example, she is the only one who does not eat pork. She speaks about her faith in this way:

I think there is no difference between Muslims and Christians apart from their ways of praying. Why did God divide the people into two? Of Heaven and Hell, there is one of each. There is one God. I pray when I want to pray every day. I reflect on my actions with gratitude to God and ask for better things to come. I wonder if this isn’t enough.

Sahara’s interpretation of faith comes from the painful experience of her family being torn apart by religious differences. In addition to the tension between her father and mother, her elder sister also has discord with her father. She had a Christian boyfriend who promised to marry her, but her Muslim father furiously forced her to end the relationship. Perhaps because of this painful experience, Sahara’s sister left Iligan for Manila to live with their mother. Since then, her sister and father have stopped communicating with each other. Their religious differences have broken up the family, but Sahara still wishes for good family relationships. Perhaps because of this wish, she wants to make her religious affiliation as ambiguous as possible.

“Half” children in between different religions constantly face pressure from relatives on both sides and others to be more decisive about their religion. Sahara is often admonished by relatives on her father’s side for wearing a T-shirt and shorts, but she maintains, “I do not want to change my clothes just because I am told to do so by others. I will wear the hijab when I am fully convinced to do so.”

However, such efforts of “half” children to retain two faiths can meet with outright denial of even their identity. One day, a woman working at a fast food shop was asked about her religion by a Balik-Islam customer and she answered, “I am a half-Muslim blessed by both Christianity and Islam.” She introduced herself as a “half-Muslim,” not as a “half-Christian,” perhaps to show an affinity to the customer. However, he rebuked her, saying, “It is impossible to be half a religion.” For members of multi-religious families, keeping on “implementing non-decision” in the face of external pressures is a practice that they go through with agony in order to maintain good family relationships and the coexistence of multiple faiths.

Polygamy and “Crossing Divides”

Polygamy, however, which is one of the most sensitive issues for multi-religious families, does not allow space for “implementing non-decision” and may sometimes break down family relationships. Polygamy is one of the main negative preconceptions that Christians have of Muslims, almost equivalent to terrorism and armed conflict. For Christian families, this is also the main reason why it is unacceptable for their daughters to marry Muslim men.

According to the 1977 Code of Muslim Personal Laws of the Philippines, Muslim men can have four wives. In cases of inter-religious marriage, the Civil Code of the Philippines allows Muslim men to have only one wife. However, based on the Code of Muslim Personal Laws, they can still have other wives by registering these marriages in the sharia court. Moreover, registration is not necessary as long as the wedding ceremony is conducted in keeping with Islamic doctrines. Yet from the Islamic perspective, obtaining the first wife’s consent is imperative, and all wives and children must be treated equally in terms of support such as meals, clothes, education, time, and affection.

In Maranao society, the practical side of polygamy is often cited to rationalize the practice. If one has many wives, one can expand clan networks and strengthen mutual aid. Also, for Muslims in general, polygamy fulfills the role of economically supporting widows and orphans. Furthermore, if a man falls in love with another woman after marriage, it is possible for him to formally marry her without committing adultery. Polygamy also has religious value. If a man marries and cares for a widow as a second wife, and his first wife tolerates this, they can be rewarded and be blessed religiously.

Nevertheless, not all Maranaos support polygamy. For a poor man it is impractical to have more than one wife and more children to support. Some wealthy Maranaos flaunt many wives, but others frown at such a macho attitude, saying it is written in the Qur’an that it is preferable for a man to have a single wife. Most Maranao women, especially those who have direct experience with polygamy, also oppose the practice. Fatima has not forgiven her husband for taking a second wife and even tried to separate them. Her husband goes to the second wife’s house every Monday but returns home by 3 p.m. because of his fear of Fatima. Ishmael, a Maranao man, married another woman but has not yet notified the sharia court of his second marriage, even though he is a lawyer, for fear of being discovered by his first wife.

Polygamy usually causes conflict over differences in values regarding how a couple and family should be. Even for Christian women who have transcended the religious barrier by marrying a Muslim man and worked out other differences in everyday religious practices such as eating habits and worship, polygamy can easily lead to othering of spouses as someone with whom cohabitation is impossible. Linda married a Maranao man who was her classmate in university, but she retained her Christian faith. Although she sometimes found it difficult to get along with her husband’s relatives, her marriage was good. However, after her husband took a second wife without her consent, he became overtly cold to her and their children. Linda, who started divorce proceedings, stated, “It is terrible for him to marry another woman without even consulting me. His relatives say I should accept it, but it is unbearable.” Despite her anger, Linda believed it was neither Islam nor her husband’s personal character but the male-dominated Maranao culture which caused the marriage breakdown. The reason she did not blame Islam was perhaps due to dignity and respect for herself, since she had taken the decision to marry a Muslim.

Jinjin was devastated when she learned that her husband had married a woman about 20 years his junior. Her husband had talked about second marriage to his parents and relatives but not consulted Jinjin at all. However, because her brother tried to convince Jinjin to remain in her marriage, she started to learn the teachings of Islam in an attempt to somehow understand her husband’s behavior. After a few months she converted to Islam, and now she wears the hijab. She said her husband’s polygamy was a painful experience, but it brought positive changes. Both of them became devout Muslims, she explained. She now regularly attends an Islamic study group and focuses on religious activities together with her husband, while her husband has stopped drinking alcohol and staying out late at night. Rather than rejecting Islam, Jinjin embraced it, perhaps because she could not process her suffering in the context of Christian values, where polygamy simply represents the moral sin of a husband having another woman. In contrast, polygamy in Islam is seen as institutionally and morally correct. Thus, by converting to Islam and internalizing its values, Jinjin was able to see her pain with a new meaning: If she endured it as a “good Muslim wife,” she would be given rewards and would gain respect and sympathy among Muslims.

As shown by these cases, polygamy forces a Christian wife to either reject her husband or internalize the values of Islam in order to accept him despite his seemingly unreasonable actions. Either way, polygamy can foreground religious differences and disrupt the coexistence of different faiths within a family. However, as Linda attributed the cause of her divorce not to Islam but to the male-dominated Maranao culture, even discourses constructing unacceptable “others” over polygamy are based not only on religion but also on gender and ethnicity.

Balik-Islam women, as devout believers, try to understand polygamy, but deep down they find it hard to accept. One day, to celebrate the construction of a new mosque, Mariam and other Balik-Islam women visited the house of a Maranao man who sponsored it. The man said he had three wives. His first wife was his age, and his second wife, who looked a little younger, was serving food to the visitors. When the man left the Balik-Islam women to attend to other guests, they all voiced their opinions. One told Mariam, “This would be impossible for me; I’d be jealous. I would never allow it. How about you?” Mariam answered, “A true Muslim wife must help her husband. And if he marries a widow or a poor woman, his action has the value of charity, right?” Despite the words, she herself was unconvinced. She nervously added: “My husband is young, so he may take another woman and abandon me. If that happens, I will let the Islamic experts judge his actions.” The Balik-Islam women’s hope was the knowledge that Islam does not always allow polygamy.

These stories illustrate how people in Iligan have varying ideas and attitudes toward polygamy, depending on their class, religion, gender, ethnicity, and the degree to which it affects them. In other words, when people criticize or reject men engaging in polygamy, they focus on multiple social divisions as a reason of othering. This is a practice we call “crossing divides” through which people relativize the religious dichotomy and prevent it from becoming a single focal point that could lead to a critical rupture of cohabitation. It could also be argued that Iligan’s everyday cohabitation is created and maintained because people complexly cross multiple divides by frequently exchanging discourses over diverse others, including prejudiced and even hostile views.


Ordinary Muslims and Christians in Iligan have built cohabitation into their everyday life despite antagonism rooted in religious differences and conflicts surrounding them. They have accepted people of different faiths as neighbors who help each other and as companions who seek to walk the “paths to happiness.” Even when there are conflicts caused by multiple faiths, people somehow manage to avoid relationship breakdowns by “implementing non-decision” and “crossing divides.”

Those who build interfaith everyday peace are by no means strong individuals who can endure differences indefinitely. Rather, they are people with vulnerabilities and weaknesses both in life and in faith. They generally embrace the sense that poverty and strife have deprived them of the wealth that is rightfully theirs. Also, in their religious life, Muslims are often forced to compromise their faith due to necessity; they have to contend with the system of education, employment, and politics of the dominant Christian society, which hampers them from attaining an ideal Islamic life. For Christians, the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church prevents ordinary followers’ desire to actively participate in the spiritual pursuit of truth.

Thus, each of them carries a unique suffering of dispossession, a feeling that external and unreasonable forces as well as internal weaknesses have disrupted an attainment of their desirable self and a good life.24) Importantly, this general sense of imperfection and aspiration for happiness leads to an openness and interaction with others, even those of different faiths. Hence, diverse people not only cultivate mutuality but also actively express, exchange, and contest different values in the hope of obtaining information on the “religion of truth” or avoiding ruptures of intimate relationships. It is upon these ordinary interactions among people with such vulnerabilities that everyday peace is built.

As discussed in the introduction, many studies note unifying local culture has enabled religious coexistence in Southeast Asia. However, the condition seems to have been eroded in many societies by urbanization, globalization, and neoliberalism that have increased diversity, fluidity, and division. Despite the general trend, Mac Ginty maintains fluidity, heterogeneity, and ambiguity can be foundations of everyday peace, but his focus is limited interactions among social groups with clear boundaries and not extended to individuals. In contrast to them, we claim that ordinary people have the agency to build cohabitation with religious others, even without shared local culture and even with prejudice and antagonism, based on their dispossession, vulnerability, and fluidity in life and faith. Given that our finding is applicable to other parts of the world, it is more important to analyze the disabling factors, rather than enabling factors, of everyday peacebuilding. Presumably cohabitation is likely to be disrupted when people’s experiences of dispossession come to be recognized as an outcome of “exploitation by different neighbors.” Thus, it is necessary to explore what conditions would foment such antagonism.

Another future task is further clarifying the interrelationship between peacebuilding by the state and everyday people. We argue that official peacebuilding by the state can destabilize everyday cohabitation due to its tendency to impose an institutionally and ideally compartmentalized “we/they” relationship on the complexities of social relations at the grassroots. When formal institutions demand that the intertwined population determine clear boundaries among themselves, everyday peace can be disrupted. Nonetheless, this danger is by no means inevitable. Rather, we hypothesize that peacebuilding by states can be more promising when state institutions are adapted to the reality of everyday cohabitation built by diverse people in mixed communities.

In fact, the setback by the anti-MOA-AD movement in 2008 provided an opportunity to mediate the discrepancies between the two. Since then, the government and MILF have addressed issues of mixed communities such as Christians’ apprehension that they will become the marginalized minority in the autonomous region. They adopted a participatory governance system that facilitates representation not only of the “Bangsamoro people” but also of “settler communities” and of “non-Moro indigenous peoples” in the autonomous region.25) They also narrowed areas of plebiscite for the autonomous region and disseminated information that non-Muslims’ rights were guaranteed by the autonomous government. These initiatives contributed to the progress of the peace process as seen in the case of Cotabato City, one of the biggest mixed communities, where people’s attitude changed from rejecting the autonomous region to approving it in the 2019 plebiscite.

This development indicates that consideration for non-Muslims has not only weakened their opposition against the autonomous region but has also promoted further expansion of Muslims’ rights in terms of economic benefits and cultural recognition. In other words, initiatives to protect non-Muslim minorities’ rights within the autonomous region promoted the peace process. Like a nesting, this fact affirms Will Kymlicka’s argument that liberal democracy can become compatible with collective rights of minorities (in this case, Muslims) when it guarantees minorities of “external protections” from the state and majority while encouraging minority groups to reduce “internal restrictions” (in this case, on non-Muslims) within their groups and territories (Kymlicka 2002, 340–341).

Nevertheless, there are still several challenges for the peace process. First, there is the dilemma that the more inclusive the peace process becomes, the more difficult it will be to reach a consensus. The second challenge is how to integrate Islamic groups that reject the autonomous region and resort to armed struggle. Third, even in the current framework of the autonomous region, there remains the coexistence model based on an institutionally and ideally categorized population, which is in conflict with everyday cohabitation. It will therefore be critical for the autonomous government to manage this conflict. Having flexibility in the implementation of institutions and policies will be important. NGOs will have an important role in mediating the discrepancy. Eventual stabilization and peace in the region depends on whether the formal peacebuilding process can address these challenges and realize social reforms that equitably benefit these intricately intertwined people.

Accepted: January 15, 2020


This work was supported by K. Matsushita International Scholarship and Sumitomo Life Woman Researcher Encouragement Prizes which Asuna Yoshizawa received.


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1) This inquiry into everyday peace is partly inspired by Thomas McKenna (1998), who provided an alternative account of the armed separatism of the Southern Philippines through an ethnography of the everyday politics of rank-and-file Muslim rebels.

2) Mac Ginty identifies three premises of everyday peace: (1) fluidity of individuals, collectives, ideas, and practices; (2) heterogeneity of groups often seen as homogenous; and (3) environmental factors that shape inter- and intra-communal experience. More specifically, he highlights everyday peace activities such as avoidance of risky topics, people, and places; promotion of ambiguity to conceal signifiers of identity; avoiding “seeing” others, and so on.

3) The Maranaos are the largest Muslim ethnic group in the country, with a population of more than one million. While most of them inhabit the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, a significant number have been forced by poverty and conflict to migrate to Manila and other cities, where many of them engage in retailing businesses.

4) For instance, see Harris (2013).

5) See Philippine Statistics Authority (2019).

6) See Abinales (2012) for detailed accounts.

7) The trigger was the Jabidah massacre of 1968, in which young Muslims recruited for covert military operations were murdered by soldiers during training to silence them regarding military secrets.

8) Americans imposed direct military rule on the South, considering self-government impossible for Muslims, or the “un-civilized race,” in contrast to the Christian-majority north-central areas where they gradually expanded local election.

9) International mediators such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan played an important role in promoting the peace talks.

10) Rivalry among Muslim ethnic groups also contributed to the split. While the MNLF is composed largely of Tausug and Sama from Sulu, most MILF members are Maguindanao and Maranao. The MNLF also resumed the armed struggle when Marcos watered down the original agreement that granted autonomy to 13 provinces.

11) In 1990 the Corazon Aquino administration established the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, but both the MNLF and MILF refused to participate.

12) The Sultanate of Sulu thrived through the intermediate trade among the Middle East, Europe, and Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1878 the declining sultanate signed an agreement with the British North Borneo Company, which allowed the latter to occupy Sabah upon regular payment to the sultanate. However, the interpretation of the term pajakan in the agreement has been contested. While the British colonial government succeeded the company, and then the Malaysian government claimed that Sabah was “ceded” in return for payment of 5,000 Malayan dollars per year, the Sultanate of Sulu argued that the land was only “leased.” The Philippine government, representing the sultanate, negotiated with Malaysia over the territorial dispute until 1977 but has dropped the issue from its diplomatic agenda.

13) The Bangsamoro Organic Law of 2018 stipulates that “Shari’ah shall apply exclusively to cases involving Muslims. When a case involves a non-Muslim, Shari’ah law may apply only if the non-Muslim voluntarily submits to the jurisdiction of the Shari’ah court” in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (Section 1, Article X).

14) Loosely organized by diverse clan leaders and commanders, the MNLF and MILF are both prone to defections.

15) The MNLF officially declared in its newsletter in 1974 that “even those of other faith[s] who have long established residence in the Bangsa Moro homeland and whose good-will and sympathy are with the Bangsa Moro Revolution shall, for purposes of national identification, be considered Moros” (Noble 1976, 418). The initial formulation of Bangsa Moro as a different nation from the Filipinos was also diluted into Bangsamoro as an ethnicity within the Filipinos in the course of peace talks for establishing an autonomous region between the MILF and the government. This was because it was more acceptable not only to the state and the majority of Christians, but also to non-secessionist Muslims in the South (see Kawashima 2014).

16) Although the constitution stipulates the separation of church and state, prohibition of official religion, and freedom and equality of religions, the Philippine state is characterized by “loose secularism,” in which religious ceremonies are integrated into state events such as presidential inaugurations (Kawashima 2012: 25–28).

17) NGOs have tried to represent the interests of marginalized sectors in peace talks through advocacy, but Steven Rood (2005) claims they have had little effect due to inaccessibility to back-channel negotiations among anti-government forces, the government, and local elites. A rare but noteworthy success for NGOs is that they were able to have representation of indigenous people in the peace talks (Rood 2005, 26–27).

18) For detailed information about their activities, see Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao (n.d.).

19) For instance, cohabitation of Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar’s Buddhists collapsed when the latter began persecuting the former.

20) Maranao gender norms seem to reflect a value system in which there are two ways of navigating an unstable situation: the official (female) and the unofficial (male).

21) Luis Lacar (2001) explains that the intensification of civil war and deterioration of public order in the 1970s gave an incentive to Christians in Muslim-majority areas to convert to Islam for the sake of their livelihoods and security. However, he does not explore spiritual reasons for conversion.

22) According to Lacar (2001), among the 322 Balik-Islam informants, 67 percent of them converted from Catholicism to various Christian groups before deciding on Islam.

23) Depending on the country and region, women may be required to convert.

24) We like to expand the idea of dispossession (Butler 2011) as exile not only from original places and groups but also from original desirable states of self.

25) The Bangsamoro Organic Law of 2018 defines Bangsamoro people as follows:
(t)hose who, at the advent of the Spanish colonization, were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands, whether of mixed or of full blood, shall have the right to identify themselves, their spouses and descendants, as Bangsamoro people.

Although the definition does not refer to religion, “Bangsamoro people” practically signifies indigenous Muslims such as Maranaos because non-Muslim indigenous people have not agreed to be included in the collective identity. For historical development of the concept, see note 15. In the same manner, “settler communities” largely refer to Christian inhabitants.


Vol. 4, No. 2, Sumanto

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

Christianity and Militancy in Eastern Indonesia: Revisiting the Maluku Violence

Sumanto Al Qurtuby*

* Department of General Studies, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, 31261, Saudi Arabia

e-mail: squrtuby[at]

During the Maluku interreligious violence from 1999 to 2002, both Islam and Christianity contributed to the initiation and intensification of the collective conflict. This article examines the role of religion, especially Christianity, and discusses how Christian identities, teachings, doctrines, symbols, discourses, organizations, and networks became some of the contributing factors in the early phases of the Maluku mayhem. It also examines the complex roles played by Moluccan Christian actors, especially the religious militias, in initiating and intensifying the strife, highlighting how Ambonese militant religious leaders framed the violence, recruited, and mobilized the masses in the combat zone, and how the local ordinary Christian fighters portrayed the violence and transformed their everyday experience in the warfare.

Keywords: religion, violence, militancy, Christianity, Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia


This article discusses the destructive contributions of religious identities, discourses, doctrines, teachings, symbols, actors, organizations, and networks, especially within Christianity, in the intensification of communal violence in the Moluccas, particularly in the city of Ambon and the province of Maluku more generally. I have analyzed elsewhere (Sumanto 2015) the damaging roles of Islam and Moluccan Muslim jihadists in the exacerbation of collective violence, so I will not repeat it here. What is striking in the literature on the Maluku conflict is that some scholars tend to emphasize, if not overemphasize, the central role of the Laskar Jihad, a Java-based Islamist paramilitary group, in intensifying the violence, while neglecting the contribution of Ambonese or Moluccan jihadist groups, and to a greater degree Ambonese/Moluccan Christian ones. Some scholars (e.g. Sidel 2006) even tend to portray Christians as victims and Muslims as perpetrators of the havoc. This article will thus complement the existing otherwise fine literature on the Maluku conflict.

It is imperative, however, to note that even though this article focuses on the roles of Christians and Christianity in the fighting, this does not mean that all Christian communities in Maluku were engaged in the battlefield and in the opposition against Muslim groups. As I wrote elsewhere (Sumanto 2013; 2014), there were a number of Christian-Muslim peace groups such as the Peace Provocateurs, the Concerned Women Movement, the Young Ambassadors for Peace, the Baku Bae Movement, the Team 20 Wayame, the Titian Peace Institute, the Maluku Interfaith Center, to name but a few. While some groups were no longer active after the end of the collective conflict, others are still working on peace-related activities, establishing intergroup trust, rebuilding communal ties, healing traumatized war victims, and so forth. There are also numerous individuals—religious leaders, academics, activists, journalists, village chiefs, conflict resolution practitioners, and the like—who have been working tirelessly for peaceful coexistence and interreligious conciliation since the beginning of the violence in 1999.

As for the role of the church, particularly the Moluccan Protestant Church, the region’s largest Christian congregation, this also varies from place to place and from era to era, depending on who ran the Protestant Synod and Catholic Diocese, and on local pastors, church officials, and local Christian communities. Whereas in some areas of the “hot spots” (such as Rumahtiga, Poka, Paso, and some places in Ambon city such as Kudamati and Mardika), the Church directly led the violence, it was in the opposing camp in other places. While some Christian elites forced the Synod to back and provide financial and institutional resources for warfare and Christian militias groups, others (such as the former chairman of GPM Synod, Rev. I. J. W. Hendriks and his successor Rev. Dr. John Ruhulessin) defended the Church and Christianity as a source of peace and reconciliation. Similarly while some pastors and church elites established a group of Christian warriors (see below), others created a group of peacemakers.

In addition, although this article focuses on the role of religion, nevertheless I do not argue that religion in itself is the sole source of violence. Certainly religion does not cause communal violence. Just as “guns do not kill people,” religion does not slaughter human beings. However, religion provides teachings, doctrines, rituals, symbols, metaphors, and discourses that can be easily used, misused, or manipulated by those (such as actors of violence, agents or “managers” of conflict, and interest groups) with material or immaterial interests. This is precisely what happened in Maluku where radical Christians (and militant Muslims)—both elites and lay people—utilized, translated, and transformed religious symbols, doctrines, and discourses into Moluccan social settings, not only to awaken a spirit of fighting or justify their violent acts, but also to protect and safeguard their lives.

Throughout the region’s communal violence, particularly from 1999 to 2002, factors such as religious sentiment, material interest, and political motives interacted with one another, magnifying and altering the influence each would have had in isolation. Take away one factor, such as religious tension, economic inequality, or political competition, the violence would not have occurred. This is to say that although religion did matter during the outburst of violence in Maluku—and this article will explain how—it is too simplistic to reduce the complexity of the riots to just a matter of religion, without investigating the political economy of Christians and Muslims in the broad and varied social field of Maluku.

Bruce Lincoln (2006, 5–7) divides religion into four domains of varying significance as follows: (1) “a discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status . . .”; (2) “a set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by religious discourse to which these practices are connected . . .”; (3) “a community whose members construct their identities with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices . . .”; and (4) “an institution that regulates religious discourse, practices, and community, reproducing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.”

Building on Lincoln’s model of religion, this article understands “religion” not only in terms of religious doctrines, teachings, and symbols, but also religious agents (actors, adherents, communities, and organizations) who produce and reproduce religious practices, knowledge, and cultures. This is to say that religion is not simply about belief, doctrine, norm, or even ideology. It is also about the social capital that is social networks created by religious actors, namely, in Appleby’s (2000, 9) phrase, “people who have been formed by a religious community and who are acting with the intent to uphold, extend, or defend its values and precepts.”

Since the nature of the Maluku conflict shifts from time to time, this article concentrates on the early periods of the violence, especially from 1999–2002, where religious identities played a big role. This does not suggest that during this period, all Christian fighters (or Muslim jihadists) engaged in the battlefield across the archipelago were motivated purely by religious reasons. There were undoubtedly various motives, both secular and religious. Nonetheless, the contribution of religion in the Maluku conflict settings was stronger and more apparent during this period than after 2002.

After the signing of the Peace Accord in 2002, religious identities were in general no longer a vital ingredient for local religious militants. Some ex-combatants told me that they stopped attacking other religious groups once the security forces and political leaders and elite members of society intervened intensively and started to manipulate local discord and interreligious rivalry for their own political and economic interests. While some members of militia groups—both radical Muslims and Christians—continued to attack their religious rivals for revenge and other “secular” motives, others ceased to fight once they realized that their sacred, passionate struggle, as they claimed, to defend Christianity or Islam, were being abused and “hijacked” by local and national political elites for their own agenda.

As stated earlier, the battle between religious-cultural priorities was evident from the early stages of the sectarian strife from 1999 to 2002 (Goss 2004; Pieris 2004). During this era, Moluccan Muslim and Christian social actors—war radicals and peace activists alike—correlated local social events to authoritative texts by engaging in theological discourse, commentary, and exegesis. Furthermore the radical groups from both Christianity and Islam selected particular religious ideas, discourses, and texts to provide a theological basis and religious legitimacy for their vision of the “sacredness” of the Maluku war. More specifically, Maluku’s militant anti-Muslim Christians tried to justify their violent acts by quoting verses from the Old Testament narrating the glorious wars of the Israelites and their commanders, such as Saul, David, and Solomon, as well as by referring to particular events within Christian history that sustain the just war tradition.

Thus for Moluccan militant Christians, authoritative texts are not limited to the Bible or Gospel and Christian teachings, but also include historical narratives of Christian-Muslim antagonism such as the Crusades, and Christian-Muslim rivalry during the colonial period in the Moluccas. It is worth mentioning that, as historian of Maluku Richard Chauvel (1980; 1990) has rightly noted, Christian-Muslim opposition has taken place since the European colonials landed in the Moluccas (in Maluku and North Maluku provinces), as a result of unfair political, economic, and religious colonial policy towards local religious communities.

During the Portuguese and particularly the Dutch colonial era, most Moluccan Christians became the colonials’ “golden boys.” They enjoyed some privileges while most Moluccan Muslims suffered from discriminatory colonial policy. As such, Ambonese/Moluccan Christians were seen as “Dutch stooges,” with the exception of anti-Dutch heroes such as Martha Christina Tiahahu (1800–18) and Thomas Matulessy (known as Pattimura, 1783–1817). On the other hand, during the brief period of the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, most Muslims in the archipelago tended to see the Japanese as the “helping gods” (dewa penolong) come to rescue the Muslim communities from the Dutch. It was thus natural that this should arouse jealousy and abhorrence on the part of local Christians, leading to tensions and conflict. Indeed, the Japanese established Islamic jihadist groups in the islands of Ambon, Seram, and Lease, and mobilized Moluccan Muslims to fight against what they called “un-Islamic allies” led by the Dutch and Australia (Chauvel 1980; 1990).

A Brief Overview of the Maluku Conflict

Just months after President Suharto’s resignation in May 1998, Indonesia underwent a series of sectarian conflicts, ethno-religious violence, and communal riots across the archipelago. Of all collective conflicts that erupted in post-Suharto Indonesia, the Maluku conflict that began in January 1999 and lasted for more than three years, was the most disastrous for the province, causing thousands of deaths and injuring thousands, with about a third or half of the population displaced and countless properties burnt down (Bohm 2005; ICG 2000a; 2000b; 2001; 2002). The fights between Christians and Muslims in the province of Maluku, especially in Ambon city, as well as in North Maluku, made this region the theater of one of the most shocking conflicts in the modern history of Indonesia.

The tragic saga of Christian-Muslim violence began with a minor incident on January 19, 1999, between an Ambonese Christian public transport driver and a Muslim passenger of Bugis (South Sulawesi) origin in Batumerah in the heart of Ambon city, the capital and hub of Maluku province. Once called the Queen of the East, Ambon City was a bustling, prosperous regional hub serving countless picturesque islands. Unlike previous fighting, which had been quickly resolved by local community leaders, this quarrel soon escalated throughout Ambon and other areas of Maluku province (Seram, Haruku, Saparua, Buru, Kei, Tual, Banda, and so forth) and North Maluku (Ternate, Tidore, Tobelo, Halmahera, among others), with large sections of the population drawn into a continuous stream of rioting. Less than three months after the “Ambon tragedy,” more violence broke out in Tual in Maluku on March 31, 1999. This fell three days after the Muslim Idul Adha festival and two days before the Christian Good Friday. This Christian-Muslim fighting in a remote region of Maluku left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. Lesser incidents erupted in many other villages around the far-flung regency of Maluku (see, for example, van Klinken 2001; 2007; Bohm 2005; Bertrand 2002; 2004; Wilson 2008).

Collective violence between the majority Muslims (about 88 percent of a roughly 240 million population) and minority Christians (about 8 percent) has been rare in post-colonial Indonesia. When it did happen, it was usually an outbreak of anger against Chinese shopkeepers, who were dubbed Christians although not all Chinese in Indonesia are Christian, such as the anti-Chinese riots in Pekalongan and Surakarta (Central Java), Bekasi (West Java), and Jakarta in 1998 (Sidel 2006). At the end of the New Order, however, the country witnessed an increasing number of Christian-Muslim tensions and disturbances.1) The Maluku province, where the population is almost equally split between Muslims and Christians, also saw such conflicts. Christian-Muslim communal violence (not “state violence” against Christians or Muslims before, during, and after colonial times) had been rare in this region until the fall of Suharto’s regime.

It should be noted, however, that violent conflict in Maluku went through several phases, with varying natures or root causes, agents involved in the fighting, and motivations behind the individual actors who participated directly or indirectly in the violence. In other words, the dynamics behind the Maluku violence was ever-shifting, and so was the role of religion at different phases. When the violence erupted on January 19, 1999, at stake were ethnic sentiments and migration issues. Some elite members of society tried to wave the flag of “ethnic chauvinism” and mobilize ethnic groups to oppose each other. Posters, pamphlets, and writings about the hazard of “migrant groups,” especially those from Buton, Bugis, and Makassar in Sulawesi Island, for the continuity and development of the “native” (Moluccan) economies were scattered in public places in Ambon city. At the start of the conflict, religion seemed unpopular and had not emerged on the scene.

In brief, in the earliest chapter of the violence, issues at stake were natives (Ambonese/Moluccan) called “anak negeri” (“sons of the soil”) versus migrants (particularly those from Sulawesi but also those from Java) dubbed “anak dagang” (“sons of trade”). However, since manipulating ethnic identity did not seem to attract the masses, the “managers of conflict” turned to religious issues to initiate and exacerbate intergroup violence, which worked very well. It is this stage—roughly between 1999 and 2002—that is the focus of my article. During this period, religion became a crucial factor of violence and an important source of mobilization. Indeed, it was religion that aggravated the conflict. In other words, the violence would not have taken the form it did without the role of religion—for both Islam and Christianity.

The next phase of violence in Maluku was dominated by issues of separatism (waged by members of the Moluccan Sovereignty Front headed by Alexander Manuputty) and terrorism (supported by groups linked to Laskar Mujahidin and Jamaah Islamiyah), which is beyond the focus of this article. The most recent communal riots in Maluku that broke out in 2010 and 2011 were also complex. In some areas in the province, the riots took place among Muslims from different clans (such as in Pelauw of Haruku Island), while in other regions (such as in Pattimura University in Rumahtiga and some places in Ambon city), the riots between Christians and Muslims were mainly driven by non-religious factors. Still, in some areas (e.g. Central Maluku), it was “regional fanaticism” that motivated the masses. Disputes over borders are also common in today’s Maluku. In short, unlike the previous conflicts, religion is no longer a determining variable for those involved in the riots in Maluku nowadays.

Scholarship on the Maluku Violence

Prior to discussing the role of religion and Christianity in the Maluku turmoil, it is useful to briefly review existing literature on the Maluku conflict in order to locate this article’s theoretical position. Previous works on the Maluku carnage have focused mainly on the socio-historical roots of the violence, highlighting how and why previously relatively peaceful religious communities descended into large-scale violent conflict. Scholars’ opinions vary regarding the root causes of the Maluku conflict, and how local small-scale fighting escalated to a large-scale warfare. Brauchler (2003) elaborates on the importance of cyberspace, particularly the Internet, which was used by “conflict actors” to spread grievances, provocations, and complaints of victimization by the war, which aroused anger and tension among the various warring groups. Aditjondro (2001) underscores the special role of preman (street hoodlums), provocateurs, and security forces, whom he identifies as the main actors of the violence. Turner (2006) stresses issues of nationalism and ethnic identities, while Spyer (2002) underlines the role of imagination, the media, and agency in the escalation of the conflict.

Bertrand (2002; 2004) analyzes conditions that augment the potential for violence to erupt. He highlights three major factors: (1) uncertainty over a secular definition of the nation that leaves open the question of an Islamic state; (2) patrimonial features of the New Order authoritarian regime; and (3) a rapid democratic transition after the downfall of Suharto. Unlike Bertrand, who focuses on a macro analysis of historical features of political patterns and national policies of the New Order, van Klinken (2001; 2007) devotes more attention to micro dynamics and conditions. He maintains that the violence was an outcome of struggles among Maluku’s state and non-state elite actors at provincial, municipal, and district levels, over scarce local resources, driven by the “critical junctures” of political transition and the shortcomings of local socio-political structural conditions such as rapid urbanization, high dependence on the state sector, and the speed of de-agrarianization.

To conclude, scholars of the Maluku conflict have generally emphasized politico-economic dimensions of the violence as well as the central role of state institutions, government, and Suharto’s cronies, including the military, in stirring up the violence aimed at destabilizing the nation and regaining political power. Some scholars have indeed blamed the paroxysm of violence on Suharto’s New Order regime (1996–98) and the security forces, especially the police and the army, and have left the matter there2) (see, for example, Aditjondro 2001; Tomagola 2000; Bertrand 2002; 2004; Sidel 2006; Muhammad 2011). Although Adam (2009; 2010) emphasized the role of “the masses” in maintaining the continuity of the riots, he nonetheless argues that the driving forces for the conflict were political-economic issues such as land access and forced migration.

As we can see, analysis emphasizing the role of religion in the Maluku violence is clearly missing from existing scholarship. If it does exist, it usually focuses on the role of Islam and non-Maluku Muslim paramilitary groups—not Christianity and Christian warriors. There have indeed been research on the role of religion in communal violence in regions outside the Maluku province conducted by scholars such as Chris Wilson (2008) and Christopher Duncan (2013) for North Maluku, and Dave McRae (2013) for Poso, Sulawesi. Although Schulze (2002) and Sidel (2006) recognize the contribution of religion in generating conflict in Maluku, they tend to see it as an instrument for political and economic ends and ignore other ways in which religion can influence people’s social and political actions. Indeed some analysts and commentators argue that religion was simply a tool that Moluccan and non-Moluccan, military or civilian, political and religious elites instrumentalized to achieve economic and political aims.

In short, as Duncan (2013) has rightly pointed out, despite the significance that Christian fighters and Muslim militias placed on religion and religious identity in the fighting, observers—academics, researchers, policy-makers, journalists, NGO workers, political commentators, among others—quickly dismissed the religious framing of the violence. They argue, moreover, that what appears to be a religious war is upon closer analysis really motivated by material-based political interests, socio-economic reasons, and territorial grievances that were mobilized and manipulated by the greedy elites, external provocateurs, or “agents of riots.” Last but not least, religious moderates—both Christian and Muslim elites—have also tended to reject the religious factor for the Maluku violence, noting that religion does not teach its followers to commit violence but instead preaches peace, love, and tolerance. Many argued that the violence was not about religion; rather it was a story of how “greed” manipulated “creed” for political and economic ends.

Religious Significance of the Conflict

Contrasting with claims made by the scholars and religious moderates mentioned above, the “grassroots people” of the Maluku province and Ambon city who took part in the violence and whom I interviewed, namely Christian warriors and Muslim jihadists, were not interested in issues of migration, political ambitions, the market, democratization, decentralization, and the like. While outside observers and religious moderates claim that creed was a camouflage for greed, the “foot soldiers,” the masses engaged in the warfare, declared that political and economic issues were actually just a mask for the true religious goals of the strife. Religion and religious identity were also primordial for Christian and Muslim fighters during the communal riots in North Maluku (Duncan 2013; Farsijana 2005).

This suggests that what the religious moderates think of or idealize as religion might differ from the conceptions of “religious radicals.” While moderates denounce radicalism as irreligious, un-Christian, or un-Islamic, the radicals believe that violence is part of a sacred mission and strongly rooted within their traditions, beliefs, doctrines, and teachings.

Against this backdrop, in a departure from previous analyses and studies that tend to place a singular emphasis on the political economy of the conflict, this article maintains that religious identities and discourses figured prominently in the framing and exacerbation of the Maluku strife. Although later on some local Maluku elites (members of the Moluccan Sovereignty Front and some Christian elites) and “foreign actors” (e.g. those linked to the Laskar Jihad, Laskar Mujahidin, KOMPAK, and other radical wings of Islamic groupings) tried to turn the initial conflict into separatism and terrorism, the Christian and Muslim masses engaged in the fighting still considered religion as a focal point for their involvement in the violence.

Although this article focuses solely on Christianity, this does not mean that Muslims who took part in the strife did not express religious vitality during the Maluku clash. Ex-Muslim jihadists of Ambon and other regions of Maluku whom I interviewed also articulated the same religious concerns and motivations as their Christian counterparts. The militant groups of both religions portrayed the wars as a sacred duty for adherents to defend their religion. The Muslim jihadists framed the fighting as Perang Sabil (a war in the path of God) and therefore their engagement in the combat zones was considered jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in God’s trail) to protect Islam from Christian invasion and missionary activities (see Sumanto 2012).

Similarly the Christian warriors regarded the Maluku conflict as a Perang Salib (the Crusades) intended to guard (1) Christianity from the Muslim dakwah (Islamic propagation) and forced conversion (Islamisasi), and (2) the Maluku territory, which they saw as a Christian land, linking it to the land of Canaan in the Biblical tradition. Over the course of the communal conflict, religious symbols, texts, teachings, and discourses were scattered throughout the island. The findings of a survey questionnaire I distributed to 100 ex-Christian fighters and Muslim jihadists, mostly under 30 years of age during the turmoil, on the islands of Ambon-Lease, also confirmed this portrayal, highlighting how religion had contributed to the escalation of the Maluku wars and how unearthly motivations became among the major contributing factors for actors involved in the violence.

The Maluku chaos, moreover, had involved non-state local actors (e.g. religious leaders, local Christian fighters, Ambonese Muslim jihadists, the masses, and civilian groupings) in initiating and exacerbating the mass violence.3) Throughout the communal conflict, Maluku’s local actors were active agents and not passive victims, as commonly portrayed by political observers and social scientists.4) The Maluku case thus illustrates the appearance of not only “Muslim politics” (cf. Eickelman and Piscatori 1996; Hefner 2005) but also Christian politics. During the communal violence, both Muslims and Christians displayed violent and antagonistic behavior. As in Muslim politics, Christian politics also involved competition and contest over both the interpretation of symbols and control of the institutions, formal and informal, that produce, reproduce, and sustain them. By focusing on Christianity, this article will balance previous studies that have tended to overemphasize the central role of the Muslim jihadists (e.g. Sidel 2006; Schulze 2002; Noorhaidi 2006) in initiating and intensifying the Maluku bloodshed.

Christianity, Militancy, and Radicalism

To begin this section, let me quote a statement from Rev. John Sahalessy, one of the respected pastors of the Protestant Moluccan Church and one of the Christian delegates during the signing of the Malino Peace Agreement in Sulawesi. John Sahalessy was the initiator of the “Tim 20 of Wayame,” a group consisting of Christian and Muslim leaders in the village of Wayame on the island of Ambon, whose main objective was to establish peace and social stability in the region and to create mutual trust and understanding between the two religious communities. Wayame was one of the small areas in Ambon that was safe during the communal violence (Sumanto 2013; Pariela 2008). This group later inspired political elites in Jakarta, most notably the late President Abdurrahman Wahid and M. Jusuf Kalla, to initiate a peace pact for Maluku known as the Malino II Peace Accord.

In my interview with him, Rev. Sahalessy said:

All [Protestant] pastors on Moluccan Islands, directly or indirectly, were involved in the Maluku wars, except me. You can note this [statement]. Thus it is wrong if they declare in public that they were not involved in the fighting. Before going to war, the pastors brought their followers to the church for praying and blessing. They said: “God will accompany you.” This is a little example of how pastors were engaged in the fighting. Going to war [against Muslims] was an initiative of the local churches, from the pastors, and not from the Synod [i.e. the Moluccan Protestant Church Synod]. They convinced followers that the “Ambon War” was a “religious war” to defend God. In fact, God does not need our defense; God will defend us. They also believed that if Christians prayed faithfully and went to the battlefield, they would get victory. They went into the combat zone while singing the “Onward Christian Soldiers” song.5)

This statement by Sahalessy is a hard slap in the face for Christian apologists who have denied the engagement of Ambonese Christian leaders and institutions in the Maluku violence. It is also a strong critique of academics who have neglected the religious nature of the conflict. Sahalessy himself may not have believed that the Ambon conflict was a religious war, but his comment indicates that most Christian leaders and lay adherents of Christianity in Ambon and other areas of Maluku province were convinced that the war was religious and sacred. An ex-Christian fighter of Rumahtiga in Ambon city told me eagerly, “The role of religion during the Maluku wars was not only important but very important. Christians and Muslims fought and killed each other due to their religion being humiliated by other religious communities. Because of religion, Christians and Muslims in Ambon were involved in the wars for about five years since 1999.”6)

Indeed, many Moluccan Christian fighters (and Muslim jihadists too) have considered the conflict as a sacred war and a means of purifying previous sins, misconduct, and bad deeds committed before the wars. PM, an ex-field commander of the Christian militia group revealed, “For me, the Ambon war was a sacred war so that whoever killed (Muslims) will be rewarded a place in paradise by God.”7) PM also believed that the war was a medium for self-purification. For him, self-purification includes not only unworldly matters (e.g. repenting from sins) but also worldly matters such as changing from negative behavior to a positive one.

The findings of a survey I distributed to 50 ex-Ambonese Christian fighters also confirm Sahalessy’s comment. During my field research in Ambon and surrounding areas from 2010 to 2011, I administered a questionnaire to 100 former members of Moluccan/Ambonese militia groups: 50 ex-Christian fighters and 50 ex-Muslim jihadists. Christian respondents I surveyed were residents of Rumahtiga, Wailela (Ambon Island), Kudamati (Ambon city), Kariu, and Aboru (Haruku Island in the Central Maluku regency), all of which are the stronghold of Christians. I deliberately selected former combatants as my respondents partly because I wanted to hear from those directly engaged in the warfare. The questions were categorized into three main parts: (1) respondents’ educational, religious, political, and social backgrounds; (2) respondents’ motivations in getting involved in the wars and their perception of the Maluku carnage; and (3) respondents’ responses toward the future of Christian-Muslim relations in Maluku.

It is startling to discover that the majority (76 percent) of the respondents of the survey believed that the Ambon war was a religious war. As reflected in the survey findings, their primary motivations for engaging in the warfare were as follows: (1) to defend religion/Christianity and the Christian community (90.2 percent); (2) Jesus Christ had been humiliated (80.4 percent); (3) churches were destroyed (80.2 percent); (4) the Bible was burnt (70.5 percent); (5) Christian pastors/ministers had been murdered (64.7 percent); and (6) to guard Christian territory (82.4 percent). Moreover, about 98 percent of respondents rejected the war as an opportunity to gain new belongings and other Muslim properties. Interestingly, 94.1 percent of respondents admitted that prior to leaving for the battlefields, they had been “blessed” by local pastors or ministers, 86.3 percent sang the “Christ Soldier” song during the riots, and 80.4 percent brought along “Christian symbols” including a small Bible in their pockets, the crucifix, and the “Jewish flag” (Star of David) as an amulet on the battleground. It should be noted that for most Moluccan Christians, Jewish/Israelite identity is equivalent to Christian identity, thus it should not be surprising if they adopted Jewish symbols during the war.

My conversations and interviews with most ordinary ex-Christian fighters also confirm the survey findings, namely, that most of them portrayed the Maluku mayhem as a holy war. Indeed, throughout the communal conflict, they represented themselves as Abel while Muslims were portrayed as Cain. Moreover, even if Sahalessy’s remark that all Protestant leaders except him were involved in the conflict were an exaggeration—since there were in fact some Christian religious leaders who advocated peace from the outbreak of the violence—it is hard to deny the fact that most Protestant ministers were directly or indirectly involved in the warfare.

Hartford Seminary-trained Ambonese Protestant reverend and activist, Jacky Manuputty, whom I interviewed, also recognized the participation of Ambonese Christian leaders, either in the form of administering blessings and motivating combatants before they left for the battlefield, or by directly participating in the fighting. Jacky Manuputty admitted that, prior to his involvement in the peace and reconciliation process with the Baku Bae Movement and later with the interfaith group called “Peace Provocateurs,” he participated in the war as Christian communities were being attacked and their properties devastated. He even added, “Today’s Ambonese Protestant pastors might be ashamed to recognize their involvement in the previous wars. In fact, there were no Christian warriors who moved forward to the battleground without prayers and blessing from the priests and Church ministries. Indeed, they used to consider the Ambon conflict as a sacred war. The attacks of the Gambus Market in the first stage of conflict, for instance, were released with worship rituals in the Maranatha Church led by Rev. No Pattinaya. During the conflict, whoever acted as Moses would be respected by the Christians. They preferred to choose Moses as an ideal figure to Jesus.”8)

Indeed, there is no doubt that since the beginning of the conflict, Christian leaders and institutions were directly or indirectly involved in the warfare. One of the main Ambonese Protestant centers was in the fiercely religious Kudamati suburb, on a hill a few kilometers west of the Maranatha Church. Hundreds of Christian fighters were stationed at the home of Agus Wattimena, former civil servant, devout church activist, and supporter of a secular nationalist political party PDIP (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan). They could be instantly deployed to any trouble spot in Ambon and to neighborhoods where local fighters risked being overwhelmed. In addition to these main centers, the Protestants also built posko (centers for communication and gathering) at the village level under the auspices of local churches, jemaat (the smallest unit of Protestant congregation), majelis gereja (church ministries), and klasis (the unit of Protestant churches at the district level).

The Bankom (Bantuan Komunikasi, Communication Assistance), an Ambonese Protestant communication office at the Maranatha Church, and the posko at Kudamati were created to gather information about the conflict, identify victims of the wars, collect funds, and mobilize Christian fighters, especially youths and men. Kirsten Schulze (2002) estimates that over the three years of mass violence from 1999 to 2002, there existed about 25 Christian militia groups with roughly 100 to 200 members operating all over the island of Ambon. About 60 percent of these militia fighters were youths between 12 and 25 years old; a few were women. The young Christian fighters were referred to as Agas, a small mosquito with a nasty bite. Agas also stands for Anak Gereja Allah Sayang (Child Church God Love).9) Explicit in its name is the notion that the formation of Agas was regarded as a blessing from God. Agas was vital during the collective conflict and militia members were very often in the frontline during the attacks. Ronald Regang, an ex-Agas militia member who had fought since he was 10 years old, related at the Unicef Asia-Pacific meeting held in Yogyakarta, his brutal experiences of killing people (Muslims) and destroying their places of worship (mosques) and houses. When asked by a Unicef staff member why he committed violence and murdered Muslims, Regang replied, “Because that was a holy war, and I had already submitted myself to Jesus of the Christ.”10)

Boy warriors were an integral part of the Christian military force in Ambon. The Agas formed disciplined fighting units that were headed by adults and they were given specific assignments in battle. Herry Penturi, a 16-year-old Christian, was known as a small commander in the Agas due to his regular involvement in the fighting. Herry and his family were affiliated with the Bethabara Church community in Ambon. Although he was only 16, Herry was clever enough to make and detonate bombs. He claimed that his participation in the battle was to save the Christian community. His mother, Maria Penturi, always allowed him to leave for the battlefield because she believed that God had a plan for him. She explained, “If I do not permit him to go to the battlefield, then I am opposing God’s plan.” It is obvious that for Maria Penturi, God had given permission to commit acts of violence against Muslims.

In his study on Ambon’s child militias (pasukan cilik), both Christians and Muslims, Rizard Jemmy Talakua (2008) argues that religion was the strongest reason and motive for their involvement in the warfare. An ex-Agas member from Kudamati said, “Since the first days of the communal riots, my friends and I were involved in the combat zone to defend Christian communities, help Christian brethren, in the name of Jesus” (ibid., 37). Agas members, aged between 8 and 16 years old, mostly came from the crowded troubled areas of Kudamati, Batugantung, and Benteng. Talakua discussed not only Christian child soldiers but also Muslim child militias group called Linggis (“crowbar”). Interestingly, their engagement in the battlefield was also driven by “religious passion.” An ex-Linggis member from Air Kuning in Ambon town said, “We [Muslim child militias] were involved in the violence because of ukhuwah Islamiah [Muslim brotherhood], to aid and protect Muslim communities from Christian infidel attackers. We were not afraid of death since we defended God’s religion” (ibid., 37–38).

In addition to Agas, there were two famous Christian fighter groups linked to the Moluccan Protestant Church, based in Kudamati in the uplands of Ambon city. These were (1) the Kudaputih (“white horse”) under the leadership of Agus Wattimena, a member of the Rehoboth Church, who was depicted by The Economist (2001) as “a latter-day Jesus with his wiry frame and long flowing locks” and (2) the Coker, under the direction of Berty Loupatty (a member of the Emanuel Church at OSM in Ambon town). Agus Wattimena was a renowned Ambonese war commander who claimed to be the leader of approximately 20,000 Christian fighters across the Moluccas. Although the numbers could be exaggerated, he nevertheless played a primary role during the war. In an interview with The Age, Agus Wattimena stated, “Ambonese are traditionally strong fighters. If we are attacked, and the enemy is not strong, we counterattack. This is a real war. We have to protect ourselves” (cited in Murdoch 2000, 1). After the death of Agus Wattimena on March 22, 2001, the Kudaputih came under the headship of Emang Nikijuluw, Femmy Souissa, and Melkianus Tuhumury, in addition to Hendrik Wattimena, the son of Agus Wattimena.

The Coker originally stood for cowok keren (the handsome boys), a name given by its leader Berty Loupatty, a leader among Jakarta-based Ambonese street hoodlums. This group existed even before the communal conflict erupted. At first, the group consisted of dozens of unemployed youths, but they were soon joined by many Ambonese Christian young men. Coker members stood out during the conflict due to their fighting capacity and their bravery in the face of Muslim fighters. An Ambonese Protestant priest described the Coker as “a group of Christian fighters who were willing to die (pasukan berani mati) in the battlefield against Muslim jihadists and rioters, and were always in the forefront in each act of violence.”11) The Coker gained fame as the vanguard of Christian communities and territories. Headquartered in Kudamati, members of the Coker fought in many areas in Ambon and surrounding areas where Christian-Muslim communal violence took place. My Christian informants told me that whenever and wherever Christians needed help to fend off attacks from Muslim jihadists, the Coker would send its fighters. For this reason, Ambonese Muslims called the Coker cowok Kristen (the Christian boys) and not cowok keren (the handsome ones).

It is imperative to note that the Kudamati Christian militia groups were also supported by local churches (such as Gereja Sinar, Gereja Paulus, Gereja Rehoboth, Gereja Christy, and Gereja Natalia), jemaat (the smallest unit of Protestant group), and klasis, the Protestant congregation of Ambon city. Protestant ministers who were in charge at Kudamati during the conflict included Rev. Simon Maskikit, Rev. O. J. Tetelepta, Rev. N. Pattinaja, and Rev. N. Latuihamallo. During the period of conflict, their jobs included first, leading ritual ceremonies for the Christian militias before they left for the combat zone and second, delivering religious sermons and motivating the militias by quoting verses from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, that justified their actions. Verses from the Old Testament about David’s struggle against Goliath were applied, in particular, to provide a theological explanation of the war. Christian militias associated themselves with David as a symbol of truth and goodness, while Muslims were portrayed as Goliath, symbolizing wickedness and immorality.

The third role of the Protestant ministers during the conflict was blessing the weapons to be used in the wars. These included tombak (spear), parang (blade), panah (arrow), senapan (guns), senjata rakitan (homemade guns), peluru (bullets), granat (grenades), and bom ikan (dynamite). The ammunition was placed in a particular spot or altar in a church, and the ministers would anoint it by using blessed water. After anointing the weapons, the church ministers, wearing clerical suites, prayed to God and asked Him to protect “His sons” in the battlefield and give them triumph over “God’s enemies,” that is, Muslim jihadists. After the ritual ceremonies were over, the Christian warriors then took the weapons and left for the combat zone.

Besides these groups, each Christian village across Moluccan Islands also had the Laskar Kristus (“Army of Christ”) or Laskar Kristen (Christian militias), which were responsible for protecting their regions and attacking Muslim rioters.12) The Laskar Kristus, which was primarily if not entirely Protestant, was mainly coordinated by local churches and the klasis (the Protestant Church unit at the district level). Officially and institutionally, sinode (a Protestant congregation at the provincial level named the Protestant Moluccan Church Synod or the GPM Synod for short) did not give a direct command to Christian communities to take part in the warfare, but the Synod did not prohibit Ambonese Christians from engaging in the wars either. The Synod was unable to ban Christian fighters since many pastors, ministries, and church officials were also involved in the fighting.13)

The Laskar Kristus or Laskar Kristen existed before the arrival of the Laskar Jihad in May 2000. University of Indonesia sociologist Thamrin Amal Tomagola, a native of North Maluku, even argued that the Laskar Kristus existed before the January 19, 1999 incident. But the group gained its fame after the arrival of Java-based Islamist paramilitary groups. The village-based Christian fighter groups were also called akar rumput (the grassroots). It is unclear who named the Christian militias Laskar Kristus, but it indicates that the Maluku conflict was seen as a holy war. The above Christian fighter groups were formed at the beginning of the conflict and gained momentum with the destruction of Ambon’s old Silo church by Muslims.

On November 22, 2001, a Jakarta-based national newspaper Tabloid Adil reported on the Laskar Kristus from the Ambon-based Petra Church. After witnessing a series of bloody religious communal conflicts in Ambon, the Petra Church organized the Maluku Prayer Movement (Gerakan Maluku Berdoa or GMB) as part of the Church community’s response to guarantee the safety of people in Maluku. On Friday, November 9, 2001, religious services of GMB included the baptizing of a Laskar Kristus member. The minister delivered a sermon entitled “To Become a Model of Faith, You Should Be Loyal Unto Death” (Menjadi Pahlawan Iman, Hendaklah Engkau Setia Sampai Mati). One of the self-acknowledged members of the Laskar Kristus warriors was 15-year-old Roy Pontoh (see Sukidi 2003). When he died in the village of Hila in Leihitu Peninsula, Ambon Island on January 20, 1999, just a day after the initial outbreak in Ambon City, his last statement was “I am Laskar Kristus.” It is believed that Pontoh’s death made him a martyr of Christ. On August 13, 2000, clergyman Timotius Arifin delivered a similar story at the church’s founding anniversary, recounting how a martyr of Christ in Ambon also proclaimed: “Beta Laskar Kristus (I am Laskar Kristus)!”

However, it should be noted that, unlike the Laskar Jihad, the Laskar Kristus did not receive special training. In the words of Ongky Siahaya, a grassroots field commander in the region of Talake, near UKIM (Universitas Kristen Indonesia Maluku, the Protestant Church’s main university in Ambon city), “we prayed first and then there were only two options—kill or to be killed.”14) Whereas Muslims had access to modern guns from Pindad (Perusahaan Industri Angkatan Darat, the army’s industrial arm), as well as support from Java-based holy war militias, particularly the Laskar Jihad, and some elements in TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the Indonesian military forces) (Schulze 2002, 63), the Christian militias mainly used traditional arms such as knives, machetes, poisoned arrows, homemade guns, and a few automatic weapons, either acquired from deserted police stations or smuggled in from Kupang, Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT). Some Ambonese Christians were experts in the making of guns. They included Thom Pelmelay, who was widely known as the “professor” due to his expertise in making bombs. The bombs were then distributed to Christian fighters across Ambon and Maluku. In general, however, Ambonese Christians were painfully aware that they were technologically disadvantaged, with limited finances and difficulties in obtaining arms and ammunition. As a result, many Christian fighters were killed during the wars of 1999–2002.

Christian fighters did not receive financial support from the GPM Synod to purchase guns and ammunitions. As a result, Christian individuals voluntarily conducted fundraisings through Christian networks and communal ties, not only throughout Ambon and Maluku but also in Java. Some funds were collected through family ties of Ambonese Christians who had settled in the Netherlands since the time of KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indies Army) in the 1950s, while other funds were distributed through FKKM (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Maluku, Forum for Communications of Moluccan Christians), chaired by Jan Nanere, the former rector of Pattimura University, and Yunus Tipka, a member of the regional parliament from PDKB (Partai Demokrasi Kasih Bangsa, a Protestant-affiliated political party) and his secretary.15) The grassroots (the Laskar Kristus) agenda, some ex-Christian fighters have claimed, was defending Christian faith, territories, and communities, and was never a voice for separatism as Muslims or the central government widely assumed.

Since Ambonese Christian warriors saw the Maluku conflict as a sacred war, performing religious songs was a feature of the battleground. On January 20, 1999, a large group of Christian warriors left the Rehoboth Church in Ambon City, repeatedly singing the following:

We don’t want to go back (three times)
We had won with the Blood of Christ
We had won with His blood.

Furthermore, the Christian fighters—both the ordinary flock and church elites—moved forward while the church choir solemnly sang “Maju Laskar Kristus” (Onward Christian Soldiers) to the accompaniment of trumpets. The song was taken from the Dua Sahabat Lama No. 339, a book, written in Ambonese-Malay language, containing a collection of religious songs authored by C. Ch. J. Schreuder and I. J. M. Tupamahu. This book was translated into Bahasa Indonesia and had spread throughout Ambon and surrounding islands. Ambonese Christians, particularly the warriors, used this song as a march of war. During the conflict, the song was used to galvanize troops. A Christian woman in Waai in Ambon Island told me, “When we were attacked or engaged in the war, we, along with other Christian women, sang that song [Onward, Christian Soldier] while beating dustpans to awaken enthusiasm for fighting. By singing this song, we felt we were getting a ‘new spirit’ and courage in the face of enemies [Muslim jihadists]” (Patty 2006, 33).

Early one morning at around 4:30 a.m. in December 2000, a group of about 40 Christian young men from the neighborhood of Batumeja Dalam in Ambon city walked down Pattimura Street in town, brandishing long knives (parang) and spears, and singing the Indonesian version of Onward, Christian Soldiers. In front of them walked a young female, a then unemployed Protestant minister in the official black vestment, carrying a “Moses’ stick” that “she had found in the woods.” She claimed to have been inspired by a dream that she had. The procession walked up to the A. J. Patty Street, just inside the Muslim quarters, then marched down Ambon’s business center toward the Al-Fatah Mosque. The military had no choice but to shoot at them (Bohm 2005, 113). In addition to the song Onward, Christian Soldiers, slogans such as “I Love Jesus” (Beta Cinta Yesus) or “Jesus is Victorious” (Yesus Raya) were also used by the Christian warriors to boost the war mentality.

Protestant priests and church ministries played a central role during the communal conflict. They served not only as a channel to distribute information about the development of the violence received from other Christian centers to the local Christian communities and fighters, but also led ritual ceremonies before the fighters went to the combat zone, blessed combatants, and conducted Sunday sermons to motivate the Laskar Kristus and Christians attending the church. Sermons (khotbah Minggu) delivered often revolved around the theme of Israel’s struggle to occupy the Land of Canaan in the times of King David and Solomon, as stated in the Old Testament. Ambonese Christians depicted themselves as part of the tribes of Israel and portrayed the Land of Ambon as the Land of Canaan, whereas Muslims were represented as Goliath conquering and taking over Ambon, which they saw as belonging to their ancestors.

Verses in the Bible about the Israelites who entered the Land of Canaan and were ordered by God to drive out the Amalek (later known as the “Theology of Amalek”) were used by some pastors and church leaders to justify the wars against the Muslims (e.g. Joshua 1, 1–10). This “religious duty” is set forth in the verse, “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17, 16). Thus, if any people seek to destroy us, declared some Christian leaders, we are commanded to do battle against them, and this battle of ours, on the basis of that verse, is an obligatory war. For Christian fighters, in the context of Maluku, the Muslims were considered as the destroyers of their land. Amalek, a descendent of Esau, was not only the ancestor of those who attacked Israel in the wilderness but also, by rabbinic reckoning based on I Samuel 15: 8 and Esther 3: I, the ancestor of Hamman in the Esther story. In Rabbinic literature, Amalek thus becomes a cipher for evil in the world, the arch enemy of Israel and, by implication, of God. Some Christian informants told me that certain priests justified going to war by citing the following verse from the Old Testament: “We are obliged to defend and preserve the life which God has given to us, and if there are people who want to destroy the life, we need to guard it, even through the wars.”

Over the course of the conflict, local pastors, church ministries, and officials were responsible for choosing certain Biblical verses and religious texts for the Sunday sermons and other religious services, based on the socio-political context and adapting to developments. Generally pastors and church ministries selected popular Biblical verses in the Old Testament revolving around violence and the struggle of the Israelites against their enemies, from the Books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel (I, II), Kings (I, II), and Psalm. During the conflict, ordinary Protestants also recited these verses. Whenever they went to other places or to the battleground, they carried a small Bible in their pocket for self-protection, making it easier to recite selected verses and stoke the spirit of war (see Patty 2006).

Common verses in the Bible which the Christian fighters “ritualized” during the war included (1) tales of the Jews freed from the Egyptian nation (Exodus 1–19); (2) stories of war between the Jewish tribes and other peoples, and stories related to the rules of war (e.g. Deuteronomy 3, 7–9, 11, and 20); (3) accounts of how the Israelites fought with other peoples before entering the Land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua (Joshua 1: 1–11); (4) Jewish narratives of fighting against the people of Moab, Amori, Midian, Edom, Amon, and Amalek under the headship of Israeli Judges (Judges 1–15); and (5) accounts of Israeli tribes against the nation of the Philistines under the command of Israeli kings, especially Saul and David (e.g. I Sam 7; 17, 40–54; I Kings 18, 20–46).

Regardless which verses were cited by the pastors and church elites (majelis jemaat), one thing is clear: they used the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to seek a theological foundation or to legitimize acts of violence or, in their terms, wars of “self-defense.” Many Ambonese Christians, as Rev. I. J. W. Hendriks has remarked, associated themselves with the suffering Israelites (the Bangsa Israel Alkitab); consequently they needed to fight against Muslims to gain victory and freedom from suffering. What is more, Ambonese Christians imagined themselves as the Israelites, so if the Israelites had fought against the people of the Philistines, Amalek, Egypt, and so forth, Ambonese Christians had to battle against Muslims whom they saw, at the time, as a representation of the foes of the Israeli people. Ambonese Christians believed that God would be on their side during these difficult times and would let them triumph as He had led the Israelis to victory.

In addition, they were convinced that God would protect them from the Muslim enemies as He had helped and protected the Israelis (e.g. Deuteronomy 20, 1–4; Psalm 3, 11, 23, 27). In other words, God was portrayed as the hero, helper, and guardian of the Ambonese Christians. Ambonese Christians claimed, furthermore, that they were part of the umat perjanjian (“the covenant people”), that is, present-day Israeli tribes, the chosen people and God’s heroes, and that the Land of Maluku was the Land of Canaan granted by God to their forerunners—the Alifuruese. Just as God had made a covenant with the Israelis, the same God had “made a contract” with the Ambonese since they became the followers of Jesus and received the Gospel. Since the Ambonese Christians believed that the Ambon war was a sacred duty granted by God, throughout the conflict, they—especially the Christian fighters—purified themselves by actively conducting ritual practices, religious sermons and services, reading the Bible, following the rules of war, and avoiding wrongdoings as instructed by the Holy Book (e.g. Deuteronomy 20, 1–20).

According to the Christian fighters, as confirmed by my survey findings, the rules of war they practiced during the conflict included: a ban on initiating attack, plundering, mocking or ridiculing the other, torturing the enemy, and so on. In addition, the Christian fighters were prohibited from conflict with their wives or parents before going to battle, from mentioning the name of Jesus in improper places, from insulting other religions, and from transgressing the Ten Commandments of the Torah. All these were considered “taboos of war” that would contaminate the mission of holy war against the Muslims.

Why did Ambonese Christians use the Old Testament and not the New Testament as Biblical justification? Why did they prefer David to Jesus in the time of conflict? The answer is because the New Testament, my Christian Ambonese informants said, teaches peace not violence, love not hate, and brotherhood not conflict, while the Old Testament contains heroic stories of warfare. Whereas Jesus taught his followers and pupils to “love their enemies,” David went to the battlefield against Goliath. An ex-Ambonese Christian fighter told me that during the time of conflict, the verses he recited every Sunday were those of the Old Testament, particularly the gloomy and heroic stories of the Israeli people and kings of the Israelites (Saul, David, and Solomon), which were regarded as fitting for the Ambon socio-political setting.

Concluding Remarks: Bringing Religion Back In

The analysis above suggests that religion did matter during the Maluku conflict. Christian leaders and the masses (and their Muslim counterparts) who were involved in the fighting used religion as a source and legitimation of violence, and they considered the war as a sacred one, rewarded by a place in paradise for those who joined the battle. While Muslims considered death on the battlefield as mati syahid (martyrdom) and an honorable act, Christians believed that death in war is a symbol of sinfulness and dishonor on the part of the deceased. They were convinced that Christian fighters who died in the combat zone were killed mainly because they had committed bad deeds or had transgressed the rules of (holy) war such as the ban on theft, mocking, or adultery, which they considered to be taboos. For Ambonese Christians, salvation is equal to living. Survivors of the battlefield were deemed as not having committed any wrongdoings nor transgression of any taboos.

Moreover, in the concept of Charismatic Christian theology, the war was perceived as a process of selection for Christians, a sort of “survival of the fittest.” Those who survived the war were regarded as the “chosen people,” while death was a natural consequence for those who had engaged in unlawful activity during wartime. This conception differs significantly from the Moluccan Muslims, who consider both death and survival as part of the holy jihad, as long as they followed the “Islamic rules of war.”

It is interesting to note that during the war, some Christian Charismatic groups in Ambon city built a minaret of prayer (menara doa) on the highest floors of hotels or other buildings, on the assumption that prayers from the highest spot would be heard and answered by God. The founding of the minaret of prayer was in part a reaction to Muslim attacks. They attributed their defeat to (1) the lack of prayer on the part of Christians, and (2) their Christianity being not pristine enough such that they needed purification. In order to be victorious over Muslims, Ambonese Christians should become “true Christians” by practicing norms and values taught by the Bible. This is, among other reasons, the root causes of the growth of Charismatic Christianity in Maluku, which came to challenge the mainstream Moluccan Protestant Church congregation.

Although I do not agree entirely with statements put forth by one of the Christian militia commanders Agus Watimena (as well as by the main ideologue of Laskar Jihad Rustam Kastor), purporting that the Maluku violence was a “truly religious war” (Rustam 2000; ICG 2000a; 2000b), neither should we dismiss the religious justifications of violence by those involved in the conflict as evidence of “false consciousness” or “public falsehood” (Goss 2004). In brief, violence in God’s name is not simply a spurious cover for grievance or greed (see e.g. McTernan 2003).

Religion plays an important role in communal conflict because, as Scott Appleby (2000, 4; cf. Gaylin 2003) has noted, “its confessional loyalty translates into clearly defined and durable community and its model of faith counters rational calculation and enlightened self-interest, cultivates a righteous sense of persecution, and provokes passion against evil that fuels the excesses of group hatred.” Although religions are indeed manufactured or invented within particular historical and political contexts, Appleby (2000, 57–61) has argued, “[religions] are represented as fundamental truths, providing some security in times of uncertainty, and countering the challenges of relativism and secularism of late modernity.”

This is precisely what religious radical groups (both Christian and Muslim) had presented in Maluku. Moluccan and Ambonese societies have for centuries been defined in terms of religious adherence (see, for instance, Aritonang and Steenbrink 2008; Chauvel 1980; 1990). Even in urban Ambon, the geographical and social inter-mixing of populations is limited such that the religious “other” is easily discriminated against. The historical origins and experiences of religious communities are distinct, and a contemporary and current conflict could be presented as continuous with an older conflict, as well as with a modern struggle on a global scale (see Goss 2004).

World religions, particularly Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as other faiths, also possess a stock of material metaphors and military imagery, and promise reward for violent sacrifice. The concept of some transcendent authority—the will of God—translates into the absolute authority of church officials and religious myths of election (e.g. the concept of the “chosen and blessed people” for the Christians or the “best religious community of believers” for the Muslims). This provides a powerful alternative to the delusional formation of paranoia, transforming victimhood into vengeful action (Gaylin 2003, 115; Smith 1999). This is among the reasons why doers of violence, the “religious extremists,” rarely or never regret their violent acts.

Religion has the potential to translate secular differences between an “us and them,” the known and the unfamiliar, to the cosmic plane and thus into a moral struggle between amorphous forces of order versus chaos, good versus evil, for which the ultimate sacrifice—murder or martyrdom—is possible (Juergensmeyer 1992, 114; cf. 2003). If public statements by top leaders of Christian communities were more tolerant on the whole, the churches distributed exaggerated images of their victimization, as evidenced in their sophisticated web presence through sites such as Ambon Berdarah Online (Bloody Ambon Online), Masariku Networks, and Crisis Center of the Diocese of Ambon (Brauchler 2003). Lay leaders, moreover, promoted increasingly fundamentalist radical interpretations of the conflict, especially after the arrival of the Laskar Jihad and an increase in Christian losses.

Furthermore, religion did matter during the Maluku conflict since it provided a more powerful and effective force for mobilization than other forms of collective identity. This is because religion is “not only strongly linked to a sense of self, but also provides a far-reaching and uplifting ideology, powerful institutional structures and an enduring and clear-cut definition of an ‘other’” (Wilson 2008, 148). Militias that take part in religious violence, unsurprisingly, often emerge to be driven by religious zeal. As described above, the mobilization of the militias in Maluku’s sectarian conflict was full of religious symbolism. Religious institutions became a main conduit for mobilizing people to commit violence in the name of faith and God. These institutions, moreover, exercised vast emotional influence over adherents of Christianity (also Islam), and provided social meeting places, communication networks, and pools of resources.

Last but not least, religion provides the concept of a “sacred territory” and a set of ready material and symbolic targets whose desacralization provokes intense feelings. Accordingly, during the Maluku turmoil, mosques and churches were desecrated and destroyed, sacred texts and beliefs were ridiculed, prophets were slandered, and other symbols of faiths violated. For instance, the Laskar Kristus gained significant momentum after the destruction of the old Silo church in 1999, while Muslim villagers from Leihitu Peninsula turned on their Christian neighbors early in the conflict in Ambon, in retaliation for rumors of the violation of the great Al-Fatah mosque. To conclude, while religion was never an autonomous cause of conflict, ignoring its role completely would preclude a proper understanding of much of the violence in Ambon city and Maluku more generally.

Accepted: January 8, 2015


I would like to thank anonymous reviewers and the editorial board of this journal for their valuable comments on the previous draft. As always, my thanks also go to my mentors and teachers, particularly Robert W. Hefner and Augustus Richard Norton at Boston University, and Scott Appleby at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, United States. Thanks are also due to the National Science Foundation (United States) and Boston University’s Graduate Research Abroad Fellowship for providing research grants that enabled me to conduct fieldwork in Maluku from 2010 to 2011. My gratitude also goes to the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which provided generous research fellowships (2012–14) that enabled me to write this manuscript, and to the Department of General Studies at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, which enabled me to complete this article. Lastly, I want to express my deepest thanks to my Ambonese and Moluccan Christian friends, acquaintances, and informants, especially Rev. Elifas Tomix Maspaitella and Rev. Jacky Manuputty, who were willing to share their stories, thoughts, joys, and feelings with me during my research and fieldwork in Maluku. Any remaining faults are of course mine.


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―. 2000b. Indonesia’s Maluku Crisis. Asia Briefing, No. 2, July 19.

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1) Examples of Christian-Muslim tensions during and after the fall of the New Order are: (1) the destruction of churches on October 10, 1996, in Situbondo, East Java; (2) the fight between Protestants and Muslims in Ketapang, Central Jakarta on November 22, 1998, resulting in 14 persons killed and 27 Christian buildings damaged; and (3) anti-Muslim riots that destroyed at least 15 mosques in mostly Christian Kupang in East Indonesia on November 30, 1998 (see, e.g., Sidel 2006).

2) Compare their studies to Colombijn and Lindblad (2002). Although the contributors of this volume do not speak in one voice, they offer a more nuanced perspective on the violent conflicts, pointing out that the “cultures of violence” in Indonesia reach far back into the country’s socio-political history.

3) This focus certainly differs from studies of the Maluku conflict, which stress the central role of Jakarta-based civilian and military elites, Suharto’s cronies, “foreign provocateurs,” or Java-based Laskar Jihad and other paramilitary groups, with a few notable exceptions such as the fine studies of Gerry van Klinken (2001; 2007) or those of Jeroen Adam (2009; 2010).

4) It is interesting to note that despite the fact that local actors, masses, and unions have participated actively in the post-Suharto collective conflicts, including the Maluku warfare, their role has been largely neglected in analyses and studies on the communal violence.

5) Interview with Rev. John Sahalessy, Ambon, August 14, 2010.

6) Interview with ML in Ambon, September 2, 2010. Since there was a plurality of actors and motives during the conflict, it is hard to arrive at a generalization whether religious identity had played a central role in the conflict or did it only provide the symbolism and ideological conviction for those involved in the campaign to achieve more worldly goals. It is vital to recognize that just as there were some who were motivated by “worldly orientations” in their involvement in the conflict (cf. Adam 2009; 2010), there were also others who were driven by “religious passion” and “unworldly goals” in their engagement.

7) Interview with PM, Ambon, August 10, 2010.

8) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 1, 2010.

9) Muslims also used young fighters or child militias known as linggis (“crowbar”) because in every riot, these child soldiers would use a crowbar to uproot and destroy targeted buildings—houses, shops, churches, etc.—before plundering and burning them.

10) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 5, 2010. Jacky later adopted Ronald Regang and transformed him into a peace-maker and a peace ambassador for Maluku in international forums.

11) Interview with AL, Ambon, April 26, 2010.

12) Information on the Laskar Kristus can be found, for instance, in the Presidential Decree (Keputusan Presiden No. 38/2002) in the section Pembentukan Tim Penyelidik Independen Nasional untuk Konflik Maluku (Establishment of the National Independent Investigation Team for the Maluku Conflict). Headed by I Wayan Karya, the team was mandated to investigate (1) the incident of January 19, 1999, (2) Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS), the South Moluccan Republic, (3) the Christian RMS, (4) Laskar Jihad, (5) Laskar Kristus, and (6) coercive religious conversion and human rights violations.

13) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 1, 2010.

14) Interview with Yongky Siahaya, Ambon, June 12, 2010.

15) Founded in 2000, FKKM was part of the networks of FKKJ (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Jakarta, a Jakarta-based Christian forum) and FKKS (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Surabaya, a Surabaya-based Christian forum led by Paul Tahalele), which had existed long before the Ambon conflict. The FKKM’s goals, Yunus Tipka said, were (1) to help Christians who had become victims of the Maluku conflict by providing medical assistance or food supplies; (2) to help Christian fighters find guns and ammunitions; and (3) to link Moluccan Christians with non-Maluku Christian communities.


Vol. 1, No. 3, Tatsuki KATAOKA

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Tai Buddhist Practices in Dehong Prefecture, Yunnan, China

Religion as Non-religion: The Place of Chinese Temples in Phuket, Southern Thailand

Tatsuki Kataoka*

* 片岡 樹, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, 46 Shimoadachi- cho, Yoshida Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8501, Japan

e-mail: kataoka[at]

This paper, based on a case study of Chinese temples in Phuket, aims to demonstrate the importance of religious activities lying outside “religion” in the so-called “Buddhist” societies in Thailand, as well as to question the category of “religion” itself.

In Thailand, most of the Chinese temples (called sanchao in Thai) are not recognized as “religious places” by the religious administration (namely the Department of Religious Affairs), since they come under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior. In Phuket, Chinese temples as “non-religious” places (of worship?) outnumber officially recognized Buddhist temples and they offer occasions for the worship of Buddhist deities. One of the unique features of the “Buddhist” activities of the Chinese temples in Phuket is that they are conducted without monks. Because the Chinese temples are placed outside the state protection of “religion,” they are not institutionalized as belonging to any state-approved religion. This is beneficial to the Chinese temples as they do not have to compete with “state Buddhism”; in such temples indiscriminate syncretic worship is also latently sanctioned. In Phuket the functions of Chinese associations and charity foundations overlap with those of the Chinese temples, challenging the definition of religion in yet another way. Our discussion leads us to conclude that all these activities lying outside of “religion” actually occupy an important part of “Buddhism” in Thailand. Thus a reconsideration of the framework of “Buddhism” and “religion” in Thailand is necessary.

Keywords: Thailand, Chinese, Chinese temples, Buddhism, religion, Phuket

I Introduction

This paper aims to reconsider discussions on “Thai Buddhism” from its margins—from the perspective of Chinese temples. One of my motivations for presenting this paper is the existing debate on Thai Buddhism and Chinese societies in Thailand. There is a well-established model for approaching Thai Buddhism—one that stresses the importance of the Sangha and how Buddhist society maintains its equilibrium through the merit-oriented practices of laypeople, which supplement the nirvana-oriented orthodoxy by monks (Ishii 1986). This model is very clear and consistent.

Of course, Sangha-centered Buddhism officially supported by the government is only one part of real Buddhism in Thailand, and ritual practices related to spirit worship are well documented and repeatedly discussed.1) In my paper I extend this trend of academic attention to the margins of Buddhism, to question the very categories of Buddhism and religion. I refer to Chinese temples, which are supposed to form a large part of the religious activities of statistical Buddhists in Thailand, but which are not seriously argued.

Buddhism in Thailand is always presented as if it were a cultural tradition of the Thai, or even a synonym.2) In actual fact, the composition of “Buddhist society” is far more complex and the Theravada school is but one of the religious traditions that appear as Buddhism in statistics. The Chinese of Thailand form an inseparable part of this complexity, but unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, discussions on the Chinese and their culture in Thailand seem to have paid little attention to this issue—Buddhism as viewed from the Chinese perspective.3)

In this paper I will first review the development of the modern category of religion and government policies toward it, and show that Chinese temples have not been included in this system. Then I will turn my attention to the findings from my case study in Phuket, one of the regional cities that have been developed mainly by Chinese immigrants. An overview of the current situation of Chinese temples in Phuket will be presented before further discussions on the status of Chinese temples and related activities as “religion-as-non-religion.” I will proceed to connect arguments on the anonymous nature of “Chinese Religion” to the unique allocation of religious discourse in Thailand, and demonstrate that it is this combination that leaves Chinese temples in Thailand in the domain of “non-religion.” Finally I will show the possibilities for further comparative studies of religions in Thailand in order to rethink the conventional understanding of religion in Southeast Asia.

II “Religion,” Buddhism, and Chinese Temples

The Making of Religion
Prior to the administrative reform in the last half of the nineteenth century, the term satsana, which denotes religion in the present sense, was a synonym of Buddhism. Kings enjoyed the title of “the Supreme Defender of Satsana,” with satsana denoting Buddhism exclusively in this context. As in other Asian countries, “religion” as a neutral term of comparative religion is a relatively recent invention in Thailand. Furthermore, a feature of Buddhism in pre-modern Thailand was the absence of nationwide monastic institutions. The vast majority of the land was dominated by semi-independent local crowns, and the King’s direct rule was limited to royal temples around the capital. This situation changed dramatically after the Sangha Administration Act was introduced in 1902. This act brought about present-day Thai Buddhism as a uniform institution, which Ishii calls “State Buddhism” (1986, 59). It officialized and standardized a set of regulations on the doctrine taught in monasteries, as well as the status of ordained monks, and organized these monasteries and monks into a single bureaucratic pyramid officially sanctioned by the central government.

Extension of the coverage of the term satsana took place alongside the modernization of Theravada Buddhism. One of the first turning points was the “Edict of Religious Toleration” issued by King Chulalongkorn in 1878 (Wells 1958, 59–64). This royal edict was targeted at the evangelical works of Christian missionaries in Chiang Mai, the northern capital of present-day Thailand. This edict referred to Christianity as “Satsana Phra Yesu” or “Satsana of Jesus,” and manifestly stated that one’s satsana was a matter of freedom of faith (Prasit 1984, 169).

King Vajiravudh, the successor to Chulalongkorn who governed the kingdom in the early twentieth century, established and propagated the state ideology: “chat, satsana, phramahakasat” (nation, religion, monarchy). In this context satsana is Buddhism as the de facto state religion. According to Vella, this propagation of Buddhism was based on the king’s assumption that the Thai people have historically selected Buddhism among religions of essentially equal standing: “Time after time the King pointed out the basic similarities of all religions. All religions taught their adherents a similar moral code; they taught men to do good, not to harm others” (Vella 1978, 220–221). For this young monarch, educated in England, Western-style religious pluralism was already a self-evident truth.

After the constitutional revolution in 1932, the king’s title as “the Supreme Defender of Satsana” persisted with the introduction of the idea of “freedom of satsana” or “freedom of religion.” These contradict each other so far as satsana is defined as Buddhism. The usage of satsana to denote religion in general can be traced to this period. The phrase “protection of satsana” in the constitution was translated in English as “protection of all religions professed by the Siamese people,” and thus was established the system in which religions enjoyed equal status under royal patronage. “[I]n this light, the semantic expansion of satsana is probably best understood as an accommodation of the traditional values to the context of Western, European democracy” (Ishii 1986, 39).

In 1941, a Department of Religious Affairs (Krom Kansatsana) was created under the Ministry of Education to supervise all religions recognized by the state or all religions under royal patronage. It replaced the Krom Thammakan, which had formerly superintended violation of the Buddhist precepts by monks (Sutthiwong 2001).4) In 2002, it was transferred to the newly created Ministry of Culture, while some of its functions relating to the administration of Buddhism were carved off for the equally new National Office of Buddhism. Religious organizations officially registered with the Department include Islam, Christianity (Catholic and Protestant as separate categories), Brahmanism, Hindu, and Sikh, as well as Buddhism. As for Buddhism, the Thai Sangha (Theravada) and two Mahayana sects (“Chinese” Chin Nikai and “Vietnamese” Annam Nikai, though both are actually Chinese) are listed in the religious statistics of the government (Thailand, Krom Kansatsana 1998).

This brief summary of the development of religious administration in Thailand shows that the traditional model of state administration for Buddhism has been extended to cover other religions as satsana has been redefined as a general term for religions. The consequence of this development is the concentration of the state’s interests in the registration and control of ordained religious professionals and their facilities. Laypeople are left out of the scope of the religious administration, and the minimum requirement for laypeople is simply to select one religion on their ID cards. In addition, such self- declaration of one’s religion does not require details of one’s affiliation or allegiance to any sect or denomination. In other words, the exact number of Theravada and Mahayana lay followers among Buddhists is not known. It is also worth noting that Confucianism and Taoism are not listed among the officially recognized religions. The only choice offered by the state to the Chinese (with the exception of small numbers of Christians and Muslims) is Buddhism.

Chinese Temples and the Thai State
Where, then, is the place for Chinese temples within these officially recognized religious categories? The answer is that there is no place for them since Chinese temples register with the Ministry of the Interior, not the Department of Religious Affairs under the Ministry of Education (after 2002, the Ministry of Culture). The Chinese temple that I refer to in this paper is an English translation of sanchao Chin, which is strictly distinguished from ordinary Buddhist temples called wat. The Chinese temple must seek legitimacy on grounds other than the religious administration.

Legally speaking, government control of Chinese temples is based on an order issued by the Ministry of the Interior in 1920. This order was originally aimed at supplementing the shortcomings of the Local Administration Act (1913), especially Article 113 on the protection of property rights of public places for merit-making (kusonsathan). Article 2 of the ministry’s order defines sanchao (Chinese temples and other shrines) as “places to have objects of worship and used for rituals according to doctrines (latthi) of the Chinese and other people.” The Department of Local Administration has the duty of supervising Chinese temples listed in the Directory of Chinese Temples in the Kingdom published by the department (Thailand, Krom Kanpokkhrong 2000).

A comparative study of Chinese temples of Bangkok and Singapore by Pornpan and Mak (1994) presents unique data of the historical development of Chinese religions in Thailand. According to this study, the number of Chinese Buddhist temples in Bangkok is smaller than in Singapore. The authors suppose that this is because Buddhism is much better established and flourishing in Bangkok than it is in Singapore—Theravada monasteries were so scattered over the kingdom that the lack of Mahayana temples would cause no serious problem for Chinese immigrants.

Scholars have long agreed that the cultural distance between Chinese immigrants and host majorities is remarkably small in Thailand in the sense that both parties are more or less Buddhists in a broad sense. The case of Chinese immigrants who show no hesitation in claiming themselves to be Buddhists has been reported in many academic writings on Chinese in Thailand: “[O]bservers are impressed not so much by differences as religious similarities between the Thai and the Chinese minority,” and “unlike the situation with respect to the Chinese in other countries of Southeast Asia, in Thailand religion does offer one base on which cultural compromise is being achieved” (Coughlin 1960, 92). Some Chinese folk traditions even contributed to such cultural compromise. As Skinner (1957, 129) points out, San Pao Kong (Sanbaogong 三保公), one of the popular Chinese deities, has another name Cheng Ho (Zheng He 鄭和, a leader of Ming China’s maritime expedition), while his name also symbolizes the three essentials of Buddhist teaching, San Pao 三寶 (Three Treasures), since these two terms share the same pronunciation. That cultural compromise between Chinese immigrants and the host Thai Buddhists was easily achieved partly explains the delayed introduction of Chinese Mahayana monasteries to Thailand, since Chinese temples of folk religion and Theravada monasteries filled the religious needs of the Chinese Buddhists.

In Bangkok, the first Chinese temple established in 1786 was dedicated to Pun Thao Kong 本頭公, a deity of locality worshipped in Southeast Asia (Pornpan and Mak 1994, 28–29, 137). All the Chinese temples built in the first half of the nineteenth century were temples of Taoism or local folk beliefs, while Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples were introduced much later. The first Chinese Mahayana temple of Thailand was established in 1887 (ibid., 29). Actually, only four Mahayana temples5) in Bangkok were built before 1915 (ibid., 140). All these facts indicate that Mahayana Buddhist temples were an absolute minority among the Chinese temples at the time of the legislation of the Sangha Act (1902) and the Interior Ministry’s order (1920).

Another factor behind the legal status of Chinese temples is the government’s policy towards Chinese immigrants. As Nipaporn (2012) argues, Chinese immigrants’ activities in the public sphere were almost neglected by the Bangkok government in the initial period of modernization (late nineteenth to early twentieth century). Most of the infrastructure of public welfare for the Chinese settlements was initiated and provided by associations of speech groups (or coalitions of them), not the royal government, on a self-supporting basis (ibid.). Such welfare organizations have a tendency to overlap with Chinese temples. For example, the Cantonese Temple and Cantonese Hospital of Bangkok are located in the same compound as the Cantonese Association. Tianhua Hospital 天華醫院, which was jointly founded by five speech groups (Swatou, Canton, Hokkian, Hakka, and Hailam) in 1905, has a large Kuan Im 觀音 temple in its center. Po Tek Tung or Baode Shantang 報徳善堂, founded in 1910, is the largest philanthropic association in the kingdom as well as a temple for the worship of Dafeng Zushi 大峰祖師, a former Mahayana monk in China famous for his devotion to public activities (issues on philanthropic associations will be discussed later). Also, this philanthropic association is the owner of Huachiao Hospital 華僑醫院. Such associations “provide the Chinese population with schools, community centers, hospitals, clinics, temples, cemeteries and recreational facilities” (Coughlin 1960, 33–34). Unlike Theravada monasteries, Chinese temples began in Thailand as a welfare center for this neglected community lying outside of government care.

Later, a series of government policies towards the Chinese was legislated during the reign of King Vajiravudh, for example, the Association Act (1914) and the Private School Act (1918). Although these legislations sound universal, they were actually targeted at gaining effective control of the Chinese immigrants (Vella 1978, 189–190). The Association Act was “aimed particularly at preventing the formation of Chinese associations reflecting the new political enthusiasms generated by events in China” (ibid., 189), and “[w]hat the private school law of 1918 was supposed to do was facilitate the assimi- lation of Chinese” (ibid., 190). Similarly, even though the Interior Ministry’s order on sanchao under Vajiravudh’s reign is a regulation measure on shrines in general (Chinese and non-Chinese alike), Article 2 (mentioned above) shows that its first target was actually Chinese temples. This ministry’s order also forms a link in the chain of contemporary policies to enforce a strict policing of the Chinese by legitimizing their activities and organizations. According to Koizumi (2007, 33–44), Chinese community leaders in Bangkok initially tried to resist the legislation on Chinese temples and petitioned the govern- ment for amendment of the acts. The petitions presented to the government were finally rejected on the grounds that strict state regulation was necessary because Chinese temples might harbor secret societies and other illegal activities.

Since the “Chinese problem” was a matter of policing rather than purification of “State Buddhism,” and since Mahayana monasteries were an absolute minority even among the Chinese temples, most of the Chinese religious facilities (temples and semi- religious associations) have been dropped from issues of religion and placed in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior. According to the government policy toward the Chinese immigrants, Chinese temples or related organizations might register as an association with no political intention or as a Chinese temple outside “religion” (unless it has no ordained monk). Chinese immigrants have been periodically victimized by the Bangkok government’s nationalistic policy. In the early twentieth century they were suspected to be troublemakers instigated by Sun Yat-sen’s republican ideology, and later they were viewed as potential communists in the Cold War period (Skinner 1957). Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, the Thai government did not offer a special category to Chinese religions to register as religions.

A good example is Dejiao 徳教, which was introduced to Thailand from China in the early 1950s. This is a syncretic religious movement that originated in post-World War II China and spread to Southeast Asia. In spite of its unique tradition and the religious connotation of its name jiao means religion), the official status of its branches in Thailand is “philanthropic foundations,” and it has never been recognized as a religion. Since the beginnings of this religious movement in the 1950s, the Thai Government “severely controlled registration of new Chinese associations, especially those whose stated purpose involved religious activities” (Formoso 2010, 59–60).

Table 1 shows the number of followers and religious places of each officially recognized religion. As mentioned above, the statistics are obtained from self-declaration. As for satsanasathan, or religious places, the official definition is “places that have ordained persons (nak buat) and used for religious rites” (Thailand, Samnak-ngan Khana Kammakan Kansuksa haeng Chat 2000, 5). Naturally, this definition does not include Chinese temples since, as I will argue later, rituals in Chinese temples tend to be carried out without ordained monks. That is why Chinese temples never appear in such lists of “religious places” in an official sense. The exceptions are Mahayana Buddhist temples with their own resident monks. The Mahayana School of Buddhism, together with the Mahanikai and Thammayut Theravada Schools, forms a part of official “State Buddhism.”

Table 1Religious Population and Religious Places Officially Recognized by the Government

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 94)

Table 2 shows the number of Buddhist temples according to each sect, recognized by the Department of Religious Affairs (in 1998). Official data on Buddhist sects contain only temples and monks, and the number of laypeople is not disclosed. This reflects a state interest in religious affairs that is almost exclusively concentrated on the control of temples and ordained monks. As already mentioned above, in official statistics, laypeople are never classified according to sects.

Table 2 Number of Buddhist Temples According to Sects

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 84)

Another remarkable feature of this data is the very small number of Mahayana temples (Chinese and Vietnamese). This is partly because similar facilities tend to register with the Ministry of the Interior as sanchao or Chinese temples (and are thus non- religious places). Indeed, Chinese temples (657 temples nationwide) outnumber Mahayana temples, even though their number and the number of their followers are never listed in government statistics on religion. From these statistics, we can suppose that the Chinese people attending Chinese temples declare themselves as Buddhists (who make up 93.3 percent of the total population, see Table 1) in population statistics.

Throughout Thailand’s modern history, the term “satsana” in the official sense has been transformed or extended from meaning “Buddhism” only to meaning “religions” in general. Nevertheless, large areas of religious activities (including public facilities for worship) are still left outside this extended concept of religion. Chinese temples are typical cases.6)

III Chinese Temples in Phuket

Phuket in Religious Statistics
Phuket has a unique history of the development of tin-mining through the introduction of Chinese immigrants from the British Straits Settlements during the modernization period.7) The majority of Phuket’s population—72.6 percent—is Buddhist (see Table 3). Since attendants of Chinese temples are not officially categorized under the government’s policy towards religion, they are included as Buddhists. Government statistics reveal an interesting characteristic of Buddhism in Phuket. Table 4, indicating the population per monk and Buddhist temple, shows us how low commitment to officially institutionalized Buddhism is in Phuket. In Phuket, one monk takes care of 1,541.37 people, while the average population per monk in Thailand is 326.08. The same tendency is found in the distribution of Buddhist temples. The population per temple in Phuket (7,458.26) is also much higher than the national equivalent of 2,003.13. Thus the density of Buddhist temples and ordained monks is surprisingly lower than that in other provinces, and leads us to suppose that Buddhists in Phuket maintain their commitment to Buddhism in ways
other than those expected by institutionalized Thai Buddhism. The percentage of the population of Phuket province in the national total is 0.4 percent and that of Buddhist temples is much lower (0.1 percent), whereas that of Chinese temples is 1.5 percent (10 out of 657 state temples). These figures indicate that Chinese temples are more concentrated than Buddhist temples in Phuket.

Table 3 Religious Population and Religious Places in Phuket Province

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 99)

Table 4 Population per Wat and per Monk

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 79, 83)

Since Phuket province has no Mahayana Buddhist temple, all the Chinese temples in Phuket are non-religious places in the official sense. Their legal status falls into three categories: state, private, and non-registered. The difference between state and private temples lies in land ownership. Temples located on state-owned land are categorized as state temples, and those on private land are private temples. Currently there are 10 state Chinese temples, 14 private temples, and at least 18 non-registered temples in Phuket. Apart from Chinese temples, there are six temples dedicated to Muslim guardians of locality. As I will discuss later, these temples and the deities in them are closely connected to Chinese temples. All the Muslim guardian temples are non-registered.

The situation of the Chinese temples of Phuket tells us that non-registered temples are by no means exceptional. Many Chinese temples are excluded from the registration system of Chinese temples by the Ministry of the Interior, which is itself beyond the religious administration of the state (the Department of Religious Affairs). In fact, state control of religion based on the official definitions of satsana and satsanasathan has only a very partial hold on religious facilities.

Deities Worshipped
Which deities are worshipped in these “non-religious” places? According to Tables 5, 6, and 7, showing data on deities worshipped in the Chinese temples in Phuket, the most popular deities as owners of temples are Pun Thao Kong (Bentougong 本頭公 or Hude Zhengshen 福徳正神, worshipped in six temples), Cho Su Kong (Qingshui Zushi 清水祖師, worshipped in four temples), and Kuan Wu (Guanyu 関羽, worshipped in four temples). These are followed by Lim Thai Su (Linfu Taishi 林府太師) and Kuan Im (Guanyin 觀音), each worshipped as an owner deity in three temples.

Taoism or Chinese popular religions outnumber Buddhism at the level of owner deities of temples. However, this does not mean that Buddhism is not important in Chinese temples. The vast majority of temples (26) have Mahayana Buddhist deities in their pantheon as lesser objects of worship. Of these 26 temples, all have Kuan Im, and some have an additional Mahayana Buddhist object of worship such as Mitreya 弥勒佛, Ti Chong Ong 地蔵王菩薩, and other Bodhisattvas. Some temples are more oriented to official Buddhist temples. A good example is Sam Se Chu Fut temple (No. 23 in Table 7). Although this temple is officially a non-registered sanchao, the structure of its pantheon is actually very Buddhist. Sam Se Chu Fut 三世諸佛 or the Three Buddhas of the Mahayana school are its owners, while the majority of its lesser deities are also Mahayana Buddhist deities. The difference between this kind of sanchao and Buddhist temples (wat) lies in the absence of ordained monks and daily chanting carried out by lay practitioners in the latter.

Worship of Buddha and Buddhist deities can be practiced in most of the Chinese temples, even though these temples are never recognized as Buddhist “religious places.” These sanchao, or Chinese temples as non-religious places, offer alternatives for the practice of Buddhism outside state sanction. One could also worship deities of several religious traditions other than Mahayana Buddhism at these temples. Former Theravada monks constitute the objects of worship in the pantheons of Chinese temples in Phuket. The most prominent of these monks is Luangpho Chaem, who was active in the late nineteenth century and is purported to have supernatural powers. His picture is still worshipped all over the province, including in two Chinese temples (No. 4 and No. 13 in Table 7). In Lo Rong temple (No. 9), one can worship various images of former Theravada monks as well as other deities, Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

The structure of the pantheons of some Chinese temples is almost ecumenical. Lo Rong is an example of such a “department store” of religious amalgam. Yok Ong Song Te (Yuhuang Dadi 玉皇上帝), Nine Emperor God or Kiu Ong Tai Te (Jiuhuang Dadi 九皇大帝), Lao-tze (Taishang Laojun 太上老君), Ma Cho (Mazu 媽祖), Sam Tong Ong (Sanzhongwang 三忠王), Pun Thao Kong, Sakya Muni, Kuan Im, Mitreya, Ti Chong Ong, ancestor gods of the Tan and Koi clans, Phra Phran (the Thai name for a god of Brahmanic or Hindu tradition), and other popular gods, in addition to the Theravada monks men- tioned above, are all found in one single temple. Another example is a very small temple Hiap Thian (No. 40), dedicated to Kuan Wu, Kuan Im, Siva, and Uma Devi. The composition of its pantheon reflects the founders’ intention to unite three Asian religions, namely Chinese popular religion, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Islamic tradition is sometimes also invited into such mixed pantheons. Muslim guardian spirits of locality are worshipped as lesser deities in five Chinese temples. This custom stems from the belief that the founders (and, as such, guardians of locality) of the island of Phuket were Muslim. The Chinese, as newcomers, thus had to ask the founder spirits for permission to settle. Since then, these guardian spirits (called to) have been placed in Chinese temples in typical Muslim attire, including the Muslim costume and cap. Symbolized by a crescent and the color green, these spirits receive offerings (with prohibitions on pork and liquor) on Fridays, and are said to speak Arabic on occasions of possession. The Phuket Chinese see this custom as a way to pay respect to the local Muslim tradition, although the worship of images through the offering of joss sticks causes protests from some strict Muslim leaders.

Temples No. 43–48 in Table 7 are not regarded as Chinese temples, but temples of Muslim guardian spirits of locality. Nonetheless, they are closely related to the Chinese temples in the composition of their pantheons. They share the same deities as the Chinese temples; Chinese-style altars of Thi Kong 天公 (Heaven God, sometimes referred to as Yok Ong Song Te) are placed in front of the temples; images of Kuan Wu, Kuan Im, Mitreya, and Ho Ia (Huye 虎爺, a land spirit) appear in assistance of the Muslim guardians, which are themselves worshipped in some Chinese temples under the same names (To Sae, To Tami, To Saming, etc.).

According to Wee (1976, 171), who has studied religion in Singapore, Chinese Religion is “an empty bowl, which can variously be filled with the contents of institutionalized religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, the Chinese syncretic religions, or even Christianity (Catholic) and Hinduism.” As such, “Sakyamuni Buddha is just another shen (Chinese deity); the Theravada and Mahayana temples are his temples, and the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists are his group of devotees” (ibid., 172–173). In Phuket, this “empty bowl” orientation of Chinese Religion is even extended to Muslim guardians.8)

Table 5 Main (Owner) Deities of the Chinese Temples in Phuket

Table 6 Lesser Deities of the Chinese Temples of Phuket Classified According to Religious Tradition

Indeed, in Chinese temples we find deities from Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Chinese popular religion, and local spirits worshipped together in one place. However, this description may be misleading, since the pantheon of the Chinese temples in Phuket seems to reject the very demarcation of institutionalized religions. For outside observers, it is almost impossible to identify each temple’s religious affiliation in institutionalized terms. This causes no problem, however, since these places are not officially recognized “religious places.” Chinese temples are simply “non-religion” and there is thus no need for the identification of religious affiliation.

Buddhism without Monks
Another unique aspect of “Thai Buddhism” practiced by the Chinese in Phuket is that most of the ritual practices in Chinese temples are conducted without ordained monks. Ritual specialists are laypeople with various titles like ajarn shifu, songjingyuan and so on.9) They chant Chinese sutras in the Hokkien dialect, known locally in Hokkien Chinese s songkeng 誦經. Since Phuket has no Mahayana temple, there is no alternative of inviting Mahayana monks for songkeng. This songkeng is clearly distinguished from suat mon, which denotes the chanting of Pali sutras by Theravada monks.

Table 7 Status of Chinese Temples in Phuket

Table 7–Continued

One of the occasions for songkeng to take place publicly is Pho To (Pudu 普度),10) a ritual widely practiced all over the island whereby offerings are made to the dead during the seventh lunar month. In Phuket City, Pho To is celebrated in eight places annually (Table 8)—four in Chinese temples, two in a former Chinese temple, and the remaining two on community streets. The Pho To ritual is based on the belief that dead persons come back to this world during the seventh lunar month. Those with descendants will go back to their homes while others with no place to go may eventually harm living people.

Table 8 Schedule of Pho To Rituals in Phuket City (in Seventh Month of Chinese Lunar Calendar)

Note: * The Thaihua School Campus was formerly a Chinese temple and the headquarters of the Kian Tek secret society.
** Propitiation ritual for deceased Kian Tek leaders.

For this reason the people of each community set aside a day for the collective feasting of these spirits by offering meals. Pho To Kong (Pudugong 普度公) is a leading figure of this ritual. Deemed the representative of hell, he is placed at the end of offering tables. A small image of Kuan Im is put on the head of Pho To Kong, after which songkeng is performed to start the ceremony. Then this bloodthirsty demon of hell is transferred to a subordinate or to another incarnation of Kuan Im, called Kuan Im Tai Su (Guanyin Dashi 觀音大士). Pho To Kong receives offerings on behalf of the dead and, in return, gives blessings to the living before he is finally burned and sent off from the coast at midnight.

Here is clearly manifested the main theme of universal salvation in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Nevertheless this “Buddhist” annual ritual is conducted without ordained monks, with the exception of the Pho To ceremony held on the street in front of the municipal market, in which Theravada monks from nearby Buddhist temples are invited for chanting (suat mon). The presence of Theravada monks is not a necessary condition of the ritual; after all, there is no need to invite monks to “Buddhist” rituals as long as somebody can perform songkeng. Although knowledge of songkeng is passed down through apprenticeship, this network is formed on an informal basis without any institutionalized body. Officially speaking, in accordance with the state’s definition of satsana and satsanasathan, chanting by laymen in “non-religious places” has nothing to do with religion. The fact that there is no ordained religious specialist means that the government has no control over those who conduct Chinese religious rituals. The absence of ordained monks in Chinese temples contributes to their invisibility in the context of religious administration targeting officially recognized monks and religious places.11)

To question the relationship between religion and non-religion, finally we consider the concept of merit-making. Thambun is the Thai term for merit-making, and this has been argued to mean making contributions to the Sangha through conventional means in Thai Buddhism. However, the coverage of this term in daily usage in Phuket is much wider, referring to such activities as attending Chinese temples and making contributions to them, the songkeng ritual, the suat mon ritual of Theravada Buddhism, contributions to the Sangha, donations to philanthropic foundations, donations to the Red Cross, donations to native place associations (Hokkien, Hailam, etc.), and donations to Chinese schools. The names of donors are publicly listed during annual ritual occasions according to the amount contributed. The same arrangement is also employed in fund-raising initiatives by Chinese schools, native place associations, philanthropic associations as well as Chinese temples. Such donors lists also usually appear in the memorial publications of these organizations. Who contributes how much is widely publicized and remembered. The same local Chinese leaders always occupy the top spots on these lists and famous rich persons risk being gossiped about whenever their contributions are smaller than public expectations. These are the reasons why local Chinese leaders compete obsessively over donation or merit-making. Coughlin (1960, 57–58) writes of the Chinese society of Bangkok:

Public recognition, community goodwill, and some fame can be gained by donating money to this [Tianhua Hospital] and other organizations in the Chinese community. . . . These are the customary ways by which the Chinese community recognizes beneficence. The reports of the Poh Tek Associations, for example, list all contributions, large and small alike, pointing out for special mention those who have given large sums. All Chinese hospitals and charitable associations, and even some dialect associations, honour benefactors by hanging their framed pictures in conspicuous places on the premises. This form of recognition shows the part that charity plays in attaining social prominence in the community.

Recognition of beneficence in Coughlin’s term corresponds to thambun in Phuket. Both of them share the same coverage and function. In this regard, the Sangha (consisting of Buddhist temples and monks) is by no means the sole center of merit-making.

The wide range of occasions for thambun to take place may seem puzzling in its inclusion of apparently secular activities and facilities. However, when we recall that Chinese temples and related activities are placed outside of “religion,” we realize that the distinction between “religion” and “non-religion” is already obscure. It makes no sense then to claim that Chinese temples can be centers of merit-making while other “secular” organizations may not. It is this blurring of the categories of “religion” and “non-religion” that should be examined instead of questioning the status of the “field of merit” of the Red Cross and other associations.

IV Boundaries of Religion

“Secular” Organizations for Practicing Chinese Religious Traditions
Chinese temples do not have a monopoly on the domain of “non-religious places” for practicing Chinese religious tradition. Other related facilities, whose functions overlap those of Chinese temples, also offer occasions for worshipping Chinese deities.

One example of the complexity of the issue is the boundary between temples and associations. A good example is the Hainanese Association (No. 16 in Table 7). Its Chinese name (Hainan Huiguan 海南會館/Kengjiu Huiguan 瓊州會館) gives the impression that it is nothing other than an association by place of origin. Interestingly though, its Thai name is Sanchao Hailam, meaning “Hainanese temple,” and it is officially registered as a private temple. On the other hand, the Hokkien Association in Phuket is not a registered temple, but it contains a worship altar and claims Pun Thao Kong or Fude Zhengshen as owner of the association. Yet these two associations actually share the same functions as places of worship and care of descendants.

We can make the same observations of philanthropic foundations. Qing Pu Dong 清普洞 (No. 50) is a worship building of the Phuket branch of the Kuson Tham Foundation, one of the major Chinese philanthropic foundations in Thailand. This foundation has the character of a new religion worshipping He Ye Yun Fozu 何野雲佛祖, a former Mahayana monk in Mainland China, as its founding father, and the structure of the building is similar to that of other Chinese temples; yet Qing Pu Dong has never been registered as a religious place or a Chinese temple. Here we should note that some of the other Chinese temples in Phuket are also registered as philanthropic foundations. Temples No. 1, 5, 7, 8, 19, and 24 (Table 7) are such examples, and they run the gamut of Chinese temple categories, namely, state temple, private temple, and non-registered temple. In fact, there is no clear distinction between these non-registered Chinese temples and philanthropic foundations such as Kuson Tham.

The distinction between altars in private houses and Chinese temples is also obscure. Some private altars are open to outside visitors and may eventually become Chinese temples when the number of visitors increases. In fact, many Chinese temples evolved from shrines in private houses. This is the general tendency of development of Chinese temples. Tan (1990, 6) comments on Chinese temples of Malaysia that “[s]ometimes a community temple had its beginnings in a simple shrine, originally patronized only by a few families.”

Formoso (1996, 255) points out that Chinese philanthropic associations in Thailand are less likely to officially declare themselves as religious organizations.

Although the foundations keep alive in Thailand a Chinese religious tradition, this is not their official purpose. The objectives they present to the authorities include material assistance to the poor and emergency relief for victims of fires, flood, and other disasters, and they give maximum publicity to these activities.

This is why all their activities remain outside the official category of “religion” in Thailand. The most typical example of such a foundation-like religion officially registered as a secular body is Dejiao. As we have seen above, all the branches of this new religious movement are registered as philanthropic foundations. Hence their official names are shantang 善堂 (philanthropic association), not Dejiao, even though their activities are deeply motivated and guided by divine messages delivered from automatic writing.12)

Li Daoji (1999, 246), who based his research on 510 Chinese associations in Thailand that appeared in a local Chinese newspaper of 1988, highlights the fact that out of 78 associations engaged in religious activities, 73 are philanthropic associations. This figure demonstrates that such self-proclaimed “secular” philanthropic associations provide fields of religious activities to supplement Chinese temples as “non-religious places.” As I have mentioned earlier, even more “secular” organizations such as Chinese-owned hospitals have overlapping functions with Chinese temples and semi-religious (but officially secular) associations as centers of worship of Chinese deities and of merit-making for Chinese statistical Buddhists.

“Chinese Religion” and Southeast Asian States
The blurred distinction between “religion” and “non-religion,” and the obscure boundaries between each religion reflect the very nature of Chinese religious tradition. Tan (1995, 140) argues that:

Chinese Religion is a religion of the Chinese civilization, and it is a religion which historically has become part and parcel of that civilization. As such, the Chinese have not found it necessary to have a special name for this complex system of beliefs and practices which are, after all, part and parcel of their way of life. In this respect, they are like many other peoples, such as the Orang Asli (aborigines of Peninsular Malaysia) and the Iban in Sarawak, who do not have specific names for that indigenous complex we call “religion.”

Religious practices of the Chinese elude the modern categorization of religion and profanity, and the institutionalization of individual religions. In this respect, the term “Buddhism” for the Chinese has a different implication from the Thai state’s official understanding. According to Tan again (ibid , 139):

As part of the Chinese system, Chinese Buddhism is also closely associated with Chinese Religion, especially from the point of view of worshippers who do not draw an exclusive boundary between what is Buddhist and what is indigenous Chinese, or distinguish between what is Chinese Religion and “pure” Buddhism.

Chinese Buddhism, as a part of the anonymous Chinese Religion in a broader sense, forms a stark contrast to the Theravada Sangha protected by the state. This setting of Buddhism in Thailand, which detracts from the state Sangha as the sole organization representing Buddhism, further contributes to the in-between status of Chinese temples, resulting in a puzzling state in which Chinese temples are “non-religious” but their followers are Buddhists.

Yang’s classical model of traditional Chinese religion seems to be applicable to the situation of the Chinese temples in Thailand. He employs the term “diffused religion” to explain the special character of traditional Chinese religion as compared to “institutionalized religion.” Diffused religion in his sense is a religion scattered and embedded in various secular social institutions with no significant independent and separate existence (Yang 1991, 294–295).

People visited a particular temple, worshipped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple or a god belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. (ibid , 340)

“Chinese Religion” is likely to have operated outside state control since the imperial period of traditional China, where political authority paid little attention to theological issues of dissident sects. Actually, “some 84 percent of the temples in China in the seventeenth century were built without official permission, and this figure obviously did not include the numerous small shrines privately built” (ibid , 214–215).

Such a “diffused” nature of Chinese religion might be advantageous in some respects when it is transplanted in Southeast Asian socio-political environments. For example, in Malaysia, where government concern in religious affairs is almost solely concentrated on Islam as a state religion, Chinese Religion enjoys relative freedom and flexibility in a diffused and syncretic form (Tan 1995, 154; Ackerman and Lee 1988, 52). Yang (1991) describes Chinese Buddhism as an example of “institutionalized religion”—an opposite counterpart of “diffused religion,” since the former has a (relatively) more institutionalized monkhood and theology as compared to the latter. However, in some Southeast Asian countries, even such a religious tradition originally oriented to institutionalization has been incorporated into the syncretic amalgam of “diffused religion.” One of the causes is the indifference of the local governments toward non-state religions. Thailand is unique in its divide is between “State Buddhism” and others. The fact that Buddhism of the Theravada school is the de facto state religion has meant that most “Chinese Buddhism” is categorized as “Chinese Religion,” and hence “non-religion” in official state administration.

Lim’s recent case study of Yiguan Dao 一貫道 in Singapore demonstrates clearly that the status of non-religion is a possible alternative strategy for Chinese religious traditions to avoid state control and maintain a free hand: “[O]ne of the Yiguan Dao’s most important proselytising efforts is not conducted in the public ‘religious domain’ as defined by the Singaporean state, hence overcoming certain restrictions faced by the other public religions” (Lim 2012, 21). Religion itself has been a major field of negotiation for Asian religious traditions. Such traditions have used various strategies to cope with— or “circumvent” (ibid )—“religion” imposed by modernizing states.13) Chinese temples and related organizations in Thailand show that these are synthetic compounds in the intersection of “Chinese religion” and Thai-style (Theravada Buddhist-oriented) interpretation and operation of Western concepts of “religion.”

V Conclusions

In 1976, Wee (1976, 155) wrote of Buddhism in Singapore:

Buddhism is generally considered to be one of the major religions, if not the major religion of multiracial Singapore. But on closer examination, one discovers that the word “Buddhism” is actually used as a religious label by a variety of people in Singapore whose religious practices and beliefs do not necessarily correspond to those prescribed by the Buddhist scriptures. . . . About 50 percent of Singapore’s population declare themselves to be “Buddhists.” But despite their usage of a single religious label, the “Buddhists” of Singapore do not in fact share a unitary religion. As we shall see, “Buddhism” of Singapore shows such a range of beliefs, practices and institutions that it can be structured analytically into distinct and separate religious systems.

Our overview of the state of Chinese temples in Thailand tells us that Thailand is not as far off from the Singaporean case as we would expect—at least in terms of the hybrid variety of Buddhism and related traditions. “Thai Buddhism” appears as a unitary religion simply because unorthodox Buddhism-related traditions are, with the exception of a very small number of Mahayana temples, practiced outside “religion.” This ambiguous usage of “Buddhism” at the statistical level reflects a broader definition that encompasses the official structure of the government policy towards religion. Again, Wee’s following comment on Singaporean Buddhism can also be applied to Thailand.

The Chinese syncretic religions practiced in Singapore are often referred to as “Buddhism” . . . . [F]or a significant proportion, if not the majority of “Buddhism” in Singapore, “Buddhism” is all- inclusive, embracing both Canonical Buddhism and the Chinese syncretic religions, and extending sometimes even to Hinduism.14)

For the Phuket case, as we have seen, we might add that “such all-inclusive Buddhism is extended even to Hinduism and some Islamic deities.”

We commonly understand Thailand to be a Buddhist state (in this context, Buddhism denotes exclusively Theravada Buddhism), and through “common sense,” we equate the worship of deities in Chinese temples with religion. Yet this “logical” understanding is only partially true. In the first place, statistical Buddhists encompass a very wide section (over 90 percent) of Thai society, and many religious traditions other than Theravada Buddhism have been incorporated into this “Buddhist” state. The second assumption also becomes questionable when we examine official religious discourse in Thailand— followers of Chinese temples are regarded as Buddhists, while the temples themselves have no room in the officially defined domain of religion.

Chinese temples as “religion-as-non-religion” are by-products of the formation of the “Buddhist ecclesia” (Ishii 1986) and the institutionalization of religion, two processes that are closely associated. As such, religion was re-defined to denote officially recognized institutions with doctrine and ordained specialists. The result is that this narrow concept of religion has left a very large residual domain. The case of the Chinese temples in Phuket shows that differentiation between religion and non-religion, and differentiation among institutionalized religions, remains minimal on the practical level. We have also seen how previous arguments on “Thai Buddhism” seem to have relied on this unrealistic definition of religion.

At the same time, the state of Chinese temples lying outside religion is beneficial to both institutionalized religions and Chinese temples. The state and institutionalized Buddhism can absorb the attendants of Chinese temples into the statistical category of Buddhism to maintain the uniform image of “Thai Buddhism.” On the other hand, Chinese temples can enjoy freedom from state intervention without challenging the official claim of the purity of state Buddhism. Also, since they are not recognized as representing religion, they are not forced to select any one institutionalized religion through which to “purify” their pantheons. This contributes to the persistence of indiscriminative syncretism in the grassroots practices of Thai Buddhism.

This brief case study of Chinese temples implies that many facilities for religious activities still remain outside “religion” and “religious places.” Comparative studies on the worship facilities of self-claimed Buddhists in Thailand, such as the Chinese, the highlanders, and other ethnic minorities, as well as the Thai-speaking peoples, will disclose similar discrepancies between official categorization and actual religious practice. My hypothesis is that the vitality and energy of the religious landscape of Thailand originated from this very discrepancy, although a brief overview such as presented in this paper is only a first step toward proving it.


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1) Tambiah (1970) is representative of the pioneer works on this subject. In general, anthropologists working on Buddhism in Thailand tend more or less to stress the diversity of religious practices outside the Sangha.

2) “Thais believe themselves to be born Buddhists, that the words Thai and Buddhist are synonymous”(Ishii 1986, 39). For another example, see Keyes (1989).

3) Surprisingly enough, more attention has been paid to the role of the Chinese in Theravada Buddhism in Malaysia than in Thailand. It has been pointed out that in Kelantan, the Chinese and Thai maintain a symbiotic relationship in support of the Theravada Buddhist tradition there (Kershaw 1981; Mohamed Yusoff Ismail 1993). In Thailand, Boonsanong (1971) and Tobias (1977), for example, argued the Chinese acceptance of Thai Buddhism. However, the place of Chinese temples within “Thai Buddhism” as a system has not received sufficient attention from scholars in Thai studies.

4) Tambiah (1976, 370–379) analyzes the role of the Department of Religious Affairs in the Sangha administration, although he hardly mentions the Department’s control of non-Buddhist religions.

5) One such temple is a samnaksong, which has lesser status than an official monastery (wat).

6) For a more nuanced understanding, I have to point out that the religious nature of Chinese temples has not always been neglected by the authorities. Article 12 of the ministry’s order on sanchao states that managers of each sanchao shall include faith (khaorop napthu) in its teaching (latthi). As this statement shows, the government knows full well that the activities of Chinese temples are carried out according to religious belief. However, my point is that, even though the religious nature of Chinese temples is recognized by the government, they have no place in officially defined religion and are supervised in “secular channels” only.

7) For details of the modern history of Phuket and the role of the Chinese, see Phuwadon (1988) and Cushman (1989, 1991).

8) Wee (1976, 173) states categorically that such extension is not applied to Islam and Protestant Christianity, since these religions do not have images. Nevertheless, the very existence of the Datuk Kong worship in Malaysia, which corresponds to the worship of to in Phuket, proves that some kinds of Islamic beliefs can be re-interpreted by and incorporated into Chinese Religion. For details of Datuk Kong worship see Cheu (1992).

9) Currently, daoshi, the Taoist specialist is absent in Phuket (Cohen 2001, 186).

10) This ritual is also called the Hungry Ghost Festival (DeBernardi 1984).

11) The absence of resident monks in temples was not exceptional in traditional China. See Yang (1991, 309–310).

12) Automatic writing is a way of divination popular among the Chinese in Southeast Asia. See Heinze (1983) for details.

13) See “Introduction” to this special issue.

14) Actually some Hindu temples and shrines in Bangkok (for example, the so-called “Wat Khaek” at Silom) are full of Chinese worshippers who would claim to be Buddhists.